Sunday, October 30, 2011

RE: Trilling on T. S. Eliot, III, (the Christian State)

Someone challenged me a bit about Kaczynski.  I read Kaczynski’s Manifesto & commented on it to some extent at the time.  I was amazed that anyone could hold those thoughts in this present age.  Later, in 2005, I read Harvard and the Unabomber, the education of an American Terrorist.  Kaczynski was building himself a better revolution and working at Berkeley while he did it.  He left the Berkeley milieu with the Leftist-Environmental mindset that is probably still significant at that University (as well as at Harvard where he was education).   

Alston Chase, a former professor of philosophy with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton specializes in “intellectual history.”  Kaczynski was a fitting subject for his study.  He was passionate about his beliefs and logical and coherent in his argument for them.  He hypothesized a disestablishing of human civilization to such an extent that what succeeded it would be consistent with the balance of nature – something Al Gore and many others hope for in a vague way without drawing the conclusions Kaczynski did. 

I tend to think he saw himself as having the courage to take the “next step” in a Leftist-Environmentalist revolution.  He hoped others would see his example, his sacrifice for the cause and follow him.  Anders Behring Breivik’s “massacre” of Norwegian civilians was like that.  There are all sorts of philosophies and philosophical nuances floating around and it isn’t surprising that some become fanatical converts and decide to take them to excess.  Another example is the anti-abortionists who decide to kill doctors.  Doing that is repudiated by every organization that opposes abortion, but the murderous “next step” isn’t illogical.  The death of doctors who perform abortions will save babies.  My opinion about this is that people who propagate philosophical and religious positions that can readily be taken to excess should take responsibility for what they are teaching and at the very least argue persuasively against excess such as Kaczynski’s, Breiviks’s & those who murder abortion doctors.  Some people cannot hear about environmental, immigration, and abortion concerns without wanting to do something with them.

Alston interviewed Kaczynski and remained in contact with him.  In 1998 Kaczynski wrote, “I suspect that you underestimate the strength and depth of feeling against industrial civilization that has been developing in recent years.  I’ve been surprised at some of the things that people have written to me.  It looks to me as if our society is moving into a pre-revolutionary situation.  (By that I don’t mean a situation in which revolution is inevitable, but one in which it is a realistic possibility.)  The majority of people are pessimistic or cynical about existing institutions; there is widespread alienation and directionlessness among young people. . . .  Perhaps all that is needed is to give these forces appropriate organization and direction.”

No, something more is needed.  Your revolution needs sociopaths who aren’t subject to the Christian morality that gave rise to Western civilization.  You, Breivik & the murderers of abortionists fit this description but not enough of Western Civilization has been ripped away for your numbers to be anything but small

Trilling on T. S. Elliot, IV (the good life)

Trilling writes, “Yet when we have recognized all the inadequacies of Mr. Eliot’s conception there still remains a theoretical interest which in the long run has, I think, its own practical value, and this lies in the assumption upon which Mr. Eliot’s society is based.  Mr. Eliot . . . in his essay on Pascal makes clear what the grounds of his belief are.  Mr. Eliot is talking about the ‘unbeliever’s’ inability to understand the way the ‘intelligent believer’ comes to his faith; the unbeliever, he says, ‘does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain developments of character and what in the highest sense can be called ‘saintliness’ are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality’ of these values.’  This sentence, which could not have been carelessly written, indicates that Mr. Eliot is perhaps closer than he would admit to the pragmatic theology of Matthew Arnold which he so much disdains.  But the exact nature of Mr. Eliot’s theology is not for the moment important.  What touches our problem of a whole new intellectual world and what I should like to take hold of, not only for itself but for what it indicates beyond itself, is the morality with which Mr. Eliot is concerned.  ‘I am inclined,’ he said some time ago, ‘to approach public affairs from the point of view of the moralist,’ and over and over again he has insisted that to think of politics and economics as independent of morality is impossible:  impossible in an ethical sense – the political and economic theorist should not so consider them; and impossible in a practical sense – the theorist cannot construct his theories except on the ground (often unexpressed) of moral assumptions.  ‘I feel no confidence in any scheme for putting the world in order,’ Mr. Eliot said, ‘until the proposer has answered satisfactory the question: What is the good life’

“Everybody, of course, approves of morality.  Even Leon Trotsky, who was suspicious of the morality of all moralists, spoke well of it.  But, like Trotsky, most people think of morality in a somewhat ambiguous fashion: it is something to be cultivated after the particular revolution they want is accomplished, but just now it is only in the way; or they think of it as whatever helps to bring the revolution about.  But Mr. Eliot thinks of morality as absolute and not as a means but an end; and, what is more, he believes that it is at every moment a present end and not indefinitely postponable. . . When he says that he is a moralist in politics he means most importantly that politics is to be judged by what it does for moral perfection, rather than for the physical easement, of man.  For the earthly good of man . . . is moral perfection; what advances this is politically good, what hinders it is politically bad.”

COMMENT:  Bernardette Dohrn at the SDS Reunion on November 30 2009 (available on YouTube) conceded that their attempted revolution had failed but expressed hope that a future revolution would succeed.  Dohrn was a member of the most radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society, but many in the SDS and in the Left in general believe that the U.S. would be best served if its Liberal Democracy were eliminated and replaced by “something better.”  I don’t recall Dohrn’s precise words but “something better” is probably a serviceable paraphrase.  What this “something better” is to be she doesn’t say.  If one was of the Left back in the Vietnam Days then “something better” was what they had in the USSR.  Failure of “the revolution” in the thoughts of Dohrn probably includes failure of the USSR.  The SDS by the way has been revived.  There are 150 chapters protesting the war in Afghanistan.  While few would argue that Dohrn’s Weather Underground favored a high-view of morality, other experiments were gentler:

The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education was founded by George Ripley in 1841 as an experiment in communal living inspired by the ideals of Transcendentalism.  The experiment was later revised after the ideas of Charles Fourier.  Ripley gave it up as a failure in 1846.  It was poorly financed and managed, but did it achieve any moral benefits?  Some enjoyed the atmosphere.  Nathanial Hawthorne didn’t.  Henry David Thoreau hated it.  George Ripley’s wife later described the Brook Farm optimism as ‘childish, empty, and sad.”

Someone who had the luxury of creating an experiment in his imagination and not actually having to put it to the test was Edward Bellamy.  His Looking Backward: 2000-1887 portrayed a Socialist society in which all moral evils had been eliminated.  Yes, there is still a bit of crime, but it is considered a medical rather than a criminal matter.  Bellamy’s social paradise approximates.  Utopians share the idea that man is born good and corrupted by inadequate societies. 

I suspect the idea that if a perfect society can be created perfect morality will follow must be laid at the feet of Rousseau.  Rousseau in his “Discourse on Inequality,” held that uncorrupted morals prevailed in the state of nature.  Assuming this to be correct, what was needed to create a society in which perfect morals prevailed was to construct it on the pattern of nature.   His model man was the independent farmer.  The Unabomber proposed something like that in his manifesto.  Societies were largely agricultural in Rousseau’s day, but in the day of Ted Kaczynski society would have to be deconstructed to put the independent farmer back in a key role.  Kaczynski, a Leftist idealist from Berkeley, was happy to begin his revolution in his own small way, letter bomb by letter bomb. 

What these revolutionary utopias have in common is 1) Details of the destruction of Liberal Democracy are described and in some cases begun, but not the details of how to build the perfect state that is to follow.  And 2) Moral standards are not described.  What the good life is to consist of isn’t addressed beyond physical care, control and maintenance.  

[I needn’t mention but I will anyway, that Communist states have been constructed, and while there may have been some of benign ideals in the minds of some of the creators, what was actually created could be distinguished from other tyrannies by name only.]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, III, (the Christian State)

Eliot [in his The Idea of a Christian Society] “projects a society which will exist in three aspects – what he calls the Christian State, the Christian Community, and the Community of Christians.  This more or less Platonic triad exists, as we cannot help observing, on a rather minimal Christianity.  For the heads of his Christian State Mr. Eliot demands no more than that they be educated to think in Christian categories; for the rest, the criterion of their value is to be the same to which statesmen have always submitted – not devoutness but effectiveness.  ‘This may,’ Mr. Eliot says, ‘frequently perform un-Christian acts; they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.’  The State, we are told, is Christian only negatively and is no more than the reflection of the Christian society which it governs.  Yet this society itself is not permeated by a very intense Christianity.  The mass of its citizens make up the Christian Community and their behavior is to be ‘largely unconscious’ – for, because ‘their capacity for thinking about the objects of faith is small, their Christianity may be almost wholly realized in behavior: both in their customary and periodic religious observances and in a traditional code of behavior toward their neighbours.’

“What is left, then, to give the positive Christian tone to the Christian Society is what Mr. Eliot calls the Community of Christians, a group reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘clerisy’ but more exclusively an elite, constituted of those clerics and laymen who consciously live the Christian life and who have notable intellectual or spiritual gifts.  It is they who, by their ‘identity of belief and aspiration, their background of a common system of education and a common culture’ will collectively form ‘the conscious mind and conscience of the nation.’  They are not to constitute a caste and so are to be loosely joined together rather than organized, and Mr. Eliot compares them in their possible wide effectiveness with the segregated in intellectuals who now write only for each other.”

COMMENT: While Eliot’s Christian-State “solution” may be naïve and impractical, his recognition of the problem is valid.  I recall a great number of discussions and debates where an act or a course of action was asserted to be good or evil, but when I questioned the basis, the set of assumptions, the standards that must or at least ought to bear upon such an assertion, the discussion lapsed into smoky vagaries.  Some of what Eliot is advancing is based upon solid ground, that is, the principles that have been developed through the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian moral tradition. 

The Marxist-Left has no such system of principles.  Consequently when they gained power in Russia they “winged it,” they made up principles as they went along.  We saw the effects of that in the U.S. known as “the party line.”  There was no univocal “principle” but merely a “line,” what happened to be believed at the present time, and could be, and frequently was, changed during Stalin’s reign and that of the leaders who followed him.  This “Left” was negatively constructed.  They attempted to set up a Leftist society based on a Marxist oriented Party Line, but it succumbed to raw human nature with its desire for power.  Nietzsche’s “will to power” provided a better description of the mature Soviet society than Marx’s Communism.

Rampant Christianity gave rise to Western Civilization as we know it.  Christian moral principles remain good and reasonable.  Lest I be accused of vagueness, consider the Ten Commandments (using the KJV) which comprise the great foundation and example of Christian morality:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Gloss:  While belief in God cannot be mandated, those how do believe in the Christian God will have no “other Gods” and that in today’s terms would include such beliefs as Fascism and Communism.  We might observe from a practical standpoint that Liberal Democracy, which rose out of Christianity in the West has proved more effective than anything developed from those who ran after “other gods.”  Fukuyama’s “End of History” is consistent with having “no other Gods” from a pragmatic standpoint.  Fukuyama may be an atheist, I don’t know, but on this one point, he is consistent with the idea of having no other gods.  More specifically we see Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World, describing Christianity as the necessary foundation of the West.  It was during the developmental period monotheistic.  Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, this commandment has been weakened in the West.  Not only are nations prevent from mandating Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, they are prevented from mandating any religion (or God).

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  Gloss:  This two might best be considered applicable only to practicing Christians.  In a Liberal-Democratic Society, non-Christians should be permitted to create graven images if they like.

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.  Gloss:  Again, belief in God cannot be mandated in a Liberal Democratic society, but it seems to be a demonstrable fact that beliefs are handed down from father to son and one generation to the next.  And if an erroneous or impractical belief is handed down, there will probably be consequences.  I think here of the anarchism that arose in Europe prior to WWI (see Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I), and the pacifism that developed later.  Those erroneous and impractical beliefs resulted in destructive consequences to those nations who most strongly held them.  People who inherited these beliefs were of the third and the fourth generation of those who originated them.  France in 1940 was perhaps the most pathetic example of the consequences of following the erroneous beliefs of ones’ foolish ancestors. 

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers.  Someone who speaks frivolously of the God he claims to believe in would not be seen as sincere in his belief by other believers.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers in different forms.  Some Christians follow the Jewish tradition and keep a literal day as holy.  Some Christians say the Jewish Sabbath was translated into the “Lord’s Day” by Jesus.  Some Christians invoke Hebrews Chapter Four and see the entire Christian era as “the Day of the Lord,” as we rest from our own works and trust in Christ for our salvation.

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”  Gloss:  This commandment in a Christian Society would be applicable to all, believers and unbelievers. We can see it at work in many of our social programs.  We in the West have taxed ourselves in order to provide Social Security and Medical aid to our old people. 

“Thou shalt not kill.”  Gloss:  Pacifists have used this commandment to justify their position, but a majority of theologians exegete this commandment to mean “Thou shalt not murder,” and murder is against the law throughout the West.  We cannot say it is a universal law because many societies do permit murder.  For example, consider the “honor killings” practiced by Conservative Muslims.  Judicial executions and killing in war are not considered (by a majority of theologians) to be proscribed by this commandment.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Gloss:  This commandment is applicable to believers.  No Christian church I know of condones adultery.   Some churches may excommunicate those who commit adultery, probably not for a single lapse that is repented of, but in perhaps all denominations the serial adulterer will have difficulty remaining a member in good standing.  In some churches adultery, adultery leading to divorce, remarriage after divorce considered as adultery are treated as “unforgiveable sin”; however, the only sin described as unforgiveable in the New Testament is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is usually interpreted as repudiating an act of the Holy Spirit when he is urging someone to turn to Christ and be saved. 

“Thou shalt not steal.”  Gloss:  This seems to be a universal principle, applicable to believers and non-believers alike.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Gloss:    This is often considered to mean “thou shalt not lie,” but that would be true only if it was expanded to say “thou shalt not lie in such a way that someone else is harmed.”  Going to court and lying about someone in such a way as to cause them to be convicted of something they didn’t do would be a violation of this commandment, but any lie that hurt someone else would also be a violation.  On the other hand if you said to the Gestapo in 1943 “there are no Jews hiding in my cellar,” when your cellar was chockablock full of them,” you would not be in violation of this commandment.  We have laws against slander that are consistent with this commandment.  Telling your sensitive aunt Margaret that her ugly hat looks great would not be a violation of this commandment (unless your false statement caused her to injure herself or someone else).

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbours.”  Gloss:  While this commandment has not been translated into law in any Western nation as far as I know, most of us can appreciate that it is wise advice (even for those who don’t accept it as a commandment).   “Keeping up with the Joneses is a cliché for bankrupting oneself in pursuit of neighborhood status.  Coveting someone else’s wife has led to many a divorce, not to mention ruined lives and the occasional murder.  Coveting a neighbor’s car might cause one to buy a car he really can’t afford resulting in eventually having it repossessed or perhaps resulting in personal bankruptcy.  Being content with what one can afford and what one has is an attitude to be cultivated as a wise alternative.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, II (philosophical & theological quietism)

Trilling wrote, “Perhaps Mr. Eliot’s long if recalcitrant discipleship to Matthew Arnold gives me some justification for quoting Arnold once again:  of criticism he said that ‘it must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent.’  It is with this sentence in mind that I urge the importance of Mr. Eliot’s book.

“In the imagination of the Left Mr. Eliot has always figured with excessive simplicity.  His story was supposed to be nothing more than this: that from the horrible realities of the Waste Land he escaped into the arms of Anglo-Catholic theology.  This account may or may not be adequate; but as we review the ten years in which Marxism flourished among the intellectuals and then decayed, we can scarcely believe that this story, if true, is the worst that could be told of a man in our time.  Whatever is censurable in it depends on the blind power of that word ‘escape’ and on our attitude to theology.  For theology I certainly do not make a stand, but when Mr. Eliot is accused of ‘faith,’ of the ‘surrender’ of his intellect to ‘authority,’ it is hard to see, when the accusers are Marxist intellectuals, how their own action was always so very different.  If we have the right to measure the personal and moral value of convictions by the disinterested intellectual effort through which they are arrived at, we might find that Mr. Eliot’s conversion was notably more honorable than that of many who impugned his decision.”

COMMENT:  I was a bit surprised to read that a belief in Marxism “decayed” after a ten year period, i.e. from 1930 to 1940.  He was writing before a Cold War in which Marxism was embraced with great enthusiasm by many Western intellectuals.  I was once interested in American Marxists who advanced the cause of labor during this period.  Perhaps he had those people in mind when he used the word “decayed.”  

Trilling’s point here is that if Eliot gave up his intellectual independence by embracing Anglo-Catholic theology, those who embraced Marxism were in no position to criticize him.  Embracing a fideist or quietist approach to religion or philosophy to the extent that counter theories are rejected a priori is an extreme not many intellectuals could manage.  Perhaps people who don’t fit Trilling’s definition of “intellectual” might manage because they wouldn’t be fully aware of counter arguments, but Eliot was aware.  He worked through the problems that concerned him (perhaps described in The Waste Land) and embraced Anglo-Catholic theology as a logical solution to them.  But did that mean he quit thinking, and embraced his theology as a fideist? 

I am much more familiar with Reformed than Anglo-Catholic theology, and there is a famous controversy that developed between two Reformed theologians that bears upon this subject.  Cornelius Van Til took the position that we could not know everything God knew.  He revealed what He wanted us to know in the Scriptures, but He didn’t tell us all that He knew.  He didn’t even tell us all that he knew about what he told is in these Scriptures.  We could never know all that God knew about anything.  Gordon Clark believed that while we couldn’t know everything that God knew, we could know everything there was to know about what God revealed in Scripture.  We could know the Scriptures as thoroughly as God knew them. 

If we couldn’t know everything there was to know about Scripture, Van Til’s critics asked, how could we believe something we couldn’t fully understand?  We understood as much as God intended us to understand, but the insoluble matters we accepted on faith, Van Til responded.  Were Van Til and T. S. Eliot fideists for accepting difficult theological matters on faith?  Or was Gordon Clark arrogant for thinking he could know everything God knew about Scripture? 

Van Til & Eliot weren’t fideists any more than modern scientists are.  Modern scientists don’t believe that they know everything about nature, but they do believe that scientists will one day know almost everything.  They believe that on faith.  While some theologies are frozen in time, most subscribe to “the progress of doctrine.”  Intellectual theologians have been wrestling with doctrine for hundreds of years.  No Christian denomination holds to the theology that the earliest Church fathers advanced.  Various interpretations were advanced and debated.  Creeds and Confessions resulted.  Doctrine progressed and is still progressing.  Van Til, if not Clark, was engaged in that “progress” himself.

Heidegger’s history bears on this subject as well.  His brilliance came to the attention of the Catholic Church, and he was offered a well-paid teaching position if he would devote himself to Thomistic philosophy.  He turned the offer down.  Not because he had a better offer.  He had no other job prospects at the time, and not because he didn’t believe in Catholic theology.  He turned it down because he didn’t want to adhere to Church oversight and restriction.  His philosophy has been seen as promoting the authoritarianism of Fascism, but can we not see in, for example his invocation of ‘tradition’ hints of Roman Catholic authoritarianism?  He didn’t advocate Roman Catholicism, but might it not be there as a kind of Freudian influence? He never claimed to be an atheist and was reconciled to the Catholic Church right before he died (according to an attending priest). 

Wittgenstein adhered more closely to Christianity.  He was converted while reading Tolstoy’s paraphrase of the Bible while fighting on the side of Germany in the First World War.  His philosophy is seen by some as a kind of Quietism.  We should use the words of philosophy for comfort, and not to erect philosophical edifices.  Quietism is often associated with Fideism.  If you hunker down with the comforting words of theology or philosophy, you won’t be angrily debating contrary positions.  You will be embracing what you find comforting and not worrying very much about anything else.  There have been Quietists and Fideists present throughout Christian history.  Should the Quietism of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin and Rorty be intellectually acceptable, but a Quietistic embrace of Anglo-Catholicism not be?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, I

I have been reading Lionel Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, (Selected Essays). 

Trilling’s “T. S. Eliot’s Politics is a review of Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.”  I can’t recall whether I read that essay in the days when I was reading a lot of Eliot, but even if I did, I was primarily interested in Eliot’s poetry and what he had to say about other poets; so I wouldn’t have taken him as seriously as Trilling does.  He finds Eliot’s ideas largely flawed, but his reasons for respecting certain of them are interesting.  It will take more than one note to cover them adequately and describe what I find interesting.  This will be the first:

Trilling writes, that Eliot “has found his own most useful affinity with the seventeenth century and the thirteenth.  Yet for all his enmity to Romanticism, his own true place in politics and religion is in the Romantic line of the nineteenth century.  He continues the tradition of Coleridge and, after Coleridge, of Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin and Matthew Arnold – all men who, in the days of Reform, stood out, on something better than reasons of interest, against the philosophical assumptions of materialistic Liberalism. Their very language, if we except Carlyle’s, is commemorated in his prose, and to their thought this book is the tragic coda.

“A century has not seen the establishment of this line of thought, but then neither has that same century seen the dominance, of the thought it opposed.  What we see at the moment is the philosophy of materialism – or the Right, the Left, and the Center – at war with itself.  In that war many of our old notions have become inadequate and many of our old alliances inoperative.  We all of us, from our own feelings, can understand Mr. Eliot when, in giving up The Criterion after his long editorship, he spoke of a ‘depression of spirits so different from any other experience of fifty years as to be a new emotion.’  But a really new emotion implies a modification of all other existing emotions and it requires a whole new world of intellect to accommodate it.  Certainly the old world of those who read what I am now writing cannot give it room.  Indeed, can we say that that old intellectual world of ours any longer exists?  Disordered as it always was, it seems now almost to have vanished.

“I am far from thinking that Mr. Eliot supplies a new world, yet in this trouble time when we are bound to think of eventual reconstructions, I should like to recommend to the attention of readers probably hostile to the religion Mr. Eliot’s religious politics.  I say no more than recommend to the attention:  I certainly do not recommend Mr. Eliot’s ideas to the allegiance.  But here we are, a very small group and quite obscure; our possibility of action is suspended by events; perhaps we have never been more than vocal and perhaps soon we can hope to be no more than thoughtful; our relations with the future are dark and dubious.”

COMMENT:  I’ll say in advance that I don’t consider the Romantic tradition, including that portion of Eliot’s politics that Trilling commends, “the tragic coda.”   The emphasis upon morality is found in many of Christopher Hitchens best essays, for example.  Our world is not the world of 1940 in which Trilling wrote his essay.  The practical battle with the materialism of the Left (Communism) and of the Right (Fascism) has taken place.  The practical materialism of the Center (Liberal Democracy) has been left victorious for the most part, but the philosophical battles are still going on.  Only vestiges of Communism remain but Socialism lives on.  It is interesting that Hitchens until very recently considered himself a Socialist, but the “immorality” (in Hitchens’ terms) of his friends on the Left as they refused to denounce and oppose as evil a man as Hitchens ever encountered (Saddam Hussein) caused him to abandon them.  Hitchens denounced and opposed Saddam Hussein and in doing so moved away from the philosophical materialism of the Left. 

While the philosophical Right no longer exists in the Fascist sense, Hitchens found Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik close enough.  There was no excuse (in Hitchens’ view) for the US ever to accommodate tyrannous leaders in order to promote National Interest.  Hitchens wasn’t thoroughgoing in a philosophical sense.  I doubt he would say that Morality should trump National interest in every case for every nation, but the U.S. during Kissinger’s time didn’t need to befriend nations led by evil leaders in order to preserve America’s interests.  Kissinger assumed the USSR was going to remain in existence indefinitely and dealt with them accordingly.  Hitchens believed Kissinger’s realpolitik immoral.

An emphasis upon morality in politics hasn’t ended.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s antipathy toward the Shah of Iran is denounced as naïve and a colossal blunder from the standpoint of practical politics, which it undoubtedly was, but he was given a mandate to bring morality back into the office of the presidency and he erred in a manner of speaking on the side of morality.  From our perspective the Shah was evil but the Ayatollah Khomeini was a much greater evil.  Had Carter had our present perspective, he could have encouraged the Shah to stay in power as the lesser of two evils and therefore the most moral decision under the circumstances.

Also, Reagan didn’t apply realpolitik when he called for Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”  There are always multiple reasons for such decisions so we can’t say that morality was the only one, but we can say that Reagan’s call for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was a call for Gorbachev to perform that moral act. 

While no one in politics wants to be accused of immorality, Trilling writes that none of the major political positions provided a definition of “morality.”  Eliot as we shall see did provide a definition, and for that Trilling commends him.

While not on the main point, it is noteworthy to read Trilling describing the people who would be reading his essay and thinking about it as “a very small group and quite obscure.”  He was correct.  Those who could afford the education, time and leisure to write and think about these matters were very small in number.  But a few years later returning veterans began filling up the colleges and that number increased dramatically.  I am in this category myself having had my education paid for by the G. I. Bill after the Korean War.  Without these Bills many of us might have had the raw intelligence, but it took educators like Trilling to tell us to look here!  Look at this!  This is important!  And so we looked, and even if we didn’t quite agree with him, he narrowed our interest.  He added to our collection of ideas, and had we been utterly on our own we would have been denied his experience and not been inducted into what in 1940 had only been a small group “dark and dubious.” 

Not that any of us as it thoroughly all together.  Such a condition isn’t possible.  We are involved, whatever our political view is, in a process, and as we consider what might be “moral” or “immoral” it will be useful to consider Eliot’s definition.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hitchens on John Brown

Some essay collections seem to have a loose coherence.  Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, is an example.  Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, has no such coherence.  One needs to be in an appropriate mood to skip from subject to subject as one wends his way through this 749-page collection.

Hitchens is touted by some as the greatest modern essayist.  Perhaps he is.  On pages 28 through 33 he reviews John Brown, Abolitionist, by David Reynolds.  He quotes Reynolds to say, “The officer who supervised the capture of Brown was Robert E. Lee . . . Lee’s retreat from the decisive battle of Gettysburg would pass over the same road that Brown took to Harpers Ferry on the night of his attack.  The lieutenant who demanded Brown’s surrender was J. E. B. Stuart, later Lee’s celebrated cavalry officer.  Among the officers who supervised at Brown’s hanging was Thomas Jackson, soon to become the renowned ‘Stonewall.’  Among the soldiers at Brown’s execution was a dashing Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth.”

Hitchens writes, “If this does not vindicate Brown’s view that all had been predestined by the Almighty before the world was made, it nonetheless does something to the hair on the back of one’s neck. . . .”

Hitchens can be heavy handed when setting about him toppling religious icons, but here he has a lighter touch, doing justice to the astonishing collection of people present at Brown’s hanging and ironically tipping his hat to Brown’s belief that God was working through him to free the slaves.  Hitchens has the admirable trait of not bypassing matters he finds difficult.    He doesn’t credit God’s existence let alone his hand on the matters Brown was concerned with.  One can infer that Hitchens credits coincidence as causing the excitement on the back of his neck.  And here at least one can smile and draw a different conclusion

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Focusing, II

I’ve turned seventy-seven

The day she has an MRI

To assess possible

Damage to her brain

From perhaps a stroke.

There’s no point

Railing against inevitability.

Thirty years ago these

Intervening years

Seemed an eternity

And if we could live

This long, a paradise,

But I never thought the touch

Of her hand would grow this cold.

Focusing, I

Upon the trail is the day-glo

Of shattered clay, and shotgun-shell

Detritus of a bit more

Blight.  I look about from habit:

It wasn’t this morning or I would have heard

The sounds, thinking of my Walther 22

Against the viciousness that implies.

A siren blares.  Someone is rushing

Someone someplace to die.

How much can I care for something

Roaring past?  I rationalize

That nothing lasts.  The girls only

Concern is rabbits fleeing

Through the underbrush.

I see a watching crow

And try to take its image,

But it launches free too

Quickly for my F Stop

And shutter speed.

It is all like that with

With these images sticking

And everything in between

As vaporous as the dust

Churned up by the girls

Striding across the sand.

The two of them lasting

White-muzzled.  Susan though is

Not as steady as she used to be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Memory loss


I was at the river, turning,

Seeing the off-road biker

Racing toward us, hearing him

Rev his engine in a

“Get out of my way” way,

But Duffy was behind me so I

Stood, with hickory stick

At port-arms remembering

Standing on the Kunsan beach

Looking through the wire

At the Yellow Sea, the long

Tide seeping up inexorably

From nowhere.  Could I build

That bit of experience

Into a memory worth keeping?

I listened to Sarah Vaughn

In the Slop Chute, drinking

Weak beer with Emhoolah,

And being led to feel

That we were all okay.

Did I hold something back?

I must have, for I moved

And let it flash past

Thinking I needed more.

How could I possibly

Know or be anything,

Pouring though I did over

Specifications and Sigmund Freud?

It was a Lucretian flux.

I fell asleep waiting for orders

And the Cosmic swerve. 

Memories faded.

I stopped by my seabag

Waiting for the bus

To Pendleton knowing enough

So they said.  It didn’t matter.

I was in the flux flying

And they made me Sergeant

As though I would exhibit

A blind obedience after

My arm took on its third stripe.

Like a spy striving to hide

His true identity I moved

Into the world not finding

Any of it familiar with

Several women moving in and out,

Or was it me?  I lost track

Of what I was seeking until

The biker rushed me and I stood.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Liberal Imagination

I’d be interested in why you don’t “agree with any of this,” and what precisely you mean by “this.”
I read the entire article being referred to.   It is at  the author of the review, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes that Adam Kirsch (the author of the book she is reviewing) never encountered Trilling when he was an English major in the mid-1990s.  I on the other hand did encounter him as an English major in the mid-1950s.  I can’t bring anything to mind that I would call an influence, but after reading the article I suspect that I have been influenced because Trilling seems to me little more than common sense; which probably implies a stronger influence than I would have readily conceded. 
I suspect that some of your disagreement regarding Trilling has to do with the definition of “Liberal.”  I am a Liberal in the Trilling sense.  Many modern “Liberals” might better be called Leftists, because they aren’t Liberals in the Trilling sense.  Trilling fits the definition, I believe, of “Classical Liberalism.” 
I suspect you are thinking of politics, and Trilling wasn’t mostly about that.  But Himmelfarb lapses into politics as well, drawing a connection between Trilling and Irving Kristol.  Somewhat in that theme I’ve continued a bit more in Hitchens’ Hitch 22.  He got to events surrounding 9/11 by page 244, writing “As time had elapsed, I had gradually been made aware that there was a deep division between Noam and myself.  Highly critical as we both were of American foreign policy, the difference came down to this.  Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with.  Whereas I had slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to feel less and less shy about saying so.”  I have been critical of much of what Hitchens did and said in the earlier part of his book, but not here. Here Hitchens is “Liberal.”  Chomsky of course is not.
Similarly, Paul Berman on page 206 of Terror and Liberalism, on page 206 writes, “. . . the totalitarian movements flourished also because the climate of modern life allowed them to flourish.  To arrive at a situation in which Nazis have conquered Europe, you not only need to have the Nazis themselves, you need to have all the other right-wing movements that look on Nazis in a friendly light, and you need to have left-wing opponents like the anti-war French Socialists, who cannot see that Nazis are Nazis.  To end up with Stalin tyrannizing half of Europe, you not only need the cagey Soviet leaders and the Soviet tanks, you need the naïve trade union leaders and the ignorant workers, who believe what they are told.  You need the foolish fellow travelers who never intend to be Stalinists themselves but who convince themselves that liberal societies are halfway fascist, anyway, and that communism is a forward step, for all its imperfections.  The totalitarian movements arise because of failures in liberal civilization, and if they go on flourishing, it is because of still more failures – one liberal failure after another.
“Right now [Berman’s book was copyrighted in 2003] we are beset with terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements, who have already killed an astounding number of people, mostly in the Muslim countries, but not just there.  What have we needed for these terrorists to prosper?  We have needed immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world.  We have needed an almost willful lack of curiosity about those failures by people in other parts of the world – the lack of curiosity that allowed us to suppose that totalitarianism had been defeated, even when totalitarianism was reaching a new zenith.  We have needed handsome doses of wishful thinking – the kind of simpleminded faith in a rational world that, in its inability to comprehend reality, sparked the totalitarian movements in the first place.  We have needed a political left that, in its anti-imperialist fervors, has lost the ability to stand up to fascism – and has sometimes gone a little further down the slippery slope.  We have needed a cynical application of ‘realist’ or Nixonian doctrines over the decades – the doctrines that governed the Gulf War of 1991, the doctrines that even now lead to friendly ties with the most reactionary of feudal systems.  We have needed an inability to cling to our own liberal democratic principles, an inability even to articulate those principles.  We have needed a provincial ignorance about intellectual currents in other parts of the world.  We have needed foolish resentments in Europe, and foolish arrogance in America.  We have needed so many things!  But there has been no lack – every needed thing has been here in abundance.”
Do Hitchens and Berman have Liberal Imaginations?  I think so.  Do they always seem Liberal to me.  No, they don’t, but that is in the nature of our Liberal Democracy.  There is no expectation that every individual and every corporation will behave with this imagination at all times.  If we tried to guarantee such a thing we would have to leave Classic Liberalism and embrace some sort of Totalitarianism and not come anywhere near what we sought to achieve. 
There is an anti-totalitarian thread in the South.  The Civil War for many there was more a matter of State’s rights than Slavery.  The founding fathers sought to guarantee the smallest government (government being in a sense totalitarian) in order to provide citizens with the greatest freedom.  Most things in our Liberal Democracies seem a mess, but in a moral sense Liberal Democracy is “white” and totalitarian governments and movements who hate Liberal Democracy are “black” – it seems to me.  Is that a moral judgment?  I don’t know.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Presuppositions and Value Systems

Many’s the argument when I tried to introduce greater perspective by suggesting that we examine our presuppositions.   I can’t recall ever getting very far with that, but to treat the matter simplistically, if my “constellation of presuppositions” was based upon Liberal Democracy and my opponents “constellation of presuppositions” was based upon some form of Socialism we were probably wasting heat and anger by trying to debate only the conclusions and not at the very least relating our presuppositions to those conclusions.  H. Stuart Hughes on pages 15 & 16 of his Consciousness and Society puts that matter differently.  People are “seldom influenced by logical considerations.”  What is important to grasp, Hughes tells us, isn’t logical arguments derived from presuppositions but “Value Systems.” 

“. . . the problem of consciousness early established itself as crucial. . . it was the period in which the subjective attitude of the observer of society first thrust itself forward in preemptory fashion – hence the title of this study.  Earlier it had commonly been assumed that this attitude presented no serious problem: rationalists and empiricists alike agreed on an identity of view between actor and observer in the social process, and on assuming this common attitude to be that postulated by scientific investigation or utilitarian ethics.  All other standpoints, it had been argued, could be dismissed or discounted as intrusions of irrelevant emotion.  Now rather suddenly a number of thinkers independently began to wonder whether these emotional involvements, far from being merely extraneous, might not be the central element in the story.  By slow stages of reorientation – and often against their original intention – they were led to discover the importance of subjective ‘values’ in human behavior.  Man as an actor in society, they came to see, was seldom decisively influenced by logical considerations: supra- or infra-rational values of one sort or another usually guided his attitude might diverge from that of the actor – was himself in no radically different situation: for him also a value-system, however little articulated, dictated the selection of the problems worth of investigation and thereby prejudiced the nature of their solution.

“Thus the various thinkers with whom we shall be dealing were all in their different ways striving to comprehend the newly recognized disparity between external reality and the internal appreciation of that reality. . . .”

I wonder if this is true.  The people I’ve debated have never, without exception (to the best of my recollection) sought to “recognize disparity between external reality and the internal appreciation of that reality.”  They presupposed (sorry Hughes) the truth of their value system and their conclusions were based upon their presuppositions which was in their estimation external reality. 

My political value system is Liberal Democracy.  The basic system (as Fukuyama argues) is superior to anything else that is out there.  Someone whose value system is some form of Socialism will describe a different set of conclusions and dismiss Fukuyama. 

We know from reading Heidegger that he never embraced Liberal Democracy.  We also know that many of the European thinkers in the period Hughes is interested in did not embrace it.  Europe for centuries had authoritarian forms of government.  It wasn’t until well after the period Hughes hopes to illuminate that the bulk of these Europeans abandoned authoritarianism. 

But here I am imposing my own value system.  I am assuming that Liberal Democracy is good and Authoritarian forms of government are bad.  Plato, Carlyle, Nietzsche, Marx and Heidegger would disagree with me.  Many in the EU today would disagree with me.  In a loose translation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, embodied in a growing number of entitlements, come before democratic ideals. 

On page 17 Hughes writes, “Some of these thinkers never quite realized the implications of their own theories: they clung tenaciously to a set of philosophical presuppositions that their thought had long outgrown.  A second group welcomed the advent of the irrational and sought to ground in ‘intuition’ the social philosophy of the future.  Finally there were a few thinkers – and I believe these were the greatest – who while fighting every step of the way to salvage as much as possible of the rationalist heritage decisively shifted the axis of that tradition to make room for the new definition of man as something more (or less) than a logically calculating animal.”

My mind wandered again.  I had a friend who as a young child was taken out of Russia shortly after the Revolution.  Unfortunately they chose to flee through China and were captured by the Japanese.  As a consequence of those years in Japanese incarceration he never abandoned a hatred of all things Japanese.  I think also of the American South.  They were defeated by the more authoritarian Lincoln and his Union but one of their watchwords was “the South shall rise again.”  I remember hearing that from Southerners in the Marine Corps.  Another watchword was “comes the revolution we’ll all ship over.”  I never understood where that came from or precisely what it meant, but it may have been part of another value system that only the death of those who held up could cause it to be abandoned – there is no rationalism in any of this.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Leg of Deer

The last 11 photos in the October Gallery were from yesterday morning.  We had a tiny bit of rain but as soon as I put my camera away, it quit.  The highlight of the morning occurred when Sage found the remains of a deer.  You can see the deer’s leg compared to Sage’s in photo 43 and also her chewing on it in photo 48.  Since it didn’t smell bad I put it in a baggy and tried to give it to her in the back yard once we got home, but she no longer wanted it – perhaps because Duffy did (photo 48).

I assumed that coyotes killed the deer, but after thinking it over another possibility occurred to me. To begin with, I haven’t heard any coyotes down there in a couple of weeks. Coyotes do hunt at night so it is possible they hunted in this region, came upon the deer heading toward the water north of the river (there wasn’t any water in the river until today) and killed it. But another possibility is that a mountain lion followed the deer down to the river and killed it. Deer is the mountain lion’s main source of food. Rabbits have been the main source of food for coyotes at the river as evidenced by the rabbit fur and bones the girls regularly find.

Thought in the European Core

Re Hughes Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, copyrighted in 1958. 

On page 12 Hughes writes, “it is now time to speak of . . . the ‘unit of historical study’—to use “Toynbee’s phrase [which] is neither world-wide nor national.  Nor is it that undefined entity, whose boundaries are never clear but in whose spiritual reality most of us believe, which we call Western civilization.  Nor, finally, is it simply Europe.  The geographical area of study is Europe in the narrower sense – the original ‘heartland’ of Western society: France, Germany (including Austria), and Italy.

“Why precisely this area?  Initially it may be argued that from the Empire of Charlemagne to the present six-nation community of ‘Little Europe,’ an area approximating the one with which I am dealing has had a more intense European consciousness, a more identifiable sense of common culture and common interests, than characterized the countries on the Western European periphery, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, the British isles – these have always seemed less self-consciously European than the states of the Continental Core.”

“In the course of the study I hope to establish that it was Germans and Austrians and French and Italian – rather than Englishmen or Americans or Russians – who in general provided the fund of ideas that has come to seem most characteristic of our own time. . . .”


I want to draw a distinction between the Intellectuals of Britain and America and those of the nation’s Hughes has taken up.  Several hypotheses occurred to me, but I managed to poke holes in all of them.  What comes most forcefully to mind is that Pacifism was a potent force in Britain and Isolationism in the U.S.  Both were negative forces detracting from our Anglo-American ability to counter the more forceful thoughts arising from France, Germany, Austria and Italy.  We Anglo-Americans were an intellectual emptiness which Hughes’ Europe plunged two World Wars into. 

Are we doing any better today, or does Europe still do our thinking for us?  Someone might object that Anglo-American thought is the most potent force in the world today, but not in the Hughes sense.  We tend not to take France seriously and have in effect taken serious weapons away from Germany, Austria and Italy and that has been our substitute for thought.  Meanwhile, Germany and France are still busily thinking, although who is doing the more serious thinking is in doubt.  I read an interesting discussion which in effected argued that France’s greatest modern thinkers derived their thoughts from German predecessors (French Philosophy of the Sixties by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut).

The evil that we do

On page 11 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes in declaring his presuppositions prior to moving ahead into his discussion, writes, “It is extremely difficult to assess with any accuracy what the dominant ideas at any given time actually are.  The most reliable indicator is not what people say but what they do – and thus we are led directly back to the history of action rather than of thought.”

I am rereading Hughes book but don’t recall stopping at this point.  Of course Hughes isn’t going to be able to deal with anyone’s thought unless it is transformed into action of some sort.  Intellectuals are going to have to teach, preach, or write their ideas out in order for them to have any sort of effect. 

At this point I veered off on a mental tangent.  I recall that Harold Bloom some place wrote that he had read all the poets in English (if not in all languages) that were worth reading.  There was no “great” poet out there that he hadn’t read or heard about.  Bloom is here saying something very like what Hughes is.   A poet may write out his poems and put them in a folder in his desk.  He may even post them on some forum with a limited membership, but unless Bloom has read them they don’t, for all practical purposes, exist. 

Bloom is no Robert Burns who believed that many a poet bloomed and died unheard in the backward villages of Scotland. 

And a question beyond that is should a poet seek to be published if the road to publication involves catering to and genuflecting for Bloom and the other critical lights? 

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22, A Memoir.  Hitchens isn’t a poet, but has followed the sure road to success of any writer, associating himself with influential people who got him jobs that involved publishing his writings.   Also, Hitchens loved meeting important and powerful people.  He frequently describes what a “great honor” it was to meet someone or shake someone else’s hand.  There was never any chance that Hitchens would bloom and die unheard. 

We might also ask whether it is personally “valuable” to have ideas if we don’t “teach, preach, or write” in such a way that they comprise “action” of some sort.  I take Hughes here to mean “action” that affects great swaths of people and their leaders.  Many of us well along on the road to dying unheard wouldn’t want that responsibility.  What self-critical devices, what set of presuppositions can we stand upon with such confidence that we are willing to act upon others in the way that Hughes implies?  

My impression of Hitchens is that he was an actor long before he was a thinker.  Eric Hoffer in The True Believer wrote that men of ideas precede men of action, but in a single individual such as Hitchens a pattern of action seems to be independent of the ability to think great thoughts.  If Hitchens ever managed the latter it was because he could look back on what he had done and reflect upon it with superb rhetorical ability which may or may not qualify him as an important thinker.