The Athenians No Longer Know the Megarians

This post originally appeared on Al-Jumhuriya.

Deluge © Imranovi
Deluge © Imranovi

The following is a talk given by Kelly Grotke for Stanford University’s conference on the subject of ‘Cruelty’, in which the prominent academic examines friendship, universality, and cruelty between the European past and the Syrian present.

States of Friendship

Friendship, for Cicero, was a virtuous thing, sustained by love, respect, and sincerity – this is why “one does not live with a friend as one would with a dictator.”[2] Similarly, for Etienne la Boétie:

“…a tyrant never either is loved or himself loves. Friendship is a sacred name, it is a holy thing; it is never exists save between morally upright people [gens de bien] and stems only from mutual esteem. It is sustained not so much by favors rendered as by proper living. What makes one friend sure of another is the knowledge he has of his integrity: the guarantees of it he has are his good character, faith, and loyalty. There can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there is injustice. And it is conspiracy, not company, among evildoers when they assemble. They do not love, but fear, each other; these have no affection for one another; fear alone holds them together; they are not friends, they are accomplices.”[3]

Montaigne, writing in his Essays about the loss of the friend who had penned these lines, lamented that la Boétie’s death had left him no more than half of himself, saying that there was “no deed nor thought in which I do not miss him.”[4] The clarity of Montaigne’s grief attests to the rarity of their friendship, however much shaped by more general, longstanding paradigms of meaningful companionship. Rhetorically, the singularity of the relationship reinforces the generality and also the legitimacy of the ideals it embodies, allowing as well for the reader’s own experiences of loss to echo in reflective sympathy. A sensitivity to shared, human vulnerability emerges out of the knowledge of what it is possible to lose, and to mourn.

Not all friendships are or can be like the one between Montaigne and la Boétie, and the point of Montaigne’s commentary is to underscore that even centuries could pass before the world might witness another relationship such as this. For la Boétie himself, friendship was inimical to tyranny, because there was no friendship at all to be found in the heart of a tyrant bitter enough to hate his own people. Here, one can see how important relations of friendship were thought to be for political life in general, as part of what sustains and enriches a people.  Looking back to Aristotle, whose empirical cast of mind lent itself to cataloguing pluralities and practices, one finds a more differentiated view of friendship, also tied up with living together in shared communities and therefore likewise of political significance. For Aristotle, however, friendship was not simply unique and virtuous, but rather part of a continuum of feelings that helped to cement the polis. He documented several different kinds of friendship, or philia, noting that some are based on “utility,” or the usefulness of the relation, in which a mutual benefit is derived from the association. Civic friendship is of this kind, since it “looks to equality as sellers and buyers do; hence the proverb ‘a fixed wage for a friend.’”[5] Political unity for Aristotle was founded upon civic friendships augmented by relations of superiority and inferiority, and although its beginnings were far beyond the scope of recorded history, he thought it clear enough that people must have first come together in recognition of the material insufficiency of isolated existence, as well as the pleasures of companionship. There was no social contract for Aristotle, but rather a shared, unified experience of “a community of families and aggregation of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.”[6] Friendships of utility mark the polis from its beginning and constitute the majority of relations thereafter,[7] alongside others formed on the basis of excellence and pleasantry. Pleasantry seems for him a kind of untutored excellence, but regardless, these two additions to utility acknowledge the agreeable ways others give meaning to our lives, regardless of any short or long term instrumentalities. In this, Aristotle was aiming for a kind of universal, abstract taxonomy of human collective life, derived from what was shared across the cultures and contexts of which he was aware.

Perhaps because of this, Aristotle was also highly attuned to borders, both real and conceptual. In his Politics, for example, he comments that if two distinct cities, such as Corinth and Megara, were “to be brought together so that their walls touched, still they would not be one city…”[8] Perhaps they could be ‘friends’ in a sense, but they could not be the same. The values, culture and habits of these two places are distinct, a fact not altered by re-drawings of established boundaries and barriers. Underscored here is the rootedness of human experience, the importance of what we might now call ‘identity,’ and the ways that limits and borders shape both the understanding and the formation of common purposes – though his attending emphasis on the natural and organic was also a source for some of his presently most unpalatable ideas: that there are natural hierarchies, for example, and that some people are born to be slaves and live in subjection. Such ideas were anathema to la Boétie, who wrote in defense of natural freedom and against tyranny, despite his affinities with Aristotle on the political importance of friendship.

In matters of practical philosophy (ethics, politics, economics), Aristotle seems to allow for a kind of relative universality because he recognized that, say, Spartans were different from Scythians and Athenians: in matters of practice, universality is instantiated within a particular context, as reflected in the laws and customs of a polis. This is why a principle of equity is required as corrective to the law’s universality as applied, because “all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which will be correct,” since errors can arise because of the “absoluteness of [a] statement.”[9] This is another way of putting the tragedy of Antigone, in which the positive law of the city enforced by Creon came into conflict with the universal law of nature asserted by Antigone, as discussed in the Rhetoric.[10] Tragedy can arise, then, in breakdowns of universality.

Aristotle’s emphasis on instrumental relations as being integral to the life of a polis is striking, perhaps all the more so because it is not burdened by the moralizing ideals that are so much a part of the Christian tradition. There is no Golden Rule according to which the conscience should measure its actions or hypocrisies, and the asocial aspects of sociability are abundantly obvious within his texts. People use each other, and treat others as expedient means rather than respect-worthy ends. As he notes, the justice of those merely useful to each other is highly prone to recrimination, especially if the friendship on which it is based is represented by one or both parties as moral, but is in fact instrumental: “pretending they trust one another they make out their friendship to be not merely legal.” In such cases, legal recourse reveals the ruse: in friendships established on that basis, he writes, “legal association is dissolved by money-payment (for it measures equality in money), but the moral is dissolved by mutual consent.”[11] Friendships of the moral sort are less common, requiring an active, individual participation that would be impossible to direct equally towards all members of the polis: such friendships are “not to be had without trial nor in a single day, but there is need of time,” which reveals the true and false friend alike.[12]

Within our contemporary world of nation-states, friendship continues to play a role in notions of the political, since the word is often used to describe strategic alliances of interests and economies, as well as gestures of good will. Aristotle was perhaps one of the first to acknowledge this use, when he admitted that relations of philia could obtain between states.[13] Thus, Syria behaved in a ‘friendly’ way when it cooperated with the U.S. by accepting ‘rendered’ prisoners for torture, as in the well-documented case of the Canadian-Syrian citizen, Maher Ahrar, who was apprehended at JFK Airport by the CIA and taken to Syria, where he was tortured over the course of the following year. The pain was so excruciating, he said, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”[14] Eventually, he was released and returned to Canada. As Syria’s then Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Moustapha put it, “Why shouldn’t we leave him to go? We thought that would be a gesture of good will towards Canada, which is a friendly nation. For Syria, second, we could not substantiate any of the allegations against him.”[15]

To my knowledge, the collapse of these kinds of international friendships between modern states has never been commemorated with the kind of confession of grief and loss that Montaigne expressed for la Boétie. Nations do not become half themselves after such a break; indeed, it seems their business to insist that they are and will always remain very much themselves, regardless of any attritions – that is the malleability of modern patriotism. I will return later to the topic of friendship – relevant in an age of enforced, imposed and increasingly highly policed borders – because of its relationship to the problem of cruelty, alluded to above. First, though, I want to examine some ideas about universality, since this conceivably borderless state has had a long history and correspondingly shifting series of referents.

Ali Ferzat/Mosaic Syria Ali Ferzat.

Ali Ferzat/Mosaic Syria Ali Ferzat.

Time, Space, Thought:  Western Universality

From the very beginnings of Western philosophy, the term ‘universality’ has admitted of multiple interpretations and overlapping registers, and this plurality has contributed to its conceptual flexibility and endurance. Historically speaking, specific assertions or attributions of universality are not always in themselves particularly revealing of the interpretive nexus I am trying to represent here; rather, it emerges out of sustained, repeated patterns of thought observable across time, which revolve around embedded tendencies peculiar to particular intellectual traditions and which help shape both the figure and ground of experience.  Such repetitions do not have the fixed regularity of events amenable to properly ‘scientific’ treatment and analysis, however, which, as Henri Bergson once said, are “withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time.” They are by contrast acutely temporal. What we now understand as ‘science’ works on what is repeated and repeatable, whereas “anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science.”[16] The whole is not given, but always emergent. Moreover, the implications of such unrepeatable singularity do “violence to the mind,” with its natural propensity to order and organize, to classify things as of this class or that type[17] – what Hans-Georg Gadamer described as prejudices, or judgements ahead of time.[18] For Bergson, this kind of break with pattern, this kind of “violence,” was the essence of philosophy, and indeed, its true function. One can take this as a metaphor, though I am not sure Bergson meant it that way. Violence brings to mind suffering, and that may indeed be as good a way as any to describe what it is like to voluntarily exile oneself from the comfort and security of the known and the true, all that had previously grounded and guided one’s passage through time, not least because within memory’s inscriptions, the past can still retain a vital force.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein comments on an earlier claim from the Tractatus that “the general form of propositions is: ‘This is how things are.’”[19] He adds:  “That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.”[20] Universality is one such frame, and it has been traced many times: it has carried a territorial or sovereign meaning, marked by the scope of temporal law and power; a logical and/or epistemological one, characterized by arguments about how to understand universality as a meaningful predicate; a moral or ethical one, in which criteria of universality are used to guide, interpret or judge behavior; and a religious one, in which the capacity to imagine (if not embody) the universal constituted a link between the human and the divine. My list is hardly exhaustive, and no doubt the reader can come up with additional examples. These different possibilities of meaning are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can easily be equivocal and conflictual, especially in retrospect, like most abstract terms. But again, this fluidity is part of their conceptual endurance, since it allows for multiple meanings to be called up, and also for standards to be set when an ideal is not being met. For example: despite Aristotle’s method of inductive universalism, Johannes Pufendorf nevertheless complained about Aristotle’s ‘localism,’ stating that “his Ethics, which deals with the principles of human action, apparently contains scarcely anything other than the duties of a citizen in some Greek polis…which is a grave defect in a study intended to serve the interests of the whole human race.”[21] Aristotle was showing his roots in time and place, and ancient Greece was unable to set the best constitution for the Holy Roman Empire, which Pufendorf had anyways said would have to be classified as “monstrous” according to the received classical typologies. Aristotle’s ideas were not sufficiently withdrawn from the action of real time to serve the entire human race; they were not truly universal. Above all, Pufendorf was complaining that these ideas did not work. Something more accurately universal was needed, and so another tracing of pattern and frame began, one that was articulated most fully in the Western engagement with questions of natural law. Although Aristotle himself had touched on the issue of natural law, allowing for his inclusion in genealogical legitimations, it was never central to his work.

As an intellectual historian, I am curious about what it has meant within the European tradition to claim to speak universally, for humanity as a whole, not least since such claims have often (though certainly not always) appeared at the junction between relations of force and relations of meaning. My focus has been on issues of philosophical method and the persistent interplays between the universal and particular, which can be productively used to recover the conditions under which past borders of thought were established, reinforced, or demolished. After all, very few people use the language of natural law today, save for some who maintain an affection for the Christian traditions out of which it emerged.  But even these focus chiefly on the ways natural law helps one to speak in moral terms about the world and creation; none, to my knowledge, are attempting the kinds of epistemological and metaphysical treatises written, for example, by Christian Wolff. But even if someone did, it would be a rather solitary and eccentric effort, far removed from the concerns of contemporary intellectuals and universities, perhaps considered a form of naïveté or madness.

Within the European tradition, it was often said that time and space, chronology and geography, were the two eyes of history. I’m uncertain of the phrase’s origin, but it was used at a time when most intellectuals in Europe measured the age of the world only in the thousands of years. It remains evocative, even though the context has shifted considerably: chronology is no longer a discipline, nevermind one capable of attracting the finest minds of an era, and although European colonialists could be found everywhere that wood could float and then some, the mapping of the world was still in relative infancy. The visual metaphor is quite apt, however: time and space were coordinates operating in tandem, capable of shaping what was seen and of setting the intervals, say, between civilization and barbarism. ‘Universal’ history offered even more, and it is to this topic that I will now turn, in order to investigate what it once meant to envision the movement of humanity and peoples together through time.

Universal History: A European Narrative  

In Europe during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the notion of “universalism” began to shift again, principally in response to the challenges posed by the collapse of the language of natural law, which had facilitated a certain epistemic orientation toward questions of universality. I’ve previously described natural law as an ‘idiom’ rather than a specific doctrine,[22] because of the ways natural law was built up out of a variety of methodological moves and tendencies that could be easily shared or drawn upon across otherwise very distinct political positions or geographical locations. The status of natural law as a ‘science,’ or a cumulatively developing and refined body of work, is therefore bound up with the idea of a discourse that could, at least in theory, transcend the particular circumstances of its construction and serve as a ‘universal’ basis for conversation and debate. Certainly the predominance of Latin in educated circles helped advance such a position, but even so, plans for a truly ‘universal language’ could also be found here and there around this time, consistent with a general orientation toward detecting or discovering the unity in the manifold, and overcoming the literal or figurative legacy of the Tower of Babel, in which an ambitious humanity formerly “of one language and of one speech” is punished by God with fragmentation and scatter for attempting to reach the divine.[23] So again, universality is offered as remedy and corrective to plurality and fragmentation.

The methodological aspects of natural law help to clarify the relational frameworks within which knowledge was construed, constructed and communicated.  This is a peculiarly European history, to my mind, but its legacy is so pervasive that its particularities can often remain unselfconsciously embedded and active within conceptual framings far removed in time and place. The coherence of natural law, along with its endurance as a general frame of reference, was built up and sustained over centuries by a series of interrelated and historically complementary dualisms that shored up both ideals and practices associated with ‘science’: between deductive and inductive methods, between a priori and a posteriori forms of proof, between universals and particulars, between reason and empiricism, and between the contingent and eternal. For example, Christian Wolff divided his Theologia naturalis of 1736 into a posteriori and a priori sections; likewise, his work on psychology. Around the same time, jurisprudence was designated as a ‘practical-theoretical’ undertaking, with the structural division of universal/theoretical and particular/practical sections quite common in student legal textbooks. The two approaches did not stand fundamentally in opposition, because it was assumed that what one could ultimately know as a result of using either method would not result in irreconcilable perspectives on the world: they were complementary, not conflicting, approaches to knowledge.

This situation began to change, however, in the eighteenth century: partly by reason of methodological tensions but also because the post-revolutionary context significantly disrupted the ways in which political power or the power of the state could be seen in terms of natural law. Despite being asked, Kant never completed a natural law; instead, he wrote critiques. And in Hegel’s essay on natural law, the supposed unity of idealist and empiricist approaches, of the a priori and a posteriori, of deduction and induction, is and ought, is portrayed as fractured and broken.

But idioms of unity are hard to shake, and ideas and ideals of universalism still widely circulated then as now. Here, I will focus mainly on ideas about universal history – a venerable approach in Europe, but one which began to assume new forms at the end of the eighteenth century, as approaches to history became more global and the uses of history more prominent.  In 1784, Kant linked the cosmopolitan perspective with the idea of a universal history in his essay, “Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” in which he averred that a philosophical history oriented around the a priori might productively accompany empirical efforts based on the a posteriori. More famously, Kant argued for a global civic union, likely led by Europe, because the evils of war would cease only with an international government, thus combining the territorial and the ethical. Ambition, avarice, love of power – these demand a cultured response, which is the ground for a “cosmopolitan whole,” without which “war is inevitable,” as he later put it in The Critique of Judgment (1790).  The constitution of such a whole was hardly certain, however, like the playing out of some mechanical sequence; rather, it remained a matter of choice, freedom, and possibility.

Universal history, which for Kant here is a philosophical history, is not a principally empirical matter. History written after the fact or a posteriori is merely manifold without unity; it cannot grasp the teleological principles that orient, but do not determine, the future of humanity. The methodological depth of Kant’s claims here is underscored by a few remarks from the Critique of Pure Reason, where he states that if ones abstracts from the objective content of all cognition, then all knowledge, subjectively regarded, is “either historical or rational. Historical knowledge is cognitio ex datis, rational knowledge, however, cognitio ex principiis.”[24] However originally given, cognition remains simply historical for the individual who possesses it if its boundaries are externally provided or set – whether through immediate experience or narration, or through instruction: “Hence he who has properly learned a system of philosophy, e.g. the Wolffian system, although he has in his head all of the principles, explanations and proofs together with the division of the entire theoretical edifice, and can count everything off on his fingers, still has nothing other than a complete historical cognition of the Wolffian philosophy; he knows and judges only so much as has been given to him.”[25] Historical knowledge is hardly unimportant, only limited in comparison with the possibilities of rational knowledge. The philosophical project of a universal history here provides the anticipatory framework from within which humanity might move forward as one.

At the time Kant was writing, the idea of a universal history was circulating widely across Europe. In May of 1789, for example, Friedrich Schiller gave his famous inaugural address at the University of Jena on the topic of universal history to a packed lecture hall filled with young people eager to receive guidance on their vocations. Universal history in his telling was a story of the development of cultures, with the many “tribes” populating the globe serving like so many children of different ages, gathered around a mature adult. Given the university context, it is hard not to take this claim with some irony, but the lecture as a whole suggests there was none. Europeans in his vision are the adults, after all, and the study of universal history underscores the good fortune, the exceptionalism, of European civilization, which the “long ages of the world” have finally brought home.[26]

Here, one can see the ways in which universal history was used to help anchor and advance an idea of European identity within the increasingly vast space of time, since it was also around this period that the temporal boundaries that had been defined and redefined on the basis of Biblical chronology were being overcome.[4] Historical knowledge is constitutive of that European identity – the span of an individual life is linked in continuity with all those that have preceded it, in a way that seems, to me, quite amenable to the rise of the nation-state. This sense of belonging to a culture greater than oneself propels the kind of exceptionalism possibly necessary but certainly helpful for throwing vast numbers of people into the kind of conflicts and wars that Kant decried.

But universal history itself has a very long history in the Christian West, and to help explain why ideas about universal history were again circulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a proximate source is useful and, in this case, available. Called An universal history, from the earliest account of time; compiled from original authors; and illustrated with maps, cuts, notes, chronological and other tables and published in England, it began to appear in 1736, with the first edition concluding in 1765 with over forty volumes. Gibbon, while admitting that he had enjoyed the work immensely in his boyhood, later called it a “dull mass…not quickened by a spark of philosophy or taste.”[27] Although sharing many features with the universal histories that had preceded it, including a reliance on the “Four monarchies” perspective and a foreshortened sense of the total age of the world, it was very different in form:  it was a subscription-based publication issued over the course of several decades, an undertaking supported by a consortium of publishers employing a group of mostly anonymous writers. More comprehensive than any preceding universal history, this multi-volume series was widely read, translated and re-issued all across Europe, and was “one of the most ambitious publishing projects of the eighteenth century,”[28] as Guido Abbattista and Giuseppe Ricuperati in particular have documented.[29] The Encyclopedists in France relied upon it, and the burgeoning Historical School in Göttingen inaugurated its work by issuing a translation from the original, followed by a completely reworked and similarly voluminous universal history of its own.

The presumed universality of Christendom, evident in a lingering reliance on Biblical chronology, remains intact in this new universal history and marks a continuity with earlier universal histories, such as Bossuet’s. Again, chronology and geography had long been identified as the “two eyes of history,” and while this new universal history was fairly conventional if not old-fashioned with regard to the former, it was nothing short of innovative when it came to the latter. In it, one finds an expansive geographic sensibility, in keeping with its encyclopedic delivery; information has been gathered and ordered on customs, territories, weights and measures, currencies and the like, all of which is set down in great detail. This is a more ‘global’ history, with a clearly comparative and anthropological bent absent in the more inward, Europe-directed universal histories that had preceded it. A new set of aspirations can be detected in this global focus, particularly when considered in the context of England’s expanding empire and economy – aspirations which set the pens of Europe in motion around the topic of universal history yet again.

The German historian Leopold von Ranke, discussing the origins of universal history almost a century later, wrote that “the historians of by-gone days were satisfied with the conception of the four great empires of the world, drawn from the prophetic books of the Bible”; in the eighteenth century, however, the idea of a “Universal History was, as it were, secularized,” thanks to the progress of civilization but also to the publication of a “voluminous record of different nations under the title of ‘Universal History’”– something greeted enthusiastically in Germany and serving as the incitement to a “display of similar industry.”[30] This is the English Universal history.  For Ranke, however, the writing of a truly universal history was still a goal to be achieved, not a completed task; a truly universal history would set out the “series of actions and reactions” on the stage of history and “their combination into one progressive community.” (xii)  Universal history thus assumes some of the tasks previously accorded to natural law – the ideal of unity is once again a moral counterpoint to disorder and chaos. Even Wilhelm Dilthey (who saw a “beautiful and powerful expression of the true historian’s profound desire for objective reality,” in Ranke’s flawed efforts to “efface himself to see things as they were”) was captivated by the possibility of a universal history: “insofar as it is not something superhuman,” he wrote, universal history would provide the “finishing touch to [the] totality of the human sciences.”[31]

This endurance of universal history as a project – one with proponents even today – points to a long-term and principally European commitment set into motion against a horizon of ideals yet to be achieved.  And it was precisely this forward-looking, hegemonizing impulse that Theodor Adorno called out for criticism in his Negative Dialectics:

Universal history must be construed and denied.  After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it. Not to be denied for that reason, however, is the unity that cements the discontinuous, chaotically splintered moments and phases of history – the unity of the control over nature, progressing to rule over men, and finally to that over man’s inner nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace which organized mankind presents to organized men, in the epitome of discontinuity.  It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head.  If he transfigured the totality of historic suffering into the positivity of the self-realizing absolute, the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day – with occasional breathing spells – would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.[32]

Adorno is addressing the interplay of the unity and the manifold, the one and the many, the universal and particular.  And he is doing so principally with the philosophy of Hegel in mind, in which tensions, frictions and contradictions are subsumed into an overarching unity of discontinuity, one that rationalizes capitalism and its modes of production and assimilation within a conception of world spirit that Adorno defines as a “permanent catastrophe,” not unlike Walter Benjamin’s gloss on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, in which a violent storm blowing out of paradise propels the angel of history inevitably backward toward the future, with only a view of the wreckage piling up.[33]  If Kant also had a sense of this possibility – and I believe he did – he tried to put it at bay with the synthetic a priori. But for Adorno, universality of this kind is not liberatory but oppressive, disguising embedded relations of power and obscuring the damage those relations have wrought.  Universal history, in this understanding, is the apotheosis of cruelty.

Recalling once again that the term ‘universal’ has at times carried an intentionally territorial sense, referring to things held in common within a particular geographic space, this Western universality still has its borders and limits, its interior and exterior.  In the Roman and Greek world, so often a reference point for the West, there was a voluminous literature – a remarkable literature, really – on the meaning of exile, of being driven away from the universal in this embodied sense: away from what is held in common, away from the known universe of people, customs, habits, laws and politics, and into a new and foreign space. This was often a precarious, vulnerable affair, as the classical literature attests – one was compelled to live on the margins of all that one had known.  One of these writers, Plutarch, said that when speaking with someone in exile, one should take care not to vindicate the pain of the situation, but to lessen it. Those who do not heed this advice, he says, are like people who don’t know how to swim trying to rescue a drowning person.

Bell after Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty, 1750

Bell after Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty, 1750


At this juncture, I would like to relate a few particulars and fragments:

–       A young doctor, who had worked for months at the Turkish-Syrian border, tells me that she is no longer able to cry. She is now studying the psychology of trauma, and says to me that universalizing abstractions like human rights might best be understood as defense mechanisms, ways of keeping vulnerability, anxiety, horror and despair at bay.

–       In 2012, a group of Syrians from the northeastern part of the country form the collective Deir Ezzor Geographic in order to document their city. Past images mix with present, since at the beginning there are still photographers on the ground, though several members are already in exile. A suspension bridge spanning the Euphrates appears again and again. Divers used to jump from this bridge in the summer. In some photographs, the river is outside the frame, and you see only a single, graceful diver arcing against an apparently infinite expanse of sky. Today, new photos are rare, though the archive remains. One young photographer, Abu Shuja, particularly enjoyed chronicling the microcosms of his city – delicate portrayals of animals, insects, plants. For this he was loved, perhaps particularly by those in exile. He died of injuries after a bomb attack in late September, 2013. The city is now the province of Daesh, and if any pictures at all are now being taken, it is at profound risk. The bridge has been destroyed

–       Among Syrian exiles in France, a debate develops about whether the Revolution was worth it, with so many now disappeared, dispersed, tortured and dead.

–       Aylan Kurdi drowns in the sea, and an American on Facebook complains about having to see a dead child so often on their feed.

–       In Aleppo, an artist works with refugee children on projects promoting the idea of art as peace. One of these children later dies in a bombing. Among other projects, like documenting Sufi ceremonies and customs, this artist undertook a series of nude black-and-white photographs of women, which riled regime and jihadi sensibilities alike.

–       A man explains to the members of a Syrian list-serve that, regrettably, he could not quickly translate a recent petition against Russian involvement in Syria into Arabic in the time asked, because he has just arrived in Europe. He had been in Turkey, only just reunited with his journalist wife, who had finally been released from Assad’s prisons. Together they decided to make the journey by boat to Greece. This man’s first professional translation was recently published by Columbia Press.

–       In Istanbul, a Syrian and Turkish group, including the writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, start a center for culture called Hamish, which means ‘margin’ in Arabic. Here, culture, dialogue, and inquiry are emphasized, much like the many centers for humanities in the US. Saleh was imprisoned for sixteen years under the Assads. His wife, Samira al-Khalil, was kidnapped in 2013 along with fellow activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi, and their whereabouts are still unknown. His brother Feras was kidnapped earlier that same year by Daesh, and has not been heard from since.  He works late into the evenings.

I will stop the list here, though it could easily go on. What I have just related are parts of a private archive of the sort we all can generate: partly shared, partly idiosyncratic.  What holds these fragments together is Syria.  For me, they are elements within a possible counter-narrative with which to oppose the instrumental language of power politics that tends to dominate discussion of Syria in the West. This language of power-politics is depopulating, because individual lives, stories, and details are rendered virtually invisible behind the trope of the ‘play of forces’ in the conflict, as if they alone were capable of defining all that is at stake. This is a nearly naturalized language, too, by which I mean that its claims to describe ‘reality’ are often unselfconsciously of the propositional sort: “this is how things are.” In that claim hides an unwarranted assertion of universality, one that operates within the mechanical frames of repetition that Bergson identified with the scientific perspective, but which he said were inappropriate to “the irreducible and irreversible” circumstances of human life. Such language can lead to very unfortunate positions when it comes to care or concern for the Syrian people.

For example, at a recent panel discussion on Syria at my university, one participant said that the conflict will just have to “burn itself out.” It seems therefore true, what many Syrians have said – that they have been abandoned by the entire world. And in this claim we can perhaps see the limits and liabilities of many of our most cherished political universalisms, which are, after all, not so far away from what the protesters were initially demanding: justice, dignity, freedom, and a civil society rather than a corrupt dynasty. To ignore or discount this basic familiarity and affinity between those demands and our apparently increasingly passive ideals seems to me a particular kind of cruelty. We have retreated to our borders, content to watch the carnage from afar if we watch it at all, and “the Athenians no longer know the Megarians,” as Aristotle repeatedly put it. Generally speaking, across the present political spectrum, I have seen little sustained attention to or sympathy for Syrians, aside from their current role as victims of tragedy[34]; worse, the toxicity of debate surrounding refugees has only accelerated since the time a version of this paper was first delivered, in October of 2015.  Of course, there have been exceptions to prove the rule. These general failures, however, point to a political impasse of considerable proportions. Yassin al-Haj Saleh has described Syria as a “global metaphor,”[35] symptomatic of a much deeper malaise and a much more far-reaching and profound failure of political imagination. I think this is correct. Syria now has a kind of negative universality: it has become a place where the anticipatory horizons of contemporary politics collapse.

In a recent article on Syria called “New Colonialisms and the Crisis of Left Values,”[36] the writer and activist Raúl Zibechi criticizes the ways many on the Latin American Left have enthusiastically greeted Putin’s entry into the Syrian conflict as an act of “anti-imperialism,” against the hegemony of the United States and the West. He refers to an October 1956 letter written from Aimé Césaire to Maurice Thorez, then secretary general of the French Communist Party. In it, Césaire declares his resignation from the Party, condemning it for collusion in Stalin’s brutality and for its retrograde positions on current political struggles. Zibechi draws on it for precisely these reasons, to underscore a current crisis in the left by recounting a past, similar failure. I think the crisis extends beyond that, but it is certainly true that the left has generally been fairly indifferent to the Syrian struggle over the past five years, or, if they are attuned, it is usually only to issues that resonate domestically, such as the weaponization of human rights. An important issue, to be sure, but one that once again leaves the Syrian people as people subordinate to other concerns, and in ever greater isolation.

In his letter, Césaire used the idea of friendship as a way of expressing solidarities, writing that he will not exchange the friendships and affinities he has with Africa and the Caribbean for “the coldest of cold abstractions.”[37] He does not want metaphysical solidarities, but real ones. And, in his estimation, the assertion of party loyalty in the face of so much evidence for that party’s degradation is the sign of an unhealthy attachment to what can only be a kind of defunct metaphysics, with all of the faux-universalism that implies. Possibly, to borrow for a moment the challenge of my doctor friend, it is also a defense mechanism. Césaire went on:

I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the ‘universal.’ My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.[38]

Our universalities are conjured up through the horizons of the present, but some people have always seemed to see farther than others. The universal histories with which I began my talk were composed with reference not only to what was inside but what was outside Europe. The extent to which they were not truly universal can be grasped by all that was left out. The idea of Syria as a global metaphor can also be understood in terms of what is missing, because it marks, as Saleh has described, a crisis of representation. In his words: “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation. This global crisis needs a global solution: a global reconstruction of the field of representation which is exposed to attacks from within; it is not a matter of defending it against alien barbarians. Modernist forms of representation need to be replaced, and the first step towards reconstructing an alternative field of representation is recognising that the responsibility is global; the enemies are from this world; they came from within, not from without. So it is not us versus them. It is us versus us.”[39] These words hold out the possibility of a newly oriented universality, one that might withstand the challenge laid down by Adorno; perhaps also one conceived not in the form of some inevitable progression or expansion, but in the guise of recognition, much like Césaire’s friendships. And it can be that the past also contains hints or suggestions of directions not taken or realized, pointing the way to different horizons. In his Critique of Judgement, Kant comments that the universal standpoint can only be determined by shifting one’s own view to those of others.[40] In which case, the propositional content of universality, the claim that “this is how things are,” might someday admit of different tracings.


  1. My thanks to the Stanford Humanities Center and to Aishwary Kumar in particular for the kind invitation to participate in the colloquium on the theme of “Cruelty,” held on October 30, 2015, which challenged me to draw connections between two previously separate areas of writing. My gratitude as well to all the participants in the colloquium for their comments, criticisms, and exceptional collegiality, and to Ahoo Najafian, for her gracious assistance in making arrangements.
  2. Cicero, “Laelius, On Friendship (Laelius de amicitia)” in On Friendship and the Dream of Scipio, tr./ed. J.G.F. Powell (Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1990), 27-73, 69 [XXIV.89].
  3. Etienne la Boetie, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” in Montaigne: Selected Essays with la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, tr. James B. Atkinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012), 284-312, 310
  4. Michel de Montaigne, “On Affectionate Relationships [De l’amitié]” in The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, tr. A.M. Screech (London: Penguin, 1991), 204-219, 218.
  5. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1970 (1243a7-8)
  6. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1961 (1238a1-2, 1238a20)
  7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1829 (1157a26-7)
  8. Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program” in The New Yorker (14 Feb 2006) (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  9. CBS 60 Minutes “His Year in Hell” (21 January 2004)  (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  10. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1970 (1243a7-8)
  11. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1961 (1238a1-2, 1238a20)
  12. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1829 (1157a26-7)
  13. Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program” in The New Yorker (14 Feb 2006) (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  14. CBS 60 Minutes “His Year in Hell” (21 January 2004)  (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  15. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1970 (1243a7-8)
  16. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1961 (1238a1-2, 1238a20)
  17. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1829 (1157a26-7)
  18. Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program” in The New Yorker (14 Feb 2006) (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  19. CBS 60 Minutes “His Year in Hell” (21 January 2004)  (accessed 7 Jan. 2015)
  20. Grotke, “The Challenge of Method:  Natural Law, Natural Philosophy, and Universalism in the 17th and 18th Centuries” in Juha Sihvola, Petter Korkman, and Virpi Mäkinen, eds., Universalism in International Law and Political Philosophy (Helsinki Collegium, 2008): 154-175
  21. Genesis 11, in The English Bible, King James Version: Old Testament, ed. Herbert Marks (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 34f.
  22. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. & ed Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 693 (A835-6/B863-4)
  23. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 693 (A836/B864)
  24. Friedrich Schiller, “Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte?” in Deutsche Merkur (1789), Bd. 4: 105-135.
  25. There are many works on this topic, but see for example: Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 2005) and Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1984)
  26. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. & ed Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 693 (A835-6/B863-4)
  27. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 693 (A836/B864)
  28. Friedrich Schiller, “Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte?” in Deutsche Merkur (1789), Bd. 4: 105-135.
  29. There are many works on this topic, but see for example: Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 2005) and Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1984)
  30. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. & ed Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 693 (A835-6/B863-4)
  31. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 693 (A836/B864)
  32. Friedrich Schiller, “Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte?” in Deutsche Merkur (1789), Bd. 4: 105-135.
  33. There are many works on this topic, but see for example: Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 2005) and Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1984)
  34. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973 [1966]), 320.
  35. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 253-264, 257-8.
  36. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973 [1966]), 320.
  37. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 253-264, 257-8.
  38. Aimé Césaire, “Letter to Maurice Thorez” tr. Chike Jeffers in Social Text 103, v. 28:2 (Summer 2010): 145-152, 152
  39. Césaire, “Letter,” 152
  40. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Syria as a Global Metaphor” in L’Internationale (25 April 2015) (accessed 7 Jan. 2016)
  41. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement, tr. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2000), 175 (5:295)
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About Kelly Grotke

Intellectual historian and postdoctoral fellow with the Research Project Europe 1815-1914 (EReRe) at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, University of Helsinki. Co-director of a research group on constitutional history, she is also currently finishing a monograph with the working title Time, History, and Epistemology in the Long Nineteenth Century: A Study in German Philosophical Culture. Prior to joining EReRe, she was director of research at Harvest Investments, an independent securities evaluation firm.

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