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.

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