The High Cost of Political Perfection

Recent events prompted me to dust off my books on the Soviet Union, especially those chronicling the Stalinist purges of 1936-38, which claimed over half a million lives. There was a time when reading such works was an intellectual curiosity; now they resonate on a much more visceral level.

Such brutal political “cleansing” stems from two motives: a yearning for power and a quest for purity. It is almost impossible to disentangle them, which is perhaps what makes it such a lethal combination. Discussing Joseph Stalin’s career, historian Robert Conquest says, “There is no doubt that… doctrinal convictions remained the justification, and self-justification, of his whole career, and that the definition and extirpation of heresy, or the attribution of heresy to enemies of rivals, was a major element in his life.”

The extremes of terror and denunciation take on a nightmarish, absurdist quality right out of Kafka. Indeed almost all of the arrests by the Soviet secret police were based on fabricated evidence, being the product of petty jealousies or attempts to fill monthly quotas. People were denounced as “fascists” and “enemies of the people”— terms of abuse so nebulous and vague as to be impossible of refutation.

But there was a method to the madness. The advantage of such paranoia, which Orwell flawlessly recreated in his fictional Oceania, is that with the looming threat of such arbitrary accusations any real nucleus of opposition was eliminated through fear of even the slightest misstep. In his study of Communism Richard Pipes refers to continual crises being “artificially concocted to justify the dictatorship.”  (In a more candid moment the Cuban Marxist Fidel Castro admitted that “the revolution needs the enemy.”) These perpetual “dangers” not only serve to distract people from revolutionary inadequacies, they also validate increasingly extreme measures. Any setback to the glorious Five-Year Plan is blamed on “saboteurs.” That these individuals are guilty of any real crime is irrelevant; rather, what is truly unthinkable is the idea the revolution does not work.

As for attempts to appease the radicals, these are invariably futile because the campaign for perfection is self-perpetuating as each individual or faction tries to outbid the other in righteousness. The only real deterrent to terror is the rule of law and the freedom of dissent. But since revolutionaries suppress such institutions early on in their impatience for change, victims are left with nothing to appeal to. This might seem a small price to pay for the the true believers. The irony, however, is that among the numerous victims of Soviet ideological correctness were thousands of loyal Communists, many of them Bolshevik veterans of the 1917 Revolution, and even some of the architects of the purge itself were caught up in the lethal apparatus they had constructed.

One may argue that such political systems cannot endure forever.  The brutal tyranny of Stalin came to an end… but at all too high a price.

Posted in History, Politics

An Instance of Fortitude

In his “Essay on Epitaphs,” Samuel Johnson recalls the lines inscribed on the tomb of the Greek Stoic teacher: “Epictetus, who lies here, was a slave and a cripple, poor as the beggar in the proverb, and the favourite of heaven.” To which he adds this consideration:

In this distich is comprised the noblest panegyrick, and the most important instruction. We may learn from it, that virtue is impracticable in no condition, since Epictetus could recommend himself to the regard of heaven, amidst the temptations of poverty and slavery; slavery, which has always been found so destructive to virtue, that in many languages a slave and a thief are expressed by the same word. And we may be, likewise, admonished by it, not to lay any stress on a man’s outward circumstances, in making an estimate of his real value, since Epictetus the beggar, the cripple, and the slave, was the favourite of heaven.

The notable advantage of Stoic teaching over other ancient moral systems—which tended to emphasize a sufficiency of material goods as a means to “happiness”—is the belief that integrity and contentment are ultimately independent of external things. However, as noted previously, Johnson was often critical of Stoic doctrine: it was too simplistic and demanded so much of individual self-sufficiency as to be beyond the reach of most mortals.

In another work, “The Life of Dr Herman Boerhaave” (1668-1738), Johnson offers a relevant insight. During his final painful illness the Dutch physician and humanist displayed remarkable serenity.

This is… an instance of fortitude and steady composure of mind, which would have been for ever the boast of the stoick schools, and increased the reputation of Seneca or Cato. The patience of Boerhaave, as it was more rational, was more lasting than theirs; it was that patentia christiana, which Lipsius, the great master of the stoical philosophy, begged of God in his last hours; it was founded on religion, not vanity, not on vain reasonings, but on confidence in God.

The English writer alludes to an anecdote about the Renaissance Neo-Stoic, Justus Lipsius. Those in attendance at his death bed urged that he resign himself by means of philosophical apatheia (rationally raising himself above feelings or passions), to which he responded, while pointing to a crucifix, “Those things are vain. That is true patience.”

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, did indeed boast, “Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it… in thinking it slight, you will make it slight.” But what is lacking in so many of these cheerless, if noble, considerations is an incentive beyond the here and now. From a purely empirical point of view, theoretical systems of virtue have never gained as many followers as the major religions.

The foregoing selections are taken from Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford), which I referenced in a recent post.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism

Truth is Stranger than Science Fiction

Fiction may seem outlandish to us when it imagines exotic realms or daring adventures, yet few things in the universe are as mysterious as the human soul. We all enjoy works of pure escapism. That said, the most enduring stories are allegories along the lines of Wells’ Invisible Man or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This is admittedly a bit of a paradox since fantastic storytelling has generally been dedicated to the opposite proposition—that human nature is malleable and the utopian conquest of evil is possible through new technological or social arrangements.

One of the more interesting forays in science fiction is Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series (1959-64). It benefited from casting, direction and script writing that was superior to much TV fare of the time. In addition, it is surprising how many stories managed to dress up traditional verities in the form of futuristic and otherworldly parables. Having re-watched some of these episodes I will enumerate my favorites (while avoiding obvious spoilers).

“I Shot an Arrow into the Air” depicts a group of astronauts whose rocket has crashed-landed in a forbidding and unknown landscape, which they imagine to be a barren asteroid. There are three men left from a crew of eight, one of whom is bent on securing his survival at any price. In a typically Serlingesque, but entirely plausible, twist ending the desperate individual realizes his own ethical shortsightedness.

Being grateful for what you have, or understanding the dangers of wishful thinking, is the lesson of “The Man in the Bottle,” in which a penurious elderly couple are led to believe that a genie can deliver them from their life of big bills and low income. In “The Howling Man,” co-starring stentorian-voiced John Carradine, we are presented with a tale that could be straight out of the Old Testament: the Prince of Darkness appearing as an “angel of light,” getting his way not through brute force or terror but deceitful appeals to naïve sentiment.

My favorite fable is “The Nick of Time” in which a recently married man (portrayed by William Shatner) is obsessed with good luck charms and soothsayers. The “Nick” in the title is a double entendre, since the mechanism that dispenses fortunes for a penny is surmounted by a maliciously winking plastic Devil (a.k.a. “Old Nick”).  Taking lunch in a small town diner with his young wife, Shatner’s character starts asking questions of the table-top oracle. The replies, dispensed on slips of paper, are vague but provocative. With each answer it seems that the machine can foretell the future, but it also renders the superstitious man increasingly dependent and indecisive. In the end it becomes clear that if he does not take control of his own destiny he must surrender his soul to this malevolent device.

Despite the contemporary and occasionally outré presentation, the dramatic elements at work in these stories are as primal as creation itself.

Posted in Art and Culture, Fiction

A Mathematician’s Religion

One could say that the famous British mathematician A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) was a true skeptic and no mere scoffing agnostic like so many of his peers. According to David J. Theroux, Whitehead argued in his book, Science and the Modern World, “that science arose only because the dualism of Christian theistic beliefs of medieval European scientists led them to consider the universe to be a systematic realm of objective reality, and that non-Christian beliefs hindered or prevented science.” Similarly in his 1926 Lowell Lectures at Harvard he offers some very perceptive reflections on the history of religion.

The chief thesis of his book is that higher spirituality is “what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Of course, there are other developments which precede this activity, as seen among the early Greeks and Hebrews. Societies start with ritual. These activities mark the beginnings of a transcendent awareness of reality not directly related to the human struggle for survival. Ritual not only stimulates the emotions, it also disciplines and channels them. Yet these remain primarily collective pursuits. Whitehead argues that a religion truly matures with the emergence of great solitary figures, like the Old Testament prophets, who speak directly to our existential condition and of a growing awareness of divinity as something more than elemental forces beyond our control. The “new… concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God.”

Focused less on the priorities of the tribal group, belief  becomes “universal” in its outlook and “individualistic” in its sense of responsibilities.

A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended. In the long run your character and conduct of life depend upon your intimate convictions.

It is interesting that, like many traditional Christian thinkers, the mathematician turned philosopher distinguishes religion from “magic” and superstition. The former is potentially “progressive” and “rational,” especially as it develops through dogma and metaphysics, whereas the latter is actually unspiritual, obsessed as it with controlling earthly things for egotistical purposes.

While I do not agree with all of the author’s assertions, he nevertheless ventures thoughts which are counter-intuitive to contemporary prejudices. To take just one: “dogmatic expression is necessary. For whatever has objective validity is capable of partial expression in terms of abstract concepts.” And while for Whitehead (as for the Christian believer) the chief aim of religion is that of individual beatitude, with dogma being a means to this end, not an end in itself; nevertheless, it is intellectually formulated doctrine which prevents our spirituality from becoming subjective in its outlook.

A final quote from Whitehead, in which he intuits God’s existence, seems fitting:

The order of the world is no accident. There is nothing actual which could be actual without some measure of order. The religious insight is the grasp of this truth.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Wherever Human Nature is to Be Found

“The Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general vein of his countrymen, has amused his reader with no romantic absurdities or incredible fictions; whatever he relates, whether true or not, is at least probable; and he who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability has a right to demand that they should believe him who cannot contradict him.”—Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Voyage to Abyssinia by Fr. Jerome Lobo

Already at the age of 26, in one of his early prose works, Johnson displayed a remarkable power of diction and insight. I have just started reading the Oxford anthology, Samuel Johnson: The Major Works, which contains not only some of his well known pieces but also obscure compositions such as this one.

In 1735 Johnson undertook a translation from the French edition of a Jesuit memoir (originally published in Portuguese). Travel literature, especially descriptions of distant and exotic locales, enjoyed a particular vogue; yet Johnson was never one to idealize people or places. His humanism is always tempered by a mixture of humorous skepticism:

The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity, no perpetual gloom or unceasing sunshine; nor are the nations here described either devoid of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private and social virtues; here are no Hottentots without religion, polity, or articulate language, no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences: he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial inquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason, and that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced in most countries their particular inconveniences by particular favours.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

The Soul’s Journey

The opening passage of the tenth chapter of Marcus AureliusMeditations contains two very interesting thoughts: one is that all lives are complete—no life can truly be said to be “unfinished”; secondly, every person experiences all that it is possible to be experienced, at least in the essentials.

The rational soul achieves its end at whatever point life may be cut off, unlike a dance, a play, and the like, where the whole performance is incomplete if it is interrupted.

The Stoic emperor seems to be saying that by the end of our lives we have embarked on a definite moral or intellectual direction and that whatever decisions we might have made had we lived longer would merely be a continuation of the tangent we have previously chosen. How true or not that is, is ultimately a mystery. But the overall stamp of our character, and the legacy we leave behind, is certainly compounded out of the preponderance of our actions one way or the other. The passage that follows is expressed in very poetic terms:

Moreover, the rational soul travels through the whole universe and the void which surrounds it, and observes its form; it stretches into infinity of time…. it observes that those who come after us will see nothing new, nothing different from what our predecessors saw, but in a sense a man of forty, if he has any intelligence, has seen all the past and all the future, because they are of the same kind as the present.

Or in the words of the Old Testament, “Ever that shall be that ever has been, that which has happened once shall happen again; there can be nothing new, here under the sun. Never man calls a thing new, but it is something already known to the ages that went before us…” (Eccl. 1:9-10). However much our outward circumstances may differ, we are all faced with the same fundamental choices and existential challenges.

The above excerpts are taken from the Hackett edition of The Meditations (transl. G. M. A. Grube).

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

Muggeridge’s Memoirs

I realize that over the years I have dedicated very little space to Malcolm Muggeridge. This paucity is perhaps due to sheer irresolution when faced with the depth and volume of his insights. Where to begin? For the moment I can think of nothing better than some excerpts from the first volume of his memoir, Chronicles of Wasted Time (1973).

A key motif is the author’s disillusionment with utopian idealism. It reaches its nadir during an extended stay in Russia as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in 1932. Commenting in retrospect

Never in human history… have there been so many actual and potential liberators as in the last half century, and so little liberation; so many and so loud shouts for freedom, and so much enslavement.

Muggeridge was finely attuned to cant. His irreverence toward public figures, left or right, whom he deemed insincere, was a hallmark of his career. He once referred to George Bernard Shaw as “that absurd vain rich old man.” Apparently the socialist playwright resented the imputation of greed: “He wanted to make a lot of money without being considered rich.”

The English journalist quickly discovered the limits of progressive tolerance. Many of his attempted criticisms of Stalinism and revelations about the horrors of the Ukrainian famine were suppressed by the leftist press and he had to seek other outlets. George Orwell faced similar experiences. As Muggeridge notes, “we often discussed how difficult it is, in an ideologically polarised society like ours, to take up any position without being automatically assumed to hold all the views and attitudes associated with it….” To be critical of the Soviet Union was to be a “fascist.”

Undoubtedly the most interesting part of any autobiographical work is not the author’s theorizing, but his experiences with people and places. Muggeridge’s observations are often caustic; yet he is not without genuine affection for individuals he considers kind or unpretentious. He offers poignant vignettes of aging radicals gathered in Russian salons for food and drink—provisions particularly valued in a system of terrible privation—nostalgically recalling their youthful pre-revolutionary existence. But it would never enter into their heads to denounce the cause that, in the end, would claim most of their lives in Stalin’s purges. People, it seems, are willing to “believe lies, not because they are plausibly presented, but because they want to believe them.”

The elimination of all misery and distress is the great utopian hope. By contrast, Muggeridge explains how the shared suffering of his wife’s near fatal illness while abroad brought them closer than any of the pleasures they had together.  “Learning from experience means… learning from suffering; the only school-master.”  Muggeridge also became jaded by modern society’s sensual obsessions:  “Sex is the only mysticism offered by materialism…. Sex pure and undefiled; without the burden of procreation, or even, ultimately, of love or identity. “

Related commentary: Muggeridge at Lunchtime and Orwell on Socialism and Happiness

Posted in History, Politics

Hilaire Belloc: Contemporary Reviews

In the years before the internet supplanted old-fashioned book and microfiche research, I had the opportunity to look up some original reviews of works by Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. Here are two of them. I hope that other fans of the author will enjoy them.

The first is a review of his farcical novel Belinda from The Times (December 14, 1928):

Mr. Belloc goes back to the mood of parody, but of parody decked out with gracious ornament. His new book occasionally reminds us in form of Zuleika Dobson or The Happy Hypocrite, but its ebullient humour is not that of those famous fantasies. Belinda, daughter of a richly landed baronet, is an early Victorian heroine, whose love story of tears quickly quenched in splendid marriage is related with the lusciousness that the romantic Victorian novelists of “high life” like to impart to their style. Only, Mr. Belloc has the skill to see that an ornate style, insipid in the hands of a bungler, can be made as attractive as a good piece of baroque architecture in the hands of a master. If we get all the absurdity of which he is master in the angry interview between Belinda and her haughty father on the subject of her love for Horatio Maltravers—”Your heart is plighted?” gasped the baronet. “Are these the terms in which a respectable female…?”—we get real beauty, of a Renaissance quality, in such an episode as Venus’s apparition to bless the lovers in the great park. And Mr. Belloc’s brevity is admirable: the novelists he satirizes were not so wise.

Many readers of Belloc’s historical and religious studies may not realize that he also produced numerous works of fiction (for more background, see my posts The Green Overcoat and A Belloc Novel).

The second piece discusses one of Belloc’s biographies, Charles II: The Last Rally. It is worth noting that the reviewer (The Times, January 30, 1940) takes issue with some of the author’s political and economic theories, which were often a source of controversy. Throughout his life the Anglo-French writer possessed a uniquely “Tory radical” outlook. For additional commentary, readers should reference John P. McCarthy’s study.

Mr. Belloc’s new book is devoted to two theses, both very familiar from his previous works, that the seventeenth-century constitutional struggle in England derived from the resistance of a popular monarchy to the revolutionary encroachment of the money power, and that Catholicism in England survived much longer than is believed by Protestant historians and had the sympathy of a quarter of the population as late as 1685. These two points are assumed, and the story of Charles II, in very broad outline, retold in terms of them.

Mr. Belloc holds that Catholicism was still a formidable political and social force throughout the reign, and that its extinction in the eighteenth century is to be traced to the agitation over the Popish plot in 1678. It might be thought that the Test Act of 1673, which was to last 150 years, was a far more potent influence than that monstrous but ephemeral persecution. But Mr. Belloc’s whole case on this side must stand or fall with the statistical arguments adduced by Mr. Magee a year ago in his book The English Recusants.

The other side of the case, the antithesis between one-man rule and the oligarchy of wealth, obviously contains a great deal of truth. It is powerfully presented by Mr. Belloc, but he over-estimates the element of mere property in making a seventeenth-century magnate, to the neglect of such other ingredients as pedigree, local eminence, public service, and Anglican orthodoxy. Whiggery itself he seems to misunderstand, when he dwells upon the contradiction between in it between the principle of “equality before the law, the flower and product of that mystical doctrine, the equality of man” and the right of wealth to conduct the State. Underlying the latter doctrine was the belief, which Mr. Tawney has shown to derive from Calvinism, that wealth is prima facie evidence of industry, and industry of political and even religious virtue.

As for equality, the equality of man was scarcely a Whig belief. The Whig emphasis was always on liberty, and that not in the abstract but as the sum total of the particular liberties of Englishmen, won in history and maintained by law; and equality before the law was one of these. In saddling the Whigs with general ideas that were foreign to their thought, Mr. Belloc seems sometimes to be reading the English Revolution in terms of the French. Nevertheless, his book is based on imaginative understanding of Charles II’s fight to re-establish monarchy in England, of the kind of monarchy he hoped to establish, and of the nature of its claim to be more representative of the people than was the class from which Parliament was recruited.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, Literature

A Page of Boswell

In one page of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (687 in the Oxford edition) perused at random I find two very interesting observations by Johnson during the course of a conversation with his biographer for March 16, 1776. The first deals with his view of monastic life.

It is as unreasonable for a man to go into a Carthusian convent for fear of being immoral, as for a man to cut off his hands for fear he should steal…. Their silence, too, is absurd. We read in the Gospel of the apostles being sent to preach, but not to hold their tongues. All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. I said to the Lady Abbess of a convent, “Madam, you are here, not for the love of virtue, but the fear of vice.” She said, “She should remember this as long as she lived.”‘

Boswell offers the following comment:

I thought it hard to give [the Abbess] this view of her situation…. and, indeed, I wondered at the whole of what he now said; because, both in his Rambler and Idler [essays], he treats religious austerities with much solemnity of respect.

As Boswell notes at the end of his memoir, a person is “made up of contradictory qualities.” Johnson did occasionally voice respect for the cloistered life, but he was also extremely gregarious and so did not easily relate to the idea of prolonged seclusion. Throughout his adult life he struggled with melancholy and fears of incipient madness which seemed to threaten him most in solitude, hence his tendency to distract himself with friends and conversation.

Johnson’s admonition to the nun is not entirely without merit. One can pursue an outwardly virtuous vocation for the wrong reasons. But surely in this instance she comes off as more humble and he as more vainly opinionated, perhaps eager (one suspects) to criticize a form of asceticism which he finds uncongenial. Yet he was by no means undisciplined, as one gathers from the conversation which follows:

Finding him still persevering in his abstinence from wine, I ventured to speak to him of it.—JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it, on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences….’

And lest one think the London poet too judgmental, Boswell recalls that while “he often enlarged upon the evil of intoxication, he was by no means harsh and unforgiving to those who indulged in occasional excess in wine.” Perhaps Johnson was mindful of his own past indiscretions which had led him to abstain.

Related post: Johnson’s Spirituality

Posted in Literature, Religion, Samuel Johnson

Crossing the Alps with Hannibal

According to Betty Radice, Penguin Classic’s founding editor, the Roman historian Livy “was an inspiration to the European scholars who welcomed the humanism of the classical world.” He was a masterful storyteller. In Book XXI he takes the reader across the Alps with Hannibal, so that we vicariously experience the cold and the peril of vertiginous heights all the while being threatened by savage Gallic tribesmen who inhabit these forbidding realms.

Men and pack animals plummet off the side of cliffs. Trails become impassible, and the Carthaginian have to hack new roads out of the frozen rock. In one famous scene they heat up the ground with burning timber and then quickly pour wine on the rock which causes it to fracture and crumble, allowing the soldiers to break it up with their picks.

The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snow-clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, and inanimate, stiff with frost….

Once Hannibal’s army makes its way across the worst of the precipices and begins its march into Italy, the reader breathes a sigh of relief.

Lower down there are sunny hills and valleys and woods with streams flowing by: country, in fact, more worthy for men to dwell in. There the beasts were put out to pasture, and the troops given three days’ rest to recover…. Thence the descent was continued to the plains – a kindlier region, with kindlier inhabitants.

The Punic Wars, Rome’s dramatic and protracted conflict with Carthage, have long fascinated me. I have read Polybius’ history as well as Plutarch’s biographies of Roman leaders like Fabius Maximus. Livy provides even more detail about the armies and personalities involved. I refer specifically to the volume titled The War With Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, which comprises Books XXI-XXX by the Roman author.

Posted in History