Liberal Education and the Uncertainties of Culture. PortVitoria, 8, Jan – Jun 2014

The following is the Editorial of the new issue of PortVitoria, the place for the Spanish and Portuguese speakers around the world

A succinct review of liberal education by Leo Straus (1899-1973) forms the topic of our main article in this latest edition of PortVitoria. Strauss was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States, where he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His article, reprinted here in Portuguese, is a speech that he delivered in 1959 during the tenth graduation ceremony of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. In it, Strauss discusses the most important things associated with liberal education – culture, democracy and ‘the facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation’; together with our incompetence and the uprising of relative culture.
Our second article, by the Portuguese writer João Carlos Espada, is a biography of Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009), a German-born British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician who exerted a great influence on the many Brazilian and Portuguese postgraduates who studied at the London School of Economics and at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford.
The third article by the Brazilian thinker and poet Fernando da Mota Lima, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Pernambuco, discusses the `narrow life` (vida mesquinha). It is a reflexion of the importance of thought and common sense for the good life, cogitating a possible correlation between the culture of binge drinking and other excesses and the rarity of epiphanies.
Our Book Review section includes two books – La civilización del espetáculo (2012) by the Peruvian-born Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa and O Mistério Inglês e a Corrente de Ouro (2010) – by the above-mentioned João Carlos Espada. Both books are compilations of essays, most of which were published as articles in daily newspapers in Spain and Portugal. Vargas Llosa`s book is a criticism of the new global ethos of constantly seeking entertainment and the causes and consequences of this behaviour. Espada’s book is a brave attempt to explain to the public a number of themes of political philosophy and to show how liberal education can help people to manage the constant social tension of modern living.
Regular readers of PortVitoria will notice that the articles and reviews in this edition are interwoven and we hope that you like this style.
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien – January 2014

Why the Apotheosis of Empathy Subtracts Responsibility – An Interview with Fernando Rodrígues Genovés

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien, editor of the internet magazine PortVitoria, interviews the Spanish philosopher Fernando Genovés about his latest book La ilusión de la empatía. Ponerse en el lugar del otro y demás imposturas morales (Provisional English title: The Illusion of Empathy. To put oneself in the place of another and other moral impostures).

Dr. Fernando Rodríguez Genovés is professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia currently on sabbatical. He is a literary and film critic, author of many essays and published books, a blogger and one of the founders of the monthly electronic magazine El Catoblepas, published since 2002, to which he is a frequent contributor.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien (JPO): Why do you state in your book that the popular notion of ´to put oneself in the place of another’ is a moral imposture?

Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (FRG): I chose the term ‘imposture’ in order to air some issues that I detect in the phenomenon of empathy, more specifically, in the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’, since it describes precisely a topic that deals not only with moral attitudes but also with places and theorizations. I won’t deny that such terminological choice also invites to an intellectual complicity with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s famous book Intellectual Impostures (UK edition, published in the USA as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science).Empathy represents, in effect, an intellectual imposture, for in addition to be an idea that is scientifically absurd and theoretically unfeasible, it constitutes, first and foremost, a huge artifice, not far from pretence, and as stated in the very title of the essay, it is also not free from illusion. There are optical illusions but there are also illusory beliefs. Empathy is one of them.

JPO: What does moral philosophy says regarding compassion and the need to understand our fellow citizens?

FRG: There is not a single agreed moral philosophy about this, but several diverse ones. Those that are directly linked to our theme lean primarily towards amour-propre, self-care and self-respect, starting from the ones we could call ‘altruists’, that is, those which place the other ahead —or above— the personal I. Compassion is a human instinct, just like aggression and sexuality. Therefore, it is not a moral value in itself, only a natural propensity that people have, which, as such, must be governed and contained by reason. What happens is that, suddenly, some concepts acquire a theoretical and/or ideological veneer that literally changes their meaning, prompting an opportune criticism. This happened with the notion of ‘compassion’, as well as with the meaning of ‘understanding’, for ‘understanding the other’ should not necessarily lead to agree with everything someone says, nor having to patronize, to adopt or ‘to put in someone’s place ’, but only, in the first instance, to understand the reasons by which someone acts.

JPO: Could you give an example of why individual responsibility and self-respect are hardly compatibles with the proposition ´to put oneself in the place of another’?

FRG: Moral responsibility means the ability to take charge of one’s life and to account for one’s actions. Due to its personal nature, responsibility (like identity) is not transferable. Thus, ‘to account for the other’ as a norm is tantamount to interfere with people’s autonomy, to take away their voice, wanting to constrain them intellectually and morally as under-age. Understanding the others means to take them seriously and to respect them, that is, to do nothing that could prevent them from freely exercising their own will. This is the best way to build a society of free and responsible individuals, neither by bringing interventionism and protectionism to the sphere of emotions, nor or to an area as specific as ethics.

JPO: Are psychologists wrong in overvaluing the role of the individuals’ social relations?

FRG: This is another case where it is not prudent to generalize. Not all psychologists hold the same viewpoint on the subject of empathy. We noticed in this professional group the same thing that occurs in many others: they are severely conditioned by fads. In the area of psychology, Gestalt and psychoanalysis ruled yesterday; today, it is ruled by currents inspired by emotional intelligence and empathy. At the same time, one needs to take into account that at the fringe of the therapeutic practices of psychologists, there is a wide spectrum of new professions and new trends — such as those linked to coaching, self-help, communication techniques, and so on — which function by the use of clichés and very elementary practical models, seeking first and foremost to attract public sympathy. Moreover, nothing is more captivating than empathy. Whoever works in a field that involves controlling behaviour, hardly remains immune to the dominant currents; and let us not forget that contemporary Western societies, which are self-designated ‘welfare societies’, are marked by extremely community-orientated values — security and overprotection, solidarity and philanthropy and the proliferation of rights — whilst they are less inclined to risk, to entrepreneurship, to free competition, and to extend liberty to a greater number of human activities.

JPO: In his book The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to hyperdemocracy as a disease of democracy. Do you see any similarity between hyperdemocracy and the apotheosis of empathy?

FRG: The analysis carried out by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, not only remains valid but has also been corroborated further by the expansion of the meaning of the word ‘mass’. The inertia of the mass tends to transform society in a totum revolutum, an amorphous conglomeration where individualities and particularities are firstly blurred and then wiped out. A ‘hyperdemocracy’ is the best-suited place to celebrate the apotheosis of empathy. It has no hierarchies, categories or meritocracy; according to it, the simplest comparisons are hateful. Anyone can take any place, not by merit or hard work, but by one’s own right. Status and places are inevitably interchangeable: lessons are given by the students, rather than by the teachers; the division of power, the main condition of the liberal society, has been reduced to a relic of the old political system; in the realm of the family, parents are dominated by the whims of their children; existing social networks allow unbound identities: today you can be someone and tomorrow someone else; and so on. If the illusion of empathy could become a reality, we would witness the apotheosis of moral egalitarianism.

JPO: What are the dangers of tolerance and acceptance without limits in the family?

FRG: In Western societies, a large section of the present generation of parents suffer from a noticeable guilt complex and a responsibility deficit, which prompt them to overprotect their children (and all of this, open brackets, when the couples decide to make descendants, for the drop in the birth rate in Europe has become a worrisome demographic problem which could become disastrous both socially and culturally). On the one hand, parents have renounced the traditional mission of educating children, transferring this task to the school. On the other hand, they permit and tolerate everything, for they are afraid of ‘traumatizing them’ with the smallest rules of behaviour. The following can be noted in the above mentioned situations: in the first case, we have teachers that put themselves in the place of parents; and in the second case we have parents who fail to guide their children — they neither tell them off nor do they punish the faults they commit — for in their angst to understand them, they put themselves in their place.

JPO: You cited the philosopher Bernard Williams who pointed out the ‘heresy of the anthropologists’ in relation to the theoretical proposition that moral judgements have no universal value, and therefore it would be inadequate for one society to condemn or to criticise the values of another. What kind of problem does this type of cultural relativism represents to the understanding and discernment of things?

FRG: Mainly one: relativism makes it impossible to understand things. In fact, it does not even aspire to such an objective. By its own nature, the process of understanding demands distancing from the reality one seeks to understand. This is particularly so in the sphere of practical knowledge such as ethics, psychology, law, and so on. I am going to give you an example: a judge cannot pass a sentence in a murder case by putting himself in the place of the murderer. In the case of cultural anthropology, to which Williams referred, there is no such thing as superior or inferior cultures, civilization or barbarism. According to that assertion, all cultures are equally ‘respectable’, what changes the strict meaning of the term ‘respect’. From such a perspective, it is only possible to know the societies from inside, and never from the outside. And this is an absurdity, for if things were analysed in this fashion, the historical and sociological investigation would become impossible: for no one can be everywhere at the same time. The political and ideological correspondence of this is no less sinister. Relativism only stirs feelings without leading to any understanding; it does not propose comprehension but only acceptance. It is worth reminding that empathy is also a manifestation of relativism. To put it in economic terms, empathy aspires to change the present monetary system back to a barter system.

JPO: You also cited the philosopher Elias Canetti (1905-1994) in whose book Crowds and Power (1960) he talks about the anxiety and the pain resulting from an incomplete and frustrated experience and how the weight of individuality becomes too much to bear, driving the individual to seek relief by integrating in the group. Do you think that Canetti’s explanation, which was inspired in the masses of the ‘20s and ‘30s in Germany and Austria, is true for the masses of today?

FRG: Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a product of its time, but due to its condition of an outstanding analysis, it has a universal and everlasting dimension, where the particular coexists with the generality of the topic under scrutiny. The same thing can be said of Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Both works have helped us to understand that the power of the masses increases proportionally with the eclipse of individualities, the suppression of distances and the extension of levelling in a given society. In this sense, Canetti’s Crowds and Power provides an enlightened description of the relentless ambition of the masses for levelling through a process of absorption of people that end up nullifying them as autonomous beings. Summarizing, the advance of the masses leads to the integration to the whole, at the cost of the integrity of each individual. The proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ owes a lot to the ‘levelling with the other’ that Canetti identified.

JPO: Does an individual lose his identity as a physical person when he joins the mass?

FRG:From the very moment that an individual is ‘swallowed’ by the masses, he loses his own identity as a physical person and as a moral person. Physically, the individual is no longer a complete and autonomous being but only a part of a whole, an additional piece in a set, a mere strand of ‘the social fabric’. And note this: within the group, or inside the mass, the individual doesn’t act, he simply let himself to be carried away, he drifts in the current; he does not decide, he obeys ; he does not speak, he shouts. To illustrate the group’s homogeneity, whenever the group wishes to manifest itself, they usually speak ‘with one voice’. Here is the collectivist ideal. Finally, let us remember that Octavio Paz used to refer to the State as ‘El ogro (monster) filantrópico’. They are many, the voices that put the notions of ‘philanthropy’ and ‘empathy’ on the same plane.

JPO: At the end of your book you show funny situations in relation to ´put oneself in the place of another’ in television comedies and in Hollywood movies, whose characters are always persons we would consider reasonable and intelligent. What is the purpose of this Appendix in your essay?

FRG: The essay has a final Appendix, which I entitled ‘Empathy Taken as a Joke’. Its purpose is to show how the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ ended up as a common place —a ‘joker’! — that keeps reappearing not only in certain professional and academic spheres but also in the media and in everyday talk. Cinema and television (including comedies and animated cartoons) did not stay at the margin of such influence, for they often reveal it bot explicitly and implicitly. Comedy, in particular, is the perfect genre to take everyday situations to their limit, as well as to their absurdity. Perhaps some readers will find such Appendix more clarifying than the preceding analytical chapters, to understand the great folly that empathy signifies. Satire and irony, for their habitualness, can be more persuasive and efficient than bold discourses and rigorous explanations.

JPO: How can people’s understanding be improved by the use of reason?

FRG: In relationships, and in the understanding of other people, sentiment is not only necessary but also indispensable. We are not machines, but rational beings who have a heart. However, the path to understanding is not sentiment, but reason. We love, appreciate or hate others not because of any rational reflexion, but because of emotional experiences, which condense as either affection or disaffection. Thus, everything has its place and everyone has their space. I distrust theories prone to intellectual mixtures and practical cocktails; in other words, anyone who puts the concepts of reason and sentiment at the same level, to the point of equalizing them, exchanging one notion for another as it suits their interest.

JPO: I would like to thank you for giving this interview to PortVitoria. Thank you and good luck with your new book!

FRG: Thank you very much for your kindness.

Fernando Genovés new book La ilusión de la empatía is available from Amazon, via the following links:

Acknowledgement: Carl O’Brien, reviser

This interview is a reprinted from the internet magazine PortVitoria, dedicted to the Hispano-Lusophone communities around the world. You can download this interview in Spanish and Portuguese by going to:

Speaking of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) remains one of the most talked-about philosophers of the 19th century, and continues to divide opinion. The Nazis claimed him to lend respectability to their political agenda; Christian thinkers have denounced him as a nihilist; but he has also been adopted by the left-inclined postmodernists. Such conflicting views of a philosopher who is acknowledged as one of the greatest of modern times ring alarm bells. Anyone who heeds such alarm bells discovers that there are many misunderstandings surrounding Nietzsche’s life and work. This essay attempts to explain some of the most important of them. I start by reviewing how he is perceived by other philosophers.

Three Peers’ Assessments
Will Durant (1885-1981) analysed the influence on Nietzsche of Charles Darwin. Nietzsche regarded the biological process of natural selection as biased against the exceptional individual: Nature protected the mediocre and eradicated the exceptional. Nietzsche supported the ideas of eugenics and of ennobling education. It is unclear whether Nietzsche was being racist or simply bemoaning the precariousness of the position of any superior individual who lived amid mass mediocrity. Nietzsche contradicts himself when, after arguing in favour of developing finer and stronger individuals, he suggests that it is futile to try to improve mankind, as mankind is only an abstract concept. To Durant, there was much of Plato in Nietzsche, such as in his defence of the superior individual and the aristocracy of the mind, as in his ‘superman’, an embodiment of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’. To Durant, Nietzsche had great style but his philosophy required caution: ‘Nietzsche does not prove, he announces and reveals; he wins us with his imagination rather than with his logic’. Madness was the price that Nietzsche paid for his genius: ‘These dogmatic assertions, these unmodified generalizations, these prophetic repetitions, these contradictions – of others not more than himself – reveal a mind that has lost its balance, and hovers on the edge of madness.’

Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, points out that Nietzsche has demolished the shell that had sheltered faith from the searchlight of reason, a shell maintained for the sake of the illusory comfort that religious faith provided. Nietzsche declared that reality was pointless; that the world had no meaning and made no distinction between good and evil; but even so, this was the only world. Madness was the result of Nietzsche’s consequent despair.

Roger Scruton (1944-) remarks that Nietzsche’s forthrightness has made him a favourite of the postmodernists. The postmodernists marginalise both truth and refutation, and seize on Nietzsche’s paradoxical statement ‘There is no truth, only interpretation’: ‘Either what Nietzsche said is true – in which case it is not true, since there are no truths – or it is false.’ Scruton’s view is that because of Nietzsche’s insanity it is unwise to adopt his philosophy as a source of edifying inspiration.

Nietzsche and Nihilism
Nietzsche has been incorrectly called a Nihilist. Nihilism, which maintains that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated, as nothing really exists, was the first blot inflicted on Nietzsche’s reputation, caused by taking some of his writings at face value.

In his notebooks, assembled posthumously by his sister under the title: ‘The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values’, Nietzsche many times repeated ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’. All of Nietzsche’s isolated sentences associated with nihilism need to be understood in the context of his entire work. In many instances when he appears to be defending nihilism he is in fact bemoaning the nihilism that surrounded him. An example is the following quotation from his book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:
‘The eagerness and subtlety, I should even say craftiness, with which the problem of ‘the real and the apparent world’ is dealt with at present throughout Europe, furnishes food for thought and attention; and he who hears only ‘Will to Truth’ in the background, and nothing else, cannot certainly boast of the sharpest ears. In rare and isolated cases, it may really have happened that such a Will to Truth – a certain extravagant and adventurous pluck, a metaphysician’s ambition of the forlorn hope – has participated therein: that which in the end always prefers a handful of ‘certainty’ to a whole cartload of beautiful possibilities; there may be even puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something. But that is Nihilism, and the sign of a despairing, mortally wearied soul, not withstanding the courageous bearing such a virtue may display’.

A biography of Nietzsche by Georg Brandes refers to several instances where Nietzsche’s apparent negativity and contempt are due to his acerbic style rather than to nihilism. Brandes also points out some of the positive things that accompanied Nietzsche’s negativity. In his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Nietzsche wrote about the role of art in counteracting decadence and nihilism in scientism, historicism, and Christianity. Nietzsche attacked literature, not because he did not believe in it, but because he thought that literature was not fulfilling its role of promoting liberty and the progress of humanity.

Nietzsche and Nazism
Although Nietzsche’s time was characterized by the ideology of Teutonic supremacy and a wave of anti-Semitism, both of which the Nazis adopted, the philosopher’s association with Nazism1 was contrived by juxtaposing his writings, published and unpublished, in such a way that they would appear to justify aggression and domination for the sake of nationalistic and racial self-glorification. Sadly, one of the persons responsible for that was Nietzsche’s own sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who took charge of assembling the philosopher’s archive after his death in 1900. Elisabeth was the wife of Bernhard Förster, whom she accompanied to Paraguay in the 1880s to help him establish an Aryan colony named Nueva Germania, near a place called San Bernadino3.

The Nazis had already adopted Bernhard Förster as a figurehead, second only to the composer Richard Wagner, who, in addition to composing music designed to arouse nationalist sentiments, had been the originator of Nueva Germania. By pointing out Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner and other things such as his idea of the superman, Förster-Nietzsche ingratiated her brother with the Nazis. But Nietzsche had many Jewish friends and was no anti-Semite. He repudiated Wagner when he realised how anti-Semitic he was. Further evidence that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic is a Christmas letter that he wrote in 1887 to his sister, in which he set out his objections to her marriage to the anti-Semite Bernhard Förster.

Nietzsche’s idea of the superman was introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1883, his most important work, a satire of both the religious gullibility of society and the nationalist-tinted glasses of many philologists. The character Zarathustra is the prophet Zoroaster, who was born on Lake Urmi and at age 30 went to the province of Arya, where he wrote the Zend-Avesta. Zarathustra serves as Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, through whom the philosopher affirms his atheism and presents his ideas of the superman (Übermensch), the strong man who lives by his own morality and vanquishes all opposition. Nietzsche bemoans how the conditions of the world are unfavourable to the superman, for natural selection (Nietzsche believes, though such a belief is contrary to the principle of Darwin’s theory) is guided by a ‘law of average’ which eliminates the superior specimens and favours the mediocre ones. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks for him: ‘You [mankind] have made your way from worm to human, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now the human being is still more of an ape than any ape is.’ However, there is little doubt that Nietzsche’s superman came from Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, a character taken from Norse and Germanic mythology, who, according to Wagner, represents the ideal vision of the Aryan race, the man of the future, who must create himself by destroying mankind (or our notion of mankind), and displace Christianity. This appealed to Nietzsche because of his grievances with Christianity, which he defined as poor people’s Platonism.

Nietzsche and Postmodernism
Two French philosophers, Foucault and Derrida, began to associate Nietzsche with postmodernism, a chameleon ideology that has a number of mantles including the relativist idea that the universal realities of the world are social constructs based on language and communication. Ideologically, postmodernism favours the destruction of the present Western civilization so that it can be replaced by another that is post-industrial and post-capitalist. It maintains that the literary canon of the West has been constructed to preserve Western hegemony, and that scientific truth is no better than other types of truth.

One of the reasons why Nietzsche has been chosen as the face of postmodernism is his dualist understanding of the world based on an objective external representation as well as a subjective, inner, perception of ‘the will’, showing how mindless and aimless ‘the will’ can be. It can be argued that Nietzsche’s dictum ‘There are no truths but only interpretations’ suggests that the world is a ‘construct’ and thus fits well the post-modern ideology. However, the post-moderns ignored many things that Nietzsche wrote that do not conform to postmodernism. To give 2 examples: 1. Nietzsche praised science for having defied the lies of religion; 2. He criticised the false claims of truth based on the misuse of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms.

Nietzsche is perhaps the most talked-about modern philosopher among both scholars and the general public, although much of his notoriety has arisen from misunderstanding him. As I have tried to show in this essay, the association of Nietzsche with nihilism, nazism and postmodernism has resulted from unscrupulous and opportunist pursuit of agendas other than that of innocent enquiry. According to Nietzsche’s peers his philosophy is as complicated as his personality. It should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese speakers:


1. Nazism. The supremacist and anti-Semitic ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) created in 1920 from the German Workers Party (DAP). The Nazi ideology reached its maturity around 1862, coinciding with the year when Bismarck became the German Prime Minister.

2. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic* pre-Islamic religion of Ancient Persia founded by Zoroaster in the 6th century BC. It was introduced to India by the Zoroastrians of the west coast of India, who were also called Parsees or Parthians, which means Persian. The Zoroastrianism introduced in India had already incorporated some aspects of Hellenism, during the Greek rule of Persia, as well as some aspects of Christianity, stemming from their warfare with the Armenians. *According to the narrative, the monotheism of Zoroastrianism came about after Ormazd, the god of creation, light and goodness, defeated his brother Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness.

3. Nueva Germania, near the town of San Bernadino, in Paraguay, was a project of 5 German families. Förster committed suicide after the project failed and Elisabeth returned to Germany. San Bernadino became the destination of Joseph Mengele and other Nazis who had escaped from the allies’ justice after the end of World War II.

Literature Consulted
Babich, Babette (2000). “Future Philology! by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff – Translated by G. Postl, B. Babich, and H. Schmid”. Articles and Chapters in Academic Book Collections. Paper 3.
Durant, Will (1953). The Story of Philosophy. The lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers. Simon and Schuster, New York. 412 p.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1990). Modernity on Endless Trial. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1883) Thus Spake [sig.] Zarathustra. Translated by Thomas Common. With an Introduction by Mrs Forster-Nietzsche. Kindle edition. Project Guttenberg Europe.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2009) Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Thomas Common. . Project Guttenberg Europe.
Scruton, Roger (2004). Modern Philosophy. An Introduction and Survey. Pimlico, London. 611 p.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2011). Friedrich Nietzsche Source:

Acknowledgment: I am indebted to Guy Choat for revising and editing this manuscript.