Radical Differences

There has been a major verbal fray over Dean Detloff’s essay in the Jesuit-run America Magazine, “The Catholic Case for Communism.” Rather than detail the obvious historical gaps in Detloff’s apologia pro Karl Marx—i.e., the misery and oppression that accompanies every Communist regime to achieve power (without exception)—I want to approach the subject on a philosophical and psychological level.

As a former college radical I can, without indulging in platitudes, say that I sympathize with the motives that attract people to revolutionary political creeds. By that same token I don’t always assume that those justifications are inherently noble…. only because I can remember by own motivations very well. How much of radicalism is born of the desire to really help others? How much is it to gratify egos, defer everyday responsibility, to indulge in envy and hatred? I cannot make a blanket statement. But those are questions that have to be asked.

Detlaff’s essay is essentially a continuation of a famous 1933 article by Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert who never really left off her old socialist assumptions. She pleads that “It is because of the Communist party’s ideals, not because of its essential anti-religious aspect; because of its love of the ordinary man, and not because of its hatred towards God, that so many young people are being attracted towards Communism.” Day grew even more optimistic about Christian/Communist rapprochement in the early days of Castro’s Cuba. In a 1961 article she took at face value the dictator’s protestations that he was not anti-religious. There is of course some truth to her observation about why people adopt Marxist beliefs. But it I think it concedes too much. It also fails to note that many former-Marxists have come to firmly reject the principles and practices that Day eulogizes—I am thinking of people like Raymond Aron, Whittaker Chambers, Thomas Sowell, and David Horowitz.

The real question for someone like Detlaff is why does one, as a Christian, need Communism in the first place? Marxism is essentially a political religion in terms of its faith in utopia. Assumptions about human nature are completely different from those of Christianity, as are the means of dealing with human conflict and injustice. Scruton makes the point in The Uses of Pessimism (which I reviewed recently) that our civilization grew out of an appreciation of the moral quality of forgiveness and the importance of institutions designed to mitigate resentment. Yet Communism is predicated on the very opposite view.

I trust that Detlaff is not knowingly a proponent of totalitarianism. Still, I question his intellectual acumen. Putting aside questions of propaganda and controversy, Marxism is the negation of transcendent religious belief. You simply can’t have it both ways.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Impromptu Philosophizing

At the moment I am cleaning out some recent notes and clippings. And it’s possible that such impromptu gleanings are of more interest than my studiously composed commentaries. Here’s a passage from an omnipresent bedside volume of Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

After coffee, we went to afternoon service in St. Clement’s church. Observing some beggars in the street as we walked along, I said to him I supposed there was no civilised country in the world, where the misery of want in the lowest classes of the people was prevented. JOHNSON. ‘I believe, Sir, there is not; but it is better that some should be unhappy, than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.’

It will strike some as callous. But experience has taught me (as a former radical) that thoughtful realism causes less suffering in the long run than impulsive idealism. It is not that traditionalists like Johnson wickedly desire that some people be poor, but one recognizes that the reasons for poverty are manifold and that the best guarantee of material well-being is a society that favors opportunity without punishing the majority of people who succeed through hard work while at the same time rewarding the relative few who favor sloth and envy.

“The modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling the most fundamental political and social conventions…” (Plato, Republic, 424c). A book could be written on the subject. Is it a change in aesthetics that unsettles our morals, or vice versa? Or, in fact, do they work hand in hand?

Speaking of music, on a more positive note, is John Edward Hasse’s recent tribute to jazz pianist Bill Evans. He says in his vignette summary of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings: “To listen closely is to enter the singular time-space of a dark, smoky night club for an unforgettable performance. You hear soft murmurs from the audience, low-key applause and a sound-scene of intense feeling and telepathic interplay.” The author portrays the musician, whom he once met at a concert, in a way that I have always imagined: “Soft-spoken and introverted, he wore his genius like a hidden pocket.” Such is the personality that reveals itself spontaneously and without pretense through his artistry.

My final entry references a well-thumbed copy of Etienne Gilson’s study, The Unity of Philosophical Experience. It is not a piece of light reading, but there are invariably some pithy insights by this masterful twentieth century intellectual historian:

I wish I could make clear from the very beginning that in criticizing great men… I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he is a genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others…. There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse for being a Cartesian.

Posted in Art and Culture, Etienne Gilson, Literature, Philosophy

Epicurean Ethics and Friendship

To continue my discussion of Epicurus, the Hellenic philosopher followed thinkers like Democritus in being a materialist. He held that that the world was composed of particles of varying sizes and arrangements, with the soul merely consisting of atoms of a particularly fine quality. However, in contrast to most atomists, who favored determinism, Epicurus insisted on free will.

His ethical theory revolved around the central facts of physical sensation and our rational judgments about our experiences. In all fairness, Epicurus was not a crude sybarite. For him the highest pleasures were katastematic (those attained in a state of rest) versus kinetic (those of movement). Intense sensual pleasures were not to be sought so much as intellectual ones; the Epicurean ideal is an absence of pain and anxiety. It is perhaps helpful to note that Epicurus was plagued by chronic ailments throughout his life, hence the rather valetudinarian ideal.

Epicurean adages are not without a certain dignity and psychological acumen. “He who is not satisfied with a little,” he declared, “is satisfied with nothing.” He also maintained that it is more gratifying to confer benefits than to receive them. Self-control is important, and one should deny oneself short-term pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Moreover a state of mental contentment may permit oneself to enjoy, on balance, supreme happiness even if afflicted with physical pain or debility.

But in the end all things are referred to the calculus of gratification. On the one hand, Epicurus was wary of sexual pleasure since it so often brings misfortune or complications in its wake. On the other, he had no problem with theft or adultery in principle so long as it was not detected. He explained that laws were advantageous insofar as they protect us from the rapacity of others, while obedience to custom is generally preferable to the likelihood of being caught and punished. Notions of justice are pragmatic and contractual—e.g. what is useful to the respective parties versus an absolute norm.

Of Epicurus’ precepts the one that is the most noble and touching is the emphasis on friendship. He diverged from Plato in divorcing eros from philia (to my mind, a decided improvement). Passion destroys our security, he maintained, while friendship nourishes it. Epicurean fellowship offered mutual aid, as well as intellectual pleasure, in a world of hardship and frequent political strife. Although his ethos would seem prone to opportunism, Epicurus believed (somewhat paradoxically) that the blessings of friendship can be obtained only through genuine loyalty and even sacrifice.

In the end, his materialism undoubtedly places the bar all too low in securing a measure of human happiness. Yet as flawed as Epicureanism is, it does shame those of us who profess nobler beliefs into exercising at least some of the thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice demanded of this ingenious hedonist.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Epicurus Examined

Why study Epicurus? After all, he was condemned by many philosophers, including Cicero, as a mere libertine. And such has been his legacy in subsequent eras, even though his real outlook was a bit more nuanced. There is always something to be learned from a great thinker, however flawed. Partly it is the fascination that people like myself have with the intellectual life and how others have lived it. That is why I enjoy Diogenes Laertius‘ famous lives of the philosophers or the somewhat more recent study of Epicurus by J. M. Rist (Cambridge, 1972). It is often helpful to understand what is wrong with a school of thought, as well acknowledging what might be right about it, in juxtaposition to our own beliefs.

At first glance Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) is a capricious character. His school was unique for allowing women members, though one suspects this was partly a matter of convenience given his lax views on sexual relations. Like most of compatriots, says Rist, he “held that only Greeks could be serious philosophers.” Nor did he take in students from the lower social orders. Even more striking is the authoritarian nature of his school. Members of Epicurean communities took an oath of obedience to their founder, which was in marked contrast to the followers of Plato, who often debated with their teacher. Epicurus liked to be referred to as the “wise man” and “divine.” Contrast this with the intellectual humility of Socrates and other thinkers who refused to consider themselves “wise,” but only “lovers of wisdom” (hence the term philosophia) since only the Logos or God is truly all-knowing.

For his part, Epicurus opined that the Olympian deities took no active interest in human affairs as it would be beneath them and interfere with their heavenly bliss—with the fringe benefit that we need not be superstitious or fear their wrath—hence, the famous maxim: “Don’t fear god, Don’t worry about death….” He nevertheless speculated that the gods could befriend wise men, like himself, in a purely passive manner. As vain as many theorists are, Epicurus took hubris to new heights. His community emphasized kindness and gratitude among its members while pouring venomous scorn on all rivals, and the sage himself evinced a peevish lack of gratitude by disparaging his former teachers.

So much for the rather unedifying, if occasionally amusing, anecdotal side to Epicurus. In my next post we will see what if anything can be gleaned from his teachings.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Useful Pessimism, And Other Insights

Philosopher Roger Scruton prefaces his provocatively titled book, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope (Oxford, 2010) by saying that he seeks to scrutinize exaggerated optimism and “show the place of pessimism” in moderate doses “in restoring balance and wisdom to the conduct of human affairs.” It is not that idealistic misconceptions are new; nevertheless, they have acquired immense prestige in recent generations. Whether it is the “utopian fallacy,” the “born free fallacy,” or the “planning fallacy,” all seek simplistic solutions to life’s problems. They also tend to deny any hard evidence that would contradict their incompetently (and sometimes brutally) imposed aspirations—hence the group-think “optimism.”

For more details on the book, readers are referred to Scruton’s lecture at the Royal Society of Arts. But one interesting insight is the way in which uncritical notions of social planning are really exercises in selfish individualism, albeit on a collective scale. Scruton explains the paradox:

The sphere of freedom is one of responsibility, in which people pay for their freedoms by accounting for their use…. Although freedom is an exercise of the ‘I’, it comes into being through the ‘we’; it cannot be assumed that people will still achieve freedom in a world where the ‘we’ is merely imagined and relationships and attachments no longer exist.

The ersatz rationality for revolution is pitted against the “we” of tradition. In a state hastily imposed from the top down, certain political leaders hope to promise us whatever we want. This is very different from the natural community, which is “not part of a plan of action, but arises from the enterprise of social cooperation over time.” The latter is built on patience, forbearance and an acceptance of limitations.

A fascinating sidelight is Scruton’s invocation of Hegel. The German thinker was an ambiguous character who straddled both conservatism and modernism. To his credit, he critiqued the emerging progressivism of the late 18th century. Hegel understood that institutions like the family, voluntary associations, and the church emerged independently of the state. Also, as Scruton explains, he disagreed with the idea that people possessed true “freedom” in a state of nature—i.e., that if all constraints are removed people will be wonderfully liberated and ennobled.

At the same time, Hegel indulged in what Scruton calls the “moving spirit fallacy.” It holds that “history exhibits a continuous development of the individual towards full self-consciousness” and that society as a whole is moving inexorably toward higher and more perfect mode in accordance with the zeitgeist (“the spirit of the times”). Marx adopted Hegel’s formula as a rather contradictory justification for using force and disruption in moving us toward the allegedly foreordained culmination of society under Communism.

In conclusion, I tend to agree with the author that while transcendent hope is indeed a blessing, optimism that is “detached from faith and untempered by the evidence of history, is a dangerous asset” leading, as it so often has, to very pessimistic outcomes.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Roger Scruton

The Tragic Sense

In literature or drama the tragic situation is one in which the protagonist suffers some great hardship, occasionally as the result of personal shortcomings, but very often due to circumstances beyond the individual’s control. Tragedy is not possible where nobility of character is completely lacking. A person may be flawed (like Julius Caesar) but not utterly degenerate or malevolent (like Adolf Hitler). The tragic character is often presented with ethical options where the choice is blurred. Such is the case in Sophocles’ Antigone. And in Moby-Dick one sees the Pequod’s obedient crew falling victim to Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the white whale.

Some situations are more conducive to the tragic sense than others. In a passage of Orwell’s 1984 there is the contrast between the drab and brutal conformity of George Winston’s world with his memories of the past:

Tragedy… belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship…. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows.

The interesting point here is the notion of loyalty—”when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason”—which is not always rationally articulated. It is based on revered custom and an intuitive sense of duty. Finally, there can be no tragedy where there is not sacrifice. That is why so much modern entertainment, indulging in fantasy sex and violence, fails to evoke a sense of sympathetic loss.

Sacrifice requires an acceptance of our limitations, even while we strive to transcend them. The outnumbered Spartans were defeated at Thermopylae, yet they set an example of resistance for the rest of Greece and bought enough time for the Athenians to eventually defeat the Persian invaders. Philosopher Roger Scruton sheds further light on the paradox whereby human mortality lends greatness to our better deeds:

Poetry, drama, portraiture and music show us that mortality is inextricably woven into the human scheme of things: that our virtues and our loves are the virtues and loves of dying creatures; that everything that leads us to cherish one another, to sacrifice ourselves, to make sublime and heroic gestures, is predicated on the assumption that we are vulnerable and transient, with only a fleeting claim on the things of this world.

Posted in Art and Culture, George Orwell, Literature, Philosophy, Roger Scruton

Footnotes and Addenda

I was reminded of a line from C. S. Lewis’ memoir Surprised by Joy in which he says: “The surest means of disarming an anger or a lust was to turn your attention from the girl or the insult and start examining the passion itself.” The Greek Stoic Epictetus puts it this way: if someone else breaks a cup we tend to shrug it off and say, those things happen; so if we break a cup, we should have exactly the same reaction. The point being that when something angers, annoys or tempts us, we should step back and observe the reaction from the point of view of another person. If a man leers at an attractive woman it strikes us as crass and offensive. But we think nothing of it when we do the same thing, because we are apt to make excuses for our lack of self-control.

In Orwell’s 1984 the main character Winston Smith observes: “What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies [children] were all turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party.” Those who seek absolute political power necessarily want to eradicate the authority of parents and other intermediary institutions. Totalitarians are not particularly bothered by bad behavior so long as it doesn’t threaten them politically. Under the French and Russian Revolutions, common criminals were treated with relative leniency, while ideological opponents guilty of no wrong-doing were often killed outright.

“He was glad of this opportunity to be alone and recover from reality, which had already so lowered his spiritual condition.” This passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, describing Konstantin Levin, came to mind during a recent day off from work. I juxtaposed it with some advice by Marcus Aurelius: “Men seek retreats for themselves in country places… but that is altogether unenlightened when it is possible at any hour you please to find a retreat within yourself” (Meditations, IV.3). Recently I commented on the desire for solitude. Escapism is not helpful. But there is a happy medium. Admittedly it is better to be detached from things so that annoyances and distractions do not put us out of sorts. Completely fastidious people are seldom happy. On the other hand, every great spiritual system has recognized the importance of retreating once in awhile – not to indulge in dissipation that leaves us unrefreshed, but to seek moments of genuine rest and reflection.

Posted in George Orwell, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Stoicism

Pliny and Suicide

“I have suffered the heaviest loss…. Cornelius Rufus is dead; and dead, too, by his own hand!”–Pliny the Younger, Letter VIII

Among the Roman pagans suicide was seen as a permissible exit, especially if age, disease or dishonor seemed to merit it. Marcus Aurelius, in line with the Greek Stoics, says that if one cannot live nobly then it is possible to “depart from this life altogether, not in anger but simply, freely and reverently” (X.8). Yet for all the theoretical arguments in favor of suicide, Pliny laments that “the sort of death which we cannot impute either to the course of nature, or the hand of providence, is, of all others, the most to be lamented.”

Pliny grants that his friend endured a very painful ailment in his final years. He initially praised his “heroic” resolution in refusing all nourishment. Nevertheless when Cornelius’ wife and daughter could not persuade him to relent, they appealed to Pliny, who admits that he ran to his friend’s house in an attempt to change his mind. But to no avail. Though he later tried to reconcile himself to Cornelius’ fate, in the end he found the usual platitudes “far too weak to support me under so severe an affliction” as the self-inflicted loss of a friend.

The poignancy of this ancient missive still speaks to us. Ironically many have reverted to the pagan view of the subject. But the emotional repercussions have not been made any easier, especially when so many people are encouraged to end their lives in what might be a state of temporary emotional distress.

Even among non-believers there those who question such choices. Albert Camus famously argued that if we see no meaning in life we should find it or create it rather than give into despair. More recently in The Economist the atheist writer Kevin Yuill pleads that “We are not simply our bodies. Assisted suicide defines our lives in overly physical terms. There is another dimension of ourselves, made up of our experiences, relationships and interactions.” He also invokes an important axiom, which I think we must credit Christianity for formulating in its consistent opposition to suicide: “We currently place equal moral weight on human life and do not measure it by years left or physical ability. Instituting assisted dying threatens that moral precept.”

Posted in Philosophy

Cosmic Meaning

Adam Kirsch’s essay “Our Quest for Meaning in the Heavens” eloquently sums up humanity’s changing view of the universe. For much of our history the realm beyond the earth was populated by gods or angels. The 19th Psalm comes to mind: “See how the skies proclaim God’s glory, how the vault of heaven betrays his craftsmanship!” As our society became secularized we adopted a sort of immanentized heavenly vision—a celestial empire spreading throughout the galaxy (Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy) or a universe populated by diverse life forms, some with godlike power and intelligence (Star Trek). Kirsch speaks of the persistent desire to “humanize the cosmos, to find meaning in the chaos of the stars.”

But in recent decades that enchanting view has been reduced to the prosaic void of “outer space.” According to Kirsch, what the Apollo 11 landing of fifty years ago changed “is not mainly our ability to venture into outer space, which remains strictly limited. Rather its most important effect has been to transform the way we think about the universe and our place in it.”

Humanity is a mere speck in the vastness, not likely to colonize other worlds any time soon. Nor has proof of extraterrestrial life been forthcoming. I say that reluctantly, having been fascinated with space exploration and science fiction as long as I can remember. And the notion of life beyond earth appeals to me as much as it did to C. S. Lewis. Yet the empirical data is there. Space is far more hostile than once imagined, leading Carl Sagan to state that “for the moment, Earth is where we make our stand.” Such a conclusion is open to different interpretations. One can plausibly argue that we have come full circle to the older view that puts our world at the center of things (existentially speaking).

Kirsch lauds the moon mission as possibly “the greatest achievement in human history.” It was a stupendous undertaking. Yet even people who hold very different opinions from me would point out that it has had no significant impact on our daily lives. In contrast to feats of physical exploration are the great moral and intellectual discoveries—in particular those of ancient Jerusalem and Athens. They still provide meaningful insights into the paradox of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

…I look up at those heavens of thine, the work of thy hands, at the moon and the stars, which thou hast set in their places; what is man that thou shouldst remember him? What is Adam’s breed, that it should claim thy care?  Thou hast placed him only a little below the angels, crowning him with glory and honour, and bidding him rule over the works of thy hands… (Psalm 8).

Posted in Philosophy

The Versailles Myth?

According to Joseph Loconte’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal, the Versailles Treaty “has borne an impossibly heavy burden” over the past century. It is frequently claimed that the “harsh terms” of the agreement “embittered Germany and set the stage for the rise of Nazism and World War II.” This, says Loconte, “is mostly a myth.” An extreme trajectory of this legend is the hagiographical biography Hitler: Born at Versailles by SS General Leon Degrelle. It’s as if Nazism had to happen, and the Führer was fulfilling an historic mission. Even a mainstream scholar like A.J.P. Taylor, in his controversial Origins of the Second World War (1961), posited that the conflict of 1939-45 was not part of some diabolical master plan; rather, it was due to impromptu German opportunism and the stumbling and short-sighted policies of the Western powers. But this ignores the moral factor.

We tend to forget that World War I was the most brutal struggle that Europe had seen in generations. Even before Versailles, the strain of war helped usher in the Russian Revolution which, in turn, gave birth to a new breed of political fanaticisms. German nationalists, meanwhile, refused to accept that their wartime leaders had been wrong and inept. They promoted the “stab in the back” myth: the idea that Jews and pacifists undermined Germany in the last year of the war. In reality, the arch-militarist commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff were faced with the embarrassing collapse of their final 1918 offensive in France. They turned in desperation to the politicians to rescue them, hoping for an armistice before the Allies (reinforced by fresh American troops) could roll across the German border. Only later would they backtrack and complain that the defeat wasn’t military at all but the result of political treason.

Admittedly Versailles didn’t improve the situation. The breakup of the monarchies in Russia, Germany and Austria created dangerous political vacuums. But I tend to agree with Loconte that any prolonged conflict of itself tends to desensitize people to death, destruction and hatred. It was especially tragic since World War I was so unnecessary and avoidable.

The treaty of 1919 was perhaps the predictable outcome of a conflict founded on modern, post-Christian prejudices. People of all political persuasions, nationalists and socialists alike, marched jubilantly into battle with a hodge-podge of ideological aspirations—conquest, revenge, revolution, the war to end all wars. “Traditional religion,” says Loconte, “might have held back the forces of bigotry and terror….” But by the time of Versailles “secular idols—new and fearsome political religions—had appeared in Europe” with millions of new worshipers who lacked the old scruples that had been decisively swept aside by four years of grinding slaughter.

Posted in History, Politics