Paradox of Humanism

The oldest of Irving Babbitt’s published writings is an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1897 (in volume 79, issue 473, pages 355-365.)   Babbitt, then in his early 30s, ends this piece with this paragraph:

There was never a greater need of the Hellenic spirit than there is today, and especially in this country, if that charge of lack of measure and sense of proportion that foreigners bring against Americans is founded in fact.  As Matthew Arnold has admirably said, it is the Greek writers who best show the modern mind the path that it needs to take; for modern man cannot, like the man of the Middle Ages, live by the imagination and the religious faculty alone; on the other hand, he cannot live solely by the exercise of his reason and understanding.  It is only by the fusion of these two elements that of his nature that he can hope to attain a balanced growth, and this fusion of the reason and the imagination is found realized more perfectly than elsewhere in the Greek classics of the great Age.  Those who can receive the higher initiation into the Hellenic spirit will doubtless remain few in number, but those few will wield a potent force for good, each in his own circle, if only from the ability they will thereby have acquired to escape from contemporary illusions.  For of him who has caught the profounder teachings of Greek literature we may say, in the words of the Imitation, that he is released from a multitude of opinions.  (Quoted from pages 57-58 of Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings, edited by George A. Panichas; University of Nebraska Press, 1981.)

I find the paraphrase of Thomas á Kempis strangely telling.  Babbitt continually asserted the unity of human experience, arguing that the similarities between a properly lived human life in any one time or place and a properly lived life in any other time and place will prove to be more important than the differences between them.  To sustain this idea, it is necessary to do two apparently contradictory things at the same time.  On the one hand, one must hold as few opinions as possible and set as low a value as possible on opinions, since opinions are plainly among the things that set one person apart from another.  On the other hand, one must have an opinion ready to account for each of the differences that sort people into groups.

Babbitt himself abounded with opinions.  Sometimes the number of his opinions, the range of topics about which he had opinions, and the vehemence with which he expressed his opinions drove Babbitt to the point of self-parody.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chapter six of his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), titled “Romantic Love.”    In this piece, Babbitt analyzes the love lives of various leading Romantic poets and novelists, arguing that the instability and eccentricity of some of their intimate attachments was the consequence of their theory of the will, and denouncing them ferociously for it.  Babbitt hands down his verdicts on Novalis, Shelley, Chateaubriand, and any number of other figures in such dizzyingly rapid succession that one cannot but smile at his gusto.  I’ve often suspected that Vladimir Nabokov had at some point read Babbitt’s withering attack on Novalis’ infatuation with the pubescent Sophie von Kühn and used it as the basis of Lolita.

I bring this up, not to beat old Babbitt when he’s down (he’s been dead since 1933, you can’t get much further down than that,) but to point out that I have fallen into the same dilemma.  In December 2009, I reviewed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s performance at the Albert Hall on this blog; in that review, I wrote the following sentences about Hester Goodman’s rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag”:

When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.

In that “indispensable part of the human experience” and the proclamations that surround it, we have a humanistic opinion eliding the differences of sexual identity and sexual response that often sort people into groups.  More recently, I asked here “Why do people have opinions about homosexuality?”  In that post, I wondered whether there was any need for anyone to hold an opinion about that topic.  Clearly those two posts don’t sit very comfortably together.  Perhaps their apparent contradiction, like Babbitt’s apparent self-contradiction, points up a paradox that humanists in general are hard put to escape.

Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?

A couple of days ago, I found a mass mailing from the libertarian Independent Institute in my inbox.  It included these paragraphs:

The 150th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the U.S. Civil War

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, when Confederates fired on U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Although people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor (e.g., to the slavery issue or to “states’ rights”), the cause was more complex. Independent Institute Research Fellow Joseph R. Stromberg discusses one causal factor that often gets short shrift in public discourse (although he cites many historians who support his analysis): interest groups with material, rather than ideological, stakes in promoting the war.

Antislavery, Stromberg writes, “was one of many themes generally serving as the stalking horse for more practical causes.” The Republican Party Platform of 1860, for example, focused less on antislavery grievances than on proposals designed to benefit northeastern financial and manufacturing interests and Midwestern and western farmers–policies that would have become harder to implement if southern states were allowed to secede. Lest he overgeneralize, Stromberg hastens to add that northern trading and manufacturing interests that bought from the suppliers of southern cotton–“the petroleum of the mid-nineteenth century,” as he puts it–were aware that they would face severe disruptions if war broke out.

In a post on The Beacon, Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory argues that April 12, 1861, also marks the date of the federal government’s repudiation of the Founders’ vision of the American republic and the birth of Big Government. “The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians…. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war–throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern ‘masters.'”

“Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg (The Freeman, April 2011)

“The Regime’s 150th Birthday,” by Anthony Gregory (The Beacon, 4/12/11)

“The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (5/7/02)

“The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Henry E. Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (11/14/99)

“The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs (Liberty, May 1997)

It’s true enough that “people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor… the cause was more complex.”  Though I would not disagree with this statement, I would go on to say something subtly different as well.  Much public discussion of the US Civil War turns on a rather odd question.  This question is, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?”

As the press release above suggests, libertarians tend to say that the war was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”  Anthony Gregory’s description of the powers which the federal government first exercised during the war, and never renounced, gives an idea of the structure of this narrative.  Right-wing libertarians like Gregory focus on the conflict between the growing power of the nation-state and the unregulated operations of the free market, while left-wing libertarians like Joseph Stromberg point out that no unregulated free market has ever existed and focus instead on the role of the nation-state in forming the economic elites that actually have wielded power throughout history.

Most other Americans tend to say that the US Civil War was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery.”  In this narrative, the United States figures as the champion of Emancipation and the Confederate States figure as the champions of Enslavement.  This story elides the facts that Gregory and others point out, that six slave states remained in the Union, that federal forces enforced slavery in the South throughout 1862, and that President Lincoln took office vowing to leave slavery alone.  However, it is undoubtedly true that all the Confederate states were slave states and that its leaders bound themselves time and again to defend and promote slavery, while the United States did eventually move to abolish the institution.

It should be obvious that the question, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?,” is a meaningless one.  Of course the Civil War is a chapter of “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” of course it is a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery,” of course it is a chapter of any number of other narratives.  Why, then, is this nonsensical question agitated so intensely?

I blame the schools.  More precisely, I blame the tradition of presenting history to students as a grand narrative.  It’s natural for people who have spent a decade or so of their early life hearing history presented as a single grand narrative to go on assuming that every story is part of one, and only one, larger story.  Perhaps schools must present history this way; if so, I would say that it is a point in favor of a proposal left-libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock made early in the last century.  Nock recommended that schools should teach mathematics “up to the quadratic equation,” Greek and Latin, and a course in formal logic.  Equipped with this training, students would be able to educate themselves in everything else, with some here and there finding it possible to benefit from association with some advanced scholar.

Be that as it may, in US schools, the grand narrative of history is usually packaged under some label like “The Story of Freedom.”  The word “freedom” in these labels raises the question “freedom from what”?  For libertarians, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from state bureaucracy.  In the story of that freedom, the US Civil War cannot but figure as a vast reverse.  For others, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from white supremacy.  In the story of that freedom, the war may appear as an advance, albeit a rather problematic one.  For still others, the freedom most urgently needed today is the individual’s freedom from domination by irresponsible private interests, whether employers, families, or other groups in civil society.  In the story of that freedom, the war stands as a moment of triumph, perhaps the supreme moment in American history.

Few would say that the freedom most urgently needed by the United States today is freedom from foreign domination, but I would point out that if the war had ended differently this need might very well be felt very keenly indeed.  When the war broke out, Southern leaders claimed that their cause was the defense of slavery, while Lincoln disavowed any plan to interfere with slavery.  By the end of the war, Southern leaders were discoursing earnestly about the theory of state sovereignty, while Lincoln declared that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  What remained constant through all this flip-flopping was the Northern intention to protect the domestic US market with a high tariff, while the South wanted to trade on equal terms with the industrial centers of the North and those of Britain.  The world economy being what it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a nominally independent Confederate States of America would likely have been drawn into Britain’s economic sphere, and thus into the orbit of the British Empire.  We should therefore add “US Resistance to the British Empire” to the list of narratives in which the US Civil War figures as a chapter.

What Acilius has been up to lately

Over the last couple of days, I’ve posted several little things in several places.  I put several links on Twitter, including these:

A post on Secular Right complaining about an Episcopalian bishop who wrote an essay called “Budgets, Leadership, and Public Service” led me to post two comments.  In this one, I expressed the opinion that one of the great advantages is that its founder’s political opinions are unknowable.  The bishop seemed to be throwing that advantage away by attributing an extremely detailed set of political opinions to Jesus.   In this one, I replied to a commenter who pointed out that Jesus seems to have been convinced that the end of the world was coming soon by saying that any number of political positions are compatible with that conviction.  Another immense number of positions are incompatible with it, of course, but by itself the idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker doesn’t tell us what his political opinions might have been.

Also, here’s a nice cool jazz number by Jane Ira Bloom, called “Freud’s Convertible.”

When is it ethical to accept a prize?

In a post here a few months ago, I described some views expressed by my namesake, Roman historian Gaius Acilius.  Acilius, who was in his prime in the year 155 BC, apparently had some concerns about the conditions under which it was appropriate to accept praise.  In particular, Acilius seems to have wondered if it could be right to accept praise offered on a particular basis if one were not prepared to accept blame offered on that same basis.

I was reminded of this a few moments ago, reading the news.  Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, has accepted the Templeton Prize.  This exchange from an interview Rees gave to Ian Sample of The Guardian made me wonder what Acilius would have said:

IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?

MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.

IS: You must have a view?

MR: No.

IS: But you think it achieves something?

MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.

IS: That’s a shame. Might you at some time in the future?

MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin’s correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.

Imagine if the judges who grant the Templeton Prize had sent Rees a letter, not offering to give him £1,000,000 and add his name to a list of distinguished thinkers as a reward for his achievements, but demanding that he pay them £1,000,000 and allow his name to be added to a list of ill-doers as a punishment for his delinquencies.  Would he accept that demand so blithely?


You Told Me You Loved Me on April Fool’s Day

Poopy Lungstuffing sings an original composition (by Puppetrina) in honor of 1 April.