Minima Moralia


Minima Moralia

Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (German: Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben) is a 1951 seminal text in Critical Theory. Theodor W. Adorno started writing it during World War II, in 1944, while he lived as an exile in America, and completed it in 1949. It was originally written for the fiftieth birthday of his friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer, who co-authored the book Dialectic of Enlightenment with Adorno.

The book takes its title from Magna Moralia, Aristotle's lesser known work on ethics. As Adorno writes in the Dedication, the "sorrowful science" (a pun on Nietzsche's "The Gay Science") with which the book is concerned is "the teaching of the good life", a central theme of both the Greek and Hebrew sources of Western philosophy. In the mid-20th century, Adorno maintains that a good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society. "Life does not live", declares the book's opening epigram. Adorno illustrates this in a series of short reflections and aphorisms into which the book is broken, moving from everyday experiences to disturbing insights on general tendencies of late industrial society. Topics considered include the subversive nature of toys, the desolation of the family, the ungenuinness of being genuine, the decay of conversation, the rise of occultism, and the history of tact. Adorno shows how the smallest changes in everyday behavior stand in relation to the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century.

The book acknowledges its roots in the "damaged life" of its author, one of many intellectuals driven into exile by fascism, who, according to Adorno, are "mutilated without exception". But as one of its aphorisms reads, "The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass." So, as splinters left over from the smashed mirror of philosophy, the book's fragments try to illuminate clues as to humanity's descent into inhumanity in their immediate surroundings. A kind of post-philosophy working against the "untrue whole" of philosophy proper, Minima Moralia holds fast to the Judeo-Christian-Enlightenment vision of redemption, which it calls the only valid viewpoint with which to engage a deeply troubled world. By bringing the "Messianic light" of criticism on a landscape of consummate negativity, Adorno attempts to "project negatively an image of utopia."

Because each aphoristic essay is rather short, this work is considered one of the best introductions to Adorno's denser and more convoluted Aesthetic Theory than Dialectic of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer). Many readers[who?], however, find it off-putting, since it goes against the usual grain of works written at its time, in which fascism is overcome and replaced by the USA's version of globalized capitalism.

While grieving the irretrievable loss of a paradise of a privileged childhood, Adorno confronts his sheltered existence with the primitive and anti-Semitic "nightmare of childhood" which he saw as being an incipient form of Fascism. He rejected any attempt, under the aegis of the USA, to reconstruct a 19th-century culture because any such attempt would either be false, or would simply set in motion the very same dynamic that had produced fascism, reasoning possibly inspired by Nietzsche's thought experiment of the eternal recurrence.

Redemption would be a final break with a system which he regarded as deterministic in the large, producing, certainly, a variety of alternative "virtual" histories, but virtual histories that would share common characteristics. Musically speaking and as seen in Mahler, certain themes (such as the Mussolini theme) would return (such as the Berlusconi theme), whether first as tragedy and then as tragic and murderous farce (where the farce of the Second Empire produced the unspoken yet real tragedy of the slaughter of the working class in Paris of 1870, one unmentioned and unmourned because the victims are unfashionable today), or as in the case of Mussolini and Berlusconi, as a recurrence of opera *buffa*.

References

  • Jaeggi, Rahel (March 2005) "“No Individual Can Resist”:Minima Moralia as Critique of Forms of Life" Constellations: An International Journal of Critical & Democratic Theory 12(1): pp. 65-82;

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