Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

. . . . .

Tuesday


David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and advocate of book burning.

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

There is a well known passage from the final paragraph of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII. “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”

In the dialectic that is human history we would expect that a dominant paradigm — like the Enlightenment today — would alternate between its benevolent expression and its malevolent expression, sometimes showing to a world a bright and cheerful aspect, while at other times betraying a dark and sinister aspect. This is not distinctive to the Enlightenment, it is a function of human nature, with its ever-present shadow side that we attempt to suppress and obscure and ignore. We can find this dialectic in all stages in the development of human civilization, and in all civilizations in all parts of the world. There are inspiring moments of brilliance, and devastating moments of horror, both flowing from the human heart in all its complexity and mendacity.

We prefer to focus on the novel and edifying aspects of the Enlightenment, and to pass over in the silence the destructive and sinister aspects of the Enlightenment, but both aspects are fully present in the Enlightenment no less than in other historical periods and other intellectual movements. The Enlightenment not only promoted a set of humanistic values, it also anathematized a set of traditional values associated with a form of society that preceded the Enlightenment.

There is another passage from Hume (which I earlier quoted in The Illiberal Conception of Freedom) that drives home the Enlightenment imperative not only to advance its own program, but also to extirpate tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

Hume has here lined up all virtues given pride of place during the Middle Ages (admittedly honored more in the breech than the observance) and roundly condemned them as being counter to human interests and therefore to be cast aside in favor of the values and virtues of the Enlightenment. For Hume, it is not enough merely to promote the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment, it is also necessary to extirpate rival moral systems.

When Hume wrote his philosophical works, the memory of the burning of heretics and witches was still fresh in European memory. Indeed, the Enlightenment was largely a reaction against the excesses that followed the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years’ War. No doubt Hume saw the representatives of celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude as responsible, in whole or in part, for the atrocities of the religious wars that had so devastated early modern Europe. The book burning advocated by Hume has a spectacular theatricality that invokes both the auto-de-fé of the Inquisition and the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence under the brief rule of Savonarola. One good bonfire, it seems, deserves another.

The motives that led Hume to advocate book burning were not qualitatively different from motives that led earlier and later ideologies to advocate book burning and equivalent forms of censorship and the destruction of a former tradition now believed to present an obstacle to the construction of the kind of society that is to be built. During the Protestant Reformation, the furnishings of Catholic churches were looted and destroyed. Perhaps there were cases in which there was a desire to profit from this, but the many damaged sculptures and paintings demonstrate that there was also a desire merely to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to do so with a clear conscience because one was destroying in pursuit of a higher good.

I have previously quoted Montaigne on destructive enthusiasms excused by religious fervor in Transcendental Humors:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

The Soviets destroyed countless Orthodox churches and monasteries, as the Chinese have destroyed many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, as the Taliban destroyed the legacy of Buddhism in Central Asia, and the Saudi government has presided over the destruction of almost all pre-Islamic monuments in Mecca (though it should be pointed out that the Saudis, in their enthusiasm for iconoclasm, also routinely destroy sites associated with early Islam). Clearly, this iconoclastic impulse as part of a desire to found a new social order is not distinctive to the Enlightenment or to western civilization. What is interesting here is not a presumption of uniqueness that can be shown to be false, but rather the similarity of the Enlightenment to other movements that look to humanity starting over again with a clean slate. In other words, it is the non-uniqueness of the Enlightenment that interests me in this respect.

The explicit and purposeful destruction of a legacy in order to begin anew from scratch points to an important aspect of contemporary iconoclasm: the blank slate is not a description, but a prescription. If we are to bring forth a new order, we must utterly destroy the old order, because the new order must be brought forth in all its purity and innocence, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. A blank slate is the necessary condition of building the brave new world the revolutionary dreams of founding. The blank slate given an epistemic exposition by Locke during the Enlightenment is thus seen as a moral precondition for the mind of the future, and not a description of the mind of the present. Locke is here engaged in what Nietzsche described as philosophy as the confession of its originator.

Today iconoclasm is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for every undertaking, and the idea of the blank slate continues to wield tremendous influence. I find it frightening that the future is regarded by many as a blank slate, upon which we project our ideals of a better and more just society. These are admirable motives, but they have been the motives of every revolutionary force that has demanded the indiscriminate demolition of all traditional institutions for the sake of a better tomorrow. Most worrisome of all, the lesson of history is that the focus of righteous wrath is usually fixed upon anything that represents a past ideal, as this ideal represents a rival conception of the good that cannot be tolerated. We must expect, then, that that which we have most valued will be most insistently targeted for destruction.

With renewed interest in space exploration in recent years, we are also seeing renewed interest in humanity establishing itself off the surface of Earth, and this interest has contributed to a growing discussion around space settlements. I intend to address these ideas elsewhere, as they are intrinsically interesting, but in connection with the above discussion of Enlightenment iconoclasm I want to focus on just one motif that recurs repeatedly in the discussion of human expansion beyond Earth. This motif is the idea that space is a blank slate for human beings where a new social order can be constructed that leaves behind the problems that have dogged the human condition on Earth. There are those who believe that human beings simply should not leave Earth (and these must be distinguished from those who believe that we cannot leave Earth, because the problem of human space settlement is intractable), but there are also those who do not specifically object to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth, but believe that we should wait until we clean up our act on our homeworld (a position that I call the waiting gambit), or that when we do move out into the solar system, and eventually to other stars, we must do so according to a new social template. In other words, we must abandon the past in order to create new institutions for this new frontier.

Given what has been noted above in respect to Enlightenment iconoclasm, we can see that his conception of humanity’s expansion beyond our homeworld being contingent upon a planetary-scale iconoclasm directed at the entire tradition of human civilization up to the present time is truly a disastrous conceit, and if we attempt to put this into practice, the result will be misery and suffering proportional to the extent that this conceit is realized.

. . . . .

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

. . . . .

Sunday


John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist.

In my previous post, The Illiberal Conception of Freedom, I attempted to describe a conception of human freedom that has become distant and alien to us, but which was familiar to everyone for the greater part of human history. Much more familiar to us, living after the Enlightenment, is the liberal conception of freedom, which had among its greatest exponents John Stuart Mill. Here is one of his classic statements of the liberal conception of freedom:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, I

We can understand the work of John Stuart Mill as part of the Victorian achievement, embodying some of the most trenchant social and political thought of the 19th century, and doing so in admirable Victorian prose that is difficult to quote because Mill’s sentences are long and his paragraphs very long indeed. The passage above is the shortest quote I could tear from context that still carries what I take to be its essential meaning.

It is in Mill that we find some of the most eloquent expressions of human freedom and of the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual. These are ideals not only of a conception of freedom peculiar to the Enlightenment, but also perennial ideals of the human spirit, and would probably be recognizable in any age. If we could have transported John Stuart Mill back in time and place him in an earlier social milieu, I suspect he would have had much the same to say, even if in a different idiom.

Even though we can recognize the perennial character of the liberal conception of freedom no less than the perennial conception of the illiberal conception of freedom, the former conception, given eloquent expression by Mill, only fully comes into its own in the modern period, in the context of a social and political milieu that is distinctive to the modern period. And this observation points to an inadequacy in my previous exposition of the illiberal conception of freedom: I failed to place this latter conception in the context of the social milieu and political institutions in which it can best be realized.

That the liberal conception of freedom can only be fully realized in the context of liberal democracy is implied by the fact that both liberal freedom and liberal democracy were ideals expressed by Mill. He was the author not only of On Liberty, but also of On Representative Government. These parallel ideas of the liberal freedom of the individual realized within liberal democracy society are part of the core of the Enlightenment ideal, which is the implicit (and imperfectly realized) central project of contemporary civilization, which could be called Enlightenment civilization.

The illiberal conception of freedom is no less perennial, and could well be realized in the milieu of liberal democratic society, but it would be best realized in the context of a society that understands the meaning of and values the ideals that lie at the center of the illiberal conception of freedom; a society in which the spiritual discipline to attain freedom from the flesh and its appetites is valued above other purposes that an individual might pursue. The ideals of feudalism — as imperfectly realized in actual feudal societies as the Enlightenment is imperfectly realized in our society — constitute the optimal context in which the illiberal conception of freedom could be realized. The chivalric ideal of the knight as an individual who has achieved perfect martial and spiritual discipline (as expressed, for example, in In Praise of the New Knighthood by St. Bernard of Clairvaux) exemplifies the illiberal conception of freedom in a Christian social context.

Both traditional feudal societies and modern Enlightenment societies fall short of their ideals, and the individuals who jointly comprise these societies fall short of the ideals of freedom embodied in each respective social order. That both ideals are imperfectly realized means that there are perversions and corruptions of the illiberal conception of freedom no less than perversions and corruptions of the liberal conception of freedom. We need to say this because it is the nature of an ideal to contrast the ideal to its complement, that is to say, to everything that is not the ideal. This idealistic perspective tends to throw together into one basket everything that deviates from the most pure and perfect exemplification of the one or the other. It would be relatively easy, then, to conflate a perversion or a corruption of the liberal conception of freedom with the illiberal conception of freedom itself, or with a perversion or a corruption of the illiberal conception of freedom. Principled distinctions are important, and must be observed if we are not to lose ourselves in confusion.

Minding the distinctions among varieties of freedom and their corruptions is important because there are substantive differences as well as commonalities. As different as the liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom are, both are conceptions of freedom realized within a social and political context that optimally actualizes them. There are other varieties of freedom of which this is not the case.

Both the liberal and the illiberal conception of freedom are equally opposed to the anarchic conception of freedom, which could also be called the Hobbesian conception of freedom, which is the freedom that obtains in the state of nature, which is, “…a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour…” Or, in more detail:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII. OF THE NATURALL CONDITION OF MANKIND

In the state of nature, there is perfect freedom, but this perfect freedom entails the possibility of being deprived of our freedom at any moment by the equally perfect freedom of another, who has the freedom to murder us, as we have the freedom to murder him. This Hobbesian conception of freedom — so terrifying to Hobbes that he thought everyone must give away their rights to a sovereign Leviathan that could enforce limits to this perfect freedom in a state of nature — holds only outside social and political milieux. The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom hold only within social miliuex, and each is best realized in a social milieu that reflects the ideals implicit in the respective conception of freedom.

The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom, then, have some properties in common, and so are not entirely disjoint. There remains the possibility that an extraordinary individual might exemplify the ideals both of liberal and illiberal freedom, asserting in action the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual in both the liberal and illiberal spheres. Mill wrote that, “…over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The theorist of illiberal freedom would assert that the individual could never be sovereign over his own body and mind until he had achieved the discipline over body and mind that is the ideal of the illiberal conception of freedom. Realization of the ideal of the liberal conception of freedom, then, may be predicated upon a prior realization of the illiberal conception of freedom.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

. . . . .

Friday


Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson's most extravagant rhetoric and accusations. (Virginia Historical Society)

“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson’s most extravagant rhetoric and accusations.” (Virginia Historical Society)

On this, the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would like to recall what is perhaps the centerpiece of the document: a ringing affirmation of what would later, during the French Revolution, be called “The Rights of Man,” and how and why a people with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should go about securing these rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The famous litany of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness names certain specific instances, we note, among the unalienable rights of human beings (a partial, and not an exhaustive list of such rights), and in the very same paragraph the founders have mentioned the Right of the People to alter or to abolish any form of government that becomes destructive to these ends. This is significant; the right of the people to alter or abolish a government that is destructive of unalienable rights is itself an unalienable right, though qualified by the condition that established governments should not be lightly overthrown. The Founders did not say that long established governments should never be overthrown, since they were in the process of overthrowing the government of one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, but that such an action should not be undertaken lightly.

In keeping with with a prioristic language of self-evident truths, the Founders have formulated the right to alter or to abolish in terms of forms of government. In other words, the right to alter or abolish is framed not in terms of particular tyrannical or corrupt regimes, but on the form of the regime. This is political Platonism, pure and simple. The Founders are here recognizing that there are a few distinct forms of government, just as there are a few distinct unalienable rights. For the political Platonism of the Anglophone Enlightenment, forms of government and unalienable rights are part of the furniture of the universe (a phrase I previously employed in Defunct Ideas and some other posts).

It has always been the work of revolutions to alter or to abolish forms of government, and this is still true today, although we are much less likely to think in these platonistic terms about the forms of governments and unalienable rights. To be sure, the idea of rights has become absolutized to a certain extent in the contemporary world, but it is a conflicted absolute idea, because it is an absolute idea stranded in a society that no longer believes in absolute ideas. In just the same way, the governmental tradition of the US is a “stranded asset” of history — an anachronistic relic of the Enlightenment that has survived through several post-Enlightenment periods of history and still survives today. The language of the Enlightenment can still speak to us today — it has a perennial resonance with human nature — but if you can get a typical representative of our age to engage in a detailed conversation about political ideals, you will not find many proponents of Enlightenment ideals, such as the perfectibility of man, throwing off past superstitions, the belief in progress, the dawning of a new world, and a universalist conception of human nature. These are, now, by-and-large, defunct ideas. But not entirely.

If you do find these Enlightenment ideals, you will find them in a very different form than the form that they took among the Enlightenment Founders of the American republic — and note here my use of “form” and again the Platonism that implies. Those today who most passionately believe in the Enlightenment ideals of progress, perfectibility, and a new world on the horizon are, by and large, transhumanists and singulatarians. They believe (often enthusiastically) in an optimistic vision of a better future, although the future they envision would be, for some among us, a paradigm of moral horror — human beings altered beyond all recognition and leading lives that have little or no relationship to human lives as they have been lived since the beginning of civilization.

Transhumanists and singulatarians also believe in the right of the people to alter or to abolish institutions that have become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but the institutions they seek to alter or abolish are none other than the institutions of the human body and the human mind (or, platonistically speaking, the form of the human body and the form of the human mind), far older than any form of government, and presumably not to be lightly altered or abolished. Looking at the contemporary literature on transhumanism, with some arguing for and some arguing against, it is obvious that one of the great moral conflicts in the coming century (and perhaps for some time after, until some settlement is reached, or until we and our civilization are so transformed that the question loses its meaning) is going to be that over transhumanism, which is, essentially, a platonistic question about what it means to be human (and the attempt to define the distinction between the human and the non-human, which I recently wrote about). For some, what it means to be human is already fixed for all time and eternity; for others, what it means to be human is not fixed, but is subject to continual change and revision, taking in the whole of human prehistory and what we were before we were human.

It is likely that the coming moral conflict over transhumanism (both the conflict and transhumanism itself have already started, but they remain at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve) will eventually make itself felt as social and political conflict. The ethico-religious conflict in Europe from the advent of the Reformation to the end of the Thirty Years’ War brought into being the political institution of the nation-state and even created the conditions for the Enlightenment, as a reaction against the religious excesses the Reformation and its consequences. Similarly, the ethico-social conflict that will follow from divisions over transhumanism (and related technological developments that will blur the distinction between the human and the non-human) may in their turn be the occasion of the emergence of revolutionary changes in social and political institutions. Retaining the right of the people to alter or abolish their institutions means remaining open to such revolutionary change.

. . . . .

Happy 4th of July!

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

. . . . .

Monday


Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, made a characteristically astute observation about the unfinished portrait of Mozart painted by Joseph Lange, his brother-in-law:

“…to pronounce the name of Mozart in the Amalienburg [palace] is dangerous. It gives colour — very pretty colour — to the notion that Mozart was merely a Rococo composer. Fifty years ago this was what most people thought about him, and the notion was supported by horrible little plaster busts which made him look the perfect eighteenth-century dummy. I bought one of these busts when I was at school, but when I first heard the G minor Quintet I realised that it couldn’t have been written by the smooth, white character on my mantelpiece and threw the bust into the wastepaper basket. Afterwards I discovered the Lange portrait which, although no masterpiece, does convey the singlemindedness of genius.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, p. 241

Clark thought that he could see in the Lange portrait the “singlemindedness of genius” that could produce the string quintet in G minor. Perhaps so. Clark had evidently looked carefully at the portraiture of Europe’s past, and I have agreed with him in regard to those works I have seen with my own eyes (such as the Riemanschneider wood carvings at Würzburg), so I will trust him on this. I have not been to Salzberg and so I have not seen the Lange portrait of Mozart with my own eyes.

I was just looking at one of the few well-known portraits of Kant and I realized how much it resembled the Lange portrait of Mozart. I did some internet research today (I didn’t have immediate access to a good library) and I wasn’t able to find anything definite about the Kant portrait I have in mind (reproduced below). The only thing that I could find about it claimed that it was an anonymous portrait of about 1790. The fact that I could find no definite attribution of the painting (which appears on the covers of the Cambridge University Press editions of Kant’s works translated in the English) supports its anonymity, but this requires further investigation.

What I did find when attempting to research Kant’s portraits was an interesting paper specifically about Kant’s portraits, which includes this passage:

“In Döbler’s portrait and in Kiefer’s faithful if expressionistic reproduction of it — as well as in many of the other late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraits of Kant — the forehead is remarkably large and decidedly retreating. Was Kant’s forehead shaped this way in these images because he was a philosopher, or, to follow the implications of Lavater’s system, was he a philosopher because of the intellectual acuity manifested by his forehead? Kant and Lavater were correspondents on theological matters, and Lavater cites Kant in the Physiognomy.”

“Immanuel Kant and the Bo(a)rders of Art History,” Mark Cheetham, in The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives, p. 16

Cheetham was referring to the 1791 Döbler portrait, which I will reproduce below.

Needless to say, the prominence of Kant’s forehead is far more pronounced in the anonymous portrait said to date from 1790, which could mean many different things, but we will not pursue this at present.

In both the anonymous portrait of Kant and the Lange portrait of Mozart we see what Clark called the “singlemindedness of genius” portrayed to the extent of the ability of a portraitist to portray the inner life of his subject, which is, truth be told, very limited, but it nevertheless is one of the great tests of an artist’s mettle. Apart from this attempt to portray the inner life of the sitter, the two portraits have much else in common. In each, the bust alone is portrayed, and portrayed against a plain dark background — although if the Lange portrait had been finished that might not have remained the case. But even if that had not remained the case, the angle of the heads, and view taken of that angle, and expressions on the faces of each would still display a remarkable parallelism.

Kant was an exemplar of the Enlightenment in the realm of pure thought, while Mozart was an exemplar of the Enlightenment in music. Kant wrote his great works after he turned fifty; Mozart never reached the age of fifty, and composed all his music as a youth, dying tragically young. Mozart’s life from 1756 to 1791 was entirely contained within Kant’s life from 1724 to 1804. Kant was 32 when Mozart was born and 67 when Mozart died, so that the years of Mozart’s life would have contained the bulk of Kant’s creative years as a philosopher. The portraits of the two (if the information that I have is correct) are only eight years apart: the Lange portrait dating from 1782 and the anonymous portrait of Kant from 1790.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

These portraits emphasize the seriousness of purpose both of Kant and Mozart. Such portraits command our respect. They also differ quite dramatically from some of the most famous portraiture of the Enlightenment. Clark himself in his coverage of the Enlightenment mentions the enigmatic smile that one sees in the portraits of the period (both in painting and sculpture), but there is no such “smile of reason” in these Enlightenment portraits of Kant and Mozart. Perhaps one of the greatest Enlightenment portraits is that of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour was a prolific portraitist of the Enlightenment, and also did a wonderful portrait of himself that not only shows his “smile of reason” to great effect, but also shows the unity of his technique, looking, as it does, so much like his other portraits. And we note here that Maurice Quentin de La Tour (we must write out his whole name and not abbreviate it to “de La Tour” lest we confuse his works with those of Georges de La Tour) didn’t even paint his portraits — they are all pastel on paper. Is this one of the secrets hidden behind the enigmatic smile of reason?

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Linguistic Rationalization

14 October 2009

Wednesday


jasper-johns-three-flags

There is an insufficient appreciation of the extent to which the US and its characteristic institutions are relics of the Enlightenment. I have commented previously that US leaders no longer believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this may be one of the reasons that the political legacy of the Enlightenment goes largely unrecognized. But the fact remains that the institutions of the US constitute the most systematic and successful attempt to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this is one of the sources of American exceptionalism.

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

But no practice fully or absolutely embodies the theory of which it is an attempted realization, and so too the US and its institutions constitute an incomplete realization of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not exhausted by its political ideals, but also spawned ideals throughout social, economic, religious, and philosophical thought. The US has realized some, but not all, of the political ideals of the Enlightenment, but few of the other ideals of the Enlightenment found application in the institutions of the US, however important these ideals were in the lives of the founders.

We all know (or should know by now) that from the American perspective, the American Revolution was the first great political event of the Enlightenment, while from the European perspective the American Revolution was a sideshow while the French Revolution was the main event. Again, from the American Perspective the French Revolution was a glorious failure and an object lesson that ended in blood and suffering and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon royal family. But France, whatever its political troubles, did make one lasting shift due to the Enlightenment, and that was its conversion to the metric system.

metric-english

Again, as we all know, the US does not use the metric system. Specialists use it for special purposes, and people who work on Japanese and German cars have wrench sets available in metric sizes, but the mechanics have not thrown away their standard wrenches. The US is nearly isolated internationally in its failure to adopt the metric system. An odd exception along with the US is Burma.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

There is a sense in which the metric system is one of those great ideas of Enlightenment utopianism and universalism, like the idea of a universal language such as Esperanto (of which Carnap was an enthusiast, but of which Wittgenstein said, “Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables.”). What makes the metric system different from other pie-in-the-sky universalist fantasies is that it was actually adopted and is in use throughout most of the world today.

Europe once had almost as many weights and measures as there were cities and towns. Many of these weights and measures were brought to the Americas along with the languages and political traditions of the immigrating Europeans. The Constitution gave the US Congress the power to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” but the Congress did not carry out the kind of wholesale rationalization that was embodied in the metric system. The greatest experiment in the practical application of Enlightenment principles — the United States itself — was to do without the advantages of the Enlightenment’s system of weights and measures.

While in one sense the metric system is a utopian idea, it is also an idea with profound practical economic consequences. The standardization of weights and measures across political boundaries eases trade to a remarkable degree. It is the same logic that was behind the creation of the Euro, a common currency for the European Union (the standardization of currency). The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures, however, did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.

If the standardization of weights and measures had the profound effect that it had on commerce, imagine the economic gains that could be realized from the standardization of language. If one language came to dominate the world in the way that the metric system dominates the world today, there would be a great facilitation of commerce. But the very idea of embarking on a program to replace all the world’s languages with a single language — call it linguistic rationalization, if you like — not only sounds like a utopian fantasy, but in many quarters would be greeted with nothing less than horror. Anthropologists regularly inform us how many of the world’s languages are being lost, and with the loss of every language the world permanently loses part of its cultural heritage.

This is true. It is also true that the world lost a lot of its cultural heritage when the metric system supplanted local systems of weights and measures. It could be argued that while the cultural loss was permanent, or nearly permanent (there are probably records of former systems of measurement), we did not substantially lose cultural diversity as a result. It could also be argued that weights and measures are not as central to cultural life as is language, and that that is why weights and measures were relatively easily converted to the metric system.

Similar arguments, mutatis mutandis, could be made regarding language. A comprehensive program could be undertaken to document all the world’s remaining languages before they were extirpated from general use and replaced with a linguistic rationalization that would facilitate commerce to a remarkable degree. Suppose it could be shown that such a program would make the world wealthier to some definite degree — say it would account for an additional two percent of annual growth in the world economy in perpetuity — can you imagine anyone suggesting such a proposal?

We should consider counter-factual scenarios like this when we meditate on the legacy of the Enlightenment, which, from this perspective, becomes more complex, and therefore more interesting.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: