The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Vivas, Eliseo
Hugh Mercer Curtler - 08/31/12
Lifespan: (1901–1993)

Eliseo Vivas was born of Venezuelan parents in Pamolona, Colombia. He came to the United States in 1915, entered the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and, after taking a class from Joseph Wood Krutch, switched majors from engineering to philosophy. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, where he first began teaching philosophy in 1935. He later taught at the University of Chicago and at Ohio State University prior to accepting the John Evans Chair of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University in 1951, where he remained until his retirement in 1969. Over the years, Vivas presented his philosophical position in eight books and in more than 240 book reviews, critiques, and articles in professional journals and magazines. Three of his books have been translated into foreign languages.

Vivas was a breaker of molds. He was a philosopher who took poets seriously, and a metaphysician who abandoned naturalism at the height of its popularity, thereby incurring the wrath of former colleagues who took his desertion personally. Vivas vigorously defended the objectivity of values in an age that he said betrayed an “instinct for the hatred of values.” He called his position “axiological realism.”

Vivas’s conservatism, which always centered on this defense of axiological realism, was coupled with his tragic conviction that the cosmos is “flawed” and that evil is an inescapable fact of human existence. He was one of very few American philosophers to address himself to the crisis of our age, our “hatred of values” together with the loss of our sense of mystery, our reduction of spirit to matter, our idolatry of technology, and our blind adoration of the idol “Progress.”

Vivas’s attack on liberal socialism echoed the cries of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky and drew inspiration from Freud’s analysis of the human psyche. It assumed its most vivid expression in his book Contra Marcuse, published in 1971. In that book, Vivas attacked Marcuse’s “dystopian view” of our world, which regarded human suffering as eradicable through social engineering. As Vivas saw it, evil is one of the ineluctable conditions of human existence; consequently, he called for the affirmation of life as we find it. He argued against Marcuse’s rejection of this world, his hopeless delusions that promise a less-than-human life without pain. We are confronted here with a fundamental difference in the Weltanschauung that separates liberals and conservatives: conservatives view evil as part of the fabric of human existence, while liberals hold that evil can, at least theoretically, be eliminated through human effort.

In a profound observation made almost in passing, Vivas noted that “Marcuse’s total rejection of almost everything that is . . . is a condition of adolescence which the negative thinker never outgrows.” Such a position, as Vivas saw it, is little more than an expression of immature outrage. Marcuse overlooked the joy and beauty of human existence that make life valuable.

Vivas’s major asset as a philosopher was that he never lost sight of the problem at hand. The subject matter of his inquiry was always kept sharply in focus. Unlike so many of his fellow theorists, he resisted the temptation to languish on the soft bed of argument-for-its-own-sake: he did not get lost in what John Dewey called the “dialectic of concepts.” As a critic, Vivas approached a work of literature with profound reverence: no one was more alive to the subtleties of the poet’s imagination, not even the poet himself.

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