The Meaning of Moral Prototypes

There is no real evidence as to whether Homeros, historically accredited writer of the Iliad and the Odyssey, actually existed. When in the 1930s the American researcher Milman Parry interviewed bards performing epic poems based on the oral traditions of the Bosniaks, in what was then a very underdeveloped part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, he discovered that they all referred to a certain bardic hero. The name of this hero varied by whom was asked, but all agreed that this person was better at the performing arts than anyone else, knew all the old legends and tales better than any other, could memorize them more clearly and present them in a superior manner, and so forth. None of the people involved had ever seen him or knew anyone that had, but they had all heard from various other trustworthy people that he existed or had existed. To any objective outside observer, it seemed clear that this figure was mythical.

Parry, a specialist in the very early period of ancient Greece, was led by this research to propose that Homeros himself had been a mythical ideal figure of this kind. Perhaps he had not even existed at all, or perhaps he had, but had merely been someone to whom a much longer oral tradition had been ascribed, or he might have been the name given to what was really a development in ancient Greek society where the epic tales started being written down rather than further transmitted through their telling. Any of these were a possibility, but in the classical studies of that period this idea was a veritable bombshell. It was much resisted, for it implied that the 150 years or so that classical scholars had just been spending on a scientific approach to studying the meaning of these works as the products of one particular mind had been utterly in vain, for it would much more likely have been a compilation or mixture of various oral traditions from various sources.

This, however, is not all that can be said about this shift in viewpoint. What is interesting about this is that Homeros was nonetheless throughout all of the ancient times, both Greek and Roman (so-called, not to imply that Greece ceased to exist culturally under Roman rule), to have been the absolute ideal in poetry. In his book chronicling the reception of the Iliad and Odyssey through the ages, Alberto Manguel describes very well how for everyone from Greek tragic playwrights in the classical period to Latin-cultured Renaissance writers, Homeros was the gold standard in writing, not just for epic works (such as Vergilius’ Aeneis, a wholesale Romanization of both works in one) but also for other forms of writing, in terms of style, metaphor, structure, and so on. All this although they had no actual proof of his ever having existed, except that tradition would have it so.

Such moral prototypes, people who may not actually have existed, or if they did, not really in the grand manner ascribed to them, but who serve the purpose of being a lived reality of virtue, can also be found most interestingly in the Bible, to be precise the Old Testament. For the Jews living in the Judah and Israel of the post-exile period, the period of reconstruction as a small recently liberated group (albeit under Persian, Achaemenid rule) required a strong sense of norms to give life to the newly reconstructed society and to bind the group together against the many peoples in the surrounding area. This role was not only fulfilled at the time itself by the various prophets mentioned by the Bible to have lived at this time, Haggai and Zachariah, but also by the writing down of those ancient traditions which we know now as the Old Testament. These for the most part, as anyone knows, play the role of establishing the laws and norms for the Jews, to which they ascribe a divine origin. But more interestingly in light of what has been said above, it is clear that it was not enough for these laws and ordinances to merely be known; they must also be lived by example. After all, the content of a law, no matter how precise, is merely a dead letter unless people actually follow it, and all experience shows that the force of example is a much stronger one to enjoin people to do something than the force of codes alone.

However, the obvious problem was that since these laws and ordinances were to have been from ancient times, even from before the exile, and to fit within the known chronology of the Jewish history, the people living these laws also had to be from that time. In an essential move for any society seeking a new foundation to reconstitute itself, they undertook what Hobsbawm has called the invention of tradition; and not just in any specific form, but what is interesting to us here is how it took the form (among other things) of moral prototypes. Joshua is clearly the embodiment of the virtue of leadership in war for the Jews, as Solomon is the embodiment of wise rule. More rounded is the character of David, who embodies on the one hand loyalty to one’s legal ruler even when such ruler goes against the traditional laws and rules (indeed for all the talk of the absolute importance of obedience to God’s laws, the Old Testament chronicles seem to give no indication of any right of Jewish subjects to hold their Kings to these laws, but instead this is undertaken by God alone), and on the other hand the embodiment of the character virtues that a Jewish ruler should have. Where Solomon is the moral prototype of wisdom, David is clearly the moral prototype of leadership altogether, in precisely the sense as in the case of Homeros: he serves as the gold standard to which all in a similar position ought to aspire, he is the yardstick for all measurements of current equivalents, and yet this alone is not enough, for he also needs to have a narrative description of how these rules were lived and obedience to them displayed in practice.

People always have a need to know what a given law or moral norm means for them in practice, and how to apply them in the situations that may occur in their life. The continuing popularity of all forms of exemplary narrative in this regard is sufficient proof, from books with tips on Christian living to fairytales and invented epics like Tolkien’s. The moral prototype, however, seems to be the oldest and perhaps the most enduring of all these forms, for it embeds in our cultural-historical consciousness a human narrative, one that people can relate to in a way that they cannot to mere codes and norms, that describes how those same codes and norms can be lived in practice. Precisely because this is a historical, often epic or romantic adventure-type tale, it can be projected into the very shadows of the origins of that historical consciousness to which it wishes to speak, which maximizes its effect – the time of the Achaeans for the classical Greeks, the time of the early Kings and Judges for the post-exile Jews, the time of the Brythonics for the high Medieval courtiers, and so on. It is important to learn from these cultural phenomena to understand the workings of a new society.

On the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning

Very often in political discussions, particularly within certain kinds of socialism, the superiority of the objective mode of reasoning over the subjective is proposed. By this ‘objective mode of reasoning’ I mean the way of speaking in which it is argued that the actual, concrete effect of someone’s action counts more strongly than the intent that person had with that action or the subjective attitude that person had towards that same action. Here it is said that what counts is the ‘objective’ effect, not the ‘subjective’ aspects of it. The argument in defense of this particular way of reasoning is usually that it is the objective effect that actually exists in the external world, and that has causative power, rather than the subjective intentionality of the actor, which has only relevance for himself.

This issue often appears, for example, when it comes to questions of Party loyalty, and was for this reason often used by the orthodox Comintern parties and their leaders to ensure discipline among Party members in undertaking unpopular directives, or instructions considered to be contrary or even treasonous to the ideology that drew those people to such Parties in the first place. This went in particular during the period of Stalin’s government in the USSR, when many a Party Communist was appalled by instructions such as those aimed at combating social-democracy more than fascism, or, and I have personal experience with people burdened by this historical event, the forced repatriation of Communists who had fled the Hitler-governed Germany; in this latter case Communists were instructed not to subvert foreign governments’ efforts in sending these people back to Germany (and almost certain death or horror), because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, guaranteeing the safety of the USSR, might be endangered by anti-German activities. The idea here was that although such directives might not subjectively have appeared becoming of a Communist Party, it was nonetheless necessary because the ‘objective’ effects of such actions were positive to the cause of Communism (which was then identified entirely with the USSR, but that is another issue which I will not go into here).

Nonetheless, the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning is seriously flawed. In particular, it suffers from an extreme vulnerability to reductio ad absurdum. Indeed, one may argue that at certain times it is more important what the objective effect of an action is for the actor than his subjective will or experience of it – all organized political activity depends on this, as otherwise every movement or party would split into as many parts as there are members, when nobody would be willing to pay heed to the effects of their actions, and only be concerned with their individual ideas of what should be done. Not even the most liberal party can operate on this basis – in fact, not even the anarchists, fierce opponents of all authority, allowed it when push came to shove in the past. But the risk lies on the other end. Say, one believes that capitalism suffers from inherent flaws, that will appear the more capitalism develops, so that the fullest development of capitalism will cause it to “create its own gravediggers” and lead to its overthrow, and that such overthrow is desirable. Under those conditions, a partisan of the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning could argue that any attempt whatever to impede capitalism only slows its development, and thereby the inevitable eventual overthrow of the system. Indeed, it would then be, ‘objectively’ necessary for Communists to support capitalism as much as possible in its development, because otherwise it would take longer for it to disappear! This might well be what Marx had in mind when he argued in his Speech on Free Trade that although workers have no particular benefit by either protectionism or free trade in Britain, free trade develops capitalist contradictions more fully, and thereby helps communism. But what an ultra-Trotskyist position this ‘objectively’ leads to, one that not even most Trotskyists would endorse! A similar result appears when one argues from a Third Worldist perspective that the overwhelming majority of First Worlders are parasites living at the expense of the Third World, and that this imperialist relation is the primary contradiction (as the Maoist terminology has it) of the world today. Under such circumstances, it can be said that it is incumbent on a Third Worldist living in the West to cause as much destruction and misery as possible in his environment, because regardless of what subjectively he may think of this, this would ‘objectively’ weaken the First World (if ever so little) and make the parasites less comfortable on their stolen thrones. In fact, one might even from this perspective argue ‘objectively’ for suicide of First Worlders who understand such contradictions, as this will also make the First World weaker and eliminate parasites.

Of course these examples may appear far-fetched or unfairly neglecting alternatives, but this kind of Modest Proposal-like ‘logic’ is precisely that which can be applied to any kind of situation, as long as one is willing to carry the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning to its extreme. We must recognize therefore, if we are not to be self-destructive in the extreme, that the scale of objectivity versus subjective experience is a sliding scale, where even if the truth is not necessarily found in the middle, then certainly at least some moderation must be sought rather than to seek certainty on either end. A lot of the infighting and internal strife between various Communist factions and sects, one would almost say denominations, of the past century has been the result of inability of the participants to see this particular phenomenon as a tension inherent in their reasoning, something which goes in particular for the various Leninists (tending toward the ‘objective’ end) and the anarchists & friends (tending toward the ‘subjective’ end). There are countless examples of situations where different positions on the scale of ‘objectivity’ have clashed within the left, leading often to dramatic results: Kronstadt, Molotov-Ribbentrop, Trotsky vs. Stalin, not to mention the numerous disputes over egalitarianism on the one hand and the need to promote specialists for planning and development purposes on the other hand, and many more. Yet socialists of all sorts do not cease haughtily berating each other either for lack of ideological commitment, or lack of sober, ‘objective’ thinking, causing much recrimination and little advancement.

I believe it is time we recognize this sliding scale for what it is, and accept that different people can take up different positions (even at different times) as to which should have the upper hand, without this leading necessarily to giving up any rooting in reality, or any seriousness about the idealistic content of socialist thought. If we do so, we will better be able to stick to factual and theoretical matters in discussions about policy and positions, rather than having to resort to arguing who is a ‘true’ committed Communist and who isn’t, based on differences on this normative scale.