(Resurrection) Transhumanism (Steven Schwartzschild

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Forget rationalism, moral radicalism, or “the political.” Messianism entails nothing if not a “philosophy of life,” the resurrection of the dead, the creation of New Man or Extreme Man.  Viewing it from this perspective, I suspect that the esoteric doctrine at the core of Steven Schwarzschild’s project was “Transhumanism,” i.e. belief in the rational reorganization of human capacities in such a way that we as a species might one day shuck all the physical limits of our human coil, transcending especially the limit of death to live eternal life. Transhumanism speaks to redemption, the transformation of “man” into a subject position that is human-more-than-just-human. “Life,” “growth,” “resurrection,” and “soul” are among the key terms that thread surreptitiously (hidden away by way of commentary) throughout varied essays that comprise The Pursuit of the Ideal.

Schwarzschild never comes out and says anything like this, at least not explicitly. To find its trace, you need to look carefully here and there in the offhand comment. Why, for instance would a rationalist and moral radical adhere to the idea of a personal messiah? Schwarzschild explains that messianism is tied up with a theory of subjectivity, the idea of the Anthropos, the perfect “man” as a future person, “the whole man,” body and soul, as a “[carrier] of life.” Citing Leo Baeck is the notion observation that what drew the prophets of ancient Israel was not so much the image of a future “time,” but of a future person. As per Schwarzschild as per Baeck, “The son of David is the future man” (pp.25-6, chapter 1, “The Personal Messiah”). Perhaps because of the debt to Maimonides one doesn’t expect to find this kind of anthropocentrism in Schwarzschild, but there it is.

The “future man” is what Schwarzschild calls, quoting Simon Rawidowicz, “the extreme man.” As a theocentric visionary, the “extreme man” is “wholly absorbed” “in his [sic] efforts to see God.” And not the “extreme man” but the “absolutely extreme man” against all conventional Aristotelean golden-mean ethics. Again this is Scwarzschild citing Rawidowicz. “Only this man is man to Maimonides” (p.143). I am putting the emphasis here on “only.” Anything less than “the extreme man” is not really man, not quite human as realized in its fullest capacity. Morality is only an instrument for chassidut, which is only an instrument for prophecy. That’s the “radical” and “revolutionary” conclusion towards which our attention is drawn (pp.142, 146, chapter 8, “Moral  Radicalism”). And yes, of course, the gender is not neutral as evidenced by his critique of feminist theology.

This is no longer Jewish philosophy as we have come to know it. This is not the Maimonides of the Guide, of the Mishna commentary and the Eight Chapter, of the Mishneh Torah, or even of the Epistle to Yemen. For most of us, this is a new Maimonides, the Maimonides of the “Treatise on Resurrection.” In other words, the sumum bonum is not messianism, not ethical perfectionism or moral radicalism, but what, according to Maimonides, comes after these, what comes after messianism, namely the resurrection of the dead, and so on. Ethical perfectionism, which for Schwarzschild is the true and sole task of philosophy, “glides imperceptibly into the final aeon of immaterial, spiritual olam haba” “Men live and men die,” so says Schwarzschild. But paraphrasing Maimondes, he goes on to claim that “everyone lives in fact not two but three lives: the original terrestrial existence, then resurrected this-worldly existence, and eventually eternal, spiritual, ethico-intellectual life in the world-to-come.” And then later, “That world-to-come is not ‘coming’ in the sense that it is not yet in existence but rather in that humanity has to come to, grow into it” (pp.155, 156, chapter 8, “Moral Radicalism”)

This vision belong if not to our world, then to the world in which we “are growing into.” The eschatological vision looks past the human and interhuman to speculate upon a condition in which there is no barrier between the person and God (239).  All the dichotomies between matter and spirit, body and soul dissolve. Soul becomes body and body soul. “Men will be ‘spiritual bodies; or ‘quasi-physical souls’ (gufot ruchaniyot –cf. Paul’s soma pneematikos)  –and this is what is called ‘resurrection.”  Citing Saadiah Gaon, Schwarzschild repeats the same point made above about Maimonides. According to Saadiah, during the four to five hundred years of the messianic kingdom, “men would so spiritualize themselves that, without having to die again, they would slip into the eternal world to come.”  Schwarzschild now brings this idea forward by citing Mendelssohn, Lessing and Leibniz to claim that the immortal soul would have some kind of quasi-body” (pp.215-7, chapter 13, “Shekhinah and Eschatology”) (cf. the medieval sources in footnote 360n.15 for spiritual bodies).

Again, one glides or here “slips” into the spiritual world as if uploaded up onto some virtual plane of superterrestrial existence). As in the technological speculations of Kurzweil and other, the gross physical body has been given the slip. Passing through the singularity, the human subject now occupies a new plane of existence whose duration is eternal. All that’s left of the physical body is some kind of astral body schema. The “absolutely extreme man” is transhuman.

What is the status of such wild and wooly claims? Whaht are to make of them. The caution with which Schwarzschild proceeds is a philosophical ploy. He’s going for broke. Ethically-philosophically, these ideas are functional. “Resurrection” is (only) a figure of thought that allows us to assert the “psychosomatic unity” of the human individual (as “embodiedsoul/ensouledbody) [sic] and of infinite ethical tasks (217). Restricted philosophically, resurrection is limited as a regulative ethical ideal. As a speculative assertion, Schwarzschild allows one to make these claims purely as “theologumenoi,” a “return” to what he identifies as “the rabbinic proclamation of God’s power and grace as its ground” (p.217, chapter 11, “On Jewish Eschatology”)

But Schwarschild tries to walk these assertions one step further, “a bit further.” As a radical, no doubt, he wants to burst the boundary between philosophical reason (ethics) and theological faith (e.g. in divine grace). To do this, he drops out the idea of space and spatial concepts, which means that the bodiliness that would otherwise confine and limit human consciousness is now conceived as “an action in time.” About all of this Schwarzschild is unclear, as if he were embarrassed to proceed this much further. But what I think this means is that we are no longer looking at solids, at bodies as solid substance, which for Kant was mechanistically physical and only phenomenological. I am guessing that the thinking here is meant to be post-Newtonian. Looking past conventional notions of “substance” allows Schwarzschild to take the ethical-regulative idea and to “put it in the brightest light” of “life eternal, seen as “quasi temporal, not “quasi-spatial” (p.217, cf. p.222). What I think this means is that resurrection is “realized” not as an ethical-regulative idea but under the transfiguring effect of a spiritual force that is full of light and grace (cf. p.223).

About one thing Schwarzschild was clear. The ultimate principle is immortality, new life, more life, extreme life for which the works of ethics are the necessary but insufficient condition (p.223). The photograph at the top of the post is of Schwarzschild, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a brand plucked from the fire, at the consecration a Jewish prayer space in Germany in 1950. He was twenty-six years old. This is very loopy stuff.  Nolonger stuck in this mortal coil, transfigured “man,” “absolutely extreme man” has uploaded himself into new and infinite dimension, leaving left the spatial confines of planet earth.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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One Response to (Resurrection) Transhumanism (Steven Schwartzschild

  1. rabbiadar says:

    Very loopy stuff indeed.

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