Adversity and Gratitude

“As no man can enjoy happiness without thinking that he enjoys it, the experience of calamity is necessary to a just sense of better fortune: for the good of our present state is merely comparative, and the evil which every man feels will be sufficient to disturb and harass him, if he does not know how much he escapes.”—Samuel Johnson

It is quite by chance that I came across Johnson’s essay “Adversity useful to the acquisition of knowledge” (The Rambler, No. 150), since the piece is not in either of my hard copy anthologies of his works. It is the perfect Thanksgiving meditation. I post it as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s.

Not only are there practical benefits to overcoming life’s challenges—it is often the motivator for new ideas and inventions; there is spiritual profit as well. Drawing inspiration from the Roman Stoic writer Seneca, Johnson explains that

By suffering willingly what we cannot avoid, we secure ourselves from vain and immoderate disquiet; we preserve for better purposes that strength which would be unprofitably wasted in wild efforts of desperation, and maintain that circumspection which may enable us to seize every support, and improve every alleviation. This calmness will be more easily obtained, as the attention is more powerfully withdrawn from the contemplation of unmingled unabated evil, and diverted to those accidental benefits which prudence may confer on every state.

It is a paradox of our imperfect state that too much ease and success can leave us just as unhappy as too much misfortune. It is easy to dwell on the things we desire yet do not obtain (regardless of whether they would have been really good for us) while at the same time being unmindful of how many difficulties we have been spared. For related commentary, see “Johnson on Gratitude.”

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Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

The Pursuit of Intellectual Integrity

“To pursue examination with a mind free of contemporary or private preconceptions is extremely difficult.”—Moses Hadas

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal highlights the continued challenges to intellectual freedom in higher education. In its November 17 column, Zachary Wood, a black senior at Williams College, describes the infantile and abusive treatment of a guest speaker in his Uncomfortable Learning series. Invited to address the topic of modern feminism from a dissenting point of view, Christina Hoff Sommers was irrelevantly (but predictably) denounced as “a racist white supremacist.” Wood’s point—raised by many observers of late—is that real debate has been replaced by denunciation. While some in the college audience engaged the speaker in an intelligent manner, the event was dominated by the usual mob of bullies evincing a limited vocabulary.

Wood is understandably disappointed at the lack of meaningful diversity in the political realm. Tolerance only extends to approved viewpoints. In this regard the civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz has asked the question which most journalists have shunned: which is more of a threat, the “hard right” or the “hard left”?

Although I disagree with the Dershowitz on other issues, it seems undeniable that these forms of extremism pose asymmetrical dangers. The postwar “extreme right” has historically been the smaller but more lethal element, perhaps second only to Islamicist terrorism in its violent outbursts—not counting the unsuccessful attempt by socialist shooter James Hodgkinson to even the score somewhat. That said, Dershowitz is being realistic when he asserts that Hitlerites are unlikely to take over the country any time soon whereas increasing leftist intolerance is more widespread and more consequential.

The hard right is dangerous largely for what it has done in the past….  The danger posed by the extreme hard left is more about the future. Leaders of tomorrow are being educated today on campus. The tolerance for censorship and even violence to suppress dissenting voices may be a foretaste of things to come.

Apropos of this topic are remarks of Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and former socialist turned critic of leftism, whose writings have been mentioned in previous posts.

In Germany, after 1930, I began my intellectual career with a reflection on Marxism. An “advanced thinker,” like most of the intellectuals who came out of the Jewish bourgeoisie, I wanted to make a philosophical critique of my political convictions, which I felt to be naïve, dictated by the milieu, with no other foundation than spontaneous preferences or antipathies (Marxism and the Existentialists, 1965).

Aron speaks of observations that gradually led him “to the conclusion that Marxism was not true (although I had wished with all my heart that it was).” It is to be hoped that contemporary academics and students would be equally objective in their political explorations. But so far the trend is not encouraging.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics

Bunker Mentality

German historian Joachim Fest (1926 – 2006) was undoubtedly the Hitler expert par excellence. One of his final books on the subject was, appropriately, a look at the last days of the Third Reich, Inside Hitler’ Bunker. It is a concise and readable volume. Along with fascinating anecdotes about the doomed Nazi leader and his retinue, and the increasingly surreal atmosphere of the underground Berlin headquarters, Fest offers thoughtful commentary on the nature of Hitler’s aims and motivations.

Referring to Hitler’s infamous plans for scorched-earth tactics in the face of advancing enemy armies, which would have merely added to the misery of the civilian population, Fest concludes: “It would be a mistake to interpret these orders as a last, desperate, defensive measure against the approach of a superior foe. The intent to demolish had always been Hitler’s first and preferred course of action, an expression of his true voice….” The point being that he was consumed by a nihilism which Fest traces back to the earliest days of the Nazi seizure of power. It is not surprising that Hitler could be so callous toward Jews and foreigners when he said of the German people that if they could not win the war then they must “perish and be annihilated,” nor would he “shed a single tear for them.”

I would modify Fest’s judgment somewhat by saying that this “will to destroy” was merely the flip side of an extreme narcissism. No doubt the Führer would have preferred victory, but like a petulant child in the playroom who is mad that others won’t do what he wants, he throws tantrums and wrecks all the toys. In this respect there are clear parallels between the dictator in the bunker and the murderous antics of modern terrorists and psychopaths for whom mass destruction is a way of asserting their importance in a purely negative manner, albeit with the difference that Hitler had many more resources at his disposal.

Speaking of which, Fest frequently comments on the uncanny ability of the Führer to command servile loyalty even in the final weeks of the war. Another expert on the topic, Hannah Arendt, summarizes it in this way:

It is in the nature of the [totalitarian] movement that once the Leader has assumed his office, the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement (The Origins of Totalitarianism).

This would explain why, when the end came, so many party officials killed themselves, including Joseph and Magda Goebbels who not only ended their own lives in the Berlin bunker, but in a particularly pathetic and horrible manner, poisoned their young children. For them life after Hitler was unthinkable.

For related commentary, see my reviews of Fest’s The Face of the Third Reich and Speer: The Final Verdict.

Posted in History, Politics

Lord Greystoke of the Jungle

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) is certainly one of the best page-turners I’ve encountered in awhile. Like many people I knew, or thought I knew, the Tarzan story through the old Johnny Weissmuller films that I grew up with on pre-cable television. But there was much more to the original story than just a big shirtless guy shouting “umgawa” at animals.

On the one hand, Lord Greystoke is presented as an impossibly perfect Nietzschean specimen, both physically and mentally, much like the heroes of Jack London’s novels. But the book is redeemed by the inventiveness of the plot, far less formulaic than others of its ilk, and extensive character development. Having been raised by semi-intelligent apes—who even speak a rudimentary language—there are interesting and often humorous exchanges (and misunderstandings) between Tarzan and the first civilized Europeans whom he encounters.

The way in which Tarzan acquires a masterful understanding of written English through pictorial primers (and later on, more advanced texts) found in the abandoned hut of his human parents pushes the limits of credulity. But it is clever how Burroughs has him learning French as his first spoken language, through the instruction of Paul D’Arnot, a sympathetic naval officer stranded on the coast of western Africa. Even the ending of the novel is not a classically “happy one,” though the author intimates that there is “more to come” in the next story in the series.

Burrough’s character is very much a post-Christian hero and the epitome of “self-reliance.” His ethos is one of survivalism, albeit tinged with a growing sense of chivalry, especially in his dealings with his European friends and love interest Jane Porter. The ape man’s attitudes towards animals, often valuing them more than humans, would sit well with current sensibilities. On the other hand the highly unflattering physical and cultural depictions of black Africans would not.

That said, in the latter half of the story a more thoughtful ethical discussion takes place between Lord Greystoke and a group of Europeans who are seated at dinner in a French colonial town:

Opinion was divided as to the bravery of the king of beasts—some maintaining that he was an arrant coward, but all agreeing that it was with a feeling of greater security that they gripped their express rifles when the monarch of the jungle roared about a camp at night….

“Monsieur Tarzan has not expressed himself,” said one of the party. “A man of his prowess who has spent some time in Africa, as I understand Monsieur Tarzan has, must have had experiences with lions–yes?”

“Some,” replied Tarzan, dryly. “Enough to know that each of you are right in your judgment of the characteristics of the lions–you have met. But one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white.”

Posted in Fiction

Goethe and the Conservatism of Experience

The adage, often apocryphally attributed to Churchill, about age and political disposition may actually have originated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The German poet once said to a friend that “everybody is a democrat in youth, when they have nothing to lose, and aristocrat in later life, when they hope to pass something on to their children.” Such interesting and neglected details are brought to light in Daniel Johnson’s review of a recent Goethe biography by Rüdiger Safranski (The New Criterion, Sept. 2017).

Johnson laments the fact that Goethe is no longer required material for German students. Apparently he has suffered the same fate at the hands of post-modern sensibilities that Shakespeare or Chaucer have in English-speaking universities. There is added irony in that Goethe began his intellectual life as a romanticist and freethinker (who never entirely accommodated himself to Christian orthodoxy); nevertheless, his increasingly conservative political opinions were shaped by the fact that he had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, the imperialism of Napoleon and the subsequent emergence of intolerant ideological movements.

There was plenty of gray area in the moral realm. He lived with a woman, Christiane Vulpius, for 18 years before finally marrying her, and conducted numerous intimate liaisons with other women. Some of his writings were overtly erotic for their time. Yet this is the same man who proclaimed “There is nothing worse than imagination without taste,” and who (according to Johnson) criticized extramarital sex in some of his writings. At any rate, one is clearly on solid ground in citing Goethe’s weariness with utopian political schemes. According to the German sage:

Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks.

You never hear so much talk about freedom as when one party wants to subjugate another and aims at nothing less than shifting power, influence, and treasure from one hand to another.

Writing about socialism, he said

That doctrine seems to me quite impracticable and would never work. It contradicts all nature, all experience, and the course of things for thousands of years.

Johnson sums up his outlook as a Central European version of Burkean philosophy: “Goethe was always a conservative, never a reactionary. He believed neither in revolution nor restoration, but in reform.”

Posted in Art and Culture, History, Literature, Politics

Primal Things Which Move Us

Hilaire Belloc’s book The Old Road (1904), which traces the ancient Roman road from Winchester to Canterbury, is unlike most of his other travel writings in that it is primarily a “technical study” and thus of limited interest to the average reader. Nevertheless, his preface (of which excerpts are provided below) is surely one of his most remarkable pieces of prose, both for its cultural interest and its lyrical evocation of the things he is describing.

There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has travelled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things—the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth—before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

More than rivers and more than mountains, roads have moulded the political groups of men…. And with religions all that is built on them: letters, customs, community of language and idea, have followed the Road, because humanity, which is the matter of religion, must also follow the road it has made. Architecture follows it, commerce of course, all information: it is even so with the poor thin philosophies, each in its little day drifts, for choice, down a road.

To study something of great age until one grows familiar with it and almost to live in its time, is not merely to satisfy a curiousity or to establish aimless truths: it is rather to fulfil a function whose appetite has always rendered History a necessity. By the recovery of the Past, stuff and being are added to us; our lives which, lived in the present only, are a film or surface, take on body—are lifted into one dimension more. The soul is fed. Reverence and knowledge and security and the love of a good land—all these are increased or given by the pursuit of this kind of learning. Visions or intimations are confirmed…. One may say that historical learning grants men glimpses of life completed and a whole; and such a vision should be the chief solace of whatever is mortal and cut off imperfectly from fulfilment.

For more on these themes in Belloc’s writings, see Esto Perpetua and Permanency in Human Affairs.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, History

A Weekend Meditation

“Remember how long you have delayed, how often the gods have appointed the day of your redemption and you have let it pass. Now, if ever, you must realize of what kind of ordered universe you are a part, of what kind of governor of that universe you are an emanation, that a time limit has now been set for you and that if you do not use it to come out into the light, it will be lost, and you will be lost, and there will be no further opportunity.”—Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, II. 4

The Stoic emperor speaks of a spiritually transformative experience. Our word “conversion” comes from the Latin conversio, which means to “turn around.” But this implies a bit more than a transient, if intense, epiphany. It is something that lastingly affects one’s behavior. As for the nature of this change, we often get the impression that it is due to external influences: a book, a conversation, an event. In addressing the nature of belief, Samuel Johnson argues that few people actually alter their convictions on the basis of  “argument and reflection.” Rather “their actions are not generally the result of their reasonings, but their reasonings of their actions” (Sermon No. 5).

We have only to see how two people can undergo the same experience, even a miraculous one, and respond in very different ways. Jesus cured ten lepers. Only the Samaritan returned to give thanks (Lk 17:11-19). Certain incidents may act as the proximate occasion for conversion, but—whether the change occurs rapidly (as in the case of St. Paul on the road to Damascus) or slowly over the course of many years—it seems to be more the culmination or confirmation of an existing spiritual habit than its cause.

Additional commentary: Our First and Earlier Vision and The Motives Behind Our Actions

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism

Modern Insensibilities

“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”—Samuel Johnson

Recent years have seen the complete removal of filters on public discourse. Expletives grace the covers of best-selling volumes. Prominent celebrities — presumably not deprived of some semblance of education — regularly indulge in trashy rants with little or no repercussion.

What is worse than coarse humor or a limited vocabulary is the viciousness of petulant outbursts in print and electronic media. Name calling takes the place of substantive criticism. But along with the cultural shift in sports and entertainment, public expression even among the intelligentsia frequently wallows in tedious brutality. There was a time when political humor was funny and a joke could elicit bi-partisan laughter; now it is merely a stream of outrage and abuse.

It has of course long been fashionable to insist on candor while denouncing the supposed hypocrisy of good manners. No doubt there are times when, as Samuel Johnson admitted, “Courtesy and good humour are often found [in people] with little real worth.” But a decline in etiquette is not likely to improve matters. Elsewhere the English moralist describes propriety as a “fictitious benevolence,” while the lack of it “never fails to produce something disagreeable.” If we are forced to behave nicely even when we don’t want to, we are at less disposed to act badly when we shouldn’t.

Johnson also wrote, “Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” At the present time, however, shame is not much in evidence.

Related comments: Hypocrisy Reconsidered, Josef Pieper and the Return to Dialogue and Politics of Easy Virtue

Posted in Art and Culture, Politics, Samuel Johnson

What Were They Fighting For?

Critics of the Confederacy say that slavery was the critical factor in secession. Some states, like Missouri, made it clear in their declarations to leave the Union that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” By contrast, defenders will argue that it was not the only, nor even the most decisive, justification for independence; rather, the issue was states’ rights.

Putting aside contemporary debates on the subject, I want to focus on the insights provided by Philip Dillard’s new book, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves. The volume’s extensive documentation, based on period correspondence and newspapers, allows one to read what southerners of the time were actually saying about wartime aims. According to the author

From November 1864 to April 1865, Jefferson Davis…. hoped to gain significant popular support for revolutionary steps intended to make independence, rather than the preservation of slavery, the central tenet of the Confederate cause.

There can be no doubt that the federal government’s attempt to restrict forced labor was the major bone of contention in late 1860 and early 1861. However, as the war dragged on and northern victories accumulated some people were open to alternatives. One editorial in a South Carolina paper opined that there “is a deep substratum of public sentiment… that gradual emancipation may become the policy of the Confederacy.” This was not uncommon among those favoring Davis’ measure, which was finally passed by the Confederate Congress in March of 1865.

Needless to say the proposal was controversial. For many it meant forfeiting the defining cultural and economic characteristic of the South. Paternalist pro-slavery ideologues assumed that servitude was the best thing for blacks. Others might consider the option in theory but optimistically convinced themselves that the situation would never justify such radical steps. In the end it was a matter of too little, too late.

One can only wonder how the history of the war and of American race relations in general may (or may not) have been different had black and white southerners united in a common cause. Undoubtedly the measure could be seen as pragmatic and exploitative. Yet at least a few were sincere in their desire to have men of both color serve in Confederate gray. “We want them for soldiers,” declared a proponent in a Houston newspaper. Unfortunately Dillard does not detail the attempts to implement the new recruitment policy. Other sources tell us that at least two Georgia regiments were prepared to integrate newly freed blacks into their ranks on the eve of the Confederate surrender. Ironically these measures would have come decades before the U.S Army finally desegregated its own combat units.

A discussion such as this may seem academic. Ultimately it was Union policy and force of arms which brought about the end of a detestable institution. That said, Dillard’s book reminds us that there are always important nuances which are apt to be glossed over by simplistic partisan explanations of the past.

Posted in History, Politics

Medieval Advice on Simplicity

The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of the fourteenth century, contains a great deal of practical insight scattered throughout its austere and esoteric counsels on mysticism. For example, while discussing questions of self-discipline, the author says

You will ask me, perhaps, how you are to control yourself with due care in the matter of food and drink and sleep and so on. My answer is brief: “Take what comes!” Do this thing without ceasing and without care day by day, and you will know well enough, with a real discretion, when to begin and when to stop in everything else (Ch. 42).

Unlike many ascetics, he argues that it is best not to become fixated on scrupulously precise regimens which leave one preoccupied with the very distractions one seeks to avoid. In psychological terms, such preoccupation takes on the form of neuroses. Nor are mood swings, which give way to short-lived enthusiasms, as likely to succeed as the slow and deliberate reformation.

So for the love of God control your body and soul alike with great care, and keep as fit as you can. Should illness come in spite of everything, have patience and wait humbly for God’s mercy. That is all that is asked (Ch. 41).

Don’t embrace afflictions of one’s own choosing. No hair shirts or debilitating fasts. Rather, it requires much more patience to endure what happens by chance, taking the bad equally with the good. In like manner, our medieval sage implies that we are free to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life, but we should not be overly zealous in seeking them nor constantly disappointed when they elude our grasp. We enjoy things more when we treat them as something special and not something we’re entitled to, looking instead for opportunities to appreciate what is often unsought and unplanned.

A note to readers: I recommend the original Penguin translation of The Cloud of Unknowing by Clifton Wolters (now out of print, but available in used copies) over other editions for its accurate and sympathetic treatment of the subject.

Posted in Religion