the will to powerlessness - a note

A number of forms of knowing crystallize around the notion of character in the early modern era. It is no exaggeration to say that character is at the base of the era’s human ‘sciences’ – Van Delft has called the moraliste discourse ‘the anthropology of the classic age’, and character was at the center of that discourse – but as the human sciences were not institutionalized as such, character traversed what we now separate, as for instance romance and political economy. Thomas Mann, in Magic Mountain, writes with regard to his character, Hans Castorp:

Man lives not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, also that of his epoch and his contemporaries, and even if he may observe the general and impersonal basis of his existence as unconditionally given and self-evident, and be very distant from the idea of criticizing it, as in reality the good Hans Castorp was, yet it is truly possible, that he feels his moral comfort vaguely impaired by its lack.” [My translation, p.58] In fact, Hans Castorp is inheriting the burden of the orator as he was characterized in Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, which was written at some point before 100 A.D. Quintilian experienced in his own life the downfall of the first lineage of emperors – James Murphy, one of his commentators, claims he returned from Spain to Rome just in time to see the bloody transactions that put an end to the Julian emperors and started the new line, from Vespasien. He flattered Domitian, who instituted a cruel secret police state. And yet, he dreamed in his book of oratory of the civic man: “We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless as a good man, and we require in him, therefore, not only consummate ability in speaking, but every excellence of mind. 10. For I cannot admit that the principles of moral and honorable conduct are, as some have thought, to be left to the philosophers; since the man who can duly sustain his character as a citizen, who is qualified for the management of public and private affairs, and who can govern communities by his counsels, settle them by means of laws, and improve them by judicial enactments, can certainly be nothing else but an orator. 11. Although I acknowledge, therefore, that I shall adopt some precepts which are contained in the writings of the philosophers, yet I shall maintain, with justice and truth, that they belong to my subject and have a peculiar relation to the art of oratory.” [Watson translation] The orator is, indeed, the contemporary – it is as a contemporary that he absorbs the traditions and moves onto the upper management jobs that run the state.

Yet, the contemporary in Quintilian’s day as well as Hans Castorp’s had to practice the critique of society from a rather precarious position. Already, in the Institutes, the critique is ossified. On the one hand, one forms a man whose opinions should count in the way society is run, and, on the other hand, society is being run on a system that will not stop to consult the good man. His will to power is continually undermined by his will to powerlessness – his tactic of never quite confronting the man, of which an extensive record is left in Western literature and philosophy, even beyond Nietzsche “Great Politics”,(perhaps the most ironic expression in modernity of the will to powerlessness).


skholiast said…
"Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects---all the time--and I suppose one studies--I study--literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful—-as though we held a clue to the true nature of things? I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago, we were playing a professional game of hooks and eyes—-mediaeval gloves, giants' gloves, Blanche Glover, Balzac's gloves, the sea-anemone's ovaries--and it all reduced like boiling jam to--human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body--and language--all language. And all vegetation in pubic hair."

Maud laughed, dryly. Roland said, "And then, really, what is it, what is this arcane power we have, when we see that everything is human sexuality? It's
A.S. Byatt, Possession, pp 275-6