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OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Measure of Our World," an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg

Celebrating the recent publication of Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays by Benjamin Fondane, edited and translated by Bruce Baugh, in The New York Review of Books Classics.


In the early sixties Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that our world had been made smaller by the advances in electronic communication—smaller to the point that it had shrunk into a “global village.”  Now, half a century later, media experts assure us that our world has been reduced to our well-cabled and wified living room, or even to our laptop, tablet, or smartphone.  This kind of talk is quite old.  New technical devices have been the occasion for a perceived shrinking of the world ever since the birth of the modern, which coincided, more or less, with the birth of modern science and technology.  When Galileo built his telescope he remarked that a huge swath of the celestial sphere had been reduced to the brief surface of his lens, since there is a one-to-one correspondence between the points up in the sky and the points on the lens.  The same reasoning allows mathematicians to prove that the whole infinite line is mathematically the same as an open segment as tiny as you wish.  Mathematical shrinkages are perhaps more abstract, but also more crushing than the forces that form a black hole.  Anyway, at the same time that cosmologists believe that the universe as a whole is expanding, communication experts insist that our world is shrinking.  Who is to be believed?  We are Gullivers bobbing between Lilliput and Brobdingnag.

The other day I had a hunch—mind you, no more than a hunch—that our world is much too big, that we can’t cope with it, that our inability to cope with it is a cause of anxiety, and that anxiety makes us isolate ourselves in ever smaller artificial cocoons so we can pretend that our world is small.  The idea was suggested by T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay on Shakespeare, collected in his Selected Essays.  Speaking about the influence of Roman Stoicism, and Seneca in particular, on Elizabethan drama, Eliot gives this characterization:

“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him; ...”

Now, that Greek and Roman Stoicism was or is a refuge from an indifferent or hostile world has been said many times in the last two-thousand-plus years; what I found remarkable and original is the coda: “too big for him.”  That I have never seen or heard elsewhere in relation to Stoicism. 

Before explaining why I find Eliot’s phrase remarkable, let me make it plain that I do not agree with much else that he writes in that essay.  Even what he writes right after the semi-colon in the above quote is objectionable:

“it [Stoicism] is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up.  Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up.”

In my opinion, that is a gross misrepresentation of Nietzsche, not to speak of cheer.  Elsewhere in the same essay, Eliot compares the philosophers “behind” two poets, Dante and Shakespeare:

“It happened that at Dante’s time thought was orderly and strong and beautiful, and that it was concentrated in one man of the greatest genius [Aquinas] ... The thought behind Shakespeare is of men far inferior to Shakespeare himself...”

Seneca, Machiavelli, and Montaigne—the philosophers behind Shakespeare—Eliot felt, are “far inferior” to Shakespeare—and to Thomas Aquinas.  Now we may ask what is the difference in meaning between Seneca’s “Deo parere libertas est” (To submit to God’s will is liberty), and Dante’s Thomistic “E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace” (In following His will is our peace), or for that matter, in the words of Eliphaz in Job 22: “Submit to God and be at peace with him.”  Does the difference reside in liberty versus peace?  Could Eliot tell us?  I am not about to mount my hobby horse and champion the Pyrrhonist Montaigne against the Aristotelian Aquinas: Eliot is entitled to his philosophic feelings.  But as he says on the same page, perhaps having in mind Thomas Carlyle, who placed Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Goethe among the great thinkers, or perhaps rather against the more recent book by Santayana, for whom Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe are “philosophical poets”:

“In truth, neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking—that was not their job.”

  Nor was it Eliot’s, clearly.  On this, let’s leave the last word to Nietzsche, from his Der Antichrist (§54): “Let us not be misled: great spirits are skeptics.”

Still, Eliot’s insight, “Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him”, does him credit.  At least two facts provide historical support for Eliot’s statement.  First, the Stoa, the Athenian school of Zeno of Citium, opened in about 300 BC, one generation after Alexander’s conquests had hugely and suddenly enlarged the Greek world, and put Greek philosophers in contact with Chaldean astrologers, Iranian magi, gymnosophists, and Buddhists.  Second, I’d like to recall the curious phenomenon of the European Renaissance love affair with Seneca.  True, already Petrarch had quoted copiously from Seneca, long before Erasmus edited and Calvin commented him; still, the Neostoicism of Justus Lipsius in the 1580s and of Guillaume du Vair in the 1590s was an unusual, phenomenal success.  A success having to do (I suggest) with the voyages of discovery, the unexpected immensity of the oceans, and the European contact with heretofore unimagined peoples and civilizations during and after the conquest of the Americas.  The Spanish Jesuit missionary José de Acosta (1540-1600), in his Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias, chapter XI, went so far as to maintain that Seneca had predicted by divination the discovery of the New World.  Once again, the world had suddenly grown too big, this time for the European homme moyen, whose imagination, as a consequence, became crowded with cannibals, Eldorados, plumed serpents, seductive brown virgins, and multifarious human sacrifices.

Returning to Eliot’s characterization of Stoicism, it is convenient to put it aside for a moment and give a somewhat different one directly from the horse’s mouth: I am taking it from Epictetus’ little manual, the Enchiridion.  One should sharply distinguish (says Epictetus) that over which we may exert control from that which falls outside our control.  Over our desires, emotions, purposes, and actions we can exert control; whatever is the action of external agents—and that, for Epictetus, includes our body, its pains and infirmities, etc.—we cannot control.  Finally, those things that are not under our control should be indifferent to us: they should be as nothing to us.

“A control freak” may be the words that first come to mind upon reading the above passage, and indeed, a genuine Stoic must be a total control freak, a man who suppresses his feelings and emotions in the name of logic (the Stoics were all men and always good at logic).  It is a technique that has worked well, so I heard it said, for soldiers in combat, for prisoners threatened by or subject to torture, for slaves (Epictetus himself had been a slave), and generally in situations of extreme duress.  Now, whether we should classify Eliot’s “indifferent or hostile world that feels too big” as a situation of extreme duress, is doubtful.  It might depend on how hostile or how big, on the subject’s sensitivity and perception and on many other factors—I wouldn’t know.  This morning, however, reading the news, I found a categorical statement about this problem:

“The traditional masculine ideal isn’t working anymore. It leads to high dropout rates, high incarceration rates, low labor force participation rates. This is an economy that rewards emotional connection and verbal expressiveness. Everywhere you see men imprisoned by the old reticent, stoical ideal.”

The above is signed by David Brooks, in The New York Times of April 29, 2016, and is part of that pundit’s soul searching and hand wringing over what the devil is it with Republican voters that makes them vote for Donald Trump. To believe Brooks, it is to a large extent stoical men who are voting for Trump—and he might have a point, since the New York billionaire is reported to have said recently at an Indiana rally: “You know all the tough guys endorse me. I like that, O.K.?”  In case you haven’t been following the news, let me clarify that Trump was not referring to Senator McCain, but to the boxer Mike Tyson.

Then I spent part of the morning mulling over the possibility that the “reticent, stoical ideal” is failing men because jobs go to those who are good at “emotional connection and verbal expressiveness.”  Certainly some jobs go to empathizing rhetoricians—like Brooks’ job—and I can think of others, e.g. politicians, PR-men, preachers, motivational coaches, TV anchors.  But it seems to me that nowadays the bulk of good-paying jobs go to people who tend, for the most part, to be rather reticent, and to exercise their logic much, much more than their emotional connectivity or verbal expressiveness, at least while on the job.  I have in mind people in finance, techies, programers, statisticians and actuaries, big data analysts, et al.  I suspect that editorial policy or genteel reticence kept Brooks from writing that it is rednecks and the uneducated who are in trouble and who are now voting en masse for know-nothing Trump.  “Stoical ideals” have nothing to do with it.

A couple of days later, occupied by similar thoughts, I drove to the university library.  I wanted to borrow a book by Christopher Brooke that contains a chapter about the influence of ancient Stoic ideas on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  University libraries have been feeling the bigness of their world: there are so many scholarly books being published that very few libraries can hope to purchase or house them all; mine shares a lot of books with others of the SUNY system located all over the state, and I had to wait several days for the book to arrive, which I don’t mind.  Worse yet, many graduate programs and majors in the humanities have been closing over the last forty years, and the library acquisitions in those fields have naturally decreased or vanished.  Greek is not taught any more, Latin barely.  Italian, French, German, and Russian are residual and restricted to a couple of beginner courses.  By a perverse ironic twist, perhaps unintended, the new motto of the university is “The World Within Reach.”  There they go.  For the happy-go-lucky university administrators the world is not too big—it is within reach.  I can see only three possible intentions in their minds: either (a) they truly believe that the world is within reach, simply because they don’t know how huge, unreachable and unseizable our world actually is, or (b) they know it, but they try to sell their educational product under false claims, or (c) they are only unconsciously aware of the immensity of our world, which makes them terribly anxious, even scared, and so they pretend that our world is within reach, like someone who whistles in the dark.  I am reluctant to accept either (a) or (b): the former would mean that the people running the university are schmucks, the latter that they are crooks.  That leaves (c), which tends to confirm my hunch, the hunch I took off my chest at the beginning of this essay, about artificial cocoons: that the shrinking of our world is an unconscious self-deception.

The library lobby is almost deserted, even though final exams must be going on.  A couple of students are sitting at a table near a window, absorbed in their computers. The only assistant at the circulation desk doesn’t look at me; she is doing something on, or with, her portable phone.  After a couple of sharp “Hi! s” she takes my card and goes away to look for my book.  It’s not easy to remember precisely after all these years; it seems, though, that in my days this library was more populated.  For me, it still keeps all its freshness as a refuge, where I could spend an afternoon far from my office, happily procul negotiis, a truant from the new-periodical section where the latest mathematical journals had a legal right to my attention, rummaging instead here and there with no compass other than nose and nostalgia.  As a boy, I read a good share of Dumas père and Walter Scott; Ivanhoe was a favorite, but I never felt a keen interest in how it must have felt to be inside a suite of armor; Quentin Durward I liked too, yet I never figured myself walking in poulaine shoes.  The decade Auden famously called low and dishonest, the 1930s, independently called by Argentines la década infame, is the time that has most powerfully attracted my imagination and moved me to nostalgia.  Why is that so?  Was I touched by the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”?  Or is it perhaps because the characters of that period feel, talk, dress, and think like my parents as I vaguely remember them from early in life (1939)?  One day I discovered, in the shelves of the old-periodical section, a bound collection of the Argentine literary magazine Sur.  That was back in the mid and late 70s, and I spent much time in that corner of the library, reading and taking notes.

There were many books, but there was no Sur in my childhood home: as far as magazines went, my father subscribed to selections in Spanish from the Reader’s Digest, my mother to women magazines such as Maribel or Cuéntame, and my sister and I to the comics.  Encouraged by her friend the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who had started the Revista de Occidente in 1923, the rich Argentine heiress Victoria Ocampo founded (and funded) Sur in 1931.  The treasure I found buried in my corner of this library contained quite a few articles by Borges—among others his movie reviews, and his polemic with Roger Caillois over the origins of crime fiction.  A more lasting impression, however, was left by the thirteen essays, published between 1931 and 1940, some by Benjamin Fondane and some by his philosophic master, Lev Shestov, authors whose names I had never heard before.  The Stoics are hardly mentioned in those essays, which nevertheless constitute an impassioned anti-Stoic polemic.  A cowering subjectivity that willingly submits to cosmic necessity is the key teaching of the Porch, just as a stubborn subjectivity in rebellion against necessity and all objective laws is the cornerstone of the thought I had just met.  This opposition of forces, the seesaw or tug of war between cosmos and psyche, between Brahman and Atman, between Dionysus and Apollo, is likely as old as the history of the human spirit; we are part of it, and witnesses to it, with Parmenides against Heraclitus, with Spinoza’s deus sive natura versus Fichte’s I, with Hegel’s objective dialectic against Kierkegaard’s subjective thought, with Cervantes against himself as he was writing Don Quijote.  On a winter night in 1952 Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Kantorowicz stepped out of Panofsky’s house on Brattle Road, Princeton, NJ, and gazed at the clear sky.  Kantorowicz said, “Looking at the stars, I feel my own futility.” And Panofsky: “All I feel is the futility of the stars.”  And here, in my subterranean corner of this library, I was wrestling with my own futilities and with the shame of neglecting mathematics, the only human activity that’s absolutely objective, for this frivolous, muddled, utterly subjective task of dreaming and writing about myself.

Lev Shestov was the pen name of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann: born in Kiev in 1866, he died an exile in Paris in 1938.  Benjamin Fondane was the nom de plume of Benjamin Wechsler, born in 1898 in Iași, Romania, gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.  The two Ostjuden met in Paris in the mid 1920s, and Fondane, who had begun as an avant-garde poet in Romanian, and had briefly belonged to Breton’s Surrealist group upon settling in Paris in 1923, became Shestov’s disciple and fellow knight in the battle against Stoicism.  A battle that Shestov (or his French translator, Boris de Schlœzer), called “la lutte contre les évidences” or, more specifically, “la lutte contre les évidences de la raison”, which may be rendered as “the struggle against the self-evident.”  That may not sound as directed particularly against the Stoics, until we recall the simplistic epistemology of the latter, for whom “cataleptic impressions” were self-evidently true, objective beyond discussion, and the basis of all knowledge.  Shestov’s chief weapons are the Hebrew Bible and the fictions of Dostoevsky, especially the Book of Job and Notes from Underground, both portraits of amazingly stubborn and, by most lights, irrational subjectivity.

When Job exclaims, “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales!  It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas” (Job 6), this may certainly be taken as nothing more than oriental hyperbole, but Job’s estimation of the stuff in his soul as more massive than all the stuff in the cosmos takes on literal sense when we reflect on his attitude, his self-assurance that he is blameless, and his insistence that God give him an account of why he is being destroyed.  Who, in Job’s place, would show such self-assurance?  Or as Bildad the Shuhite puts it (Job 25), “How can a mortal be righteous before God?”  If I, for one, had been there listening, I could not have helped asking Job, “Just who do you think you are?”  And so I don’t think we can blame Eliphaz the Temanite for asking his suffering friend essentially the same (Job 15):

“Are you the first man ever born?  Were you brought forth before the hills?  Do you listen in on God’s council?  Do you have a monopoly on wisdom?  What do you know that we do not know?  What insights do you have that we do not have?”

Job’s friends are reasonably and stolidly objective: they will heed Job’s words and take them seriously only if those words signify concepts that they find to be roughly the same and to combine in roughly the same ways as the ones they mull in their own heads severally.  They cannot countenance the possibility that Job might have radically different insights, incommesurable with theirs.  Job’s subjectivity, on the contrary, his awareness of being blameless before God, is, in the original sense of the word, monstruous.  For Job, it is not the world that’s too big, as the Stoics feel, nor is he inclined to submit meekly, as Eliphaz admonishes in 22: “Submit to God and be at peace with him.”  No, Job assigns a heavier weight and larger mass to his soul than to the sea, and will not yield until God finally speaks to him—“from the storm” as was His wont.

From Biblical times to 1864 many things have changed.  The Anthropocene is in full swing.  Steamships and locomotives roar and whistle about; Maxwell has just discovered that visible light is only a small segment of the electro-magnetic radiation that moves all over.  Has the world shrunk?  Has it expanded?  Whichever the case, more and better technology is now our only hope, and objectivity is ever more pressingly impressed on us: without enough of it, our world risks total collapse.  Already by 1864 one who stubbornly held on to his subjectivity had to speak anonymously, shamefacedly, from underground.  Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is a soliloquy, like those in which Augustine used to reason with Reason, but our man inveighs against Reason instead.  At the start we learn that the man is sick, as was Job, for no healthy person could realistically utter such stuff.  His disease may be of the liver, he says; or it may be spite.  In fact, it is an acute awareness of what goes on in his psyche—most of which doesn’t follow the laws of logic—together with its accompanying symptom: shame.  “As if a perceptive man could respect himself,” he declares at some point.  He calls himself a man of the retort, which may not only suggest his drop-by-bitter-drop distilled self-awareness, his artificiality, but sets him in direct opposition to the natural man, “l’homme de la nature et de la vérité”, a phrase that he repeats, as if to make sure that we get it.  What is it that we should get?  Perhaps back in 1864 most Russian readers got it; today we must explain that it is the inscription on the tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose bones were deposited in the Pantheon in 1794 by the Thermidorian Convention.  Without mentioning names—the Underground Man is no name dropper—he is making sure that we won’t take him for a sans-culotte, someone who maintains, with Rousseau, that man is born free and is everywhere in chains.

But when the Underground Man sarcastically repeats the French phrase he is telling us more than that he is no follower of Rousseau: the coupling of nature and truth goes way back, to the Stoics.  We have Seneca’s authoritative testimony:

“Meanwhile, I follow the guidance of Nature, a doctrine upon which all Stoics agree; not to stray from Nature and to form oneself according to her law and example: that is wisdom.” (De vita beata iii.3)

And that—the laws of nature and nature’s example—, is precisely what the Underground Man detests.  “The laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics”: he calls those “the stone wall.”  That two plus two equals four represents for him the hated chains of necessity, that which must be so whether it pleases you or not.  You may hit your head as often as you wish against the stone wall: two plus two will still be four.  The Underground Man finds that disgusting, unacceptable.  It injures his freedom, which coincides with the contingency of his caprice.  Evil and necessity are one.

I wonder what the Underground Man would have said of a book published two years before, Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, where a general method is described to “avoid alike the extremes of undue submission and undue rebellion.”  The British liberal and the Russian soul, over vodka and port: wouldn’t that be a fine subject for a story?  A Spanish translation of 1879, Los primeros principios, was among my father’s books, though it was first owned by my uncle: Abraham Nirimberg (sic) 1939. Bs. As.  I imagine that when he became a Marxist my uncle got rid of that book, and passed it on to my father; in any case, I wrote my own name under my uncle’s, plus the date and place: 1954. Bs. As.—to a dot.  Spencer is rarely mentioned now, unless dismissively; my friend Dan Hofstadter’s dad, Richard, in his Social Darwinism in American Thought called Spencer “the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic.”  Perhaps, but the two greatest Argentine writers, Sarmiento and Borges, were among the followers of the sage of the mutton-chops.


spencer tomb at Highgate Cemetery, London
Spencer’s tomb at Highgate Cemetery, London, facing that of Marx who doesn’t look too happy about it.


The fainéante assistant comes back to the circulation desk with my book.  The same two students are still at their computers by the window, and not a soul seems to have stirred.  The alarm sounds as I exit: she has forgotten to demagnetize my book.  But she waves me out, go, im wunderschönen Monat Mai.

Sitting on a parapet overlooking the jet fountain, just like forty years ago, in those days when I discovered Fondane and Shestov, I think of certain people who lived in my native city not long before I was born.  Of those distinguished ladies and perhaps a few gentlemen who watched Buñuel and Dalí’s film Un chien andalou, shown by Fondane during his stay in Buenos Aires in 1929, and who listened to his lecture on Shestov’s philosophy, in which they heard that, according to Shestov, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is the true critique of reason, not Kant’s.  Which did those ladies in their fox stoles and gentlemen in their fedoras and Atkinson’s cologne find more épatant?  The surrealist film or the rebuke of Kant?  1929 was also the year when the Argentine philosopher Alejandro Korn founded the Sociedad Kantiana, and he might, he just might have been there in the audience, unable to hide his fury or his contempt.  Over the years I did try to find witnesses of those Fondane events, with no success; now they must be all dead.

Fondane died in Auschwitz.  Who can think of a stricter conjugation of evil and necessity, or so drastic a contraction of the cosmos?  Yet who can tell the measure or the success of his Job-size rebellion against the exasperations of necessity?  I prefer to believe that Fondane died free, his mind unbroken, undiminished.

“The laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics,” those were the underground man’s weird sisters.  Those were mine too, and when I visited their cave and cauldron, learned by heart Mendeleev’s table, or mumbled charms invoking epsilons and deltas and Michelson & Morley, it was, like Macbeth, to invest myself with power.  I craved power, not because of some universal Wille zur Macht, but because I was a shy, cringing boy, proud and resentful, never at ease among other boys.  An eleven-year-old at the savage elementary school on Varela Street (now illustrious for its pupil Jorge Bergoglio), I sat in a classroom, glued to my bench, recoiling in disgust from the mostly older boys on the benches round about, who were masturbating, comparing and measuring their members against one another, glued to their brutal faces an identical expression, idiotic, plastered, ecstatic.  In the patio, during the recesses, they mocked and punched me, called me judío puto, and wouldn’t stop trying to goose me as soon as there was room between my back and the wall.  Theirs was the power of brute, muscular force, and theirs was the power of myth, the mythomania of Argentine barbarians, nourished on fútbol and centered on who-buggers-who.  What could I do?  Measure myself against the son of the butcher, the son of the police sergeant and assorted hijos de puta as to the size of our dicks?  That, indeed, might have been the sense in which Protagoras intended “Man is the measure of all things,” but in my case it was hopeless.  One option only was left me, as a pis-aller: the power of the logos.

That’s, of course, a power only recognized among the educated and those who read The New York Times, where this morning, May 13, I saw an interesting article: “Scientists Hold Secret Meeting (at Harvard) to Consider Creating a Synthetic Human Genome.”  One of the scientists asked, “Would it be O.K. to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome, i.e. to create some more Einsteins?”  I thought: it wouldn’t even cross their minds to sequence and synthesize the genome of Páez, my best-hung classmate in seventh grade.  Yet, why not?  Anyway, the power of the logos was of no avail against Páez, Peralta, and all those priapic beasts, but at least it helped me build some self-esteem.  “The laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics”: I tried all three, a little each; I studied chemistry, physics, then math, so I could achieve absolute objectivity, that is, maximum separation from myself, from the underground where my flight from mythos was hidden and registered as cowardice and shame.  Funny, that our serious philosophers are unanimous on this: the victory of logos over mythos is the crowning glory of human thought.  Yet that glorious victory, like the victory of the Olympians over the Titans, looks suspiciously like myth.

I suddenly remember having read, not long ago, something about Gottlob Frege, the granddad of modern logic and analytic philosophy.  Frege desired (so it goes) “freedom from the contingency implicit in subjective choices.”  That is marvelous!  Freedom from contingency!  And me who, like the Underground Man, worried only about freedom from necessity!  But wasn’t Einstein saying the same thing as Frege when he declared ex cathedra: “God doesn’t throw dice”?  And weren’t both saying something very close to the strictures of those control freaks, the Stoics?

That which is freedom for Frege or Einstein is abject slavery for Job and the Underground Man, for Kierkegaard, Shestov and Fondane—and reciprocally.  Erwin Panofsky’s and Job’s subjectivities were vaster than the sea or the sky; Hegel, however, wrote: “While I think, I give up my subjective separateness, immerse myself in the thing and let the thinking do for me as it pleases, and I think badly when I add anything of my own.”  Hegel’s subjectivity fit in his desk drawer.

Whether by fate or by chance, caused by the stars above or the whims deep inside, in the basement of this Albany library, forty years ago I connected to Sur and to the civilized Argentine few who read Borges, Fondane, and Shestov before I was born: in that sense at least, the world has shrunk.  Or has it been enlarged?  The tower carillon sounds noon; the sun shines mildly, the air is redolent of first blooms, and students are walking all over, ignoring each other, sun, air, and blooms, absorbed in their smartphones.


Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse

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