Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, July 16, 2017

INTIMATIONS OF IMMORTALITY

This will be an extended post, beginning with the personal and grandparental and ending in an extraordinary and really unforgivable bit if self-congratulation perhaps justifying an intervention or clinical help.  I apologize for this in advance, but have decided that the confessional has a place on the web.  Put it down, if you wish, to my advancing age.

My granddaughter Athena will be nine on the first of August, and I asked her mother for suggestions for appropriate presents.  Apparently on a recent family trip to Tokyo, Athena bought a little treasure box and has now begun a collection of objets d’art.  Could I find in Paris an appropriate addition to the collection?   I had not a clue, but went on a ramble in our Place Maubert neighborhood and ended up some while later in front of a shop at the end of our street called Avanti Musica which is stocked with all manner of little knick-knacks.  There I found what I hope will be the perfect gift, a decorated miniature treasure chest cum music box with a dancing ballerina.

Buying presents for my grandchildren is difficult because their doting parents have given them virtually everything that is both age appropriate and available.  Last December, faced with the same problem for Samuel, who was turning eleven, I decided that instead of asking his mother and father for guidance, I would give him a present that no one else in the world could give to him:  a copy of In Defense of Anarchism, inscribed by the author.  Now, I may be self-absorbed, but I am not yet totally dotty.  I had no thought that Samuel would welcome this present or even look at it.  But I wanted him to have some physical evidence that his grandfather was not just the old guy back East.  Perhaps in future years, even after I had passed away, he would be moved to read it.  I had the fantasy, I confess, that in nine or ten years, when he was in college, he would take a course in which the book was assigned, and could bring in his copy to show the professor.

When you have spent your entire adult life writing books and have arrived at the age of eighty-three, perhaps it is natural to wonder what it all amounts to.  Will anything you have written survive your death?  Is it all fated to blow away like autumn leaves?  I found myself thinking that perhaps this one little book, no more than an extended essay, would somehow manage to live, that it might even become, in a small and subsidiary way, a part of the canon of works in the Western tradition of political theory.

The works that have acquired that relative immortality are, in at least one way, quite similar:  although each book was written at a particular moment in reaction to a particular constellation of contemporary texts, it rises above that situational embeddedness by setting forth an argument that lays claim to universality.  No one anymore reads John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government, which, for those of you who have always wondered, is a devastating attack on Sir Robert Filmer’s defense of the divine right of kings.  At the time, Filmer’s position was widely held, but it very quickly was overtaken by history.  Locke’s Second Treatise, on the other hand, although manifestly a work of the late seventeenth century, is read to this day by every serious student of political theory.  The same is true of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract and Mill’s On Liberty

Because of the peculiar circumstances under which In Defense of Anarchism was written, it contains almost no references to contemporary philosophical debates.  It is virtually devoid of scholarly footnotes and addresses a single fundamental philosophical question sub specie aeternitatis.  It could have been written two hundred years ago, not fifty-two, or indeed one hundred years from now.


Will it live?  I would like to think so.  In the nature of the case, I shan’t be around to find out, but perhaps eighty years from now, Samuel’s grandson will tell his old grandfather about a little book he has just read in college, and Samuel will take out a present from his grandfather and offer it to the young man for show and tell.

10 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

I recently became a grandfather, and everyone congratulated me on how my genes will be passed on to a new generation. That seems to be the fashionable thing to say these days.

I replied that whether or not my genes survive is a matter of complete indifference to me, but I judge the worth of my life on whether I manage to pass on some of my ideas (which I do not claim to be original) to others, whether blood-relatives or not. If 50 years from now, when evidently I will not be here, that 16-year-old student of mine, with an interest in Marxism-Leninism, to whom I recommended Deutscher's biography of Trotsky, silently thanks me for helping him to take one more step towards an understanding of Marxism and of the revolutionary tradition, that's enough for me.

There are other students, friends and children of friends, whom I hope remember me as a positive influence in their development as moral persons and above all, as sane persons.

In your case, some will read your book in 50 years or will be influenced by those who read your book and that they will owe to you. You have every right to feel good about that.

Jerry Fresia said...

Not an "unforgivable bit if self-congratulation" at all. Nice story. What was Samuel's reaction?

As a painter, I may have an advantage in this regard. I have cranked out paintings, not by the boatloads, but quite a few.
I've sold over a thousand (nearly all sincerely done). And often I wonder, when will the last painting be taken down or discarded or burned into ashes? I hoping that the echoes of my life last at least 100 years.

I think it is a safe bet that the last person to turn a page that you have written will be well in beyond a century after your death.

And who knows? With YouTube endlessly making available our videos, our lives may echo well beyond a puny old century - or two! (Hint: the Marx video series may be just the ticket to an eternal presence; ie, out of time altogether.)

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

A few days ago I came across this where someone actually reading, copying, and appreciating your work. What more does a writer want?

As a possible counterpoint, I posted a piece from Robert Paul Wolff last year [stderr] – in which he does a financial analysis of the affects of redlining across a pair of otherwise equal families.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

Do you have any reproductions of your paintings which you could link to?

Tom Cathcart said...

S wallerstein, Jerry's modesty may keep him from sufficiently praising his paintings, so let me answer that his impressionistic work is quite lovely. I bought a print on canvas on frescia.com for my wife for her birthday. She was beyond delighted, as was I, and it looks beautiful on our bedroom wall.

Ed Barreras said...

I read somewhere recently an aphorism to the effect that poetry is the record of a consciousness fully present (a variation on Shelley's "poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds"?). If you believe as Hegel does (and as I do, too) that poetry is the supreme art form, then perhaps only poets get to feel that frisson of intimating immortality in its purest form. And one would have to be an idealist to believe that there truly is something eternal about the consciousness -- the spirit -- preserved in true works of art, and that the whole notion isn't just wish-fulfillment fantasy. Nowadays, of course, no one believes in spirit. The material world has won out, as evidence by the fact that conversations on this topic inevitably conclude with invocations of the heat death of the universe, as if that's that.

I myself choose to believe that in some cycle of eternal recurrence we'll be able to digitially upload our consciousness minds into packet of data that we can then beam into bubble universes, thus living forever. The idea is at least more probable than the Christian heaven.

Also, IoA may not be poetry, but it's a fascinating and well-cited book. I imagine that as long as there are libraries there will be at least a few stray souls who will read and appreciate it.

s. wallerstein said...

Tom Cathcart,

They are great!

Impressionist, as you say. A bit of Renoir, maybe a bit of Cezanne.

Jerry is not only a political analyst who is worth paying attention to, but also a very accomplished painter.

Jerry Fresia said...

Thanks Tom and S. Wallerstein - embarassing - J

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

Really, your work is very impressive.

I am a fan of late 19th century French painting, so your work especially appeals to me.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

When reflecting upon that part of us which may remain beyond our death, I am often reminded of the words of Thomas Browne found in Chapter 5 of his 1658 rhetorical masterpiece, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial: “In vain do individuals hope for Immortality, or any patent from oblivion, in preservations below the Moon.” At the same time, however, I am reminded of Douglass Adair’s splendid essay, “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” wherein Adair argues that the architects of the United States government were motivated by a strong desire to produce something that would long outlast their own lives.

Immortality is measured in a number of ways. To be sure, most people who write and publish books will maintain a presence and exert an influence – some more than others – well after the end of their lives. One thinks of Plato’s continuing influence 2,000 plus years after his own death. Nevertheless, Plato’s immortality is a mere speck compared to those who produce and bury nuclear waste. With a half-life of 24,000 years, nuclear waste producers are the true Immortals. Not sure if that is what they want to be remembered for, but, for better or for worse, that is their fate.

-- Jim