Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Solomon Maimon and the Ashkenazi Enlightenment.

   In the second half of the Eighteenth Century, Poland, once a great Nation, had been reduced to anarchy and enslavement by the unbridled licentiousness of its riotous Aristocracy. Solomon Maimon considered the Ashkenazi Jews of Poland and Lithuania, likewise, to be a nation reduced to ignorance and intemperance by the 'Golden Freedoms' of its own aristocracy- the scholars of Talmud, of which he himself was the most precociously talented.
   Quitting his benighted Lithuania for Germany, this drunken Spinoza, this misanthopic Mendelsohn, arrived at a full fledged Scepticism, not of Diderot's brand, but of a grim, late Nineteenth Century sort, by all the unlikeliest of detours- Kant being his last- yet, to the end, he remained a Talmudist in his methods and a Moralist despite himself.
   Inclining to the view of Maimonides, that there is but one immortal soul in which all participate to the degree that they cling to Reason, and sympathizing rather with Spinoza than the Liebniz/Wolfian system which had  first unsealed his eyes to the power of Secular learning, Maimon's startlingly frank autobiography represents the Ashkenazi Enlightenment as a rebellion against the unbridled license of its Talmudic Aristocrats rather than, as it was for the Germans and later the French Jews, an act of conformity and falling in with the superior Rationality and Economy of a Fredrick the Great or, indeed, Napoleon.
   Maimon's oddity lies in the manner in which- while constantly pointing out the irrationality, intemperance and lack of Economy of his country and his own people- his pilgrimage West confirms him precisely in that ruinous and vagabond manner of life, escape from which alone could justify his abandonment of his family.
Yet, not only won't he supply his wife with a get, he himself wont turn his hand to any trade- as the Talmud requires- preferring to live, in many respects, the life of a sponger and wastrel.
   This duality in Maimon goes hand in had with a rejection of dualism of any form- that of Maimonides for whom there were two kinds one intellect- one relating to the body and the other, immaterial and relating to God- or that of Leibniz, who limits the scope of Sufficient Reason for no sufficient reason-and that of Kant who posits mutually exclusive faculties of understanding and sensibility with the result that there is no guarantee that the application of categories is not arbitrary simply. In essence, these systems yet are saved from Maimon's skepticism by dispensing with the notion that philosophy is an open enterprise. Suppose this were not the case. Some people- or group of people- are chosen, others are not. Thus, it so happens that some Jews will be bodily resurrected and spend a very long time enjoying a second existence on Earth before dying again. This is just a law of Nature which, for some reason, has been revealed in Scripture. Thus it makes sense for even the most philosophical Jew to stick with the Talmud even though ultimate immortality- after the very long period of the Resurrection- has a wholly different object and modality.
   Similarly, with Liebniz- perpetual peace actually meant the French going off to kill Egyptians rather than Hollanders. Perhaps, Egyptians don't count and the kindest thing to do would be to enslave or do away with them. Similarly with Kant- more Anthropologist than Philosopher and Anthropophagous Shaman than Anthropologist- perhaps when Prussia is well governed and expanding, then for some reason beyond our ken, the faculties of understanding and sensibility work in a perfect way and so Morality really is whatever Prussia says it is . If on the other hand, if Prussia is ill-governed and bankrupt and weak- then perhaps humane universal moral absolutes are okay.

The point I wish to make here is that, it may be, Maimon was right- not Moses Mendelsohn- Enlightened Despots weren't Enlightened at all and laid Europe Waste in the same manner as the drunkard Radziwill laid waste his own Estates. Though in Germany and in France, there is an impression of widespread Ashkenazi 'assimilation' and 'conformity' to Enlightenment hierarchical values, yet- under the surface- it is the vagabond Maimon who more accurately reflects the Ashkenazi ethos- viz. making a connection between the disorder and riot created by the Goyim aristocrats with the spiritual pride and pointless casuistry of their own puffed up Gaons. This frees the Ashkenazi Jew- in his amphibian aspect as scholar/vagabond- from both heteronomy and 'humanism' thus giving him a revolutionary potential.

Marx himself, it may be, is better understood in the light of Maimon than those priggish Young Hegelians. Except, Marx was not a mathematician. Otherwise he'd have been a Neo-Con avant la lettre.


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