As I Please: Orwellian Insights

The term “Orwellian” typically implies something ominous, especially in the realm of politics, thanks to the British writer’s monitory fantasies 1984 and Animal Farm. But here I use the adjective more loosely, referring to Orwell’s perceptive treatment of a wide range of subjects.

Many of the essays appearing in As I Please, the third volume of his collected articles and letters, were originally published in a Tribune column (1943-45) of that same name. There is Orwell’s delightful piece about his favorite pub, “The Moon Under Water.” He describes it as “uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries.” At this establishment “it always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano,” and so forth. Orwell admits further on that it is not a real place, but an imaginary farrago based on his favorite drinking establishments. Other essays offer a defense of English cooking and advice on how to make a proper cup of tea.

There is a fascinating bit of wartime sociology in a discussion about the antagonism between American soldiers and their English hosts. In it we glimpse something of the writer’s persistent fairness. He called for open debate about the causes of animosity and resentment, whereas most contemporaries tried to sweep it under the rug. To his mind, “it is just because one does want a good relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking.” This is markedly different from the typically insincere musings on “tolerance,” both then and now.

While one may not always agree with Orwell, his objectivity is disarming. In recalling the descriptions of misery in Victorian England by early radicals, he notes “The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost for granted.” Although he was a Marxist (at least selectively) Orwell admits that the socialist dogma that the “condition of the working class will grow worse and not better” was an incorrect prognosis. Economic progress had occurred without the need for revolution.

In a reflection on religion and immortality, the author opines: “I do not want the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return. What I do point out is that its disappearance has left a big hole, and that we ought to take notice of that fact.” Orwell further confides that “The western conception of good and evil is very difficult to separate from [immortality]. There is little doubt that the modern cult of power worship is bound up with the modern man’s feeling that life here and now is the only life there is.” He concedes that secularism has yet to furnish popular moral deterrents or encouragements to supplement waning Christian belief. Sadly, one notes, Britain’s ethical veneer has become even more tenuous in the decades since Orwell wrote.

Posted in Art and Culture, George Orwell, Literature, Politics

The Disappointed Futurist

A hundred years ago, the British author H. G. Wells was a prominent social prognosticator. Today his theoretical views are largely neglected. This is the lament of a new biography by Sarah Cole, discussed in the Wall Street Journal. Cole’s new volume is described as “a spirited attempt to rescue” Wells from obscurity by highlighting his “universalism, his monumental output, his omnipresence in the intellectual debates of his time.”  Reviewer D. J. Taylor notes the author’s “saying power… that sets him apart from his descendants.” This is true of his works of fiction; less so, his works of political and cultural commentary.  It is ironic that Wells “was a polymath in a world that was rapidly succumbing to specialist expertise.” He actually belonged to an older humanist tradition that gave way to the very technocracy that he helped to propagandize.

The biographer also compares Wells’ writing style with contemporaries like Joseph Conrad. Apparently when relaxing on the beach he was asked by the famous sea-faring novelist how he would describe a certain boat they were looking at. Wells replied that he would “just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible.” He would generalize. This is very different from the meticulous (one might almost say maddeningly intricate) prose of Conrad. The Polish-born author was a great artist. And he had interesting stories to tell. But in my opinion he was not as successful a storyteller as Wells in his early years. On the other hand, Wells’ later novels were suffused with dull theorizing and stereotypical characters acting as mouthpieces for his own points of view.

According to Taylor, Cole’s biography does not ignore Wells’ “untenable views about race and eugenics” (which is putting it rather gingerly). The English novelist was also an early champion of “free love.” In that respect, his outlook was an accurate predictor of things to come. Yet as time passed he was not always pleased with the course of “progress.” It took another English socialist, George Orwell, to articulate the shortcomings of Wells’ rationalism. The more skeptical Orwell remarked on the failure of a proposed “world state” to generate popular enthusiasm. “All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves.”

Still, we are indebted to Wells for enduring works of imaginative fiction, not only in such well known novels as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds but even some of his short stories like “The Door in the Wall,” which I recently read in an old anthology of that same title. It’s a wistful fantasy about a man’s search for paradise. As such, it can be also be taken as a parable for Wells’ own idealism struggling amidst the harsh facts and disappointments of the world.

Posted in Fiction, George Orwell, H. G. Wells, Literature

A Prophet Against Anonymous Dictatorship

“If you do not watch out, what the dictators wanted to achieve in a few years will materialize in fifty or a hundred; the result will be the same: the State will have conquered all, absorbed all; you will have escaped the totalitarian demi-gods only to let yourselves slip slowly into the glue of an anonymous dictatorship.”–George Bernanos, A Letter to the English, 1943

Bernanos spent a lifetime criticizing the mediocrity of modern society – its fixation on order without purpose or belief. Such, he argued, was the pursuit of many parties on both the “left” and the “right.” His independent mindset, for example, allowed him to champion the rights of workers while also understanding (contra the Marxists) that the worst forms of poverty are spiritual deprivation. Admittedly the French writer was often better at description than prescription. His Luddite idealism seems impracticable, but not the realization that our enslavement to technology – which he foresaw long before the current Googlearchy – is due to a philosophical error: the desire to compensate materially for our moral shortcomings.

Just two years after the Allied triumph over Hitler, the ever vigilant Bernanos could speak of an ongoing “war of states against societies, of States against patries [countries]…. The modern state has slowly reached this phase of growth, beyond which it can only be a fantastic instrument of constraint and enslavement. The state is now a technique in action for the dispossession of real men and for the profit of the future robot.”

His biographer, Thomas Molnar, provides further context: “Bernanos was not an aggressive nationalist like Maurras. With Maurras, nationalism was an ideology, a policy, a plan of action; with Bernanos, patriotism was a supernatural duty—a duty to remain human and linked to God, to continue living by bread and faith.” To be a patriot was to be “essentially open towards others, not closed as the Maurrassian doctrine implies.”

Bernanos “considered the world… as the stage of the struggle between good and evil, without, of course, identifying anybody or any category as the carrier, beyond forgiveness and redemption, of the total burden of evil. In this way, Bernanos did not believe, as [the anti-Semitic] Maurras did, that certain people and races are forever sick and guilty….”

Is the alternative a “rage against the machine,” which only seems to perpetuate the dilemma? Is the free man, Molnar asks, “a mere saboteur, a bitter opponent who finds pleasure, however justified, in placing obstacles in the way of the machine’s heavy feet, in delaying the inevitable march of the Technical State?” Or is he the saint of Bernanos’ novels, possessing “an inexhaustible reservoir of fighting spirit, but also of insight and charity, used not for malice and destruction, but for opposing… freedom to slavery, love to routine?”

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Molnar on Bernanos

“If such a thing could be at all stated of a Christian… Bernanos could be called an ‘alienated man,’ somewhat in the sense in which Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka were alienated. In reality, such a man is the least alienated of all….”—Thomas Molnar, Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy

I recently checked out a copy of Molnar’s study of the French Catholic novelist, and read it in just two days. It is the epitome of intellectual biography. Although the book is long out of print, readers can still avail themselves of an essay by Molnar on the subject.

Bernanos was not a politician or a theorist; nevertheless, he was at the forefront of the ideological warfare which convulsed French society during the first half of the twentieth century. His involvement started with the nationalistic monarchism of Charles Maurras, though by the 1930s he had distanced himself considerably from that camp and eventually denounced the “fascist temptation” that grew to prominence with Mussolini and Hitler. He was offered a government post under the collaborationist regime of Marshall Petain (which he refused). He championed De Gaulle’s Free French movement. Yet, after the war, when De Gaulle proposed he head the Ministry of Culture, Bernanos passed that up as well.

I don’t agree with all of Bernanos’ viewpoints, but I respect his independence. He never became a close-minded party hack; neither did he accommodate himself to convenient fashions and ideas. As a critic of reactionary power seekers, he said of his erstwhile mentor: “How is it that at the same time that Maurras destroys the false ideas, he also sterilizes the right ones and empties them of their sap? There is only one answer to this mystery: the Maurrassian spirit is absolutely lacking in charity.” We are told that for all of Bernanos’ zeal, he avoided extremism because he saw it as a form of despair.

His career reflects the genuine diversity of conservatism in that, like many continental traditionalists, he was unsympathetic toward “bourgeois capitalism,“ though he equally derided any notion that his ideas could be annexed by the socialist left. I am perhaps skeptical enough (and experienced enough) to prefer the market economy to most alternatives, but at the same time to admit the damage caused by rampant consumerism and corporate and technocratic monopolies. Continued debate on the subject should certainly not be stifled.

Bernanos was a brilliant writer because of his perfectionism. He found authorship both a curse and a necessity. As a college student he declared, “If I do not read or write, things go badly for me.” It is a conundrum that all writers (even those of us far removed from his level of genius) must struggle with. Is writing merely a hobby and a distraction, or is it a true vocation? Even in his most polemical pieces Bernanos wanted “to revive in people the reflexes of good faith and sincerity.” This occupation of authorship is perhaps a fitting subject for meditation in the coming year….

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics

Political Convenience and Moral Right

In a Christmas letter to his future biographer, Samuel Johnson wrote: “This is the time of year in which all express their good wishes to their friends, and I send mine to you and your family. May your lives be long, happy, and good” (Dec. 27, 1777). James Boswell had recently told his friend that he was “engaged in a criminal prosecution against a country schoolmaster, for indecent behavior to his female scholars.” To which Johnson replied: “The crime of the schoolmaster whom you are engaged to prosecute is very great, and may be suspected to be too common.” Nihil sub sole novum. The attention that sexual predation has garnered in recent years seems long overdue. Although any moral crusade is fraught with potential excess and opportunism, on the whole (to someone with daughters of his own) it is a welcome development.

At the same time, it would be interesting to compare the frequency of (and reaction to) “indecent behavior” today with that of Johnson’s era. Women clearly had limited social roles. Yet they benefited from stronger religious sanctions against immorality and a greater sense of courtesy. As the religious mores declined, especially in the past century, ethics coarsened. At the same time, women’s claims were slow in being recognized. The latter problem has been redressed; however, ethical inhibitions remain largely superficial.  We live in a society which sexualizes everything and does not put a high premium on self-restraint.

Speaking of moral crusades it is worth noting that Johnson—the staunch Tory and defender of “subordination” or proper class distinctions—was also an early opponent of slavery.  Such paradoxes are not necessarily contradictory. Political life requires nuanced principles, not fundamentalist absolutes—e.g., if liberty and equality are pursued to extremes, they actually cancel each other out.

Johnson believed that “it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed to be the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal….” Here he spoke of equality before the law and not equality of outcome, as promoted by radicals like Rousseau. Johnson detested such ideas. Specifically addressing the existence of British slavery in the Caribbean, he said, “The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.” The great writer and moralist concluded: “It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience.”*

*Excerpts are from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Posted in Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

A Philosophical Postscript

I have not read A. C. Grayling’s new History of Philosophy (Penguin), but Nicholas Stang provides an interesting summary of the work and of the challenges facing similar intellectual pursuits. Stang points out that philosophy is different from technical or scientific disciplines. He echoes the view of Etienne Gilson, French Thomist of the last century: “no man can carry very far his own philosophical reflections unless he first studies the history of philosophy.” We are constantly assessing the views of those who came before us. But where Stang (like Gilson) differs from his peers is his belief that not all systems are on the same level. Ultimately, scholars must provide more than the survey of a lot of clever and contradictory theories.

“Philosophy’s questions,” Stang notes, “seem timeless, but its methods are not. The Greeks were the first to use reason systematically.” Grayling, we are told, is generally agnostic about metaphysical truths though he is (curiously) averse to both Marxist and theistic worldviews. But perhaps it is not so odd after all, since either outlook makes definitive claims about the meaning and purpose of human existence. For this reason some thinkers eschew any sort of doctrinaire system. Yet middle of the road solutions haven’t fared particularly well either, especially in the face of more confident belief systems. As Stang concludes: “narrating the history of philosophy can’t be properly pursued without staking, and defending, philosophical claims in one’s voice about truth, reason, history and teleology.”

Posted in Etienne Gilson, Philosophy

A Hermit’s Tale for the Holidays

This Christmas Eve I found myself reading a biography of Paul of Thebes (c. 226 – c. 341), written by another saint – Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate. Paul is considered the first Christian hermit. Born in Egypt, he fled to the desert to escape the persecution of Decius, and took up the contemplative life.

As is well known, Jerome was no stranger to scholarly controversy. On the one hand, he humorously mocks those who depict Paul as “living in an underground cave, with hair down to his feet.” Yet he includes some fantastic, if delightful, details in his own account. We are told that St. Anthony, also a great hermit, learned of someone holier than himself. So he decided to visit Paul, though he had no precise knowledge of where he lived. Trusting in God, he trekked through the desert. At one point, Jerome relates, he encountered a centaur (half man, half horse). “At the sight of it, he protected himself by making the live-giving sign [of the cross] on his own forehead,” not sure whether this was a demonic apparition or merely a strange beast. He asked where “the servant of God” lived, and the centaur gave him directions in his crude speech and galloped off.

A short while later, Anthony met with a faun (half man, half goat) who greeted him peacefully with a gift of dates. “I am a mortal creature,” the faun explained, “one of the inhabitants of the desert whom the pagans, deluded by various errors, worship…. I am acting as envoy for my tribe. We ask you to pray for us to the Lord….” Anthony was delighted by the piety of the creature. In an aside Jerome asserts, against the skeptics, that a similar animal was once captured and brought to the emperor Constantius. (I admit I have a soft spot for well-mannered fauns like Mr. Tumnus as depicted in the 2005 film version of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

At last, Anthony was led by a she-wolf into a cave where he found Paul. The two holy men became devoted friends, though the elder hermit was not destined to live much longer. I refer readers to the original text for all the details. At any rate, the pious menagerie of the story is suitably rounded out by two lions who arrive outside Paul’s cave after he had died. “They came straight towards the corpse of the blessed old man and stopped there; wagging their tails in devotion they lay down at his feet, roaring loudly as if to show that in their own way they were lamenting as best they could.” The lions helped dig a grave for Paul and then departed with Anthony’s blessing. This aspect of the tale reminds one of the legends about Jerome taming a lion after having removed a thorn from its paw.

The above quotations are taken from the Penguin edition, Early Christian Lives.

Posted in History, Religion

When Regret is a Good Thing

Williams Shatner, best remembered for his Captain Kirk role in Star Trek, argues that “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.” This is sound thinking on a practical level—e.g., whether one should have accepted a certain job offer or bought one model of car instead of another. If we could peak into an alternate universe, perhaps our choice was the better one after all. Yet on more than one occasion Shatner has belied his own advice. He once said that he regretted directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the least successful of the original cast films.

More poignant is the fact that after many decades of friendship, Shatner became estranged from co-star Leonard Nimoy. The two failed to reconcile by the time of Nimoy’s death in 2015. Shatner writes that it is “something I will wonder about and regret forever.” Such a  disappointment comes much closer to the idea of moral compunction, as understood by Catholic priest and writer Ronald Knox. In such cases we should rightfully wonder if our conduct was at fault – not to perpetually beat ourselves up about it, but at least to avoid or mitigate such disappointments in the future. Emotions are wasted if they are about things beyond our control; equally, if they fail to result in something constructive. The man who sits in a bar crying about how much he  loves his family, while drinking away his wages, is indulging in maudlin sentimentality. A complete lack of regret, on the other hand, is empty bravado or worse: ruthless arrogance.

In his meditation on the “Our Father,” Knox he says that “our Lord wants us to be constantly remembering our sins, every time we say our prayers. Those apostles of cheap optimism… will commonly tell you that it is useless to waste your time in vain regrets over what you did wrong in the past; you should all be looking ahead and making bright plans for the future. That, you see, is the exact opposite of our Lord’s teaching. He does not want us to be exercised over the future; we are to ask each day for the bread which will be sufficient for that day, no more. He does want us to be exercised over the past; our old sins are to be a continual subject of conversation between us and him. Not that he wants to make us scrupulous or timorous about them….” But, he adds, “we are to be sin-conscious” like Mary Magdalene, who found a much greater joy in life than her former pursuits of  pleasure or vanity could provide (“The Forgiveness of God,” The Pastoral Sermons).

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Rebels, Greeks and Pedants

I am venturing into Albert Camus’ The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt with a mixture of curiosity and caution. I never quite know where Camus is going, and his thoughts are expressed in prose that is both dense (with meaning) and often paradoxical. Oddly enough this volume by the French existentialist is recommended by Eric Voegelin. This peaked my curiosity since Camus was a man of the left while Voegelin was decidedly traditionalist.

Camus credits the infamous Marquis de Sade as one of the first great ideologues of modern revolution (and nihilism) even more so than Voltaire or Rousseau. He was followed by the “dandy,” or rebel of romanticism, who “extols evil” and his own vanity. Camus even refers to this intellectual phase as a kind of Satanism – a striking thought from an atheist – for whom even murder is acceptable. “It is,” he says, “enough to compare the Lucifer of the painters of the Middle Ages with the Satan of the romantics. An adolescent ‘young, sad, charming’ (Vigny) replaces the horned beast.” I hope to say more about The Rebel in future posts.

An incorrigible multi-tasker, I am alternating Camus with Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. The conflict between Athens and Sparta has been aptly referred to as the World War of ancient Greece, not only in terms of its scope, but also its causes, conduct and aftermath. The manner in which it came about, in the struggle for the Balkan backwater of Epidamnus (436 B.C.), mirrors that of Sarajevo in 1914 and the unpremeditated yet precipitate mobilization of the major European states.  This much is well known to students of the era. But the chronicle that comes down to us, originally from Thucydides, is also replete with insights into culture and politics. At one point Athens, desperate for funds, levied a direct tax. According to Kagan: “Strange as it may seem to modern taxpayers… citizens of the Greek city states hated the idea of direct taxation as a violation of their personal autonomy and an attack on the property on which their freedom rested.”

Last but not least, Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) in his latest book review at The New Criterion reflects on “the history of books as physical objects and in the ways and circumstances in which they have been both produced and read.” Daniels says

These are not uninteresting matters, and I admit myself to a certain fascination with how, for example, pedants down the ages mark books, having often plowed their way through hundreds of pages of text to alight on a single error of no consequence, there to inscribe in the margin a triumphant exclamation mark, as if to say “I knew it all along, this author is an ignoramus!” Noticing this, I realized that the pedant delights in error, not in truth.

A tip of the hat to The Skeptical Doctor for bringing this essay to my attention.

Posted in Existentialism, History, Philosophy, Politics, Theodore Dalrymple

Myson the Misanthrope, And Other Sages

Diogenes Laertius recounts that one day Myson of Chenae (fl. 6th c. B.C.), one of the early Greek philosophers, “was seen laughing to himself in a lonely spot; and when someone suddenly appeared and asked him why he laughed when no one was near, he replied, ‘That is just the reason.’” Considered one of the “Seven Sages” of antiquity, this contemplative farmer turned grumpy philosopher left only a handful of sayings to posterity; among them the adage: “We should not investigate facts by the light of arguments, but arguments by the light of facts.”

Another of the sages, Anacharsis (fl. 6th c. B.C.) was half Scythian, and thus a barbarian in the eyes of his contemporaries. When a Greek reproached him for his background, he replied, “Well, granted that my country is a disgrace to me, you are a disgrace to your country.” To the question, “What among men is both good and bad?” his answer was “The tongue.” He also said, “It is better to have one friend of great worth than many friends worth nothing at all.”

Cleobuline was the daughter of Cleobulus (c. 600 B.C.). She was unusual for the time in that she was philosophically instructed and known for writing riddles and poetry. A play, by the Athenian poet Cratinus, was named after her. On this account Cleobulus would make the rather daring assertion: “We ought to give our daughters to husbands maidens in years but women in wisdom.” According to Diogenes, this meant “that girls should be educated as well as boys.”

Solon (c. 630 – c. 560 B.C.), the famous Athenian lawgiver, offered the following maxims: “Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath. Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Be led by reason. Shun evil company.” He also said “Do not be rash to make friends and, once they are made, do not drop them.” Yet when he advises that in giving advice we should “seek to help, not to please” our friends, one wonders if this would inadvertently result in dropping some of our acquaintances. Solon opposed the tyrant Pisistratus and chided his fellow Athenians in a letter:

If you have suffered sadly through your own wickedness, lay not the blame for this upon the gods. For it is you yourselves who gave pledges to your foes and made them great; this is why you bear the brand of slavery…. You look to the speech of a flatterer, paying no regard to any practical result.

The preceding anecdotes are taken from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (available in an online edition and the original Loeb hardback volume). See my previous comments on Thales of Miletus.

Posted in History, Philosophy