Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sorel on Pessimism

I have started reading Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence, without really knowing what to expect other than the vague and/or allusive remarks made about his work by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács. Having only read through the different introductions to two of the early editions of the work, the latter being his 'Letter to Daniel Halévy,' I've already discovered why I'm not a pessimist.* 

Sorel rejects the common distinction between optimism and pessimism as a pair of opposites, in the way that we stare at a water glass and ask if it's half full or half empty. "Pessimism," he writes, "is quite a different thing from the caricatures that are usually presented of it; it is a metaphysics of morals rather than a theory of the world; it is a conception of a march towards deliverance that is narrowly conditioned." He lists three aspects of this 'metaphysics of morals,'  which nevertheless hints at a genealogy of morals (especially when he writes that the optimism of Greek philosophy reflects the urban and commercial life of their society, while "Greek pessimism sprang from the poor warlike tribes living in the mountains who possessed an enormous aristocratic pride but whose material conditions were very modest").
  • First, pessimism refuses to deny the wretchedness of mankind, and the constant threat of pain and suffering.
  • Second, "the pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded...and which can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole." As much as he condemns all Marxism after Marx, Sorel takes up the fatalist current that fixated on the iron laws of development.
  • Which is why the third element, which he calls the "most fundamental," is the "path towards deliverance." Despite the necessity of catastrophe, the pessimist still proposes a way to end the tyrannies of "wretchedness or of fate." For Sorel, the contemporary form of deliverance with be the proletarian violence of the general strike.
Sorel is best known for proposing a concept of the myth of the general strike, and his reasons can already be seen in the phrasing of these aspects of pessimism, the hints about morals, fate, and deliverance. This strikes me as an aestheticization of violence. I should have more to say about this later.

*Other than the fact that the distinction between optimism and pessimism strikes me as too abstract, and  distracting when we are describing the complex world of politics.

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