Hello dear readers! It’s been a while. I’ve been busy with rabbinical school, but I want to do a little more writing for my blog. This post gets a little more jargony than most of my posts. For that I am sorry. I’m trying to make sense of a book that — trust me — is much more jargony than this post.
I began this summer reading what I thought would be two completely unrelated books. Coming off a semester of studying modern Jewish history in rabbinical school, I decided to read the mid-20th century classic of social criticism Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while — following my blog post on scientific racism and the Enlightenment a couple people recommended Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic critique of the Enlightenment. Written by two secular Jewish thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, I knew before reading it that Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that the Enlightenment led to nazism, and I knew based on my favorite philosophy podcast that this would be dense and difficult reading.
So I decided to pair Dialectic of Enlightenment with an easier-to-read and ostensibly unrelated book, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the stories of 10 people and their relationship with various trees. It was a delightful read, and in addition to describing the magnificence of trees and nature, it seemed at times to transcend a human perspective. The book had a quality of both empathy toward its characters and an appreciation for the shortness and instability of human life that made it feel like it was told from the viewpoint of a redwood tree looking down on humans. Or at least that’s what it seemed to be trying to accomplish and, aside from occasionally feeling like it was longer than it needed to be, it succeeded.
While The Overstory was more or less what I thought it would be, Dialectic of Enlightenment really surprised me. I was expecting the book to mostly be social criticism focused on the era of the Enlightenment and its links to nazism. But the book turned out to be a more profound critique of civilization beginning with the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Greeks — and most surprisingly, I understand the book to be very much within the Continental philosophical tradition, despite its interdisciplinary nature. This link to the philosophical tradition surprised me because I knew that as participants in the mid-century Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno would be critical of classical philosophy, that they would be critical of the idea that there are enduring truths.
But in their dense and disorganized writing, Horkheimer and Adorno make a profound argument that Western civilization went off track in its origins with the Hebrew Bible and the Greeks. The two German-Jewish thinkers argue that Western civilization began in a fundamentally problematic way because of its desire to subjugate nature. “What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men,” Horkheimer and Adorno write toward the beginning of the book (p. 4). As civilization progressed, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this desire to rule over and instrumentalize nature becomes a myopic and consuming affair until “All that remains of the adaptation to nature is the obduracy against nature.” (p. 181) This “obduracy against nature” makes itself manifest in the consuming hatred of nazi antisemitism that is ultimately what they call a “morbid expression of repressed mimesis” (p. 187). (As I understand it, “repressed mimesis” here refers to a repressed desire to imitate nature.)
To be clear, I doubt very much that Horkeimer and Adorno would like The Overstory. As I understand the mid-century thinkers, they argue not for anything like an ethic of environmentalism, but for something like an ongoing civilizational self-awareness that roots out the will to domination. Horkheimer and Adorno don’t believe in enduring truths — they believe truth is contingent on history — but I read them as arguing for self-awareness and inquiry. In this way, it seems that they are not at all against enlightenment per se and I see them as being very much advocates for a modern and historically contingent version of philosophy.
Still, it was really striking to read these two very different books in conversation with one another. At their cores they seem to make a similar critique — that by seeking to dominate nature, civilization has made a fundamental mistake. This is by no means an original idea — and it’s one that I used to read and think more about.
But seeing Horkheimer and Adorno argue that so many of our problems begin with our will to dominate nature, while at the same time reading delicious prose about the need to live in harmony with nature made me wonder anew about how we relate to nature. If we reconceived of how we fit into this world, would we be much better off?
As Horkheimer and Adorno suggest with their heady call for self-reflection, this is hard and ongoing work. But my takeaway is that these two books are absolutely correct in their overlap: imagining a better world begins with reconceiving of who we are vis a vis nature.
In closing, I think it’s worth pointing out that Horkheimer and Adorno are only partly correct in the way they describe Judaism’s fundamental call to dominate nature. The call to dominate nature is definitely present (see Gen. 1:26-28 (although these verses can also be read as a constructive environmental ethic)). But as Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik persuasively argues in his The Lonely Man of Faith, there is another current of thought present from the outset of the Jewish tradition, present in Genesis 2. This is the thread in the tradition that asks us to be in relationship with the divine, that asks us to consider imperatives bigger than ourselves. It seems that the way out of the dialectic Horkheimer and Adorno describe is already embedded in the Jewish tradition.