Continued from last post . . . That book is one of the only works I’ve discovered to engage with the prospect of nuclear war and global annihilation in such a profound philosophical manner. I’ve encountered analyses of the political standoffs, accounts that threw their hands up at the insanity of it all, and ironically nostalgic trips to the days when the world was simpler and superpowers over-determined all the politics of the world in a simple duality.*
* It’s a bit of a sidebar, but as I’ve been following some of the more outlandish conspiracies floating among the usefully idiotic of the Western left, reading Jaspers’ accounts of the global politics of the late 1950s has helped me identify how a once seemingly omnipotent agency, the CIA, became the stumbling fools they are today. They were built to oppose the subversive activity of the Soviet Union, so their intervention activities could only identify the enemy side and join the enemy of the USA’s enemies. This is why they were so effective in Latin America, where politics was typically dichotomous conflicts of liberals (later socialists and communists) and conservatives (later fascists). But in contexts like the Middle East, where conflicts are fractally more complex, CIA intervention models only create future enemies from former allies of convenience. Just an idea.
Well, that was long. Anyway, Jaspers begins his examination of what kinds of politics and self-conceptions humans will have to create and live by if they want to be adequate to our new power to destroy the entire Earth so easily. Today, we often hear rhetoric of climate change as destructive to the Earth, but that isn’t quite the case. Radical climate change is destroying many different populations of organisms, and could quite possibly destroy the human race, or at least reduce our technological civilization to rubble. My generation is haunted by the spectre of an apocalypse that we’d survive as a ragged remnant of our former greatness. Ozymandias’ rubble.
Jaspers deals with a much more radical thought: the nuclear arsenal was genuinely capable of destroying all life on Earth, irradiating the planet to such a degree that life could no longer survive on it. Our once green and blue world would be a rock as blasted as Mercury, and we would have done it to ourselves. Humanity never had this power before, and Jaspers knew that no forms of reasoning that we had developed in our history were adequate to handle the responsibility of this new power.
To understand this radical thought, he structures the book as a series of examinations of concepts that cross the disciplinary boundaries he was accustomed to ignoring by the late stages of his career. The political dimensions are obvious, of course. A book about nuclear war is going to have to deal with the rules of engagement for global destruction, the norms of the arms race, and the recently-invented term, Mutually Assured Destruction.
Yet there’s also a moral dimension to his analysis as well, and the moral and political are often treated in the same analysis. It makes Jaspers a precedent for my association in my own thinking of political philosophy as a sub-species of moral reasoning. Consider the early example of Gandhi. He examines Gandhi’s political activism of the moral demonstration, the act of rebellion that is not about violence, but about expressing a truth fundamental to the expressers. Jaspers understands this as the dedication to a politics of sacrifice, risking and giving of yourself for the momentum of a movement that will liberate the whole, even if you will not survive the resistance of entrenched power.
Inspiring though it was, it can’t stand up to the brutality of totalitarianism, the approach to politics and the morality of social life that dominated the 20th century. For Satyagraha to have any worldly effect, its expressions must become known. We must learn of them, speak of them, and carry them through inspiration into our own lives.
Totalitarian police snuffs out these moments of Satyagraha before they can proliferate at all. For all the moral inspiration Gandhi offered, he was only effective because the British could not bring themselves to destroy India in their rule of it. He would have been politically inadequate to Nazism, and especially to Stalinism, the nuclear-armed totalitarian.
This is only one example. Jaspers works through many ways of engaging with the new threat, but finds only one with the potential to handle the new concept that nuclear arms forces us to develop. That concept is rationality itself, his vision of philosophy. To be continued . . .