Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:

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I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.

 

Humanists, Idiots, and the Rest

The other day, Jessica Hagy posted an Indexed comic that made me want to talk about two things:

Regular readers of this site will see the first point coming.  It’s to do with the word “humanist.”  I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933,) an American literary scholar who founded a school of thought sometimes known as “The New Humanism.”  In many of his writings, such as 1908’s “What is Humanism?,” Babbitt concerned himself with the definition of the words “humanist” and “humanism”:

The first step in our quest would seem to be to go back to the Latin words (humanus, humanitas) from which all the words of our group are derived. Most of the material we need will be found in a recent and excellent study by M. Gaston Boissier of the ancient meanings of humanitas. From M. Boissier’s paper it would appear that humanitas was from the start a fairly elastic virtue with the Romans, and that the word came to be used rather loosely, so that in a late Latin writer, Aulus Gellius, we find a complaint that it had been turned aside from its true meaning. Humanitas, says Gellius, is incorrectly used to denote a “promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call philanthropy,” whereas the word really implies doctrine and discipline, and is applicable not to men in general but only to a select few,—it is, in short, aristocratic and not democratic in its implication (Noctes Atticae, 13.17).

The confusion that Gellius complains of is not only interesting in itself, but closely akin to one that we need to be on guard against to-day. If we are to believe Gellius, the Roman decadence was like our own age in that it tended to make love for one’s fellow men, or altruism, as we call it, do duty for most of the other virtues. It confused humanism with philanthropy. Only our philanthropy has been profoundly modified, as we shall see more fully later, by becoming associated with an idea of which only the barest beginnings can be found in antiquity—the idea of progress.

It was some inkling of the difference between a universal philanthropy and the indoctrinating and disciplining of the individual that led Aulus Gellius to make his protest. Two words were probably needed in his time; they are certainly needed today. A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and desire to serve the great cause of this progress, should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian, and his creed may be designated as humanitarianism. From the present tendency to regard humanism as an abbreviated and convenient form for humanitarianism there must arise every manner of confusion. The humanitarian lays stress almost solely upon breadth of knowledge and sympathy. The poet Schiller, for instance, speaks as a humanitarian and not as a humanist when he would “clasp the millions to his bosom,” and bestow “a kiss upon the whole world.” The humanist is more selective in his caresses. Aulus Gellius, who was a man of somewhat crabbed and pedantic temper, would apparently exclude sympathy almost entirely from his conception of humanitas and confine the meaning to what he calls cura et disciplina; and he cites the authority of Cicero. Cicero, however, seems to have avoided any such one-sided view. Like the admirable humanist that he was, he no doubt knew that what is wanted is not sympathy alone, nor again discipline and selection alone, but a disciplined and selective sympathy. Sympathy without selection becomes flabby, and a selection which is unsympathetic tends to grow disdainful.

Babbitt’s goal in drawing a sharp distinction between “humanist” and “humanitarian” was in part to efface another distinction.  Babbitt was deeply read in many languages, including several ancient languages of India.  He wanted to find a set of ideas that sages writing in every highly literate culture had expressed.  Indeed, he thought he had found such a set of ideas; by a wondrous coincidence, these ideas, the veritable Wisdom of the Ages, corresponded exactly to the ideas he had been expounding since his first publication, an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics” that stemmed from a lecture he gave when he was Instructor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana in 1896.  By laying such stress on the difference between, on the one hand, a “Humanist” who studies great literary works of the past and strives to conform his or her will to the ethical teachings that underlie those works, and on the other a “Humanitarian” who does good deeds to benefit others, Babbitt created a space in which to conflate the idea of a person who studies “the humanities” and a person who emphasizes that which all people have in common.  These two meanings would seem to need two words quite as urgently as do the meanings Babbitt found Aulus Gellius discussing, but by lumping them together Babbitt can lay claim to the Great Books of every civilization and enlist them in his campaign to establish a sort of substitute for religion and nationalism.

The second point I want to make is about the words “Idiot” and “Opportunist.”  Say you are a wealthy, powerful person, in a position to advance careers, allocate moneys, make introductions, and do all the things that patrons do for their hangers-on.  From your point of view, it would be foolish not to suspect a person who is showing you kindness of opportunism.  You will be approached by so many people who simply want hat you can give them, and such a large subset of that group will be capable of doing you real harm if you trust them too far, that you would stand to lose a great deal unless you kept your guard up.

At the same time, it would be natural for you to assume that anyone who is unkind to you is an idiot.  You know what you can do for that person.  The things you can do are valued highly by most people; you probably value them more highly than most, or you would not have succeeded in acquiring the power to give them to your favorites.  However, there may be some people who genuinely do not want the things you have to give.  Irving Babbitt is something of an example.  He alienated several presidents of Harvard and virtually all of his faculty colleagues by his strident criticism of the trends in higher education during his day.  Though his students included men plainly destined by birth and talent for the highest positions in American life, he did not cultivate them, instead building a following among bookish men marked out for academic careers at provincial institutions.  It was a matter of sheer chance that any influential people took an interest in him; if not for that chance, doubtless he would have ended up as a shopkeeper in his native Ohio.  Babbitt was no idiot; he simply did not want the things that powerful people had to offer.  Their position may very well have distorted their vision of him, as it generally does distort their vision of people who lack interest in their bounties.

Inner Check, Inner Dash

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) were American literary scholars, famous in their day for arguing that Socrates, the Buddha, Samuel Johnson, and a wide array of other sages throughout the history of the world had conceived of the freedom of the will as the ability to defy one’s impulses.  Babbitt and More gave this conception a variety of names; perhaps the most familiar of these names is “the inner check.”

The other day, I picked up a copy of the August 2012 issue of Scientific American magazine while I was waiting for the pharmacist to fill a prescription.  Lo and behold, a column by Michael Shermer described neurological study conducted in 2007 by Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard.  Doctors Brass and Haggard found support for an hypothesis that will sound familiar to students of Babbitt and More.  As Mr Shermer puts it:

[I]f we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task… in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedian cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s free won’t.

If this is true, then Babbitt and More’s works take on a new interest.  If such a control structure exists in the human brain network, it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that humans would be consciously aware of it.  There are any number of facts about the operation of our brains that no one ever seems to have guessed until quite recent scientific findings pointed to them.  So, if Babbitt and More were right and a great many distinguished intellectuals operating in many times and cultures conceived of moral agency as a matter of “self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions,” it would be reasonable to ask whether this conception is evidence that the process Doctors Brass and Haggard detected in the left dorsal frontomedian cortex is perceptible to the person who owns the brain in which it occurs.

The same issue included a couple of other interesting notes on psychological and neurological topics.  A bit by Ferris Jabr discusses Professors George Mandler and Lia Kvavilashvili, who have been studying a phenomenon they call “mind-pops.”  A mind-pop is a fragments of memory which suddenly appears in one’s conscious mind for no apparent reason.  Most mind-pops are very slight experiences; the example in the column is a person washing dishes who suddenly thinks of the word “orangutan.”  That’s the sort of thing a person might forget seconds after it occurred.  Trivial as an individual mind-pop might be, perhaps as a class of experiences they may point to significant aspects of mental functioning.  Professors Kvavilashvili and Mandler:

propose that mind pops are often explained by a kind of long-term priming. Priming describes one way that memory behaves: every new piece of information changes how the mind later responds to related information. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish-and-chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” This phenomenon can boost creativity because, she says, “if many different concepts remain activated in your mind, you can make connections more efficiently than if activation disappears right away.”

The same researchers also suspect that mind-pops have a connection to a variety of mental illnesses and emotional disorders, so it isn’t all so cheerful as that paragraph may suggest.

Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge, in a feature article titled “New Pleasure Circuit Found in the Brain,” describe a study conducted in the 1950s that involved electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain.  Subjects expressed a strong desire that the stimulation should continue.  From that desire, researchers concluded that the areas in question were producing pleasure.  However, more recent work suggests that these are in fact areas that produce, not pleasure, but desire.  Indeed, none of the patients in the original study actually said that they enjoyed the stimulation, they simply said that they wanted more of it.  Researchers were jumping to an unwarranted conclusion when they interpreted that desire as a sign of pleasure.  The actual process by which the brain produces pleasure is rather more complicated than those researchers, and the “pleasure-center” model of the brain that grew out of their work, might lead one to assume.

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing”

T. H. Huxley in 1860

The title of this post is a quote from Thomas Henry Huxley.  I came across it a few months ago, when I was reading an old paperback I found in a used book store.  The book was Voices from the Sky, by Arthur C. Clarke (Mayflower Press, 1969.)  The cheap, high-acid paper hadn’t aged well in the decades since the book was printed; the pages crumbled in my hands as I read.  All I kept from it is the top half of page 155, a bit from an essay titled “Science and Spirituality.”  On the previous page, Clarke had mentioned the widespread impression that science and religion are irreconcilable.  To which he says:

It is a great tragedy that such an impression has ever arisen, for nothing could be further from the truth.  ‘Truth’ is the key word; for what does science mean except truth?  And of all human activities, the quest for truth is the most noble, the most disinterested, the most spiritual.

It is also the one most likely to inculcate humility.  Said T. H. Huxley a century ago: ‘Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’

Science has now led, in our generation, to the ultimate abyss- that of space.  Questions to which philosophers and mystics have given conflicting answers for millennia will soon be answered, as our rocket-borne instruments range ever further from Earth.

Several things about these paragraphs arrested my attention.  Clarke usually called himself an atheist, and it was to describe his own opinions that Huxley coined the word “agnostic.”  So it is rather odd to see one of them invoke the other in defense of religious values.  Moreover, it seems a bit naive to assert that space is “the ultimate abyss.”  Ultimate in size space may be, unless of course there are parallel universes, in which case the space in which we live may be only fraction of an infinitely larger abyss.  But for all we know, the mysteries of space may yet pale in significance and complexity next to those of the subatomic world, or of some other field of study.  The final sentence is, if anything, even more naive.  Surely the most interesting thing about science is not its ability to answer familiar questions, but its ability to raise unfamiliar questions.  Philosophers and mystics have not given conflicting answers for millennia to, for example, the question of whether Venus ever had plate tectonics.  Without scientific inquiry, not only would we not have the concept of plate tectonics, we wouldn’t even know that Venus had a surface.  Once scientific inquiry has reached a certain point, our habits of mind and our whole view of nature change in ways too subtle to notice and too numerous to count.  In truth, the essay showed many signs of hasty composition; it was far from Clarke’s best, and I was surprised to see it published in a collection.

I tracked the Huxley quote down.  It comes from a letter Huxley wrote to the Reverend Charles Kingsley on 23 September 1860.  The letter appears on pages 217-221 of Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, edited by Leonard Huxley (London: MacMillan and Company, 1900); the sentence Clarke quotes appears on page 219 of that book.  Kingsley had sent Professor and Mrs Huxley a letter of condolence on the death of their young son, in which he alluded to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response is worth reading in full, though I will quote only a few selections.  Kingsley had mentioned various arguments that are supposed to bolster the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response makes it clear what these arguments were:

I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together—because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

Thus Huxley sets the gracious tone of the letter, and makes it clear that he disagrees with Kingsley.  Next:

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Certainly a classic statement from the first self-described agnostic!

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

So does Huxley present himself as a scientist, and as a stout defender of the methods of science.  I am surprised at his statement that “the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and feel, ‘I believe such and such to be true.’  All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act.”  When Huxley wrote that sentence, he was 35 years old.  I’m older than that now, and the longer I live the more obvious it is to me that to say and to feel “I believe such and such to be true” is usually a waste of time, and quite often the mark of a jackass. Maybe that’s just because I spend a lot of time on the web, or maybe not.

Huxley then sets out to show how a thoroughly scientific mind approaches Kingsley’s views:

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know—may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by their persistence and my cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind— that my own highest aspirations even — lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my pre-conceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

This rather resolves the paradox of the atheist Clarke invoking the agnostic Huxley in defense of religion.  Huxley is responding graciously to his friend’s sincere attempt to comfort him in a moment of extreme affliction.  In that endeavor, he assures Kingsley that he seeks to cultivate the same virtues Kingsley hopes his religion will engender, and simultaneously makes it clear that he does not accept Kingsley’s religion.  Clarke was known for a similar combination of friendliness and forthrightness in his dealings with believers, and I surmise that in this letter he may have found a kindred spirit.

Huxley mentions arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul that Kingsley had not made, notably the idea “that such a system is indispensable to practical morality.”  Huxley’s objection to this argument is emotionally powerful and scientifically astute:

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

The words that shocked Huxley came from I Corinthians chapter 15, verse 32.  Here is the passage Huxley probably heard, taken from the funeral service in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  It comprises verses 20 through 58 of that chapter:

Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? and why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not: for some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body, as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit, that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, (for the trumpet shall sound,) and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

Is Paul suggesting in this passage that those who disbelieve in the immortality of the soul will skip the funerals of their loved ones in order to visit the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet, and thus committing “a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature”?  I think not.  He does not mention funerals, or the first shock of mourning; he does not deny that it is natural for us, as animals, to grieve out our grief when death has put someone we love forever out of our reach.  He talks about baptism, and martyrdom, and day after day spent under the shadow of persecution.  The reward for all of this trouble is to be found in an immense drama that began with Adam and Eve and that will continue until the end of time, a drama in which everyone, alive and dead has a role to play.  If this drama is not really in production, if our efforts do not really connect us the living with the dead who went before s and their efforts will not connect the living to us after we die, why bother with the whole thing?  Better to embrace laziness and live the easiest possible life than to sustain so demanding an enterprise.  Such laziness might not preclude a period of howling grief fit to impress any ape, though it would set a limit to the ways in which a person is likely to change his or her habits in the aftermath of that period.

Of course, when Huxley heard the passage above he was standing at the open grave into which his young son’s coffin had just been lowered.  It would be unreasonable to think ill of a person subject to such extreme stress for taking a few words out of their context and putting an unwarranted construction on them, especially when the priest speaking them represented a group that was alien to Huxley’s beliefs and hostile to him personally.  I do wonder, though, why it was just that construction that came to Huxley’s mind.  Obviously, I don’t know.  But I think I do know what Irving Babbitt would have thought about it.   Babbitt (1865-1933) was a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard whose works have had a great influence on me.  The poet and critic T. S. Eliot took some classes from Babbitt, and after Babbitt’s death wrote that “To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position”; even for someone like myself, born decades after Babbitt’s death and familiar with him only through his books, Babbitt’s influence is permanent.

Irving Babbitt might have read Paul much as he read the Buddha.  In the course of the denunciation of the elective system then being introduced to American higher education that runs through his book Literature and the American College (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin,1908,)  Babbitt wrote:

A popular philosopher has said that every man is as lazy as he dares to be. If he had said that nine men in ten are as lazy as they dare to be, he would have come near hitting a great truth. Theelective system has often been regarded as a protest against the doctrine of original depravity. This doctrine at best rests on rather metaphysical 1 foundations, and is hard to verify practically. The Buddhists are perhaps nearer the facts as we know them in putting at the very basis of their belief the doctrine, not of the original depravity, but of the original laziness, of human nature. (page 53)

with this clarification:

The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament (pamada); the greatest virtue (appamada) is the opposite of this, the awakening from the sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will. The last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples were an exhortation to practice this virtue unremittingly (page 53 note 1)

In the introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada,*  Babbitt enlarges on this discussion, drawing a contrast between appamada and karma.  Both words mean “work,” but Babbitt claims that in the Dhammapada and the other early Buddhist scriptures written in the Pâli language karma carries the sense of an effort sustained over a long period, several lifetimes in fact, that culminates in a kind of knowledge that can be acquired in no other way.  Babbitt made a habit of attributing his favorite ethical ideas simultaneously to all the great sages of the ancient world, east and west; nothing would have appealed to him more than declaring a familiar passage in Paul to be identical in content to the doctrines of the Buddha.

Babbitt used the Buddha and the other sages as an arsenal of sticks with which to beat his intellectual arch-nemesis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  For Babbitt, Rousseau was the patriarch of the Romantic movement, and the essence of the Romantic movement was an embrace of mere whim.  Indeed, the sentences I quoted from Literature and the American College introduce one of  his innumerable denunciations of Rousseau, in that case denouncing him for confusing “work,” which the Buddha understood as a virtue that quiets the spirit, with mere activity and busy-ness, which the Buddha regarded as a vice in which we escape from our true obligations.  For the Rousseau of Babbitt’s imagination, violent displays of emotion were events of great significance, while projects requiring long years of steady labor and harsh self-discipline were trivialities.

I suspect that Babbitt would have seen a child of the Romantic movement in Huxley’s reaction.  Rousseauism primed Huxley to conceive of his bereavement, not in terms of a scheme like Paul’s that subordinates the whole of life to an immense drama in which the living and the dead all have roles to play, but in terms of the intense emotional experiences in the early stages of mourning.  Presented with Paul’s statement that without a belief in the Resurrection, this drama would not make sense, Huxley then heard that without such a belief his intense emotional experiences would not make sense.  Observing the indications of the same experiences in the apes, Huxley concluded that either Paul was mistaken, or the apes were believers in the Resurrection.  Babbitt could be quite harsh in his judgments of spokesman for Romanticism; in Huxley’s remarks, he might well have seen a man unable to distinguish between, on the one hand, “the lazy yielding to temperament” that the howling ape represents and the commitment to a life on the grand scale that Paul’s letter and the Buddha’s sayings describe.

Babbitt was no more religious than Huxley or Clarke, as a matter of fact.  But some of his associates and followers were.  If Huxley were writing to one of them, perhaps he would have criticized Paul from another angle, and with another ethological example drawn from elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  There are nonhuman animals who subordinate their immediate needs and pleasures to long-term goals and the  good of a group, whether penguins going months without food to incubate their young, social insects devote their whole lives to the acquittal of a single set of tasks within the hive or swarm of which they are part, etc etc.  Granted, humans have brain functions that do not exist in those other animals, and so we respond to incentives differently than they do.  So a latter-day defender of the idea that a belief in personal immortality is indispensable to practical morality among humans might argue that only an explicit narrative connecting generation to generation can enable us to do what comes naturally to our distant cousins elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  And of course a latter-day Huxley could ask for evidence supporting this psychological claim.

Huxley was no Buddhist or Christian.  One sentence quoted above suggests that his ethical views were a form of Neo-Stoicism.  That sentence is “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.”  This is a rather neat summary of the Stoic aspiration to peace of mind through an acceptance of the world as it is.  I find further evidence of Stoicism in other passages.  A long paragraph between the two portions that I quoted above argues that in fact, the virtuous are likelier than the wicked to prosper in this world, a view often associated with Stoicism.  In that paragraph, Huxley also argues that we should put the physical laws of nature on a par with moral laws, and not regard those who suffer in consequence of “physical sins” as instances of wronged innocents.  That certainly fits into most Stoic models of “the natural law.”  And following the description of his son’s funeral, we find this remarkable passage.  I will let it stand as the last word:

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time—before I had earned absolute destruction—and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my late to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is—a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

*originally published by Oxford in 1936, reissued by New Directions in 1965; this bit is on pages 91-93

The Nation, 26 September 2011

James Longenbach contributes a surprisingly sympathetic review of a collection of letters by the young T. S. Eliot.  Longenbach argues that Eliot’s Unitarian family made a fetish of doubt and complexity, and that the aspects of Eliot’s life and thought that puzzled them came from a rebellion against this fetish, against “the Eliot Way.”  Eliot rebelled against what he called “the Way of Doubt” by time and again taking actions that entailed an irrevocable commitment.  As Longenbach puts it:

In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.

Considering this disposition of Eliot’s, and in view of his time and place, it is nothing short of amazing that he did not join the Blackshirts.  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone:

In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.

The man’s neighbors, in their fascination with the details of the crime, might easily fall into a psychological or other scientific explanation of the killer’s motivation, which would in turn reduce the crime itself to the ordinary level of everyday life.  The medieval view insists that murder, like other sin, is not ordinary, that it is a thing set apart from the created world around us.  Eliot may not have craved murder, but he did crave that sort of setting apart.  For him, it was a lie to say that the whole world is one thing and that it can be reduced to one set of laws.  Eliot’s onetime teacher Irving Babbitt was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “There are two laws discrete,/ not reconciled–/ Law for man and law for thing;/ The last builds town and fleet,/ But it runs wild,/ And doth the man unking… Let man serve law for man,/ Live for friendship, live for love,/ For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;/ The state may follow how it can,/ As Olympus follows Jove.”  These lines come from a poem Emerson dedicated to W. H. Channing.  W. H. Channing was the nephew of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, and like Emerson was himself a Unitarian preacher.  The Channings, Eliots, and Emersons were all related to each other, so Eliot likely perked up when he heard Babbitt quote these lines.

While Emerson may have concluded that the “Law for Man” is best observed by general friendliness, Babbitt drew a more sobering conclusion.  In his first book, Literature and the American College (which takes the lines from Emerson as its epigraph,) Babbitt explained that he called himself a “humanist” rather than a “humanitarian” because the former word suggests a more selective sympathy than does the latter.  One can see the humanitarian impulse, in Babbitt’s sense of the word, in the neighbors’ insistent focus on the practical details of the murder, in the implication that the act of murder can be reduced to those details, that it can therefore be put on a level with other acts a person might perform.  The humanitarian impulse thus reduces even murder to one form of behavior among many.  In an age dominated by humanitarianism, murder loses its terror.  The word “mystery” comes to mean, not that of which one may not speak because it lies outside the ordinary realm of our experience, but that of which one must inquire until it can be reduced to the ordinary realm of our experience.  The “murder mystery,” a story in which investigation reveals that a murder was of a piece with the ordinary life around it, thus emerges as the signature genre of the humanitarian age.

Longenbach doesn’t mention Babbitt, through the study of whom I first became seriously interested in Eliot.  Nor does he mention Eliot’s Royalist politics, one of the aspects of Eliot’s thought that kept Babbitt from taking his former student seriously.  However, I was thinking of Eliot the Royalist earlier today, when I offered a comment on the website Secular Right.  A post there complained about a speech Prince Charles had made about global warming.  As rightists, the authors of the site aren’t much interested in speeches about global warming; as secularists, when they hear such a speech from the heir apparent to a throne which sits at the center of the established Church of England, they are quick to attribute it to a yearning for the apocalyptic.  For good measure, the post threw in an identification of the prince as an “aristocratic idler.”  I suggested in reply that this yearning might be a sign that the House of Windsor is an unsatisfactory sort of monarchy:

It might be better if Prince Charles truly were an “aristocratic idler.” As it is, his handlers set myriad tasks for him each day, among them the delivery of public statements that reassure various groups that their concerns are being taken seriously at the highest levels of the state. This frees the people who actually exercise power at the highest levels of the state to ignore those concerns. If the prince and his immediate family were relieved of this chore and their other public functions, they would have an opportunity to withdraw into seclusion, appearing only on those occasions when they might strike awe into the natives. Then the UK might have a proper monarchy, distant, godlike, surrounded by an aura of high majesty and cold terror. Then there would be no need for the heir apparent to repeat warnings about the end of the world; the sound of his name would suffice to fill the people who find such warnings emotionally satisfying with the dread they crave. Failing that, you might as well have a republic.

Walter Bagehot said that there can be arguments for having a splendid court and arguments for having no court, but that there can be no arguments for having a shabby court. I’d say that there can be arguments for having a terrifying king and arguments for having no king, but that there can be no arguments for having an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person as king.

I call Charles “an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person,” not only because his statement is a pack of cliches, but also because of his busy-ness and because he is so familiar a figure.  Irving Babbitt criticized the cult of busy-ness in his own time as something that robbed life of depth; today, the same cult has gone to such extremes that it has reduced people to interchangeability.  By the end of the day, virtually anyone who had completed Prince Charles’ schedule would be indistinguishable from Prince Charles.  And his constant presence in the public eye makes it impossible to accept the prince as a figure embodying any kind of mystique.   As humanitarianism has made murder an ordinary act, albeit a costly one, and murderers ordinary folk, so too it has made kingship an ordinary job and kings ordinary fellows.  I don’t disagree with the Secular Right crowd that there is an unwholesome yearning for the apocalyptic afoot in our time; though perhaps that yearning is in fact simply a yearning for an event that will cast ordinariness aside once and for all.

(more…)

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.

In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

Religions and their atheisms

Ernest Renan, as one of his contemporaries saw him

In his essay on Ernest Renan, Irving Babbitt wrote:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

Lest we think Renan’s tongue was entirely in his cheek as he wrote this last excerpt, Babbitt elaborates:

Renan thus has a special gift for surrounding science with an atmosphere of religious devotion… In other words all the terms of the old idealism are to be retained, but by a system of subtle equivocation they are to receive new meanings.  Thus a great deal is said about the “soul,” but, as used by Renan, it has come to be a sort of function of the brain.  “Those will understand me who have once breathed the air of the other world and tasted the nectar of the ideal.”  When this is taken in connection with the whole passage where it occurs, we discover that “tasting the nectar of the ideal” does not signify much more than reading a certain number of German monographs.  Men, he tells us, are immortal- that is, “in their works” or “in the memory of those who have loved them,” or “in the memory of God.”  Elsewhere we learn that by God he means merely “the category of the ideal.”*

As Babbitt reads him, Renan has rejected all of the characteristic doctrines of Christianity and certainly of its Roman Catholic variety.  He could fairly be called an atheist.  Yet he is a distinctly Roman Catholic atheist.  It is the God preached in the church he attended as a boy in the town of Tréguier in the 1820s and 1830s in whom Renan disbelieves, not any other god; it is according to the imaginative categories that he learned there that he thinks of the world.  This much is hardly surprising.  Renan was of course a man of great erudition, but his earliest and most intensive learning was of his childhood social environment and the ideas that prevailed there.

What brings this to mind is an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education a week ago.  Author Stephen Asma is, like Irving Babbitt before him, an American scholar of no religious affiliation who has studied Buddhism deeply and with sympathy.  Also like Babbitt, Asma is aware of the ways in which the religions we grow up in and around can shape our basic assumptions about the world even when we think we are rejecting them.  Asma’s essay discusses the leading figures of the “New Atheism,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the movement.  Asma argues that when these men argue against “religion,” they are in fact arguing against only those forms of monotheism with which they personally are most familiar:

As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men’s cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, “I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble.” I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould’s pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of “nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a” (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they’re wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the “mo­ral­ity job” to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Asma goes on to discuss animism at length, pointing out that if we classify the belief that nature is inhabited by spirits who influence our lives and require our worship as a single religion, it is easily the world’s most popular.  Yet animists rarely offer explanations of natural phenomena that compete with scientific explanations, and they do not ground ethical codes in divine commandments.  Westerners who focus on the rituals animists perform and the stories they tell to explain these rituals often dismiss animism as a childish notion, and to believe that “an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will ‘evolve’ (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent).”  If those Westerners side with the New Atheists, they may expect to see a further step in this ‘evolution’:

And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no “in­ten­tions” be­hind them. The view of na­ture as “law­ful” and “pre­dict­a­ble” has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

Yet this view of animism, Asma argues, is hopelessly distorted.  It leaves out the key insight at the root of animism: “An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.”  When I tell my classes about ancient Greek and Roman medicine before the time of Hippocrates, I often say something similar to this definition Asma offers here.  The ancients, I say, believed that the health of the body reflected the person’s social environment.  They expected a person whose relationships with others were loving and secure to be healthy, and they expected a person whose relationships with others were hostile or uncertain to be unhealthy.  These expectations are not at all unreasonable; more often than not, we do find exactly this.  When they saw that a person whose relationships with the people they could see were loving and secure, but that the person’s physical health was poor, it was by no means irrational of them to assume that there must be other persons whom they could not see with whom the person’s relationships were not so good.

Asma sums his argument up thus:

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris’s new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

I suspect that there are at least as many atheisms as there are religions.  As Renan retained the mental habits of Catholicism even after he renounced the Roman Catholic Church and the God it preached, so too the “Four Horsemen” and company cannot help but reject the specific religions which have been important to them.  That’s why it won’t do, for example, for John Wilks to say that “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.”  A person who was raised in a culture where Vishnu and Thor are simply names in stories that no one believes and who does not set out to adopt a belief in them is not doing remotely the same thing as is the person who, raised in a culture where virtually everyone pays cult to the gods of the Hindu pantheon or those of the Norse pantheon, declares that those gods are unreal and that their worshipers are wasting their time.  At the beginning of his or her journey away from belief in the gods, the latter person will certainly share most of the beliefs and the mental habits that go with the worship of those gods.  And it is entirely possible that s/he will still share them to the end of the road.  If so learned a man as Ernest Renan remained readily recognizable a Roman Catholic decades after he came to the conclusion that there was no God, it is clear that the simple act of rejecting a religious doctrine, however important that doctrine may be to the followers of the religion, does not by itself remove the influence of that religion from the person’s mind.

This much may seem obvious.  The forms of atheism that people develop as they leave a religion should be seen as phases of that religion.  Renan’s Roman Catholic atheism is a phase of Roman Catholicism, as Richard Dawkins’ atheism is a phase of Low Church Anglicanism, Sam Harris’ atheism is a phase of Judaism, ibn Warraq’s atheism is a phase of Islam, and so on.  Yet it is not obvious, as witness John Wilks’ comment identifying himself as a “Thor-atheist.”  What keeps it from being obvious is, I would say, the influence of fundamentalism.

Today, “fundamentalist” is often used as an empty term of abuse, suggesting angry people who are impatient with disagreement.  Yet it began with a definite meaning, a meaning which people who identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians still use.  “Fundamentalist” began as a name for people who agreed with the doctrines laid out in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  Those tracts identify certain interpretations of particular passages of the Bible as essential to Christianity and argue that one will be saved from damnation if and only if one believes that those passages, under those interpretations, are true.  Fundamentalists regard those passages, under the prescribed interpretations, as the great truths of Christianity.  They expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of these great truths, and they expect society to be transformed upon the triumph of the Christian movement.

To what sort of atheism does fundamentalist Christianity characteristically give rise?  I myself know many atheists who were raised by self-described fundamentalists.  Some have gone through complex intellectual and spiritual journeys since leaving their earlier faith.  Upon others, however, the marks of fundamentalist thinking are still writ large.  For example, one friend expressed amazement that a professor in a psychology course at the fundamentalist Bible college she attended could avow belief in fundamentalist doctrines.  When I asked her why she was surprised, she said that she expected his practice as a scientist to show him that there was no place for supernatural ideas.  She said that he must have “compartmentalized” his mind so as to keep his scientific thinking separate from his religious beliefs.  While psychologists do sometimes use the word “compartmentalization” to refer to an attempt to protect a cherished belief by creating a separate mental space into which one may confine dangerous knowledge, the currency the word has in this sense among atheists raised as fundamentalist Christians goes far beyond its actual prominence as a scientific concept.  The readiest explanation for its popularity among ex-fundamentalist Christians is that they still believe that once a person accepts the great truths, that person will naturally attain the virtue that marks the movement.  The content of the great truths may be different (“There is no God” rather than “There is a God,” “Science is the sole path to understanding nature” rather than “Faith is the sole path to understanding eternal things,” etc,) and the movement has a different name and a different liturgy, but the followers of each movement expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of the great truths and society to be transformed upon the triumph of the movement.  The expression “fundamentalist atheist” rankles nonbelievers, understandably so given the word’s pejorative uses.  Yet mental habits of the affirming phase of fundamentalism transfer so readily to its atheist phase that one can hardly expect the expression to die out.

*pages 259-261 in The Masters of Modern French Criticism (Boston, 1912)

The Old Right in the New Year

The current issues of The American Conservative and Chronicles appeared in our mailbox yesterday; here are my notes on them.

J. David Hoeveler, who in 1977 published the indispensable book The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940, contributes to this issue of The American Conservative an article about one of the main subjects of that book, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the other critics in the New Humanist group were identified as political and social conservatives in their own day, and it has been conservative intellectuals who have kept their names alive.  Hoeveler argues that Babbitt would have been deeply uncomfortable with much that characterizes the right wing of today’s Republican Party.  Hoeveler identifies four major strands in this movement, which he labels “imperialist conservatism,” “”populist conservatism,” “libertarian conservatism,” and “religious conservatism.”  Since Babbitt was an outspoken opponent of all forms of military intervention the US undertook throughout his life, Hoeveler has an easy time showing that he would have been unlikely to support America’s ongoing current wars and level of military spending.    Nor would the Babbitt whose main political concern was saving democracy by reconciling it to the “aristocratic principle” have found much to attract him in the populist right’s denunciation of “liberal elites.”

Hoeveler says surprisingly little about Babbitt’s likely attitude toward the libertarian right.   To the extent that libertarians set up the unfettered operation of the market as an ideal, it should be clear that Babbitt would have opposed them.  In the opening of Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt’s 1924 political magnum opus, he mentions that one hears that the future will be taken up with “the economic problem.”  If so, Babbitt declares, “the future will be very superficial.”  Though his political attitudes were certainly conservative, in some ways even reactionary, Babbitt was leery of capitalism.  In social arrangements that separate economic activity from family relationships and community bonds, he saw a world grown cold and senseless.  Babbitt would not have denied that the market was competent to allocate resources for efficient production, but would have argued that outside the limits of that sphere its judgments were meaningless.  Seeing successful businessmen consulted as experts on education and public policy, Babbitt told an old French story about a butcher who suddenly found himself needing an attorney.  When several lawyers offered their services, he evaluated them by the standards of his own profession and chose the fattest one.

Discussing the religious right, Hoeveler points out that Babbitt was very leery of their theological and political predecessors.  Himself irreligious, Babbitt thought that religion was necessary for social control and the development of a high culture.  However, he did not believe that all religious movements were equally capable of having these effects.  Babbitt admired contemporary Confucianism, early Indian Buddhism, and later Massachusetts Puritanism, as traditions that inculcated self-discipline and rewarded intellectualism.  The enthusiasms and eccentricities of Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups horrified him.

The American Conservative reprints President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, still famous for its warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”  In his commentary on the address, Michael Desch argues that Eisenhower was wrong to imply that economic interests drive America’s interventionism.  In view of the amount of money that defense contractors annually collect from the US taxpayer and the number of people whose livelihood derives directly or indirectly from those contractors, Desch’s claim seems preposterous on its face.  However, an article by Eamonn Fingleton elsewhere in the issue lends it a degree of plausibility.  Fingleton’s article, “Empire is Bad Business,” documents the ways in which US militarists have actively lobbied foreign governments to give preferential treatment to Japanese exporters over American exporters as part of deals to keep US bases in Japan.  Fingleton quotes trade economist Pat Choate:  “Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for Japanese support in Vietnam.  In any other country there would have been riots in the streets.”  Fingleton makes a strong case that the masters of the permanent war economy have played a leading role in the hollowing out of American manufacturing.  Thus, “military-industrial complex” is a misnomer.  However, Eisenhower’s broader point might stand.  American capitalists now pin their hopes of future profit on globalization, not on the development of any one country.  In that sense, they have become a revolutionary class, alienated from national loyalties.  The US military establishment is their militant wing, enforcing globalization.

Brian Doherty’s “Dignity Doesn’t Fly” has the subtitle “Peepshow scanners may not catch terrorists, but who says they’re supposed to?”  Laying out the shortcomings of the Transportation Safety Administration’s plan to probe air passengers in intimate ways, Doherty says that “The TSA has created the perfect enemy for any bureaucracy: one that can never be defeated, that could be anyone, and that creates excuses to funnel money to favored interests until the end of time.”  The worst aspect of the whole affair, for Doherty, is the apparent popularity of the TSA’s depredations.  Among those who support the scans, “the TSA seems to have succeeded in constructing a new morality,” one in which personal dignity is of no value and the agents of the state are above judgment.

Chronicles, too, includes a piece about the TSA.  While Doherty spends much of his piece demonstrating that the TSA’s scanners would not detect even the bombs that gave them the pretext to start using them, Chronicles‘ Douglas Wilson would oppose the scans even if everything the TSA and its apologists say were true.  Wilson brings up the Third Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the US from quartering soldiers in private homes.  When that Amendment was passed in 1789, it represented a real limitation on the federal government’s ability to defend its citizens from invading armies.  As such, it “was designed to interfere with national security.”  It proves that the framers believed that the rights and dignity of citizens were more important than national security.

Also in Chronicles, Thomas Fleming offers “The Five Good Reasons” not to be an atheist.  “Atheists have no god to worship” is number one; this is a good reason not to be an atheist, Fleming argues, because humans are generally inclined to worship something, and without gods they’ll only start worshipping other, worse things.  Reason two: “They have no religion to practice.”  That allegedly makes life dull, or did make it dull for Fleming when he was an atheist.  Number three: “Atheists have no religious calendars.”  This robs life of rhythm.  Time is then just one thing after another.  Fourth: “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots, no churches or shrines.”  Atheist space is as featureless as atheist time.  With no store of special stories to differentiate one place from another, atheists not only cannot value places as holy, but lose a means of bonding to each other as people who share relationships with those places.  Fifth, atheists have no sacred texts.  “Scriptures and even canonical literature, because they are sources of authority that lie beyond our own individual whims, discipline our minds and tastes and compel us to have a share in the common sense of our people.”  Fleming and others in the Chronicles crowd often cite Irving Babbitt; this sentence of his could have come directly from any of Babbitt’s books.

All five of Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons” are summed up by Steve Martin:

The last page of each of these magazines is devoted to a column by Taki Theodoracopulos.  They are not the same column.  The difference between them shows the difference between the publications.  For The American Conservative, Taki praises Kate Middleton, who is supposed to marry an English prince.  Taki praises her for being lower-middle class, and therefore likely to have enough common sense to behave properly in her new role, unlike the feather-headed daughters of the aristocracy.  Readers of The American Conservative might find this unvarnished class-stereotyping provocative, and Taki’s stories of his social life among the royals exciting.

When it comes to crossing the boundaries of political correctness,  Chronicles readers are used to headier stuff.  So his column in that magazine does not praise future princesses.  Instead, he opens by mentioning that a man from Somalia was arrested in Oregon on terrorism charges, and goes on to ask “Why are Somalis, in particular, and Muslims, in general, allowed to immigrate over here?”  That question in itself is fairly standard fare for the pages of Chronicles; most contributors to the magazine, however, would not have included some of Taki’s rhetorical flourishes, such as his reference to the man arrested in Oregon as “the subhuman- his surname is Mohamud, what else?”  Talking with other readers of these two magazines, I sometimes complain about Taki and his obviously deliberate attempts to offend; uniformly, these readers say that they usually skip his page.

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

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