Sunday, October 30, 2011

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.]

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