Agnes Heller (1929-2019): A Personal-Philosophical Memoir

by Peter Murphy  (La Trobe University and James Cook University)

To continue the celebration and remembrance of Agnes Heller’s life and work we are very pleased to post this pre-publication version of Thesis Eleven coordinating editor Peter Murphy’s reflections on his personal friendship and philosophical encounter with Agnes Heller.

You will find more Thesis Eleven content on Agnes Heller and upcoming events here and here. The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC RN has produced a recent program ‘Remembering Agnes Heller‘ featuring Agnes’ own voice alongside reflections from Thesis Eleven founding editor Peter Beilharz.

Peter Murphy is Adjunct Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia, and Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute at James Cook University, Australia.


Agnes Heller (1929-2019): A Personal-Philosophical Memoir

Meeting Ágnes

I remember it clearly, as if it was yesterday, the day I first met Ágnes Heller. It was early in 1980 on the ground floor of La Trobe University’s Social Sciences building. I had an appointment with her. I had come to ask her if she would supervise my PhD. I had read an article she had published in Telos journal on ethics, and I felt a strong affinity with it.[1] I brought with me my Honours thesis on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.[2] As I got to her office she appeared—both of us characteristically on time. My first impression: a short woman with penetrating deeply intelligent eyes. My lasting impression: she appeared with slightly damp hair and a towel around her shoulders. She’d been swimming in the university pool, one of her life-long favourite activities. A ball of unflagging even preternatural energy, she radiated vitality and get-up-and-go. Ágnes was tireless. This was not just a physical kind of energy. It also animated her prodigious intellectual output. In the course of her life she wrote over 40 books, not to mention innumerable academic and newspaper articles, book chapters, interviews and books of interviews.

I asked her if she’d be my PhD supervisor and handed her my honours thesis. She said: come back next week. In the ensuing days she read the thesis and agreed to the supervision. That began for me a remarkable encounter with that rarest of individuals: a genuine intellectual. I was well-read and I had engaged with this unusual species on the printed page. But not the flesh-and-blood version. Here was the real thing—someone who was genuinely, deeply and pervasively interested in the life of the mind. I spent the next forty years (mostly) in the universities. During that time it was uncommon to come across any real intellectuals. Most people in universities are jobbing. For them it is a cushy well-paid career. Jobbing produces rampant mediocrity. Academics have a bad conscience about this. So it is usually disguised with an ideological wrapping. They gravitate to a facile ‘ism’ that pretends it is world-transforming. In reality it’s just a step on the status ladder of academic superiority. It leaves zero trace on the world but produces a mountain of self-congratulation and self-importance. Ágnes was never self-congratulatory nor self-important. Her subject was never herself but rather the Absolute Spirit. I suppose in earlier centuries we might have called this God. But this then being the twentieth century, Hegel’s Absolute Spirit of philosophy, religion, art and (abstract) science stood in for God.

Ágnes was a good PhD supervisor.[3] Good supervisors are rare. We had a happy arrangement. I would write a chapter, she would read it. Ágnes was very diligent about that and remarkably intellectually open. She never foisted her own philosophy on me. That worked well because I was never a camp-follower. I was never a ‘student’ in the way that many are. So I read with some amusement what Ágnes wrote in A Short History of My Philosophy (2001). ‘To tell the truth, I have always jealously guarded my independence’.[4] Me too. In her PhD, Ágnes chose to write on ethics rather than aesthetics.  Aesthetics was the speciality of her supervisor, mentor and protector (this was the world of Stalinism) György Lukács. In her ‘years of apprenticeship’, as Ágnes called them, Lukács was occupied with aesthetics. ‘Perhaps I was reluctant to choose aesthetic topics in order not to become Lukács’ dependent… Lukács influenced me thoroughly, especially in the beginning, and still I protected myself against becoming his shadow or even a mere follower. I always wanted to tread my own path. My instincts pushed me in this direction.’[5]

Looking back she observed that ‘as a philosopher I was self-taught’.[6] She learnt a lot from Lukács, she said. But ironically—and perhaps even necessarily—nothing about philosophy or even Marxism. I was entertained by this account when I read it because I could have said exactly the same about my relation to Ágnes. I too was not a follower or a shadow. Already at 24 I was aware of how intellectual giants can crush those around them. I had observed for instance the cult that had grown around Karl Popper. His followers were encouraged to slavishly reiterate the tenets of his critical rationalism. At the most intimate level, the open society was a closed society. Ágnes was different. She was intellectually generous. I wondered in later years what she thought about supervising a PhD thesis on the theorist du jour, Habermas, the grain of whose work ran against hers in major ways. Half of my thesis was on Hobbes and Kant, the other half on Habermas. She was very gracious about it at any rate.

While I was never really her ‘pupil’ I shared several elective affinities with her all the same. That become more apparent as the years passed by. By the time I finished my doctorate, I concluded that Habermas’ rationalism was wrong even though I spent much of the thesis patiently setting it out in detail.[7] Ágnes’ husband, Ferenc Fehér, put me in contact with Routledge. They offered me a contract on the basis of a proposal summarizing the PhD. Then I told them I wanted to completely re-cast it and they told me (understandably) to go away. I thought for years this was youthful hubris, which doubtless in part it was, but I also picked up from Ágnes something of the importance of intellectual honesty—not least honesty about one’s own work. Richard Bernstein, one of the markers of the thesis, observed how the final paragraph of the thesis tacitly undercut what had come before.[8] That was well spotted. For it did. I couldn’t trash the thesis but I also couldn’t submit it without including in effect a disavowing rider—and in the end I couldn’t publish it as a book though several articles from the thesis did see the light of day.[9] I was interested to read Ágnes’ account of the similarly tortured relationship she had with her own dissertation (1955) and subsequently first book, The Ethical Views of Chernyshevsky. She basically disowns it in My Philosophy. She calls it ‘a bad book’.[10] She told me once that she learnt Russian to do her dissertation and then unlearnt the language, a symbol of the poisonous Soviet Empire, refusing to use it ever again. Less dramatically I learnt the language of rationalism from Hobbes, Kant and Habermas—and then promptly disowned it. I never returned to it.

Books and writing

Whatever she thought of them—whether they were good books or bad books, successful or less successful ones, favourites or orphans— Ágnes wrote a lot of them. She had three modes of writing. These modes were distinct though sometimes overlapping. The first mode was essayistic. This included, most obviously, collections of essays such as Dictatorship Over Needs (1983), Eastern Left, Western Left (1987), The Postmodern Political Condition (1989), Can Modernity Survive? (1990) and The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism (1990). Often these were co-authored. But the books she wrote during the 1980s and 1990s that were not collections were also essayistic in tone, form and spirit. These books have an outwardly conventional structure. But they read like intricately overlapping fragments in a fascinating kaleidoscope. Ágnes struggled to describe the character of these works. She was aware that in a literary or compositional sense they were distinctive. But she could never quite nominate how. She sometime used the term ‘post-modern’ to describe them. Yet these were not conventional post-modern bits-and-bobs. They had too much coherence for that. On the other hand she rightly rejected the idea that she was building a philosophical system. Systems—ranging from Aristotle to Hobbes and from Hegel to Habermas—suppose that a scaffolding connecting many or all major questions about the human condition can be erected on a singular idea of reason, be it teleological, decisionistic, historical, communicative, and so on. Philosophical systems proper are sometimes confused with systems of classification, wherein an animating idea of reason is replaced by the cataloguing, grouping, sorting and ordering of ideas.

Ágnes essayistic-books dominate the years between 1980 and 2000. These include A Theory of History (1982), The Power of Shame (1985), Beyond Justice (1988)—the works of her Australian period—followed by General Ethics (1989), A Philosophy of Morals (1990), A Philosophy of History in Fragments (1993), An Ethics of Personality (1996) and A Theory of Modernity (1999). These were the product of what Ágnes called her ‘years of building’. She covers a wide range of themes in these volumes. But if you were looking for a contemporary equivalent of Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences, you’d be disappointed. Most chapters in Ágnes’ works of this period can be read as stand-alone pieces, basically as separate essays. Mostly these are not books that are best read in a linear fashion from page one to page three hundred. Her intellectual ambition was enormous. But it did not produce an encyclopaedic system as such. Rather something more akin to a kaleidoscope tube that contains bits of coloured glass and paper, and mirrors—their reflections produce changing patterns when the tube is rotated.

To the degree that she thought in fragments Ágnes was not a systematic philosopher. But hers was neither a post-modem ‘bricolage’ nor multiple voices ‘intersecting’. That’s true even when she creates a philosophical ‘dialogue’ in An Ethics of Personality. Throughout she always retained an unmistakable authorial voice. She had a constant point of view. That point of view was already evident by the mid-1960s. At the same time it was continually refracted through a series of philosemes (philosophical themes-cum-fragments). Each time she shook her kaleidoscopic tube, a different pattern emerged. The coloured ‘glass and paper’ philosemes were durable over time. New ones were added but old ones were retained.

Many of these philosemes first appear in Renaissance Man (1966). They function like a giant deck of cards.  Ágnes shuffles them around constantly. In different works they re-emerge in different relationships. She describes what she was doing in the 1980s and 1990s as ‘weaving’ together old threads and new threads.[11] That is not a bad description. She notes that she took off in this ‘weaving’ direction in 1979 when she turned 50. She was adamant that, throughout, her impulse was not to create a ‘system’. This is true. She was not a system-building philosopher. Nonetheless some of her books do have a systematic technical quality about them.

This is because her second mode of writing was taxonomic. The most explicit of the taxonomic works were created mainly in the 1970s, though Ágnes’ taxonomic impulse wells up again in The Power of Shame which in part reworks the typological structure of Everyday Life. Even books she wrote in her third mode—the ideographic-idiographic mode—often have classificatory sub-structures. For example her Shakespeare book begins with a cluster of existential themes. The grouping explores who am I, what is time, what is human character—in pursuit of the puzzling question of ‘Shakespeare himself’ (who is this enigma?). This then is followed by her discussion of the English history plays and the Roman history plays—carefully grouped in their own way.[12] Six early works of Ágnes’ are notable for their taxonomical spirit. The group includes The Theory of Needs in Marx (written in 1968), Everyday Life (1970), Towards a Marxist Theory of Value (1972), which in many ways is more a neo-Kantian theory of value, Radical Philosophy (1978), On Instincts (1978) and A Theory of Feelings (1978). The latter book features a 116-page chapter 2 on ‘the classification of feelings’.

Ágnes was prolific but also parsimonious. She rarely let a category that she had enumerated go to waste. She started off at university studying chemistry until she heard Lukács lecture. There is in her work the latent influence of chemical taxonomies and tables. She had that disposition of mind. I learnt a surprising amount from these works—less what they had to say about Ágnes’ own philosophy and more about the way in which history, values and feelings can be classified. Her sorting and cataloguing cannot be entirely separated from her substantive philosophy. Nevertheless these works are easily raided for insights without requiring any buy-in to her larger project. Some of her works, she said, were finger exercises. They were a preparation for playing rather than actual playing. She observed that most academic works are finger exercises.[13] While in her case these were masterful drills, they were still only workouts in systematic categorization. This may have left her with the reputation of being a systematic philosopher in a world where systematic philosophy had fallen out of fashion. Yet in spite of the scale of her project, which is vast (probably 4 million words), she was not a systematiser. Rather she was technically systematic in laying out the groundwork for her philosophy that at its core has an essayistic-cum-kaleidoscopic quality.

Her third mode of writing was a mix of ideography and idiography. If biography is the story of a specific life, these ideo(idio)graphies were accounts of specific ideas, literary forms and intellectual personalities. She wrote studies of epochs, concepts and genres as well as religious, philosophical and literary figures. The best of the earliest of these is Renaissance Man. Other early ones—her studies of Aristotle and Chernyshevsky—are apprentice works which she orphaned. But Renaissance Man is a mature work. In many respects it is Ur-Heller. It is a dazzling technical exercise—a brilliant summation of Renaissance philosophy. At the same time it is an original, unmistakable and distinctive statement of the philosophical themes that she returns to time and again in the next fifty years. It is also idiographical. The topic of the book is unitary: Renaissance philosophy and world-views. That reduces at least to some extent its latent kaleidoscopic effects. As a literary-philosophical innovation Ágnes’ mature kaleidoscopic style is important. It allows her to have a single viewpoint that is simultaneously even paradoxically manifold. On the other hand the kaleidoscopic style that dominates the period between when Ágnes was fifty and seventy is difficult for purposes of reception. Academic secondary literature is linear. One chapter follows the next, sequentially. Consequently the reception of her work has often missed the way in which her themes intersect pattern-like in a kaleidoscopic tube—and how that tube is shaken and shaken again, and the key themes over time connect together in different tessellated relationships. This is not systemizing but it’s not linear either.

The larger number of Ágnes’ ideographic-idiographic studies occur in the later period of her life. The initial impetus to this occurs in 1992-1993 when she writes in English a book that she titles Leibniz and Other Unorthodox Platonists. It is published in a cut-down form in translation in Hungary in 1995. This was a pleasure project. She wrote it for herself—and in doing so, she says, ‘My heart longed to go back to the times of the Renaissance I had abandoned thirty years ago’.[14]  She planned to include Nicholas of Cusa and Marsilio Ficino in the volume but publication exigencies obliged her to publish that material separately. The longing to return to the Ur Renaissance era was I suspect also the beginning of the end of her essayistic-kaleidoscopic writing phase—a return to the more ideographic-idiographic style of Renaissance Man. This became manifest after A Theory of Modernity (1999) though it had already begun before it with The Concept of the Beautiful (1999) written in 1995. What then follows is a series of works that have a lot of Ágnes’ familiar philosemes in them and new ones as well. But the internal arrangement of the works is more unitary in spirit because each treats a specific subject that is relatively compressed in scope. Neither the classification impulse nor the essay impulse disappear. But they are sublimated. Aesthetics and Modernity (2011) collects essays published in the 2000s. But the volume has aesthetics as its singularity point.  One can still read chapters in The Time Is Out Of Joint: Shakespeare As Philosopher Of History (2002) as if they were separate essays. But Shakespeare is its dominating singular figure. Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature and Life (2005) contains quite a lot of classification of comic genres and types.

In short all the different late works have a specificity—a focus defined by their relatively circumscribed subjects. That is true of The Resurrection of the Jewish Jesus (2002), On the Unresolvability of the Jewish Question (2004), Trauma (2006), Behold, Here I Am: Philosophical Interpretations of the Book of Genesis (2006) and Samson (2007). As Ágnes, ever the clear-eyed self-observer, remarked: before 1995 she had wanted to address ‘the general’ or ‘the universal’. But in 1993 she concluded that no truth was universal. This was a view she had already formulated thirty years before in Renaissance Man. She ended where she began. Truths (plural) are singular (‘for me’). They extend no further in scope than the ‘congregation’ or ‘utopia’ that singular persons can enter into but also exit from.[15] After her discussion of this in A Philosophy of History in Fragments (1993) she observes in herself a switch. ‘I reversed my perspective (from the universal to the singular) without noticing it.’[16]

A centre of gravity

Ágnes’ first love was philosophy. Philosophy is a part of what Hegel called the Absolute Spirit. In Everyday Life (1970) she set out to answer the question: how is the absolute spirit possible and what is it that makes our behaviour in this sphere of life so different from everyday life? Ágnes drew a distinction between ‘species-essential’ motivation in the sphere of the absolute spirit (which she called ‘the generic’) and ‘particularistic’ motivation (envy, jealousy, vengefulness, possessiveness, vanity, selfishness) in everyday life. I witnessed enough of Ágnes’ casual asides to know that ‘particularism’ was to her mind an all-too common characteristic of her fellow Hungarians.[17]

Ágnes pondered: how do we become ‘generic’ beings? She concluded: through activities that concentrate and ‘homogenize’ our actions. In work we are able to concentrate all our talents and capacities on one vocation. In so doing we focus on ‘the work’ rather than on earning a living or pursuing a career. In morals we learn to be constant and to steer ourselves by abstract norms rather than concrete rules. We also learn how to distance ourselves from particularistic motives. The greatest model of this, she thought, was the religious figure of Jesus who was ‘devoid of particularity’.[18] (Most of the works in her last decade of life were religious works—biblical studies.) In politics we develop a capacity for debate, argument and association, and, in Europe especially she thought, a fondness for ‘the law’.[19] In science, art and philosophy—whether in production or reception—particularity is replaced by curiosity and wonder. We forget our own self as we puzzle about what makes the world tick. Strong character (constancy) allows discoveries to be made despite discouragement. In contrast professionalism (in the universities, industries, etc.) is a kind of selective particularism. In The Power of Shame (1985) she will re-sort these ideas in a slightly different way. There she distinguished between the sphere of objectivation for itself (the absolute spirit), the everyday sphere of objectivation in itself (dominated by heterogeneity rather than meaning-producing homogeneity) and the professionalized sphere of objectivation in and itself (institutions, organizations). A lot of her prior Marxism—which never ran very deep—is turfed. The Marx-Lukács’ categories of work, labour and production are disowned. Weber replaces Marx—just as Kant then quickly replaces Weber, and later Kierkegaard would replace Kant in her intellectual affections.

In 1996, I stayed with Ágnes in New York while I was visiting there. At one point she asked me one of those ‘why me?’ questions. My peers in the Budapest school were all gifted and talented. Why was I the one that wrote the huge corpus? Why not the others? I said: we are all born with a certain energy and drive. Hers, I knew, was promethean. Looking back on it I don’t disagree with what I said. But I’d now add to it. In fact the reply to the question that she asked is spelled out at length in her own work. She answered her own question repeatedly—especially in her earlier work. She describes the emergence of the modern ‘individual’, beginning during the Renaissance. This was not just a historical or philosophical account. It was also her personal ideal. In many ways she followed the star of ‘the individual’ she wrote so lovingly about. She was a character in her own work. And a character in the modern sense: a personality.

What were the traits of this character-cum-personality? From some 12,000 pages of dense text, a life’s vast work, I’ll mention a handful of the ways in which she thought of this character. In An Ethics of Personality (1996) she says: ‘Be true to yourself: this is the first, and perhaps the only maxim of the ethics of personality’.[20] But that immediately begged the question; what kind of self are we talking about? One who doesn’t lie in their work—those are scoundrels.[21] One who says ‘no’ to hysterical moralism.[22] One who wants to find out the meaning of their suffering—that is, understand why they suffer.[23] Such persons discover for example that it is better to suffer an injustice than commit an injustice.[24]

Such personalities are not nihilistic or chaotic. But they have a healthy scepticism about norms and commandments that come from the outside or above the self.[25] Ethics—if that’s quite the right word for it—arises out of deep steady commitments the autonomous self makes. Personalities choose themselves. They choose their entire baggage of traits: all their determinations, the good the bad and the ugly. Their own nature, instincts, motivations and infirmities.[26] Paradoxically then this existential choice of oneself is a choice of one’s destiny and determinations.[27] I choose what I have no choice in. And I choose a star to guide me—a personal destiny that is my paradoxical personal fate. From that point forward I am ‘pulled’ to ‘become what I already am’.[28] Truth—modern truth—is paradoxical. It is paradoxical at every level on which these existential choices are made.

Truth is ‘subjective’.[29] It is subjective in the sense that the truth for a personality in each case is a ‘truth is for me’. The truth of that personality can be God, fate—whatever. But the truth is anchored in the person. What is important is that a personality holds fast to it. This existential truth is like a promise I have made to myself. Am I sincere (‘authentic’) in carrying it through? Or do I wobble, lie and dissimulate—to others and worse still to myself? Persons are born with gifts (‘endowments’). These grow into greater and lesser talents and skills. But our gifts push us towards a sense of destiny as well. After we choose it—if we choose it—our gifts and talents are pulled along by that destiny, our personal star.[30] Like so much in modernity this push-pull is a paradox. It is just like choosing a destiny or selecting the nature and determinations we already have. There is a price to be paid for such enigmatic choices. You cannot choose twice.[31] Destiny is monogamous. So be careful what you choose and how you choose. Another paradox: if you do successfully choose your personal destiny—and there is no guarantee of that—you are freely choosing (i.e. also determining) that you cannot do or be otherwise than what you have chosen.[32]  Your freedom is also a kind of necessity.

Ágnes thought there are two kinds of existential choices we make—one a weak one, one a strong one. Each is readily confused with the other. Some people choose a vocation—as Weber put it, science, politics, etc. Alternatively some choose themselves. The first is the choice of a narrow professional path; the second is a broad path. Failure—not least of all moral failure—is common on the first path. But what is the second path? In this case the personality has a ‘centre point’ of their existence. Amidst the immense swirl of values and roles, schemes and plans that modern life throws at us and throws us into, the personality who has chosen their own destiny has a centre of gravity, a still-point that is unflappable. This allows the personality to view the world around it with measure and proportion and inner calm. By the standards of the existential choice of vocation, for most of his life Winston Churchill the politician was either a failure or a semi-success many times over—until that was not the case. His final triumph rescued the world from the catastrophe of a long dark ages. This happened not because he had chosen himself as ‘a politician’ who sacrificed everything including pleasure in the dogged pursuit of power.[33] Rather it happened because Churchill had a ‘centre-point’. This was in him an enigmatic still-point that was imperious to all eddying currents around him. He re-entered high office in 1939 walking with destiny.

Australia Felix

In Ágnes’ case, she chose her destiny as a philosopher when she heard Lukács lecture. She never meant by ‘philosophy’ a Weberian professional vocation. In fact her least interesting books—General Ethics (1988) and A Philosophy of Morals (1990)—suffer from a quasi-professionalization of style and substance. Her relocation from Australia to the overly professionalised atmosphere of American philosophy had a short-term corrosive effect. But she was never at heart a professional and by the time she published An Ethics of Personality (1996) she had recovered from her brief absence of mind.  She possessed an anchor point. On that, most of her writing, which was the larger part of her life, was fastened. Amidst the storms and contingencies of life—with its whirring wheel of appointments and disappointments—she had an inner core that was imperturbable, something serene in a stoic or epicurean sense. If modern life periodically falls into periods of agitation and panic, and then into states of seeming madness as a result, Ágnes stood at the other end of modernity’s spectrum. She had witnessed the worst of the twentieth-century totalitarian madness. Her ultimate answer to this diabolical frenzy was to be calm, composed and collected—’measured’ and ‘proportionate’ as she put it in Renaissance Man.

I don’t mean by any of this that Ágnes was some kind of stoic saint. She wasn’t. None of us are. We all have bad moods, irritability, tetchiness and moments of hostile glumness. Vrasidas Karalis tells the story of hosting her in Sydney. At dinner after her lecture, he mentioned Cornelius Castoriadis. She exploded, among other things calling Castoriadis a fantasist. Considering the intellectual cohort of the second half of the twentieth century, Ágnes was most comparable to Hannah Arendt and Castoriadis. All three were direct, lucid and admirably frank thinkers. There are few baroque folds in their thought. But among the big figures of her acquaintance, Ágnes felt the greatest personal connection to Foucault and Derrida. She expressed her love for them.[34] Even though as a matter of words on the page, she shared relatively little in common with them, not least their baroque style. Yet, in matters of the spirit, the attraction of Ágnes to the two makes sense. The Jewish ‘G-d’ floated not far from surface of Derrida’s books. A kind of go-your-own-way anarchism coloured Foucault’s thinking. So also did a strong taxonomical impulse evident in works like The Order of Things (1966).

Ágnes had the view that a metaphysics of beauty was not sustainable in modernity and was already under pressure as early as the Renaissance. She first stated this in the mid-1960s. This matched serendipitously the Heidegger-Nietzsche disbelief in Plato’s metaphysics of beauty. Foucault and Derrida shared that disbelief. But it is hard to see in any of this anything but an accidental parallel tracks of thought. While Ágnes shared with Castoriadis a great lucidity of thought, as to fundamentals, she differed sharply with him. She rejected the ethos of antiquity as a guiding signpost for modernity and she had little interest in the concept of the imagination. She was an ethical realist. There was a stoic streak in her: the world is like this and this. This stands in contradistinction to Castoriadis’ Platonic drive to understand how the world is created. Fantasy and imagination have a complex often tortured relation, to say the least.

There is an argument to be made that Castoriadis was an unorthodox Platonist comparable to some of Ágnes’ own philosophical favourites including Leibniz, Ficino and Nicholas of Cusa. However, as Ágnes points out in Renaissance Man, Ficino’s system was—and, as she puts it, ‘more than just formally’—a Theologica Platonica.[35] On the other hand it was not orthodox Neoplatonism—i.e. Christianity synthesised with Plato. Rather it was Christianity sublimated in Plato. It was, as she put it, in a revealing formulation, a ‘secularized Christianity’.[36] No one would call Castoriadis’ life-work a ‘Theologica Platonica’ or a ‘secularized Christianity’ except ironically. Now such irony may contain more than a grain of truth. Nonetheless there is no echo in Castoriadis of the unorthodox Platonic Renaissance or Leibniz view that the human mind can not only perceive the works of God but also in a more modest way can produce some things that resemble those works.

‘Autonomy’ was a key concept for both Ágnes and Castoriadis. But their use of it was like chalk and cheese. How deceptive a little word like ‘autonomy’ is. It’s meaning branches in multiple directions. Agnes thought of ‘autonomy’ as autonomous personalities who pursue their own truth and their own chosen destiny. She asked: how can they do this in a decent and intelligent manner? Castoriadis thought of autonomy in terms of the autonomous society—the self-organising society. His ideal was the Greek polis as the first self-created society before the advent of the societies of the modern West. Ágnes looked on the polis as a communal society lacking in personal autonomy. Her ideal was the Renaissance—the world of Ficino and Shakespeare. Her personal ‘God’—philosophy—may have been born in ancient Greece but its natal society did not charm her nor did it’s small-p philosophers with the exception of the stoics and epicureans whose self-containment foreshadowed her own vision of persons who go their own way but do so decently—and who are prepared along the way, if necessary, to suffer injustice rather than inflict it on others.

Ágnes had a sympathetic interest in religion. ‘…the character of Jesus… attracted me for a long time, and as much as Shakespeare’.[37] Castoriadis in contrast was militantly anti-religious. Religion, for him, was a sign of social heteronomy. The irony was that Castoriadis’ ‘creation’ at its source begins as a religious philoseme while Ágnes only took a real interest in it late in life as an epiphenomenon of the Book of Genesis. In a rare platitude Ágnes said that the two foundation cultures of Europe were Greek and Roman antiquity and the Bible.[38] In practice though, her interest in Greece and Rome was narrow. She was drawn to historical novels set in Rome, Shakespeare’s Roman plays and to some of the threads of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. She wrote an early book on Aristotle but showed little subsequent affection for it. She blamed her lack of interest in Greek philosophy on her insufficient command of the ancient Greek language but it seems clear that her disinterest stemmed from her own philosophical—essentially Renaissance—world view.[39] The ancient polis was simply not to her taste. In truth she was much closer to Jerusalem than Athens. She wrote extensively about the Bible in her later years—and more for her own personal pleasure than anything.

I witnessed in her occasional moments of impatience and irritation.[40] But mostly I found Ágnes remarkably tolerant of her peers. More tolerant than I ever was. She had her own star to follow and didn’t spend much time on the failings or perturbations of others. When she did let you into her private thoughts the standard tended to be unvarying. The standard was that of her ‘God’—philosophy. Once in conversation in the early 1980s, she told me she’d been on a panel with Michel Foucault. She recounted how he had recounted in public the explicit details of his sex life in the bathhouses. Do you think this is a fit topic for philosophy, she mused aloud? Being a circumspect person I wondered the same thing.

She describes in My Philosophy the split in Australian intellectual life in the 1980s.[41] Melbourne was attracted to Habermas and Adorno; Sydney to post-structuralist French theory. She split the difference by liking Foucault (later Derrida) as a reader but not as disciple not even in the slightest. Little trace of their respective world-views appears in her works. This was a simple expression of the fact that she always followed her own star. Her Socratic daimonion (‘divine something’) was philosophy—but not any particular philosopher. She was always ‘the individual’, never the camp-follower. In her works, many philosophers had walk-on parts. They were characters in a multi-volume drama she composed. No character survived on stage all that long. The fashionable ones barely stayed for the blink of eye. They were always spear-carriers. She found reading Foucault exciting: ‘I taught several works by [him] already in 1979 before I got to know him personally. Since then (1980) I just devoured everything he wrote’.[42] Yet a few pages later she remarks ‘…I found it very problematic—despite being an old Epicurean, or, perhaps, rather in the spirit of Epicurus—that nowadays we know everything, I say everything about each other’s body but we know less and less about each other’s soul.’[43] I was struck that twenty-five years after our conversation she had no more taste for Foucault’s confessions of the flesh than she had in 1983.

The thing I recognized early on was that her divine passion was not for any philosopher she might cite or know but for the Absolute Spirit personified by the entire course of philosophy from Aristotle to Nietzsche, Plato to Heidegger, and Epicurus to Kant. This was also the patrimony of ‘Europe’. It never translated to the Anglophone New World. Agnes showed zero interest in American philosophy (Dewey for instance) which I doubt she even regarded as philosophy. I also suspect this is the reason she moved from a very congenial Australia to New York’s New School which was a beachhead of European philosophy in America not just in curricula but also in tone, spirit, habits and history.

I was always intrigued by this. The Australia she felt real affection for was as close a national doppelganger for her sceptical ‘rationality of the intellect’, stoic-epicureanism, irony and comedic personality as you would ever find. It is not an epicurean garden. But at moments it can feel like it. That was my elective affinity with Ágnes’ work.[44] I was sceptical of the idea of philosophical nations or continents. Their record in reality was terrible. Whether ‘revolution’ is epistemic (Foucault), messianic (Derrida), constitutional (Arendt), magma-like (Castoriadis), or Ágnes’ ‘time out of joint’,  this model of history does not apply to countries like Australia, Singapore, Switzerland, or most of the Nordic countries who are placid, happy nations with no temperamental desire for or experience of ‘revolution’.

Ágnes was an exile not a migrant. She looked on Australia not as the happy society par excellence but as a place where she formed lasting bonds with the many friends who embraced her. She was a devoted and interested friend.[45] One of her books after getting to Australia was a study of the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Communists.[46] But the European intellectual fascination with ‘revolution’ posed for me the contrarian question: how do you express the ‘philosophy’ of a country that was born not of a great revolutionary breach but as the result of the wisdom of a gifted, perhaps genius, colonial governor who steered the country from a penal colony to a free society in a decade?[47] In world-historical terms that was astonishing—but it was not the function of a ‘time out of joint’. Quite the contrary. There was no material there for a great Shakespearean historical drama or—in more mythical terms—a Wagnerian opera.[48] Nevertheless its result in social terms was extraordinary.

Australia was not the product of revolution. It was the late flowering of English neoclassical culture in which a demotic metaphysics of beauty was very much alive. This insinuated itself deep into the pores of Australia’s civic culture. The premise of my first book Civic Justice (2001) was the capacity of some societies to make-as-in-create themselves not by ‘revolution’ but by ‘measure as beauty’.[49] I realise in retrospect that I drew completely the ‘wrong’ lesson from Ágnes’ work—the very opposite of the one she had intended—even though I was very influenced by her work. I was a bad reader. I was seduced by the devil of metaphysics. In any event by the mid-1990s I was well on the path to my eventual liberal-conservative world-view. This was not only the result of my own temperament—though it was certainly that—but also the DNA of the nation I had grown up in. I was tacitly resistant to apocalyptic, messianic and adventist ideas of any kind.[50]

Agnes never ticked me off for that. She never corrected me. She was intellectually generous in ways that only belatedly I have realised. She was happy for me to go my own way. She never took issue with anyone’s personal star. My daimonion was never ‘philosophy’—though I was well read in it. Nor was my patrimony ‘Europe’. I too read Foucault and Derrida early on. But concluded that they were the dead-end of philosophy—a symptom of the fact that ‘Europe’ had entered the twilight zone of comfortable somnolent decline. ‘Europe’ had become the patrimony of the post-historical sleep-walkers. Their appetite for centuries of militant ‘times out of joint’ had finally been exhausted by multiple catastrophes. Yet they still looked back on it all with a mix of guilt, attraction, self-flagellation, repetition compulsion, amnesia and nostalgia. Today not even that. Philosophical technê—Ágnes’ dread—has subsumed the ‘revolutionaries’. Australia, America, France, Germany, China—all produce highly competent technical philosophy. Since the 1960s Australia has produced world-class analytical philosophers. But that’s the point: technical philosophy is technical. It doesn’t speak to the soul. The militants on the other hand ravaged and terrorized the soul. Ágnes tried to avoid both poles—but I am not sure she entirely succeeded. She was a staunch opponent of totalitarian holocaust, despotic authoritarianism and nihilism—the wicked tormentors of her age. But I don’t think she found a theory of history that stepped around those (frankly awful) ‘times out of joint’.

I watched the Australian post-structuralists in the 1980s. They produced a wave of books on Foucault. Next step, in the blink of an eye, they were appointed Associate Deans and the like. The nominal ‘critique’ of disciplinary institutions, as it turned out, became very handy in running disciplinary institutions. The sub-Nietzschean squalor of post-structuralism—when suitably reduced to pitiless textbook clichés—uniquely suited the spiritless spirit of the mass bureaucratic university. The baroque obscurantism, evasions and pretensions of post-structuralism fitted neatly into the ‘objectivation in and for itself’: the late twentieth century’s organizational parody of the absolute spirit. Yet in the end even technical philosophy withered in an abject corner of this ferociously dull institution.

Follow your own star (but try and do it decently)

For someone who wrote about the deeply dissatisfied streak in modern humankind Ágnes was a remarkably happy person. She didn’t think happiness could be the highest good of a modern society. (I do but that’s another story.) Modern societies, she thought, gravitated to either freedom or life—or life-chances—she could never resolve that. In any event not happiness. Nevertheless she herself looked at the world with a kind of quiet stoic or epicurean equanimity. She never joined moral panics or political hysteria. Her ‘God’—philosophy—gave her an inner equanimity. Her intellect could see the upside in downsides—the inevitable, inescapable swinging pendulum of modern life. The truth of her modern philosophical ‘God’ was paradox. She was not the first to have reached this conclusion. Kierkegaard—who replaced Kant in her later affections—was (arguably) the first to do so.

The ‘God’ of paradox helps us bear our sorrows and disappointments cheerfully. We are human. That’s our lot. So we curse and complain and point fingers. But the ‘God’ of paradox takes the edge off this. It soothes us. It raises up the better angels of our nature. It calms the raging beast, tames it into placidity. We bare our teeth from time to time. Who doesn’t? But our sense of paradox feeds our sense of our own absurdity—we look at our own behaviour with irony. We laugh at ourselves. This, Agnes thought, was the ‘rationality of the intellect’ at work. The Kierkegaardian ‘God’ of paradox endows us with the capacity to look at ourselves from the outside—to see clearly not just our own vanities (though those as well) but also the ceaselessly funny incongruities and antinomies of the world that we inhabit. We laugh. We are the species that makes jokes. That’s our ‘species-essential’ being. Our commanding ontological task is to rise up from envy and jealousy to good humour. We do this only with difficulty. Ágnes rarely spoke about or even hinted at her own life traumas in a public way. Our sorrows are only for those closest to us to know or suspect. Our gift to the world is our cheerfulness.

Born into a Hungarian Jewish family, her father was murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. She joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1947 and was promptly expelled by the Stalinists in 1949 (aged 20). The regime liberalised enough for her to start her PhD in 1953 with Lukács, and to start university teaching in 1955 (aged 26) only to be dismissed from the university in 1958 and exiled into high school teaching—part of the aftermath of the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956. She would remain in professional limbo until 1963 when she was permitted by the regime to become a university researcher. She spent five ugly years writing for her desk alone—an internal exile dictated by intellectual and moral pygmies of the Communist Party.

In spite of whatever she suffered in her life Ágnes in public typically was upbeat. Her stoic-epicurean personality girded her against life’s inevitable bad contingencies. She coined the term stoic-epicurean in Renaissance Man, the book she published in Hungary in 1966. Her idea of the stoic-epicurean was not just a footnote in intellectual history. She lived her life that way. She understood, as so many modern personalities do not, that personal happiness is a function not of whether we can control external events but what is left for us to control—not least our own thoughts—once those events have steam-rolled us. Censor me, sack me, imprison me, put me in chains, excommunicate me, I can still be happy. I can still think my own thoughts.

To that classical wisdom, Ágnes added the following. Modern societies beginning with a handful of societies during the Renaissance are dynamic. They grow, they develop, and they expand. They erode fixed hierarchical communal societies—be these tribal, feudal, or patrimonial. Instead of being born into a social station for life, persons are freed up bit by bit from fixed hierarchies—what was once the great chain of being. What follows is the increasing heterogeneity of moral and ethical systems along with multiple interpretations of those systems—as well as ethical justifications for evil behaviour. ‘The individual’ emerges from social fetters. Individuality means autonomy—self-steering—as social roles and purposes, moralities and virtues multiply. How do individuals cope? Often badly. Sometimes they become anxious and fearful in the face of all the possibilities and contingencies that open up. So they look to wicked new oppressive external authorities to replace the old authorities. Sometimes they are drawn to millenarian or totalitarian or nihilistic movements. Yet at other times real autonomous personalities emerge. How is that possible?

If I am an individual, adrift on a sea of contingency, facing all kinds of moral and immoral possibilities, with a thousand voices shouting ‘go this way’, and the inner voice saying ‘go that way’, Ágnes asked ‘how do I know that I and only I am right and all the others are erring?’.[51] She gave several (related) answers to this question. Her answers are as expansively stated in Renaissance Man as anywhere. She pretty much began with the same answers that she ended with forty years later. In the meantime everything changed and nothing changed. In no small measure this was because her answers were not only about the world—though most definitely they were about that—but because they were also about her own quest to follow her star: to go her own way. She knew perfectly well that no one ever takes the advice of moral philosophers.[52] What a vain expectation that is! But a moral philosophy that is a social philosophy—her enterprise—can tell persons how it is possible to weave their way through the endlessly proliferating moral possibilities, dead-ends, dangers, sewers and sunny uplands that modernity presents.

In short, how can we best figure out how to move through the huge labyrinth that we all face? Ágnes answers begin with a kind of modesty. She asks: ‘who am I? Who has entitled me to tell men and women what is right and what is wrong?’[53] That is a very good question. Everyone who writes or speaks about ethics or politics or society should begin with the same questions. That is, what entitles you to speak? Why should you pester your fellows with your views? Ágnes answered this by admitting she had no authority. That’s a good answer. Everyone should answer that way. In the post-Renaissance world—that is, in a world that is morally polytheistic and existentially individual, at least in principle—no one has any solid moral authority, and many of the authorities that do emerge to fill that gap prove in the end to be diabolical. In her later works about morality—General Ethics, A Philosophy of Morals, An Ethics of Personality—she said that all she could do was to ‘borrow’ authority—in her case from ‘philosophy’. Or else to try and follow the worldly course of a good (decent) person—or alternatively create a dramaturgy in which multiple characters speak on behalf of different viewpoints. Though she applied all of these approaches, in the end she found none of these options truly convincing. She could not escape the situation that it is always the ‘I’ that speaks. How can any ‘I’ with any kind of surety tell the rest of the world what to do and what not to do?

When I was a PhD candidate I remember reading a very good Polish technical academic study of ethics. It was, like a number of Ágnes’ own works, fluently taxonomic. On one level I was impressed with what the ethicist had done. She had created a lucid modern table of morals that reminded me of Aristotle. Yet I thought: what’s the point? For every table of modern virtues that one might conceive, there are numerous competing ones. This, Ágnes grasped, was already the case in the Renaissance. That auspicious era started to emancipate persons. It allowed them greater and greater autonomy. But what accompanied this was a growth in human richness and a proliferation of moralities. Some of these moralities were inspired, some perverse, some sensible, some wicked, some banal, some stupid, some edifying. How could we tell the difference? Aside from personal taste, did any ‘authority’ exist that might bolster our personal taste? The first article I published (it was from my PhD) began: ‘Weber’s stricture was clear: unless we are prophets or demagogues we cannot answer questions about the worthwhileness of different orders of ethical values’.[54] But, I continued, if we cannot answer these questions then we have a problem. For ‘…if this is the case, then how are the sorts of political associations we take for granted possible?’ I would only add today: how are any human associations possible? I eventually came to the conclusion—over the next fifteen years (no rush)—that a part of the answer was laid out in Ágnes’ Renaissance Man.

Her animating concern was: how can we best cope with pluralistic value systems in a dynamic world—a world, beginning in the Renaissance, where ‘even a conscious desire to do right could become entangled in unresolvable contradictions’?[55] Indeed. How we do this in effect is by finding a thread that helps us navigate through the modern minefield of heterogeneity.[56] We need signposts. Yet even the signposts that help us prudentially navigate pluralism and dynamism must first assume the existence of ‘the individual’ who is prepared to ‘choose his own way’ in the world.[57] There is no room for camp-followers or herd animals here. Each personality has to ‘seek truth for himself’.[58] And that supposes also the likelihood of passing through a series of mistakes. These are persons who are autonomous, self-creating, and self-propelling. They are born to put their ‘stamp’ on the world.[59] They are distinctly different personalities each with different value systems. If so, what then accounts for ‘the unity of the age’?[60] What allows us to navigate through massive heterogeneity, so that we select well from among multiple values, and still manage to avoid the fragmenting of personalities, incoherence and meaninglessness but also the loss of any sense of limits and the fall into extremism, nihilism and the unhinged irrational obsessive (Faustian) accumulation of things? The answer in short is a ‘homogenizing force’. [61]

But what exactly is that? One way of thinking about it is measure in the guise of beauty.[62] This concept originates in the ancient polis—and is partly resurrected by the Renaissance. But, Ágnes argued, the modern impulse is to push against limits. Modern societies are dissatisfied and restless. They tend in the direction of baroque agitation and impatience. They move away from the homogenizing relation that creates beauty. She in turn, in her own way, turned away from the eidos of beauty to the emotional ties of love and friendship,[63] and underlying those to the values of fidelity and constancy. Amidst the fluidity, tumults and cross-purposes of modernity, there are enduring bonds of fidelity.[64] Fidelity is not hierarchical loyalty. It is not ‘naturally given’ but freely chosen.[65] Deep durable personal emotional personal relations that are freely chosen resist social flux. ‘The man seeking his own way as an individual, freed from feudal restraints, would also tread the paths of love and friendship as an individual.’[66]

But it is not only ‘love and friendship’ that provides a ‘homogenizing force’ in a modern pluralised and dynamic world. Ágnes offers a series of other suggestions—all of them practical. Her outlook is free of ideological fantasy. There is, in addition to deep personal relationships, the impulse to find or recover meaning in life.[67] Modernity is about the process of becoming free rather than attaining happiness (contentment, rest, peace). ‘Meaning’ in life is Ágnes’ substitute for ‘happiness’ in life. In Everyday Life and The Power of Shame, the generation of meaning is closely associated with the absolute spirit where-in persons concentrate all their heterogeneous abilities on activities that provide human beings with ‘meaning’. ‘Meaning’ implies that something coherent or integrated arises out of fragmentary experience and social heterogeneity—as in the stories we tell ourselves.

As well as ‘meaning’ there was, for Ágnes, the value of ‘moderation’. She did not understand moderation, as the ancient polis did, to be a specific virtue—that is, an abstract norm of consumption. Rather it was conceived by her as a general trait of behaviour: the quest to find proportion in all things, to be measured.[68] This meant crucially that a moderate person would not desire the impossible—that they would be content with what suits them and what they can have. Moderate persons recognise what for them are concrete rather than fantastic possibilities. They adjust their desires and goals to these tangible possibilities. They are not fantasists. They do not lack realism or self-knowledge or the capacity to adapt themselves to society’s dynamic contingencies. These personalities can enjoy ‘relative contentment’ even if modern societies are dissatisfied societies not happy societies.[69] Contentment is a personal stoic-epicurean trait not a social quality.

Finally there is ‘civic courage’. This was a variation on the idea of fidelity. It was the character trait of the person who faces tyrants with lonely fortitude and who confronts troubles with composure and adversity with steadfastness.[70] These were ancient stoic and epicurean stances. But Ágnes’ twist on this was that constancy also meant constancy in one’s principles and values even at the sacrifice of one’s goods or position or even in extreme cases one’s life. Pluralism and dynamism require staunchness and integrity. They need a toughness of character anchored in some kind of personal destiny[71]—some core of immutability in a mutable world, some sense of irrevocability and wholeness in a world in which change and fragmentation is the norm.

Renaissance Man was one of the triggers—the mental stimuli—that started me on my first book, Civic Justice. I found myself in half agreement with Ágnes. Yes meaning, moderation and personal destiny were important. But I also thought that the ancient polis concept of measure as beauty—and myriad concepts entangled with it—including ratio, balance, symmetry, the union of opposites and equilibrium—remained ‘homogenizing forces’ in modernity and an answer to how we deal intelligently with a dynamic and pluralised world.[72] I would eventually apply these ideas in multiple studies on creativity and political economy.[73] I came to the conclusion that successful modernities in some manner recapture, re-create or re-imagine something of the metaphysical and civilizational impulse that we first find in the Axial Age.[74] The scope of that impulse ranged across the ancient Mediterranean polis, China’s Yellow River Basin and the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Successful modernity, I concluded, is typically a kind of axiomodernity.[75] Agnes for her part never returned systematically to classical antiquity after her Aristotle book (Aristotelian Ethics and the Ethos of Antiquity) written in her years of despair after the failed Hungarian Revolution.[76] Her focus was unerringly on modernity with its seeds in the Renaissance and the dynamism and dissatisfaction that this era set in motion alongside autonomous personalities.

As she came to view it, three logics dominated modernity: technology, markets and politics. In contrast I thought classical antiquity had certain characteristics—including the forces of equilibrium and oscillation—that re-appeared in more differentiated and more complex forms in modernity. Technology (industries) and markets I agreed were key but also nuclear households, cities and reading publics.[77] I had begun professional life in political science. But I had grown increasingly sceptical of politics as a distinct logic of modernity. I gravitated to a classical liberalism.[78] Ágnes gravitated to a kind of European social democracy. Throughout her long career Ágnes repeatedly returned to theories of history. Her master philoseme was the idea of ‘time out of joint’. For myself the master philoseme had become history as cyclical—time as oscillation and rhythm. Neither of us believed in progress—a people gaining something without losing something, as she put.[79] But I did not think as she did that modern societies were inherently dissatisfied societies or that their concept of justice was best understood as a dynamic type of justice.[80] I thought that happy persons and happy societies exist and that our task is to better understand what makes them possible—and that ‘change’ is a misleading and in many respects vacuous social ideal or political goal. I became a sceptical conservative as well as a classical liberal.[81] We still talked though. Agnes was not dogmatic or an ideologue in the slightest. She was a joy to talk with—as long as you weren’t interested in small talk. I wasn’t.

Go your own way home

Ágnes was a stoically cheerful person who spent her adult life among a guild of unhappy people who are compulsively dissatisfied with the world. Academics as a class are always ready to protest the state of the world even for the most ludicrous reasons. Ágnes had her own reasons to protest things—starting with the insufferable Communists who ruled Eastern Europe and who had fulfilled the dream of every intellectual on the road to class power: they had created privileges for the ruling stratum. Those privileges were made conspicuous only by virtue of the misery that the Communists created for the rest of the population. Ágnes knew this first hand, not just because she was a student of Lukács, who was caught in a rotating door of official approval and disapproval. Her mother, a member of the Hungarian Communist Party before it came to power, enjoyed party privileges—and was proud of that. Ágnes, ever the non-conformist intellectual, swore off regime privileges. She preferred intellectual and moral honesty.

Her reward for that honesty was to be exiled to high school teaching, rehabilitated and then finally in 1977 dis-employed by the Hungary’s Communist regime and invited to leave the country. She and her husband Ferenc Fehér did so. Who could refuse such a lovely invitation from such a nice government? So they went, first briefly to Germany and then to Australia (1978-1986).[82] John Carroll, Australia’s leading conservative intellectual, was one of the people instrumental in bringing her Australia. This was a productive time for her. During the Australian years Ágnes’ wrote A Theory of History, The Power of Shame, and Beyond Justice. This was the start of what she called her ‘building years’ when she moved from a taxonomical to a substantive philosophical approach. The shift to Australia seems to have been a trigger for this. It proved to be intellectually emancipating.

In 1986 Ágnes and Ferenc relocated to New York to take up positions at the New School for Social Research. I spent a year at the New School in advance of them, as a post-doctoral fellow and doing some teaching. The New School was created by John Dewey during the First World War. It became a haven in the 1930s and 1940s for scholars fleeing Nazi Germany. By the time I got there (my ever good-timing), the New School was in the doldrums. Its once-important Graduate Faculty had fallen on hard times. It would subsequently revive with new appointments. Ágnes played a leading role, as Chair of the department, in rebuilding a major philosophy program. Ágnes retained a great affection for Australia. She would regularly visit.  In 2008 I brought her to Melbourne to teach a philosophy of comedy course at Monash University. But her home was elsewhere. The New School was a half-way house. The Graduate Faculty had become a European-flavoured institution in the 1930s. It was a European-style outpost in the heady waters of America. But even that was not home.

Ágnes wrote her bachelor’s thesis on the Hungarian philosopher János Erdélyi (1814-1868), who Ágnes described as ‘an incorruptible, honest Hungarian, a good neo-Hegelian, a real European, a democrat, a rare bird in the Hungarian political and literary universe’.[83] Often we end up where we begin. So it was with Ágnes. She was drawn back to Hungary—a nation whose national character, she knew only too well, had many flaws. She, also a rare bird, was drawn back to the same thing as Erdélyi had been—the hope or expectation of an incorruptible, honest, European, democratic Hungary.  Ágnes and Ferenc bought an apartment in Budapest after the collapse of Communism and Ágnes began travelling back-and-forth between New York and Budapest. I never saw the apartment. The one time I visited her in Budapest in 2011 she was hospitalised. My impeccable timing again.

The ‘wandering years’ (traveling alone after Ferenc died in 1994) conclude her intellectual biography which finishes in January 2010. But there was to be one more chapter in her storied life. Viktor Orbán was elected for a second term as Hungarian Prime Minister in 2010. He is a political chameleon—a former liberal turned liberal (‘civic’) conservative turned national (state interventionist) conservative. In the 2010s Orbán began to pursue an explicit program of illiberal democracy. He was not alone in this. There was a worldwide trend in that direction across the decade. So began the last phase of Ágnes’ life—the years of dissent. She gave interviews and wrote articles critical of the Orbán government’s (successful) ambition to create a ‘central political force field’. She regarded this as a kind of tyranny. Her image of an incorruptible, honest, European, democratic Hungary clashed with the political reality of a downcast decade when democratic illiberalism gained traction.

Ágnes’ foray into politics casts an interesting light on her earlier theories. In A Theory of Modernity she observed that liberalism and democracy oscillate.[84] The key, she thought, was to restore a balance between them. True enough. But Ágnes’ theory of modernity, accurate in many ways, also had a lacunae. It described the break-down of old rank-order, hierarchical, patrimonial, feudal and medieval societies and the emancipation of ‘the individual’ who experienced an unprecedented degree of mobility, personal destiny, and choice. What Ágnes consistently underestimated though was the degree to which the Platonic form of hierarchy reinvented itself in modernity. It did so in the guise of any number of neo-patrimonial, oligarchic, party, legal-rational and organizational hierarchies. This happened not least because a substantial number of persons prefer security to autonomy and certainty to contingency. They seek out whatever institution they can find that will furnish them with grants, work, offices, preferment, and that promises them a higher status even if it happens to be an imaginary one. Both socialism and national conservatism represent this view in equal and opposite ways. Both made peace with modernity by gravitating to various kinds of illiberal democracy.

What is the cure for this? In her last years, Ágnes looked to the idea of ‘Europe’. She was not without scepticism about it.[85] It was the well spring of her ‘God’, philosophy. Yet it had become in its latter days a slowly dying museum culture. Nevertheless she loved it. A long time ago in Everyday Life she had associated Europe with the notion of ‘law’. This was prescient enough. For ‘Europe’ in the form of the European Union developed as a legal-rational super-state: nominally liberal but an undemocratic liberalism dominated by an imperious bureaucratic organization. I could never figure out: how does one choose between undemocratic liberalism and illiberal democracy? Which dog do you back in the fight between a super-majoritarian national democracy and a qualified majoritarian bureaucratic back-room super-state that presents one candidate for election as the President of its Commission? Ágnes understood that good philosophy is permanent while political causes are passing. Nothing lasts in politics. Every decade brings a new cause, a different party ethos. Some of these are better and some of them are worse than before. However societies—as opposed to their politics—are subject to less flux. They are more glacial. Take the case of corruption. The Platonic form of the legal-rational hierarchy is well established in northern Europe. There corruption is relatively rare. In Southern and South-Eastern Europe, neo-patrimonial forms are remarkably durable from one party regime to the next. Hungary is no exception to that rule.

Ágnes swore off political ‘interventions’ after her husband Ferenc died. But she returned to them in her last years. She always had been interested in politics. In the beginning she had cherished the illusion she could transform the world. She eventually gave up that illusion.[86] Even so she felt it worthwhile to give one’s opinion even if no one listened. The dogged solitude of the stoic-epicurean echoed in this. Party politics are binary. You are expected to choose a side. The overweening atmosphere of the times demands it. Yet there are many cases when neither side—nominally the left or the right—looks very good when measured against the Platonic form of oscillation and balance. Truth in modernity, Ágnes rightly concluded, is paradox.[87] One of the great classic paradoxes of modern life is the liberal treatment of minority views in a majoritarian democracy. This super-positioning is difficult to achieve but it is a real thing. Ágnes’ depiction of the pendulum swinging between liberalism and democracy is one metaphor for understanding how this super-positioning works. But, crucially, balance is not the only operative Platonic form. There is also hierarchy. It produces its own paradoxes—including those of illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.

Ágnes’ pivotal expectation was that the society of individuals could rise above ‘particularism’ and gravitate toward ‘species-essential’ behaviours. Not least she wanted this for her birth-place. She loved Hungary but with a wary eye firmly fixed on it. What she hoped for didn’t happen. But not because hers was a utopian hope. The building blocks of the modem individual—concentration, constancy, autonomy, humour and self-propulsion—are not utopian. They are perfectly realisable—and modern societies find room, sometimes substantial room, for such personalities. But the push in that direction is also countered by deep desires for dependence. Sometimes such desires are expressed as envy and jealousy. Status competition encourages such feelings. Beneath our seething ‘particularisms’, animating them, is the modern version of the ancient status society. Its promise is to allocate secure benefits in exchange for unthinking loyalty and ingratiating fealty. Many people sign up to the social status ‘contract’. Like Hotel California, they find that once they check-in they cannot check-out again.

I watched Ágnes’ final decade from afar. The last time I met her, in Sydney in 2013, we had a long three hour chat, mostly about universities. I was writing a book at the time on that dismal subject.[88] The last time we had email contact was 10 days before her death. We were always slightly distant, both independent spirits. But we always fell easily into philosophical conversation when the opportunity arose. The passing of time made little difference. Each of us moved in different political directions. I became a Eurosceptical liberal-conservative; she a Europhilic liberal social democrat. Both of us detested dishonest people, corrupt societies, despots and tyrants—democratic ones or otherwise. Both of us thought that the greatest cure for despotism was humour and the rationality of the intellect that accompanies it.  Both of us agreed that good philosophy was permanent (and maybe even some good jokes also were). Meanwhile politics, protean and changeable as it is, does not last. My first image of her, returning from the swimming pool at La Trobe, is also my last image of her. She died doing what she loved, swimming. I will miss her. But she will always remain with me. Her spirit leaps off every page she wrote. She found her own inimitable kind of immortality in the arms of the Absolute Spirit that she loved.


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Heller A (1983b) Hungary, 1956 Revisited: The Message of a Revolution—a Quarter of a Century After (with F Fehér). London: Allen and Unwin.

Heller A (1984/1970) Everyday Life. London.

Heller A (1985) The Power of Shame: A Rationalist Perspective. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Heller A (1987) Eastern Left, Western Left: Freedom, Totalitarianism, Democracy (with F Fehér). Oxford: Polity Press.

Heller A (1988) Beyond Justice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller A (1989a) General Ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller A (1989b) The Postmodern Political Condition (with F Fehér). Oxford: Polity Press.

Heller A (1990a) Can Modernity Survive? Oxford: Polity Press.

Heller A (1990b) The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism (with F Fehér). New Brunswick: Transaction.

Heller A (1990c) A Philosophy of Morals. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller A (1996) An Ethics of Personality. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

Heller A (1998) The Beauty of Friendship. In P Murphy (ed) Friendship a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 97:1, 5-22.

Heller A (1999) A Theory of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999.

Heller A (2000) The Time is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Heller A (2002) The Resurrection of the Jewish Jesus. Belin: Philo Verlag.

Heller A (2004) On the Unresolvability of the Jewish Question. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő.

Heller A (2005) Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Heller A (2006a) Trauma. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő.

Heller A (2006b) Behold, Here I Am: Philosophical Interpretations of the Book of Genesis. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő.

Heller A (2007) Samson (2007). Budapest: Múlt és Jövő.

Heller A (2010) Modern Hermeneutics and the Presentation of Opera. In Philosophical and Cultural Theories of Music (P Murphy and EDL Fuente eds). Leiden: Brill.

Heller A (2011a) Aesthetics and Modernity (J Rundell ed.). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Heller A (2011b) A Short History of My Philosophy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Heller A (2012/1999) The Concept of the Beautiful (M Morgan ed.). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Murphy P (1979) State, Civil Society and Democracy in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Honours thesis. Bundoora: La Trobe University.

Murphy P (1983) Moralities, Rule Choice and the Universal Legislator. Social Research 50:4, 757-802.

Murphy P (1985a) Communication, Law and Democracy. PhD thesis. Bundoora: La Trobe University.

Murphy P (1985b) Meaning, Truth and Ethical Value Part I. Praxis International 5:3, 224-246.

Murphy P (1987) Meaning, Truth and Ethical Value Part II. Praxis International 7:1, 35-56.

Murphy P (2001) Civic Justice: From Ancient Greece to the Modern World. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Murphy P (2004) Dialectic of Romanticism: A Critique of Modernism (with D Roberts). London: Continuum.

Murphy P (2009) Creativity and the Global Knowledge Economy (with S Marginson and M Peters). New York: Peter Lang.

Murphy P (2010a) Global Creation (with S Marginson and M Peters). New York: Peter Lang.

Murphy P (2010b) Imagination (with S Marginson and M Peters). New York: Peter Lang.

Murphy P (2012) The Collective Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate.

Murphy P (2016/2015) Universities and Innovation Economies. London: Routledge; Farnham: Ashgate.

Murphy P (2017) Auto-Industrialism. London: Sage.

Murphy P (2019a) The comic political condition: Agnes Heller’s philosophy of laughter and liberty. In J Pickle and J Rundell (eds) Critical Theory and the Budapest School: Politics, Culture, Modernity. London: Routledge, 239-261.

Murphy P (2019b) Limited Government. London: Routledge.

Murphy P (2020, in press) The Political Economy of Prosperity. London: Routledge.


[1]                Heller, 1978-79.

[2]                Murphy, 1979.

[3]                Murphy, 1985a.

[4]                A Short History of My Philosophy [hereafter MP] 2011b: 2.

[5]                MP, 2. In An Ethics of Personality (1996: 39) she observed of Nietzsche that he ‘had to break with Wagner to follow his own star…’ Her relationship with Lukács echoed this.

[6]                MP, 19.

[7]                Murphy, 1983, 1985a, 1985b, 1987.

[8]                Having tried to solve the riddle of the multiplication of competing ethical systems and moral norms in modernity with four Kantian-like meta-ethical principles and a presumption of rationalist justification and argumentation based on those principles, in the closing moment of thesis I concluded: ‘But a word of caution finally: there is nothing guaranteed by such practical reasoning. We cannot say that the appeal to such principles will bring about the desired agreement. Such arguments are capable of being convincing—that is, not only offering the possibility of, but actually achieving, the bringing about of agreement—only if the principles appealed to are shared by those addressed.’ In other words, I had arrived back at the point where I had begun. I knew it.

[9]                Murphy, 1983, 1985b, 1987.

[10]              MP, 11.

[11]              MP, 56.

[12]              MP, 119-120.

[13]              MP, 37.

[14]              MP, 115.

[15]              The idea of shared personal utopias that one can enter and exit is discussed in Beyond Justice (1988).

[16]              MP, 119.

[17]              In print see for example Everyday Life [published in Hungary in 1970 but written in 1968-1969], 42.

[18]              Heller (1984/1970), 93.

[19]              Heller (1984/1970), 99.

[20]              Heller, An Ethics of Personality [hereafter EP], 24.

[21]              EP, 17.

[22]              EP, 19.

[23]              EP, 87.

[24]              EP, 120.

[25]              EP, 125.

[26]              EP, 130-133.

[27]              EP, 146-147.

[28]              EP, 149.

[29]              EP, 136-137.

[30]              EP, 151.

[31]              EP, 152.

[32]              EP, 154.

[33]              EP, 155.

[34]              Also for Lukács. MP, 111.

[35]              Theologia platonica de immortalitate animorum. RM, 39.

[36]              RM, 77.

[37]              MP, 124.

[38]              MP, 111.

[39]              MP, 16.

[40]              Thirty years later she still sounded irritated by her Budapest School colleagues’ use of Marxist categories to try and explain Soviet-type societies’ political economies. MP, 58.

[41]              MP, 71.

[42]              MP, 62.

[43]              MP, 64.

[44]              Murphy, 2019a.

[45]              For her philosophical view of friendship, see Heller, 1998.

[46]              Heller and Fehér, 1983b.

[47]              Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824).

[48]              Heller, 2010.

[49]              The book as written was too long. So the final chapter on Australia had to be excised. I hope to return to the theme sometime in the future.

[50]              Ágnes remarked in MP (111): ‘Every culture has its own master narratives… narratives which are organically sewn into the fibres of a culture, into collective memory, into the memory of those who are not familiar with the stories as well’. She was thinking here of the culture of the unhappy philosophical societies of Europe but it applies as much to the annoyingly happy but on the whole un-philosophical societies. Annoying at least to the chronically dissatisfied guild of intellectuals and academics.

[51]              MP, 70.

[52]              MP, 83.

[53]              MP, 78.

[54]              Murphy, 1983.

[55]              Heller, Renaissance Man [hereafter RM], 290.

[56]              RM, 234.

[57]              RM, 235.

[58]              RM, 235.

[59]              RM, 236.

[60]              RM, 237.

[61]              RM, 249.

[62]              RM, 246-279.

[63]              RM, 260-279.

[64]              RM, 294-295.

[65]              RM, 296.

[66]              RM, 264.

[67]              RM, 286-287.

[68]              RM, 288-289.

[69]              RM, 289.

[70]              RM, 300.

[71]              RM, 363.

[72]              Murphy, 2001, 2004.

[73]              Murphy, 2009, 2010a, 2010, 2012; 2017, 2019b, 2020.

[74]              Murphy, 2004, 2020.

[75]              Murphy, 2020.

[76]              Written in 1957-58 and published in 1966.

[77]              Murphy, 2019b, 2020.

[78]              Murphy, 2019b.

[79]              Heller, 1982, 300.

[80]              Heller, 1985, 1988.

[81]              Murphy, 2012, 2017, 2019b.

[82]              Heller and Fehér were appointed to the New School in 1985 but did not move to New York till 1986.

[83]              MP, 2.

[84]              Heller, 1999, 111.

[85]              Heller, ‘Europe—An Epilogue?’ in The Post-Modern Political Condition (1988).

[86]              MP, 113.

[87]              Heller, 1999: 18.

[88]              Murphy, 2015/2016.

One thought on “Agnes Heller (1929-2019): A Personal-Philosophical Memoir

  1. Pingback: Agnes Heller (1929-2019): A Personal-Philosophical Memoir — thesis eleven – Social Studies of Science

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