Professor Alvydas Jokubaitis, who is a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, part of Lithuania’s Vilnius University, and the head of the Institute’s Department of Political Philosophy and History of Ideas, is considered to be one of the most intellectually provocative thinkers in contemporary Lithuania. In this interview by The Baltic Times, Jokubaitis discusses his early interest in philosophy and reveals what are the criteria of a good philosopher. Moreoever, the professor talks about the problems of a spiritually limited society, Greta Thunberg’s phenomenon, Lithuanian-Polish relations and the Jewish heritage among other things.
Philosopher Arvydas Šliogeris coined the term philotopy (in Lithuanian filotopija), describing one’s affection for a place, which has a precious and important personal meaning. You have already been living in Vilnius for many years, though you were born in Gargždai, in proximity to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third-largest city on the Baltic coast. Which one of these places would you call your philotopy?
I could not call Vilnius like this because here I am just a colonizer. But when I go by car from Vilnius to Gargždai and I reach Rietavas, even though there are no border guards, my inner voice tells me that I am near my hometown. It is much easier for me to go to the West part of the country than to go to Vilnius. Furthermore, I could say that Palanga awakens my feelings too – my grandparents lived there. If Klaipėda had university, satisfying my interests, then I would go there. Additionally, my parents are old, thus I would like to be closer to them. I guess if you had asked Arvydas Šliogeris this question, he would have struggled to answer it himself. Philosophers are inclined to think in abstractions. Any abstraction is a distortion of the reality, its deformation and the beginning of an ideology.
I have read in one of your previous interviews that you have been very receptive since childhood. You liked watching the evening news and the best gift for you would have been a book. When in your life did you feel being drawn to philosophy?
To my mind, all people have an inclination for philosophy, because they want to understand themselves and the world as a whole. Scientists observe the coast, but they overlook the sea. They do not even know that the sea exists because they divided it into innumerable separate physical phenomena. My hapless love story with philosophy originated with an accidental reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky. When I read his novel The Idiot, everything changed. What I had been reading in my literature classes before looked interesting, but was marked by Creator’s pride, ideology and artificiality. In Dostoevsky’s case, it seemed like I met a prophet whose words were ringing in my head; I felt like the Apostle Paul during his journey to Damascus. I had never imagined that human mind could be able to reach this depth.
Is it possible to somehow gauge the professionalism of a philosopher? In other words, how does a good philosopher look like?
The best philosophers do not have professional standards. The person is the main standard. Good philosophy is a miracle. Super League philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel – create a new world and its understanding. Even if we elucidated what consists the Kant’s mastery, most of us still stay little mice. I think good philosophy does not speak about mastery. Mastery is intended for lower level apprentices – for those who write articles for journals with a citation index. It better suits those who speak about the history of philosophy and methodology. But in philosophy we do not have methodology – the philosopher starts his own methodology. Every good philosopher has his own unique style. Standardization in philosophy does not make sense. For instance, it is hardly possible for the standards which suit Kant to suit Hegel. It is important to merge the idea and the form. The concept of mastery is there so that we could teach students about it in the faculty of philosophy (grins). For the philosopher who will truly achieve something in the field, this question has no actuality. This person will simply have a dreadful desire to say something and will do that in his own manner.
Probably you have also been observing the actions of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist. We could say that the issue of climate change became considerably politicized. How do you evaluate this situation: are Greta’s efforts properly reflecting the existential threat or are they rather demonstrating a product of PR?
To me, as a man of my generation, this behaviour of a child looks odd. It is stated in the Lithuanian law that people do not have a voting right until the age of eighteen. I remember when my younger son was of the same age as Greta is now and used to be exasperated by the fact that he could not vote. He thought he understood politics better than elderly people. But I always had an answer for him: “Wait, you will have time to change the world”. With the rise of the feminist movement, and later with the LGBT social movements, claims that there was not much difference between a man and a woman were brought up. The Thunberg case shows another breakthrough of equality – suddenly, we do not have a difference between an adult and a child.
Aristotle said that politics is not for children. Politics requires a lengthy training and an extended presence among others – you must be able to handle your own personality. Naturally, Greta lacks this component. She has entered into the political system which is characterized by a peculiar logic, the logic of adults. In fact, the political world could exploit even God for its interests. Greta demonstrates the wrong kind of philosophy: she thinks that her role is almost quasi-religious, as if her word or pilgrimages could shake the Earth.
Mahatma Gandhi was a remarkable politician. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was significant in politics – the cleric who was able to carry out the Islamic Revolution. But if we expect something similar from Greta, obviously, we will not have the same result. It would be better for her to act according to her age: to go to school, to read books and to consider what she could do when she grows up.
Now it is very popular to speak about identities – to compare or contrast them. Even Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda expressed his opinion that “we have to be Lithuanians first and only then Europeans and everything else”. In your opinion, is it possible to reconcile the identity of a Lithuanian and a European?
When Lithuanians realized that they are Lithuanians, which was not very long time ago, they were smart enough to perceive that they are living in Europe. This question, at least in the form in which you gave it, is absolutely fictitious. You should ask: is it possible to reconcile Lithuanian sovereignty with such a transnational organization like the European Union? And if you asked me this, then I would say that it is very difficult and we have not found the solution yet. The British people proved that Europe and the European Union are not synonyms. They have no doubts that they are creators of the Western European culture. But even with this understanding, the United Kingdom still decided to withdraw from the European Union.
For several decades already, various politicians and intellectuals have been discussing the issue of Latin letters and its usage in the official Lithuanian documents. Do you think that this problem will be solved someday and what kind of suggestion would you give?
It is hard to predict the future, but I like this question. I like how it got stuck too. This is how our relations with Poland work; we constantly get stuck somewhere. This is the oddity of our mutual love. There always has to be an objection. Otherwise, there would be no intrigue – you cannot be identical with your lover, can you? To my mind, this conflict revitalizes our interest in each other. As a Samogitian (in Lithuanian žemaitis), I do not really like how my surname is written. I could raise exactly the same claims to Vilnius. Philologists follow artificial rules and they are writing names not like the locals are uttering them. People from Telšiai will never say ‚Telšiai‘; instead, they will call their town ‚Telšią‘. But this is how our unification politics work. As soon as Poles have the right to write their names how they want (though I think we want them to write their names in a way that seems to be proper to us), Samogitians immediately will be able to rename ‚Gargždai‘ to ‚Gargždą‘.
What is the importance of the Polish past to Lithuania and the Lithuanian past to Poland in the XXI century? Do we appreciate enough the common cultural heritage? And how do our bilateral relations look to you?
To my mind, our relations in the present times look pathetic. We are not interesting to Poles. When they come to Vilnius, they are trying to find the Polish past of the city. Lithuanian side does not arouse their curiosity at all. Lithuanians did not leave a truly remarkable trace in Vilnius – we did not have our Adam Mickiewicz or Vilna Gaon. No, I don’t want to say that we did everything wrong – if we compared it with Lviv, we managed to save Vilnius. Lithuanians love Vilnius: they became patriots of the city really fast. But Poland for Lithuanians is just a transit state, which must be crossed in order to go to Germany or elsewhere. They are not interested in the modern Polish culture.
People say that there is no such thing as a good divorce. During the divorce of Lithuanians and Poles something was given and something was taken away. The interwar generation grew up surrounded by Polish culture and they were constantly trying to prove that Lithuanian culture was as good and strong as the Polish. They were acting more resolutely than the current generation, which now could be described as a generation of bystanders and consumers.
This year is officially announced to be the Year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Lithuanian Jews. However, in general, do we Lithuanians pay enough attention to the Jewish legacy? How should we celebrate this inheritance? Maybe we need a modern Jewish museum or should we rebuild the Great Synagogue?
Probably it is impossible to come up with anything more significant to this extraordinary nation than rebuilding the Great Synagogue.
I see. This decision could be even successful in a commercial sense. It could attract many tourists from all around the world.
One of the most famous Jewish personalities – Vilna Gaon – was buried in Lithuania. When I heard that Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally asked our prime minister if he could give Gaon’s remains in order to rebury them in Israel, I was frightened. I know how crafty Netanyahu is and that he could convince our prime minister to make this fateful mistake. Vilnius without its Gaon is not Vilnius anymore. Moreover, we have already disturbed the peace of the genius when we moved his remains to Sudervė.
In the end, I would like to ask you about your own inner peace. How do you nurture it and what are the things in life which give you the most joy?
I don’t know actually… (thinks deeply). What could give me joy? Yesterday, some matters irritated me, but today, I woke up and I asked myself why I was making such a fuss about it because it was just a trifle. And when I look at myself, I very often stumble upon the thought that my own efforts result only in chaos. Something in our spirit helps us. Religions are teaching us that the descent of spirit exists and it gives us strength. I believe for some it might sound funny but try to deny it – it will not work.