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The importance of an ethos

A dictionary defines “ethos” as: “Shared fundamental traits — the fundamental and distinctive character of a group, social context, or period of time, typically expressed in attitudes, habits and beliefs.” The original ancient Greek meaning of the word is “custom” — hence the definition, above, appears to be consonant with this. Neither should one be surprised about the etymological link between “ethos” and “ethical” or “ethics”, where the latter two concepts belong, as many people would know, in the sphere of philosophy, or a sub-discipline of philosophy, dealing with questions of ethical or moral choice and behaviour. The link with “ethos” in the sense of “custom” would then consist in behaviour being judged as “ethically acceptable” if it does not violate the collective customs of a people, society or community.

But what if the attitudes, habits and beliefs of a people, society or (on a smaller scale) community, are such, at a given time in history, that one may justifiably describe it as a “perverted ethos”? (Which would, ethically speaking, not be an ethos at all, because the connection with moral justifiability would be lost) Such an “ethos” or “pseudo-ethos” would be a contradiction in terms.

Have there been instances of such a pseudo-ethos? Of course, Nazi Germany, at the nadir of its moral self-righteousness was driven by such a perverted “ethos” as was the apartheid state in South Africa and one could analyse, historically, how the Roman Empire, through a number of centuries, degenerated from a level of ethos-driven civilisation (the expansion through conquest notwithstanding; remember the Pax Romana) to an increasingly dissolute, discord-torn state, which could hardly be said to have an ethos in the sense of a set of beliefs and customs that holds a community together.

From this analysis it is apparent that “ethos” has a normative character and when it no longer functions in salutary normative manner, something has gone seriously wrong and the rot has set in, as it were. At the same time it has to be admitted that an ethos is not synonymous with an ideology. It is more diffuse than the latter and less easily recognisable, the way that apartheid, liberalism or communism, could readily be identified as ideologies. For instance South Africa has had an ethos of hospitality (which was not restricted to the members of one race or culture) for many decades, even during the time of apartheid.

But what does it mean to say that an ethos has a “normative” character? Is this just cheap rhetoric, to the effect that one would like to inculcate some sense of communal togetherness? No, rather, it suggests that if an ethos has lost its normative, standard-setting character, all that remains is a pseudo-ethos which may, factually, be characteristic of a community or a society at a certain time but that this could in no way be held up as normative, that is, as being worthy of valorisation or commendation.

At such times one may find oneself in a situation where, in the absence of a guiding communal or societal ethos, the individual may have to formulate an ethos for him and herself, contradictory as it may seem (because “custom” belongs, per definition, to a group and not to an individual). And yet I believe that there are times in history where such an ostensibly paradoxical state of affairs must be assumed to exist, lest the prevailing pseudo-ethos should lead to a collapse of civilization similar to that which happened in the case of the Romans.

That is to say, a set of habits that is not conducive to the promotion of a higher state of civilization in terms of learning, culture, education, and so on, but instead leads incrementally to its deterioration, could potentially torpedo whatever is good about human society, unless a vibrant new ethos were cultivated in the lives of specific individuals, who would presumably be able to disseminate it to others until it pervades a community and eventually a society.

What an individual “ethos” would imply, in such circumstances, is that, although perhaps not initially shared by a group of people, it is in principle, if not in fact, open to such sharing and could conceivably grow into an ethos proper if it is sufficiently persuasive or attractive to some people. Mohandas Gandhi represents a historical instance of an individual whose ethos of “satyagraha”, or non-violent resistance to oppressive rule, has served to bring together a number of like-minded people whose actions are informed by this ethos.

Another way in which this could happen may be by means of, for example, a school of architecture (or a school of language, of social science, or of natural sciences and so on) at a university. It would require an influential individual or group of individuals to begin with, whose knowledge and authority (through their work) in a discipline or cluster of disciplines are such that they come to occupy a leadership position. Students who study in such an academic environment would find their orientation in the discipline of architectural design through the work of the individuals concerned — by and large, their teachers — and would contribute to the expansion of the school’s architectural ethos by refining and further extending the principles underlying its direction of development.

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 under the leadership of Walter Gropius, was such a school of architecture and design whose influence, or architectural ethos, extended far beyond its time of existence. It was famous for attempting to synthesize craftsmanship, design, art and technology and for giving a strong impetus to the development of functionalist architecture. In effect what Gropius and his followers tried to do for the modern era was to re-conceive of architecture as “total artwork” or “Gesamtkunstwerk”, the way that it had existed in the time of the Gothic cathedrals of European culture in which all the arts were brought together.

This time, however, it would be done in a manner that was consonant with the demands of a secular modernity. In the process, the Bauhaus project was no less than an effort, to articulate an ethos for the modern era (something that Louis Kahn, to my mind, achieved magnificently in some of his works), something still eminently worthwhile pursuing on the part of schools of architecture, or even by creative individuals who, in the process, draw students and colleagues together, in this way cultivating a culturally life-giving ethos. There are many instances of this, too many to elaborate on here.

In any event, the point that I am trying to make here — perhaps too laboriously — is that every human being requires a sense of something that is valuable and worth pursuing to be able to live a meaningful life. An ethos is what functions as a kind of spiritual compass in this respect. From what I said earlier about a pseudo-ethos, it follows, of course, that there are many things in the world around us that present themselves as sources of such value, but I would argue that only those which are in a sense rooted in the demands of the present, can have a purchase on human needs and requirements in this era.

What I mean can be briefly explained by means of Nietzsche’s distinction between three kinds of nihilism: radical nihilism, passive nihilism and active nihilism. The first, “radical” nihilism, is what dawns on one when you realize the groundlessness of everything — the fact that nothing that exists is “necessary”; it could have been otherwise — value-systems are the result of contingent historical decisions and hence are mere constructions that could be replaced with other such constructions. Once one has seen this abyss of non-value, two responses are possible, and this is where the other two kinds of nihilism come in.

“Passive” nihilism occurs when someone sees the abyss yawning but instead of facing it courageously he or she gets such a fright that they turn around and resort to mere conventional behaviour or — as Nietzsche puts it — they promptly “run back into the arms of the priests” as if nothing has changed. This is self-delusion of course. “Active” nihilism by contrast follows when an individual discovers the abyss but instead of staggering back in horror, she or he faces it resolutely and — in Nietzsche’s idiom — “dances” on it.

What does this mean? That instead of falling back on mere unexamined convention, which most people follow uncritically and rather “sheepishly”, such “active” nihilists are willing, and often able, to create something of value themselves to the point of actually “creating values”. The kind of individuals, like Gropius, referred to earlier, or Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Mandela, or perhaps — if he lives up to the promise of his presidency, Barack Obama, who can bring something new into the world to enable people to grapple with the problems and demands of the present, are active nihilists — people who create values, instead of merely, passively, imitatively, repeating conventional values. The test of their success at creating what I have referred to as an ethos, depends on whether others can find in their creative endeavours — whether it is in science, the arts, the political realm or any other cultural domain — something worth following.

The question I would like to leave you with is this: are there any signs of active nihilists today who are worthy of being followed, or rather, joined in their attempts to bring something of value into the world? And I mean “something of value” that would surpass the tired old clichés which are routinely trotted out by the vast majority of politicians and other so-called “leaders” in various fields. Every era demands its own, unique, ways of tackling problems and challenges that confront the human race. To be able to come up with this would be to formulate an “ethos” for the present. I can think of some people who would qualify in this respect but that will have to wait for another time. (Yes, I know I should return to the questions of science but I have sort of lost enthusiasm for those … )


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.