Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nobility of Spirit

Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal
By Rob Riemen
Yale University Press; $22.00, cloth
ISBN 978-0-300-13690-6

Poet Charles Simic, in his essay “Reading Philosophy At Night,” discusses the magic of sinking into a world of ideas, losing sense of time and self, fully engaged in a discussion with the ancients.

“I sat and read late into the night,” he writes. “The quieter it got, the more clearheaded I became—or so it seemed to me.” He sees his reading of great minds and ideas as a sort of dialogue across the span of time. “Whoever reads philosophy reads himself as much as he reads the philosopher. I am in dialogue with certain decisive events in my life as much as I am with the ideas on the page.”

Rob Riemen, in his small volume Nobility of Spirit: The Forgotten Ideal, celebrates and reveres such quiet conversations with philosophers, writers, thinkers. He wants to move the idea of nobilitas literaria, a nobility derived not through birth and privilege, but through education, back to the forefront of contemporary culture. Through a discussion of ideas, literature, history, and philosophy, human beings can realize their nobility through consideration of what it means to be alive, to be present, to think.

Riemen is the founder of the Nexus Institute, an organization devoted to intellectual reflection and to inspiring Western cultural and philosophical debate.

His book, divided into four parts, examines questions of art, literature, culture, intellectualism, and death.

He begins with the first of several important conversations described in the book. Riemen finds inspiration in the work of Thomas Mann, and so he eagerly anticipates his trip to New York because he has a dinner date set up with Elisabeth Mann Borghese, the late writer’s daughter. Borghese’s work for environmental issues, for world peace, makes her, in Riemen’s words, the “true embodiment of the twentieth century.”

At the dinner, Riemen finds that Borghese has brought along a guest, an eccentric composer and philosopher named Joseph Goodman, who is writing a symphonic composition set to the poetry of Walt Whitman. In the ensuing discussion, the three discuss Whitman, the American ideals of freedom and liberty, and the nobility of the spirit, a phrase taken from a book of Thomas Mann’s essays.

“Nobility of the spirit is the great ideal!” Goodman says. “It is the realization of true freedom, and there can be no democracy, no free world, without this moral foundation.”

Goodman leaves a lasting impression on Riemen, and when he discovers later that he has died, he contemplates how to continue his work. Again, Borghese acts as a catalyst for Riemen. Her father believed nobility of the spirit was the “sole corrective for human history.” Using this thesis, and drawing on a wealth of literary, historical, and philosophical works, Riemen begins writing his book.

The first essay is an in-depth analysis of Thomas Mann and his quest for truth, art and beauty in an age of nihilism and emptiness. He compares Mann’s search to the Holy Grail, and indeed to all quests: what is the meaning of our existence? What should we do with our lives? How can we be true to ourselves and maintain our human dignity? He draws on classical humanism, and believes that only by returning to such ideals and ignoring the superficiality and materialism of contemporary culture can we rediscover our own nobility.

“Truth, for example, is not a relative, subjective concept to be dealt with at one’s own discretion,” Riemen writes. “Truth is the absolute standard by which the level of human dignity is to be measured.”

Human beings need to understand what he calls the enigma of human life: “On the one hand, there is human nature, that which is mortal and which all too often is the source of the tragedy of life…On the other hand, thanks to the spiritual abilities of human beings, each person knows the absolute, knows the immortal values that everyone must try to realize…”

Mann and Riemen believe fervently that only art, beauty, and stories “can free the human souls from fear and hatred and thereby guide the individual further along on the journey through life.”

The second essay delves into the conversation between Socrates and his followers, including a young Plato. Riemen believes that the message of Socrates is applicable today. Human dignity is an imperative in a just society where “wisdom, bravery, and moderation…reign.”

From here, Riemen launches a discussion of September 11, and makes the point that living in a civilized society means that no violence is necessary to create change. Therefore, “Anyone who still uses violence to accomplish political ends excludes himself or herself from dialogue and is uncivilized.” So when intellectuals argue that the events of that day in 2001 were the result of years of brutal treatment by the U.S. government of the countries of the Middle East, or that the towers themselves were symbols of American greed and capitalism, they are wrong. Fundamentalists of whatever stripe want to stamp out those who think differently, or have different culture and values. The attacks were the product of hatred, pure and simple, the basest of human emotions.

Riemen takes a swipe at people like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer who misused language in their analysis of the attacks. The perpetrators are not brave, nor is it acceptable to blame the thousands of victims. “The question remains,” Riemen writes. “How courageous can you really be when you do not even know that you are collaborating in your own death? How courageous are you when you have nothing to lose because divine paradise awaits you? And why should someone be admired when it is unbridled hatred that drives him to destroy as many lives as possible? How ‘accurate’ is the word ‘admire’ in this case? Moreover, according to some language purists, the firefighters who ran into the inferno in New York out of a sense of duty in a final attempt to save human life may not be called ‘heroes.’ They were ‘na├»ve,’ we are told.”

The intellectuals who tried to reason away the hijackers’ acts are guilty of validating mass murder, Riemen asserts. But such writing and thinking is prevalent throughout the twentieth century. One need only examine some of the views of intellectuals during the Second World War when millions of people were murdered in concentration camps to see the obvious hypocrisy.

Thomas Mann, himself, faced similar guilt after publicly supporting German nationalism during the First World War. He criticized democracy, but changed his view as Hitler rose to power and the world fell into chaos.

Riemen cites Baltasar Gracian: “Man is born a barbarian; he is saved from being a beast by acquiring culture. Culture, therefore, makes the man…”

And in another literary hero, Goethe, he finds more words of comfort. Civilization and respect go hand in hand, and without such respect, without the nobility of the individual, we are indeed lost.

Where are we today? Riemen tells us not to look for nobility of the spirit in the media, or in politics. Philosophers must become kings, or our leaders must return to the sacredness of philosophical ideals to recover our lost nobility.

In the essay, Be Brave, Riemen offers his final analysis. Doubt, he says, is a valuable state, one advocated by Socrates. Ancient Athens, like the world today, was filled with uncertainty, but doubt makes people reconsider their beliefs, their bedrock culture, “what is and is not important…what people should do with their lives.”

So our primary goal is to find the truth. The truth will help us preserve the liberty we need to survive and flourish. “Culture cannot exist where there is no freedom,” Riemen concludes. “But where culture is banished, freedom is meaningless, and all that remains is arbitrary and trivial.” In a culture obsessed with celebrity and materialism, this is heady stuff and not easy reading. Riemen gives us much to absorb here in this book, so many words and phrases that leap out and demand consideration and contemplation.

In these dangerous times when culture and deep thinking are imperiled, Rob Riemen tells us to be brave. We must strive to be better than we are, and we must recognize the nobility of the individual in the soaring spirit of human existence. Only then can we recover what has been lost.


  1. I just received notification that this will be shipped this week. Thanks once again for reviewing this book and writing it up here. I look forward to reading it!


  2. You are very welcome, Chrees.

    Take care,

  3. Well said...most complete and thoughtful review I've seen of this book. (Though I'm not sure it's my cup of tea -- a little too ethereal for my tastes.)

  4. Yes, the book does take the high road, but with all the empty rhetoric that passes for thoughtful discourse these days, I kind of like hearing some lofty ideals.

    Thanks for commenting,


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