It must have seemed natural to the editors of the London Review to ask Thomas Nagel, the author of The View from Nowhere, to review R. Jay Wallace’s The View from Here. The subtitle of Wallace’s book is On affirmation, attachment and the limits of regret, and from the account that Nagel gives of the book, it seems to be a book that does justice to its themes, which are at the intersection of philosophy and literature. It is a meaty subject, this of taking up the moral peculiarity of the line of fate of individuals and nations, and the way these lines are a mixture of the good and the atrocious. Wallace seems to think that it isn’t as though the atrocity could be subtracted from the good, but that they are dialectically interlocked. I happen to share that view. I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack, and I have long realized that these facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. So if I retrospectively affirm my life, I am confronted with the problem of what to do about these things, which I don’t want to affirm. Do I opt for self-condemnation, or do I apologize for Jim Crow?
In a sense (not to be too grand about it), this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will.
For this, he was satirized by Voltaire, who began his career on the side of a certain enlightenment view that claimed that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated, given the right social machinery, and who endit it deciding that, as nature itself was indifferent to human values and civilization was generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets, virtue, as a social thing, was a sham. In other words, the movement was between believing that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – otherwise, history was a wash.
It is a little astonishing to me that Nagel’s review of Wallace’s book is written in the spirit of Dr. Pangloss, the character in Candide forever associated with the phrase ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ It is important not to take this phrase too bluntly – it is not, even for Pangloss, true that all is the best, but merely that all serves the best, all is for it. Voltaire’s satire did not wholly miss Leibniz’s point. To think that all is the best is to turn Pangloss into Babbit, the American booster. Nagel’s review alternates between Pangloss and Babbitry. He refuses to enter into the ‘view from regret’, treating it as an inducement to suicide rather than to reflection. In the spirit of the analytic philosopher, he treats dialectic as an undergraduate logical mistake. And so the interlocked nature of good and atrocity is something he doesn’t even attempt to refute.
Thus, when Wallace writes that his own place of work, the University of California at Berkeley, has benefited (and been complicit in) atrocity, asking whether, in reflecting about his own life, he should regret the existence of the institution, Nagel contradicts him in tones that remind me of the owner of a used carlot bawling at a new hire has conceded some fault to a potential buyer:
“Wallace teaches at Berkely, a public institution that makes enormous contributions to knowledge, both theoretical and practical, which benefit not only its members but the society of which it is a part and the world as a whole. To doubt that such institutions would exist in a just world seems to me pathologically pessimistic.”
The babbitry here was, to me, startling. “Society” and “world” are used as though these were not deeply divided entities, but wholes perfectly represented by the successful. It would have interested me what Nagel would have said if Wallace worked at, say, Duke. Would he celebrate Duke medical schools advances in the treatment of cancer, while explaining that this more than makes up for the cancers that were caused by the tobacco fortune upon which the school was founded? Sans doute. If I were to classify Nagel’s response to Wallace, it would be to call it a case of pathological optimism typical of the winners in the neo-liberal world.
Regret, I’d argue, is a politically charged mood, as well as an existential one.
I haven’t resolved the political consequences of the view from regret myself, and doubt I ever will, but I do see regret as an irreplaceable tool to understand how we got to where we are – how our histories unfolded. Without regret, history is dumb.