A Spinozist and Toynbeean attempt to salve the wounds of the Trump Presidency

Spinozs painting 0
Painting of Spinoza.

By Dr Myint Zan

In the early afternoon of 8 November 2016 in Yangon, the results of the 2016 United States presidential election became available through radio and television broadcasts. The then 12 or 13-year-old Myanmar girl a former neighbour in Yangon learned about it at an international school. From what her mother told me, she forbore her tears and her composure until she arrived back home from school. And then she cried inconsolably and non-stop for about two hours.
If Trump’s election in 2016 triggered a sense of sorrow and such an emotional response in a 12-year-old youngster in far away Myanmar one can imagine the sense of despair felt at least by a significant minority of approximately 65 million Americans who voted against Trump in 2016 and perhaps (as one writes on 4 November 2020) in 2020 as well.
If one tries to hit the ground with one’s hand, one will surely hit it, goes a Burmese saying. Likewise, especially even if Trump loses both the electoral and popular vote, he and his cohorts will certainly use every ‘legal’ (or barely legal) and political trick, shenanigans, underhanded, evil methods by hook or by crook (a crook that he is) to continue to stay in office.
If the litigation regarding the results of the election were to reach the US Supreme Court, it is ‘as sure as one’s hand hitting the ground’ that at a minimum the (In)Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barett the most-right wing Court in decades they WILL side with Trump whatever the legal and political issues that could emerge in the hypothetical (but not unlikely as of 4 November 2020) scenario.
The late President Gerald R. Ford’s stated in a speech as a newly sworn-in President on 9 August 1974 (after the late President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate’ affair’) stated that ‘our long national nightmare is over’.
But even if (IF) Trump were to leave the office at the end of his first term to us (I would use the words unabashedly) liberals and progressives the long national (and international for those of us non-Americans concerned for the welfare of fellow world citizens) nightmare would not be quite over.
A Spinozist Attempt at ‘Solace’
Now, what philosophical solace can be obtained especially if Trump (somehow or the other) continued in office as it is not unlikely (now)?
Arguably, the writings of Spinoza (24 November 1632-21 February 1677), the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, just might (not?) give some solace.
Spinoza categorized two ways or modes of viewing the world or the human condition, using the Latin phrases sub specie durationis (viewing it from the viewpoint of duration, temporality) and sub specie aeternitatis (viewing it from the viewpoint of eternity). Not elaborating on what ‘eternity’ means, in the context of Spinoza’s philosophy this writer’s humble take would be that a certain mode of thinking and cognition is necessary for people to overcome or transcend the almost overwhelming tendency of viewing things only from the perspective of duration, time or more appropriately temporality. For the purpose of this article and limited space here this elaboration from philosopher Thomas Nagel (born 4 July 1937) may suffice.
… humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves and the lives to which they are committed… Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis — and the view is at once sobering and comical.
From T. Nagel’ The Absurd’ (1971) 68 (2) Journal of Philosophy, pp.716-27.
Taken the extreme distaste of Trump personally and politically by this writer –and I am sure millions share this in America and non-Americans around the world – it would be extremely hard ‘to escape from our own highly specific .. position based on sub specie durationis’ (especially if Trump were to continue as President for a second term).
An Attempt to ‘Understand’ from a Toynbeean Perspective
Arnold Toynbee (14 April 1889-22 October 1975) was a historian who was born more than 256 years after Spinoza and died almost 300 years after Spinoza passed away in February 1677.
An obituary of Toynbee appeared in the 3 November 1975 issue of Time magazine. The last sentence of the obituary reads:
Toynbee felt that there was a kind of intellectual provincialism, too, in what he called “the dogma that ‘life is just one damned thing after another,'” for he had “a lifetime conviction that human affairs do not become intelligible until they are seen as a whole.”
Replace the phrase the dogma that ‘life is just one damned thing after another’ with the scenario of ‘the continuation of Trump presidency’.
In his decade’s long work on A Study of History Toynbee surveyed around 4000 or more years of human history covering ’21 civilizations’. Hence if one tries to take a broader (historical) perspective going back a few thousand years, how does the Trump presidency ‘factored in’ from Toynbee’s perspective? As stated, Toynbee had indirectly exhorted us to see ‘human affairs as a whole’ so that they can become ‘intelligible’.
In that bleak, foreboding and yes despicable but likely scenario which as one writes (4 November 2020) of Trump clinging to the office ‘by hook or by crook’ neither Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis nor Toynbee’s ‘seeing things as a whole’ is of practical help or use. For the activists, lawyers, volunteers etc.- let’s not mince words- among the Democrats and Joe Biden’s supporters-. it is only through immersing (in) sub specie durationis (the aspect of duration, temporality) that the intricacies and technicalities of the ‘here and the now’ (rather than ‘eternity’ or ‘viewing human affairs as a whole’) that this possible Trumpian evilisms have to be faced and –if possible with some luck either overcome, if not then endured,
Only if such efforts from an aspect of duration (to quote Spinoza again in English translation) fails then the Spinozist and Toynbeean perspectives come into the picture, so to speak, ‘as a whole’ to provide solace as regards the second term of a Trump presidency and further damage and the wounds it would continue to inflict.
Should the much better scenario of Trump almost force (though not, one hopes, through physical or military force) to leave the Presidency were to occur then the Spinozist and Toynbeean perspectives might somehow come ‘in handy’ for those of us (and not only in America but at least in some parts of the world) to retrospectively salve the wounds caused by the Trump presidency?
Update: This article was initially written on 18 October 2020. As the writer correctly ‘predicted’ (3 November 2020 GNLM Letter to the Editor) Trump HAD claimed ‘victory’ around 2 pm Myanmar time on 4 November 2020. As of 10:30 pm, Myanmar Time on 4 November 2020 and 10 am US East Coast Time on 4 November 2020 Biden has won either 224 or 238 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to clinch the Presidency. Trump has said he would ‘resort’ to the US Supreme Court to stop counting most of the mail-in ballots in the ‘swing states’ of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin which, in this writer’s view does not have any legal or moral basis. Still, if it reaches the Supreme Court, the majority of the Supreme Court is likely to side with Trump though the writer would be very pleased if he is proven wrong.
The book that the writer edited Legal Education and Legal Traditions: Selected Essays has recently been published in Springer Link (springerlink.com). The book includes eight Chapters; one of which written by Dr Myint Zan deals in part with the philosophy of history of Arnold Toynbee and a brief contextual comparison with an aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy.



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