Theory as Reality Check

“Study has been to me a sovereign remedy against the vexations of life, having never had an annoyance that one hour’s reading did not dissipate.”—Montesquieu

Sometimes we need to step back from the mundane routine of life and take things in at a more philosophical level. Of course it helps if theory coincides with reality. A common thread in the thinkers I’ve been reading lately is the need for intellectual honesty. Eric Voegelin, whose work I referenced previously, says

In classic and Christian ethics the first of the moral virtues is sophia [wisdom] or prudentia, because without adequate understanding of the structure of reality, including the conditio humana, moral action with rational co-ordination of means and ends is hardly possible. In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intend an entirely different effect.

The German philosopher penned this over sixty years ago; however, I doubt he would have been terribly shocked at the depth of unreality we have plumbed in the past decade.

Reading Frederic Bastiat’s classic manifesto, The Law, I came across an equally notable passage where he describes the tendency to ascribe “the sufferings inescapable from humanity” to good or bad political decisions. Surely “no one would think of accusing the Government of them, for it would be as innocent of them as it is of the variations of the temperature.” Yet that it exactly what we have today — any time a conservative politician speaks, he or she is somehow guilty of melting the Antarctic ice sheet.

In the words of a later theorist, J. L. Talmon, the modern ideologies tend toward fantasy because they do not see politics as a matter of empirical trial and error, rather they assume “a sole and exclusive truth.” The gradual marginalization of non-political associations and relationships results in a mass of alienated individuals and an increasingly omnipotent state which promises (but can never deliver) social salvation. Describing the impact of the French Revolution, Talmon says that

The decline of religious authority implied the liberation of man’s conscience, but it also implied something else…. With the rejection of  of the Church, and of transcendental justice, the State remained the sole source and sanction of morality (The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, 1951).

A contemporary of the Jewish scholar, the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, summed it up even more cogently: “[Our] freedom does not consist in having neither master nor God but rather in having no master other than God. And indeed God is for man the only bulwark against the tyranny of other men” (The Philosopher and Theology, 1962).

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Posted in Eric Voegelin, Philosophy, Politics

More Off the Shelf Remarks

The following quote by William Hazlitt originally appeared in a delightful essay by Prof. E. J. Hutchison of Hillsdale College (“The Hedonism of Reading Good Books“). In praising the habit of making and maintaining the acquaintance of a venerable tome, the early nineteenth-century English writer says that

It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

These are shared sentiments that span the centuries. I feel this when I take up a work like Boswell’s Life of Johnson or a volume by H. G. Wells or Etienne Gilson. We never tire of the continuing dialogue, the recollections and associations, as well as the surprisingly fresh insights.

On an entirely different note is an opinion piece I came across at about the same time in the Wall Street Journal (“The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature“). The author, Steve Salerno, is no reactionary. Yet even he seems dismayed by “socially aware” contemporary offerings. Salerno substantiates my own observations of the genre from a few years ago: “Inspiration has always been the hallmark of young adult literature, which traditionally consists of reassuring texts infused with values espoused by most of mainstream society.” But this is apparently tiresome to the adult intelligentsia who would prefer to dwell on the dysfunctional: “sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings….” Granting that these thing do happen, overly stark depictions glamorize or exaggerate their place in daily life.

All art is selectivity, and not all subjects merit the same treatment. Rather than ameliorate the difficulties young people face, Salerno (correctly) surmises that the trauma of literary “darkness and depravity” further diminishes the few shreds of hope that readers may be clinging to. “Are high rates of depression and suicide an organic outgrowth of life’s legitimate trials—or are they a crisis manufactured, at least in part, by painting life as so much more trying than it is?”

Fortunately, Mr. Hazlitt once again comes to the rescue. He says that when we turn to great writers who have outlived the fads and nonsense of their day “there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.” Those are the sort of books that should be our companions throughout life’s journey.

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature

Silent Friends

There are some passages in Kierkegaard’s essay “Be Satisfied with Being Human” which contain marvelous insights. Speaking of sorrow and commiseration, the Danish writer notes that

[E]veryone who sorrows… is perhaps also tempted to impatience and does not want to hear what others have to say about comfort and hope. Perhaps those who sorrow are wrong in that regard; perhaps they are too impatient when it seems to them that no human being can speak to their point about what grieves them. For, they think, the happy do not understand them, and when those who are strong offer comfort they seem precisely to place themselves far above them by doing so, while what other anxiety sufferers have to offer only depresses them further.

There is the inclination to self pity on the part of the sufferer, to be sure. At the same time the sufferer will only benefit from sympathy that is patient and genuine. Nor can we tell others exactly how or when to “feel better.” An alternative is a kind of mute companionship.

Silence honors anxiety and the anxious person, as Job’s friends did when, out of respect, they sat silently with the sufferer…. The silent friends did not compare Job with themselves: that only happened when they broke with the respect in which they silently held him and broke silence in order to fall upon the sufferer with their speeches.

As noted previously, Kierkegaard says that speech “distinguishes human beings from animals.” We think of it as a mark of superiority. Yet how much harm is done by speech? Even if we do not speak from malice, we may utter the wrong thing out of impatience or vanity, leading Kierkegaard to conclude that there is an “art to being able to keep silent.”

The deeper lesson, however, is not about human speech at all. A friend who read the above passages said that for years he was frustrated by the silence of God. But then he realized that divinity offers none of the disadvantages noted by Kierkegaard. We can assume that God already knows who we are and what we need. He does not judge us in a superficial manner nor does he offer unsolicited advice. So, as the philosopher reminds us, if we cannot find healing in the words of people around us then we must practice inner silence; we must be open to answers that we can “hear” if we truly listen for them, and not force on them our short-sighted anxieties and expectations.

The above quotations are taken from the recent George Pattison translation available in the Harper Perennial edition of Spiritual Writings.

Posted in Existentialism, Philosophy, Religion

Rethinking Political Science

The best known volume by Eric Voegelin is The New Science of Politics (1952). His discussion of philosophical and revolutionary “gnosticism” is the most popularized aspect of the work; however, in this post I want to examine the concept of “representation” that Voegelin uses to evaluate political cultures of both the past and modernity.

An interesting point made at the outset is the author’s critique of “value-free” science as it developed in the nineteenth century. According to Voegelin it “was created through the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were ‘objective,’ while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were ‘subjective.'” As one student of the German thinker puts it, “the quality of life in a society is determined by the degree of order in the souls of the politically and socially predominant persons in it.”

This is the starting point for understanding Voegelin’s notion of “representation,” which is much more than ballot boxes and legislative assemblies. An outwardly “democratic” framework may not always adequately voice a society’s deeper aspirations. This was true for Weimar Germany (1919-33), which implemented republican mechanisms, but quickly deteriorated under the demands of leftist and fascist agitation. The government did not develop organically – the transition from monarchy to democracy was too abrupt. Likewise, overly optimistic attempts to impose Anglo-American regimes on Third World countries during the past century have frequently met with disaster.

If a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a representative ruler in the existential sense will sooner or later make an end of it; and quite possibly the new existential ruler will not be too representative in the constitutional sense.

He is undoubtedly alluding to Hitler, whose dictatorship he openly opposed. It is not that Voegelin disdains the classic western system. He also reminds us that the idea of making the individual, rather than the class or community, the primary unit of representation was unique to that heritage. Nevertheless, he notes, as do other critics of the Enlightenment model, that political science cannot begin “with a tabula rasa on which it can inscribe its concepts; it will inevitably start from the rich body of self-interpretation” and the “symbols” of religion and culture which precede everything else.

“Value-free” theories of order do not satisfy a basic human instinct for meaning and purpose. Any attempt to eliminate metaphysics creates an unstable vacuum. We see this even in those regimes which claim to radically overthrow tradition. “In Marxian dialectics the truth of cosmic order [which underlay the empires of the past] is replaced by the truth of a historically immanent order.” In other words, totalitarian utopians impose new forms of worship, albeit inverted in their aim and perverted in their method.

Posted in Eric Voegelin, History, Philosophy, Politics

Sainte-Beuve’s Literary Portraits

The French writer Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69) is deemed the founding father of modern literary criticism. He was a latter-day Plutarch. But unlike the prolific Greek biographer, most of his subjects were intellectual figures rather then generals or statesmen.

Some years ago a series of English-language reprints was issued by Frederick Ungar (Portraits of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century). I recommend these rare volumes if you have access to a good municipal or collegiate library. Here is Sainte-Beuve’s description of Montesquieu, the French historical and political theorist:

Man of study and of thought, detached rather early from passions, and having at no time been led away by them, he lived and dwelt in the steadiness of intellect. Very kind in private life, natural and simple, he deserved to be loved by all around him as a man of genius can be; but even in his most human aspects we still find this stiff, indifferent side; a benevolent and lofty equity rather than tenderness of soul.

The biographer delineates Montesquieu’s strengths and deficiencies. He was no revolutionary. He was a genuine reformer. Nevertheless, even Sainte-Beuve chides him for his optimism about society: “Montesquieu grants too much… to the decorum of human nature. This defect… is infinitely honorable, but a real defect, none the less.”

Another interesting sketch is that of Lord Chesterfield, the urbane English diplomat and man of letters. Sainte-Beuve strives to defend him against the barbs of Samuel Johnson, who said of Chesterfield’s posthumously published letters that “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.” Whether the assessment is a fair one or not, Chesterfield was an epicure of wit and occasional insight. He once said that the “world is a country that no one has ever known through descriptions; each of us must travel over it in person to get initiated.” Writing to a French acquaintance about political views, he said “You Frenchmen know how to make barricades, but you will never know how to raise barriers!” And in speaking of Voltaire, he stated:

What I cannot pardon… is the trouble he gives himself to propagate a doctrine as pernicious to civil society as it is contrary to the common religion of all countries.

Although not motivated by theological orthodoxy, Chesterfield had an empirical distrust of the forces that mere scoffers like Voltaire were apt to unleash. Or, as Sainte-Beuve puts it,  “Voltaire, who considered all men as fools or as children… nevertheless places loaded weapons in their hands without troubling himself as the use they might make of them.”

Posted in Art and Culture, History, Literature

The Quiet Desperation of Caryl Bramsley

Maurice Baring’s novel C”, published in 1924, is a fictional memoir about a late Victorian/Edwardian character named Caryl Bramsley (nicknamed “C” by his friends). The book is similar to Baring’s stories Cat’s Cradle, Tinker’s Leave and Coat Without Seam—repeating many of the same elements and unabashedly drawing on the author’s experiences. An important theme is unrequited or failed romance (Baring was himself a lifelong bachelor). On the other hand, the novel is in no way a reflection of the author’s own childhood, which was apparently just short of idyllic. Biographer Emma Letley refers to Baring’s “skill in evoking childhood and youth.”

In C, using ingredients from his own life but creating a very different atmosphere from that he had himself known, Baring carefully dramatises the child’s sense of time and the child’s viewpoint….

Critics complained that Baring’s story was a chronicle of endless dinner parties. But that is true only the on surface. Many of his tales evince Thoreau’s adage about people leading lives of “quiet desperation.” Nevertheless, setbacks need not lead to utter despondency, and in that sense Baring’s outlook was the opposite of so many of his peers who had turned to fashionable pessimism. Worldly failure has its antithesis in otherworldly hope and spiritual resolution, and religion (specifically Catholicism) forms an unequivocal motif, even if only in the background.

In the preface, a friend posthumously explains how C’s story came to him by way of a mutual acquaintance, Gerald Malone. Like C, he is young man of unfulfilled potential, now sick and dying in a shabby little room where he is visited by a few loyal companions. We learn that Gerald, while careless of spirituality throughout most of his life, “had seen the priest and had received the last Sacraments” before he passed away.

As for Bramsley, the young man is underappreciated by many grownups, starting with his parents, though there are some who intuit that his stubborn pretense to mediocrity is really a defense mechanism. His Master at Eton, Mr. Cobden, realizes that “he was not the average boy he pretended to be.”

Mr. Cobden called him an idle brat, but he was interested, and said in his report at the end of that summer half that C. was ‘an uncommonly sharp and thoughtful lad.’
His tutor was astonished to learn that C. was at the top of his division that half, and had been presented by Mr. Cobden with Boswell’s Life of Johnson….
“Have you ever read this?” asked Mr. Cobden, as he wrote C.’s name in it.
“No, sir.”
“Well,” said Mr. Cobden, “it’s the best book the world.”
C. felt quite certain that Mr. Cobden was speaking the truth.

These sorts of classical literary cross-references are delightful and, needless to say, Mr. Cobden is entirely correct about Boswell.

For more on Baring, I refer readers to Letley’s study, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe (1991). Piers Paul Read provides a brief and insightful appreciation in “What’s became of Baring?” (The Spectator).

Posted in Literature

Out West with Max Brand

For many years I have been a devoted fan of Frederick Faust (a.k.a. Max Brand), whose novels and short stories have been continuously in print for the past century. So it’s high time I put in a mention for this master of classic western fiction. It is probably the “happy ending” quality of most of Brand’s narratives that prevent them from being high literature. Justice prevails. The guy always gets the girl. And the action is often fantastic, but no more so than the heroics of Homer or Virgil.

The least satisfying stories are those of brutal vengeance. Far better are the tales in which the main character evinces humility and mercy. Sometimes there is even reconciliation between men who had been trying to kill each other: a sense of respect and honor transcending violence. Brand’s stories can be humorous, like his yarns about the wily and resourceful “Speedy.” There is also one rare volume (the title of which I cannot now remember) about a man who is trained in the Eastern martial arts and who fights without a gun – very much a precursor to the Kung Fu television series of the 1970s.

Recently I finished The Wolf and the Man (1933). In a passage memorable not for its action but its dialogue, Dave Reagan, the simple, gentle “wild man,” and his pet wolf encounter the Indian hunter Walking Thunder.

“You’ve lived a lot in the mountains, have you?” said Reagan.
“Thirty years,” said the Indian.
“I want to do that,” said Reagan. “I want to spend the rest of my life in ‘em.”
“You can’t do that until you’ve paid the price to them,” said the other.
“You’re talking of prices… the price of the wolf… the price of the mountains… what does that mean?” asked Dave.
“Well,” the Indian answered, “I suppose that I mean this… you only get out of the world what you pay for. Some people never get anything out of life because they’re never able to pay the right price. No one gets something for nothing….”

Walking Thunder refers to Dave’s unpleasant experiences with people as “a motive for leaving the world” but not a “right.” The hero retorts, “Everybody’s free, in this country.” The Indian goes on to say

“Freedom is only a term. It doesn’t mean a great deal. Free to do what? To live if you work for your food… or steal it. To be happy… if you can beg or borrow the means to. Free to pay taxes, free to die. But not free to do as you please. No man is. Now that you’ve run off into the mountains, you’re not free, either. You might enjoy it for a time, but you haven’t earned the right to be alone….”

There’s a lot of good sense, and sound morals, in these mythic westerns. And they’re also great fun to read.

Posted in Literature

Ernst Jünger as Cultural “Anarch”

I have been working my way through a rare, and very rewarding, series of conversations with Ernst Jünger, the First World War hero and author. The volume, The Details of Time (1995), was published toward the end of the writer’s life. Jünger was very much a nonconformist of the “right” just as Orwell was of the “left,” though both men defied ideological stereotypes. For example, the German writer asks

Just what is a democracy? People claim to have democracy everywhere, even in countries where it is absolutely non-existent in practice.

Speaking of villains as depicted in his anti-totalitarian novel On the Marble Cliffs (1939), he notes that such characters were alternately interpreted by contemporaries as Hermann Goering and Josef Stalin. But these types are not unique to any specific time or place. For him, they could exist “in either the East or the West.”

In a dream one encounters the type. Then, in reality, one encounters the incarnation of that type in a weakened guise…. People talk about diabolatries and black masses, whereas all they have to do is go and see the corner grocer.

The point is that evil is not something to be considered merely in its exceptional forms, otherwise we trivialize it by the very act of sensationalizing it, and overlook its more mundane (but also more pervasive) manifestations in everyday life.

Then there is the example of spiritual objectivity in Jünger’s “anarch”—a man who is morally involved with people around him yet at the same time aloof from mass society—as seen in the novel Eumeswil (1977). He describes his main character as one whose “will is not touched by historical events…. That is why he has chosen the role of bartender: it gives him the leisure to observe and even slightly despise the whole society of power-wielders. He can recall that the same thing happened under [Roman emperor] Tiberius, and he enjoys this.” It is undoubtedly a reflection of the author’s metahistorical objectivity in a life which spanned the reign of the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, Nazism and the postwar German republic.

“I have never felt any identity with any regime,” Jünger proclaims. But his aid to Jews and anti-Nazis during the German occupation of France belies any notion of opportunism or apathy. Whatever one may think of his idiosyncratic outlook, there is something to be said for an intellectual vocation which stubbornly insists on transmitting “eternal values… that bestow true permanence” amid the transient fads and crimes of a world where “culture is in decline.” This also highlights the difference between the anarch, as Jünger understands it, and the anarchist who desperately seeks to transform society (often by terroristic means) rather than to transcend it. The irony he repeatedly touches on is that the path of the ideologue often makes the world worse instead of better. By contrast, Jünger’s vision can be described as a principled “pragmatism.”

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature, Philosophy

Stalin’s Short Cuts and the Judgment of History

Stalin’s attempts at “short-cutting” history are numerous. They are also rather ironic, since classical Marxism took a more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary” approach to politics. According to Karl Marx the transition from feudalism to capitalism to socialism was both gradual and inevitable. More moderate socialists, including many Mensheviks, believed that they should ally with the bourgeois democratic revolution against Tsarist autocracy as a necessary phase in societal progress toward full communism.  By contrast the Bolsheviks under Lenin favored violence and direct action. The proletarian state must be built as quickly as possible.

Stalin was initially wary of Lenin’s bold tactics during the early stages of revolution. But his attitude changed. With his appointment as commissar during the Russian Civil War the Georgian radical was able to exercise his penchant for arrogant and ruthless action. Lenin’s overthrow of the Provisional Government and the terroristic military and economic measures of War Communism were prototypes of the types of short cuts which Stalin would pursue later in his career.

Many Bolsheviks were impatient for change, but Stalin saw his role as particularly significant. By the late 1920s the Soviet leader had consolidated his power by successfully playing off different wings of the party against each other.  As the emerging autocrat of the Kremlin he grew wary of compromise measure like the New Economic Policy and urged immediate collectivization and industrialization.  He believed that cultural, military and economic transformation had to be speeded up. Facts were ignored. Quotas for agricultural and manufacturing output were concocted in advance, and the work of experts was disdained in favor of fanatical enthusiasm and brute force.

Both collectivization and the later purges of the Great Terror served an additional purpose in Stalin’s mind. Opponents would not be combated through normal political measures but would simply be eradicated. Here we gain a clear insight into Stalin’s ethical impatience. He is quoted as saying, “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” This approach applied to his dealings with both individuals and whole classes of people.

Was such an outlook “successful”? In the purely Stalinist sense perhaps it was. Russia was a country of vast resources and population. The “Vozhd” (leader) could afford to be profligate in the short-term. His system of entrenched terror, centralized control and permanent ideological mobilization created what may be cynically viewed as the perfect tyranny. Stalin’s supremacy went unchallenged until his death in 1953. But seen in terms of fundamental humanist values it was achieved amid incredible waste and brutality to the point that even his successors dismantled its worst features; while in the long-term, the Stalinist legacy eventually crumbled under the weight of its own failures. In this respect one might say that history ultimately had its revenge on the “short cuts” of the USSR.

The above commentary is taken from an essay originally submitted for the class “Stalin and Stalinism in Russian History,” taught by Prof. Irina Filatova, National Research University Higher School of Economics (offered through Coursera).

Posted in History, Politics

When Words Fail

There are two ways in which words can fail us: either we find them wholly inadequate to the intensity of our feelings, or else speech is appropriate yet the words chosen are done so without care.  As an example of the first instance, the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that “the impact of grief, to be extreme, must stun the whole soul and impede its freedom of action.” He also quotes Seneca: “Light cares can speak, but heavy ones are mute.” Just as illuminating are some facts about Montaigne himself:

When he started his book [of essays] he had lost a dear friend, Etienne de La Boétie, to whom he had been able to express his every thought, view, and feeling. Self-sufficient though he was, he had an imperious need to communicate…. [T]he reader takes the place of the dead friend. When we talk to a friend we do not constantly confess and plumb the depths of our soul; for to do so is to threaten, by excessive self-concern, the tacit equilibrium that friendship assumes and needs (Donald Frame, introduction to The Complete Works of Montaigne).

It is possible to over-communicate. We usually do so to our regret. In the public sphere especially there must be a balance between reticence and candor. To say too much about our likes or dislikes lessens the impact of our message. By contrast I’m reminded of the power of an author like Maurice Baring, an infinitely humane and sensitive man, who could artfully convey the horror of war, plague or sundry other adversities. Speaking of his time as a correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War:

I remember a train journey to Liaoyang, and a soldier crying in the train because another soldier, after using strings of blood-curdling language and startling obscenities, which did not produce any effect, as they were like worn-out counters, called him a sheep….

Writers in his day referred to people using “unprintable language.” They knew what it meant. Today we apparently have to spell out all the expletives, even when they become “worn-out counters.” The question here is not what I or anyone else says in private (which may at times be unprintable) but how we express ourselves to the world at large. It is an opportunity to use speech at a more thoughtful level. On the other hand, an inadequate, disrespectful or slovenly misuse of words actually shuts down communication.

Related commentary: Literary Insights from Albert Camus

Posted in Art and Culture