The Nausbaumian Intermission: The Brief Attempt at Liberal Eudemonia

While Nausbaum, in her opposition to Rawls, has mostly lost, her program did have a short success and its ultimate failure is the chronology of liberalism’s decline. Nausbaum’s program is for what one Captain Jean-Luc Picard would see as the apotheosis of liberalism. A world of florishing arts, high culture, and the development of human potential. In the 1990s, during the epitome of indie culture, where Bravo played opera, and The History Channel played history, where the Rock & Roll like Nirvana had literary depth, there were massive human rights campaigns, and the middle-class was still large, it looked like the Aristotelian ideal of the fully realized human might be the person of the future.

It was, of course, a facade. Nausbaum, in all her philosophizing failed to incorperate a few vital things in her philosophy that would have addressed the abject failings in the 1990s’ dream of human potential and eudemonia. Firstly, she did not synthesize urban planning with her philosophy. One cannot have an Aristotelian fraternity of the polis without an Athens to build it in. Athens was an all-pedestrian (execpt some animal carts and chariots) city with lots of common areas and strong social institutions. It is impossible to run Nausbaum’s philosophical program in Robert Moses-style suburbia.

As far as her program for empathy and love; she certainly believed there should be a love between people but had no real program to make that happen and while she believed in love, in theory, she was more an NPR pundit than a polemicist who spoke up for the children in the sweatshops or for disabled bullying victims or anyone. Nausbaum does not have the reputation as a friend of the weakest and lowliest or an opponent of interpersonal hatred. She believed in love as a philophical concept but did little to advance it.

In the end, the 1990s eudemonia was a bourgeios fantasy of the intelligensia. It was a world with symphonies, book clubs, and indie rock, but, in the end, it was only a matter of time before Nirvana would give way to Brittany Spears and, also in the end, the most popular philosophy of the decade in the West remained the same as the most popular philosophy in the West since the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Like Hypatia in the fifth century, the Library of Alexandria offered no hope and a hand to the mentally ill homeless and every other tragic case in fair Alexandria and no one and nothing in that library meant anything to anyone outside of the literati.

Brittany Spears gave them sexy and Rick Warren gave them hope, Martha Nausbaum gave them nothing. Her beliefs might be socialist enough and I am not saying she didn’t support charity or social programs for the poor but her rhetoric and speaking tours didn’t have a bleeding heart for them. A laid off rust belt worker had never heard of Martha Nausbaum and would not be interested in anything she had to say. And Martha Nausbaum did not understand that worker, his anxieties, his alienation, or any of the holes that the economy and society made in his soul. That worker was not about to frolick through the garden of high and indie culture to “climb every mountain” because those fruits did not love him and otherwise condescended to him, his life, and his home.

Martha Nausbaum was a philosopher whose background was in the classics and it is unlikely that she was intimately familiar with the psychological etiology of fascism. The desire to feel special and loved with familial love in an alienating impersonal, liberal, society. Martha Nausbaum gave a lot of color and enrichment to liberalism but she didn’t ultimately curtail its impersonalism or give it a bleeding heart. She also stayed in the lanes of metonymic NPR and didn’t preach in places where real people could hear her and didn’t do things like analyze pop culture and use her philosophizing to interact with it. Had she gone on Jay Leno and gave a philosophical breakdown of The Spice Girls’ breakup, she’d have been as publicly known an intellectual as Malcolm Gladwell.

The body politic gave the cultural enrichment of the 1990s ever lower ratings until Bravo had devolved into metaphorical Snooki and The History Channel had devolved into something close to Alex Jones. The people devolved into Rawls because they wanted their base urges satisfied more than anything else. They were going to follow the lure of their own dopamine unless their physical communities and associated institutions were designed in a way that countered that, they were empathized with and felt personally loved, and, generally, had something stronger inside of them than the dopamine to divert them away from the shallowest forms of culture.

Nausbaum and the philosophical intelligensia of the 1990s assumed that people would seek eudemonia in an impersonal liberalism and that given a metaphorical cornacopia that they’d choose it over metaphorical cheetos. Absent a familial community, personalism, and personal empathy, they would go for the junk food. And for that, liberalism would be the price.

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