democraciaAbierta: Opinion

It's been a long time since we have lived in a democracy

As we witness the return of fascist expressions that undermine democracy from within, we must defend universal values and oppose their instrumentalization for the most abject ends. Interview to Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen (pt. 1) Español

José Zepeda
19 February 2020, 5.58pm
"Stop Fascism" lit on a wall in front of New York's Grand Central Station on September 23, 2019
Foto de Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden / Sipa USA

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. We are also witnessing the return of fascist expressions that undermine democracy from within. That is why we must defend universal values and oppose their instrumentalization for the most abject ends. To fight this era and nobility of spirit are two books that are useful for these purposes. Their author, Dutch writer and philosopher Rob Riemen, works to clarify concepts and to call for a new strategy to combat the enemies of freedom. Interview.

José Zepeda: Eighth century B.C. Oracle of Delphi. Before entering to consult the Pythia there was an inscription:

"I warn you, whoever you are, Oh! You who wish to probe the arcana of Nature, that if you do not find within yourself that which you seek, you will not be able to find it outside either.

If you ignore the virtues of your own house, how do you intend to find other virtues? In you the treasure of treasures is hidden.

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Oh, man, know yourself and you will know the universe and the Gods.

Is this, in a way, one of the pillars of your book Nobility of Spirit?

Rob Riemen: Yes, it is a short and concise overview of an idea, that of the nobility of spirit, which is explained in the book through narratives. The idea is indeed based - as you have summarized very well - on that Greek inscription which in fact has echoed throughout history.

We know the famous anecdote of Petrarch who climbed Mount Ventoux to admire the beautiful sunrise and took out of his pocket the small book Confessions of St. Augustine where he wrote: people go out to admire the landscapes and forget themselves.

In fact, he says the same thing. At that moment Petrarch thinks “I have to look inside, to explore my own soul.”

Nobility of spirit is based on the fundamental idea that life is a quest, that we are beings who cannot live without having a notion of 'what is the meaning of my life'. It is inherent to existence, to human consciousness. We all ask ourselves sometime: who am I?; what should I do?; why do these things happen?; why does it happen to me?

I insist. These are the questions that are most dear to us. Every being seeks a certain meaning. It was Nietzsche who said: take away from human beings all sense of their existence and they go mad. Human beings can't stand it. They cannot be confronted with total emptiness.

How to find answers to questions such as: What is the meaning of my life? What is of sufficient value to me to continue existing? All these concepts can be summed up in the capacity to ennoble your spirit. It's not about belonging to the nobility or being part of a certain privileged social position. It is about a fundamental democratic ideal, which every human being can appropriate: to consider life as a never-ending quest.

Shortly after Delphi, Socrates - who was well aware that one must know oneself - says in his Apology: all knowledge begins with the examination of oneself. Life is a search for meaning, constantly renewed, and never ending. For this we need what he called Paideia. For Germans this is the 'Bildung'. We can call it spiritual growth. These are all elements related to the ennoblement of the human spirit.

JZ: The most famous word in journalism, but... don't you think this ideal is only for a few? In other words, that it is almost never achievable?

BR: And why not?

JZ: Because people are busy with other things and not with their own self.

BR: That's a choice. They're parallel things. Everyone is free to let go of things and go in search of the meaning of existence. Free to let his life be dominated by the lust for entertainment. Or other forms of escapism. Free to think that the most important thing in life is to be rich and famous. Unfortunately, we have created a culture where we believe that celebrities, the famous and the rich live the most enviable lives. They don't. But these are choices that people can make in a free society.

JZ: And the elite, have they made that choice?

BR: We have to think about the meaning of the words. What do we mean by elite? I think you mean the people who currently hold certain positions of power.

JZ: In two ways. Indeed, the positions of power, the decision makers. That is, the economy and the State. And on the other hand, the intellectuals.

BR: In principle, to ennoble your spirit you don't need much money, no particular social position is necessary, no religion. You might have one, but it’s not necessary. Everyone is free to do so. And not to do so. But everything has consequences. If you consider the society in which we live today, it is indeed a reality dominated by a certain type of thinking. This is the result of those people who have a strong influence on us. It is always there, in the world of politics and in the world of business, in the world of entertainment and in the world of education, and in the world of the media. It is certainly not a world that supports the ideal of nobility of spirit. I describe it as a world that is, in fact, dominated by kitsch. It pretends to offer something important, but it is a lot of pretty things that lack content.

Let's go to the consequences. Considering a country that loves numbers the most, the United States of America, the figures are not made up, they are the facts - 175 people die of an overdose every day. Imagine a terrorist attack in which 17 people die. The world explodes. But, 175 people die from an overdose. Suicide rates are rising. Antidepressant consumption increases. Every year 50,000 people die as a result of armed violence.

It is inherent to existence, to human consciousness. We all ask ourselves sometime: who am I?; what should I do?; why do these things happen?; why does it happen to me?

These are social consequences of living in a kitschy society. Where everything is important except what is really important, what truly has value, which gives your life a certain meaning, which helps you understand the world we live in and your own existence.

The intellectual elite ceased to exist long ago. The time of an Octavio Paz, an Unamuno, a Santillana, an Ortega y Gasset. We have lost that world of public intellectuals, in all fields. What have we achieved in return? ... Because there are no scholars either. I have less respect for the world of the academic elite, who devote themselves mainly to writing footnotes and then produce a little text that nobody understands, that has no influence on public debate.

That's the problem. Because the moment one begins to think about why we live in this world... or more importantly, why are we facing such a deep crisis, much deeper than a political or climate or social crisis, it is inevitable to realize that it is a civilizational trance...

This has to do with a teaching deficit, and we come back to what you said: getting to know yourself. The ideal of Socrates, Petrarch, Goethe, Thomas Mann. Teaching in the sense of the spiritual growth that people require in order to know themselves and the world, this is no longer offered. It is replaced by nonsense or what is called today Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and those terrible schools of business.

I have nothing against science, nothing against technology. Engineering also seems very important to me and mathematics is above all discussion. But Wittgenstein already said it in his treatises: by the time we have solved all scientific questions, we will not have solved any question of life yet.

It's two different speeches. It's an old debate. But we have seen that the academic world, so-called higher education, has long been reduced to something purely utilitarian. Everything has to be useful. Nietzsche has already warned us in his five lectures on the future of education. He was 26 years old, a professor in Basel and was invited by the student association to speak about the future of education. Nietzsche willingly accepted.

At the first conference, Wagner was in the front row with his wife Cosima. Nietzsche gave a wonderful speech in which he said - 150 years ago - ladies and gentlemen, students, I feel for you because the school of civilisation has ceased to exist. It is no longer offered to you. Your teaching will be reduced, and already IS reduced, to everything that benefits the economy and the State. Nothing more. And the worst thing is that you think it is wonderful, because the only thing you are interested in is making money and, if possible, making a lot of money. Naturally, a little culture is taught because it would be a bit uncomfortable not to know who Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are. But it shouldn't be much more than that, because it would be to the detriment of teaching you how to make a lot of money. They'll turn you into ordinary people. You'll all be exchangeable, like money.

Nietzsche said it 150 years ago. He had no idea how terrible and right his prediction was. Because all teaching has been reduced to pure nonsense, or to what is beneficial for the economy, for the state, for management. In fact they only care about money and collectively they know nothing anymore. Those children no longer know anything. The people who are the product of that teaching, our current political elite, do not know anything anymore either.

It is precisely here that you understand why we have no idea what to do with Europe, why we do not understand where this world should go and why phenomena such as Brexit occur.

JZ: Discern. Being able to judge right from wrong. Separate the priority from the accessory. What leads to a dignified life and what leads to the cliff? How do you do that?

BR: To begin with, listening to the clever saying by Pascal: Human dignity is in the fact that we are capable of thinking. There are many species in this world – while it exists - but the only one who can think is the human being. Who is capable of discernment. To deprive people of the ability to reflect on themselves, to think, to determine what is valuable and what is not, is to deprive them of what they should or should not do with their lives. It relates to whether I should follow the group because I like being a part of it, or dare to say at one point: no, I'm not going with the group, because I care about something else.

In short, keep people from this, and a lot of things get diluted. Distinguishing between right and wrong, the ability to discern. The world will change, instead of daring to have our own personality, we let ourselves be carried away by collective identities. And then nationalism, tribalism or forms of fundamentalism emerge. People want to belong to a certain group and get driven by that collective. That's when the leaders decide what people should do. The masses don't think. Go to a football stadium. Nothing bad, but the moment the behaviour of a football match becomes political, very dangerous things will happen that we have already seen throughout history and in their most horrible form in the first half of the 20th century.

Somehow, it's incomprehensible. But, still, it happens.

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