Monday, May 3, 2010

Individualism, Anti-Humanism, and Free Will

            Someone questioned me in regard to my opposing Roger Shattuck on the matter of Individualism.  He suggested, if I understood him, that I might be contradicting myself by opposing Individualism on the one hand and Socialism on the other. 
            This sort of thing has been debated for centuries.  Calvinism versus Arminianism was in a sense a debate over Free Will versus Determinism, and if we bring the debate forward in time, the complaint voiced by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut in their French Philosophy of the Sixties, an Essay on Antihumanism can be readily compared to the debate between Calvinists and Arminians
            But  we have become so sophisticated that the relatively bald terms of Calvin and Arminius will no longer do.  It is no longer acceptable to pit "God's Will" against "Man's Will."  In keeping with the modern argument we see Man's Will at the time of the Renaissance eroded, over the years, by one philosophy after the other.  Assume for the sake of discussion that Renaissance men considered their wills to be 100% under their control.  Now consider the work of Freud who taught that man's unconscious will supersedes his conscious will.  How much will then is left to such a Renaissance man? 
            Also, Marx taught that there were historical forces at work that would guide man toward Socialism whether he willed it or not. 
            Also, Foucault taught that there were social structures that targeted free choice.  The wrong choice could send one to prison or a mental institution. 
            Also, the Existentialists (perhaps Heidegger but at least Sartre and Camus) taught that we can know nothing other than our own existence which places the rest of the universe beyond our knowledge and control.
            Roger Shattuck, while dealing with these same issues was concerned about the movement away from the rules of Renaissance art.  The orderly music of Bach, Telemann, and Mozart was, beginning with his Banquet-Years period replaced by discordant music.  The perfectly constructed figures painted by Rembrandt and Titian were replaced by the bizarre representations of Henri Rousseau and Pablo Picasso.  The highly organized poetry of Dante and Shakespeare was replaced by the disorganized ee cummings and Alfred Jarry.  And the writings of Montaigne, Coleridge, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were replaced by those of Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.  Some of us might think that this swing toward the discordant and disorderly could not be maintained and that the pendulum must return toward orderliness.  But Shattuck seemed to think the transition was linear.  It might not remain as it was at the time of Apollinaire but it would never return to the time of Leonardo da Vinci.  And if we were able to ask Freud, Marx, Sartre and Foucault, they would surely agree with Shattuck.
            I already moved away from Shattuck's artistic concerns when I suggested that the Anarchistic influences that pervaded French society as well as French art played a significant role in the deterioration of France's ability to defend itself against Germany.  If being an individual involves rebelling against the norms of one's society, then how well will such an "individual" defend his nation in time of war?  Not well at all, we learn from a study of French history.   But in saying it was wrong of the French intellectuals to weaken France's will to defend itself, I am assuming that all the "anti-humanists" Ferry and Renaut denigrate were wrong.  We do have free choice.  We are not controlled by other forces unless we choose to be.  France, in a sense, invoked the Twinkie Defense as it too swiftly succumbed to German aggressiveness, but should we value such a defense?  Is our ability to defend ourselves, or make our own choices, beyond our control?
            I criticized in an earlier note the "common man," perhaps Nietzsche's "Last Man" who won't think, won't study, and prefers to be told what to do -- albeit by someone he admires.  The "common man" is certainly doing that today; so in a sense he is behaving as though all the anti-humanists were right.  But he doesn't need to behave that way. There are people in this modern world who do study, who do think, and who make up their minds about the things they feel are important.  In believing that, as I do, I don't subscribe to the Shattuck implication that in order to practice "individualism" one needs to rebel against the norms of one's society.  Shattuck and those rebels he praises haven't thought about the ramifications -- such as France of the Vichy years.  How readily did the French descendants of the Shattuck's Banquet Years rebel against the norms of their society when the pro-fascist Vichy police were watching them? 
            In my view we should study, read, think and come to our own conclusions about matters we think are important.  No, we can't study and read everything.  We must accept "authorities" of some sort on some subjects.  As to those authorities, they should be selected with great care.  We see that the "common man" of today likes to pay attention to sports and movie stars; surely we can do better than that.  Jesus once said that such people like our "common man" are like the blind following the blind.  He said they both shall fall into the ditch.  Insofar are we must accept authority, let us strive to follow individuals who can see.  If we are in doubt, today better than any earlier time in history, we have the means to research these "authorities" available to us.  What are their qualifications?  Have they been educated in the subject we are interested in?  Have they written articles and books we can study?  Have they expressed opinions we can subscribe to? 
            And as to the society that we live in, I disagree that our rebelling against it is a worthwhile sign of our "individualism."  Cooperation is necessary for our society to function.  Let us pay our taxes, follow the laws of the land and if the people we have elected deem it necessary to go to war, then let us fight that war as well as we are able.  Later on, after the war is over we can debate whether it was a good war or not -- if we like -- and if it wasn't then let our opinions influence the next set of politicians we elect, but let us not like the French intellectuals of the Banquet Years and their successors rebel as a sign of individualism.  As to why not one might read Paxton's Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, or France, The Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson.

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