Tuesday


Civilisation Clark

At the present time I hold a view of civilization that is quite broad, and which pushes civilization back to the origins of settled agrarianism. As I see it, all of the essential institutions come into place quite early, although they are present in a very rudimentary form. The first few thousand years of civilization, given this broad conception, consist of a painfully slow and incremental refinement of these rudimentary institutions until they become undeniably civilization, and we find fully developed literature, monumental architecture, elaborate social differentiation and organized religion, another other social institutions.

21-social-ancientMesopotamiaLiving

I did not always hold this broad conception of civilization, and I would say that it was a study of prehistory that was decisive in the evolution of my broad view of civilization. Yet I do not doubt or deny that there are many persons who know much more about prehistory than I do and who nevertheless deny to the efforts of prehistoric humanity the title of civilization. It was once customary (that is an unsatisfactory word in this context) to identify civilization with the historical period, and to identify the beginning of the historical period with the invention of written language. While written language did play an important role in the organization of civilization, it must be accounted a coincidence (or, at most, as loosely-coupled association) that fully developed civilizations of antiquity appeared at about the same time in the historical record as written language. I suppose that my own view, before I became critical of my own presuppositions, was to more or less identify civilization with the emergence of written history, so that I formerly accepted this historiographical convention.

Does civilization begin with written records?

Does civilization begin with written records?

In many of my posts on civilization I have referenced Kenneth Clark’s book and television series Civilisation: A Personal View, and in this work we can find hints of a very narrow conception of civilization, which stands out as all the more interesting to me as it contrasts so sharply with my own views at present. This narrow conception of civilization is most apparent in the discussion of England in Chapter 6, in the context of the Protestant Reformation. Early in the chapter Clark mentions in passing, “…the barbarous and disorderly state of England in the fifteenth century,” and later in the same chapter he wrote:

“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 163

Certainly any conception of civilization that would deny that Elizabethan England — for some, a high point of civilization — constitutes a civilization is a narrow conception indeed, but Clark immediately goes on to add a number of intangible considerations in the characterization of civilization:

“…if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”

Ibid.

Here Clark concedes that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization; in other words, there are distinct varieties of civilization, some of which we would unproblematically identify as civilization, and some marginal cases, like Elizabethan England, which might be plausibly interpreted as a civilization if we judge the period sympathetically. This is still a rather narrow conception.

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

I don’t have any interest in either defending or criticizing this particular judgment, but I am interested in the principles implicit in this judgment, as the contrast of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization may be considered comparative concepts in the study of civilzation, which can contribute to a more scientific understanding. Early in the book Clark disclaims any idea of civilization and offers no definition, but as his exposition develops a number of principles manifest themselves in the narrative. The example of eighteenth-century France comes up several times, so that we may conclude that, for Clark, this constituted a paradigm of civilization.

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “...one can't deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “…one can’t deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

Strangely enough — strange because it seems like it comes out of an entirely distinct scholarly context, or, one might say, out of a different civilization — this seems also to have been the view of Michel Foucault, who frequently in his historical writings (by which I mean the earlier books thaat are narrowly focused case studies of madness, prisons, clinics, and the human sciences) uses the term “The Classical Age” (l’âge classique), which for Foucault seems to mean the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — though Foucault no more offers a definition of l’âge classique than Clark offers a definition of civilization. For Foucault, l’âge classique constituted a particular épistème in the development of civilization, and one superseded by the emergence of the modern world.

Michel Foucault's Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Though Clark and Foucault give us no definitions, Clark does offer the intriguing hint that eighteenth century France provides a pattern that can be reproduced, whereas Elizabethan England does not. This idea of a reproducible pattern of civilization I have called (again, drawing on references to Clark) the iterative conception of civilization, and I have contrasted the iterative conception to the heroic conception of civilization. If this contrast holds good in this context, then, if Elizabethan civilization, as Clark allows, is a kind of civilization, it is an heroic civilization. And certainly Shakespeare is an heroic figure in literature, a singular genius who transformed the language thus creating the conditions of a civilization of the word — another idea that Clark introduces, and contrasts to the civilization of the image, i.e., the civilization of medieval Catholicism.

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

By the end of Chapter 8, Clark specifically singles out England as an exemplar of civilization, a new paradigm, as it were, to set next to the salons of eighteenth century France, though this is the England of Christopher Wren rather than the England of Shakespeare. Of Wren’s Royal Naval hospital at Greenwich and its dining hall Clark wrote:

“…the result is the greatest architectural unit built in England since the Middle Ages. It is sober without being dull, massive without being oppressive. What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 215

While I don’t reject Clark’s characterization of civilization in this passage, I think it should be acknowledged that this is no less singular and no less idiosyncratic that the earlier England of Shakespeare. What Clark does not say, but which is implicit in his remarks, and in his overall point of view, is that there is an element of democratization involved in building a magnificent naval hospital where residents could dine in splendor. While this is not democracy as we have come to think of it more recently, in comparison to the extremes of poverty and luxury that marked the “civilization of the image” of medieval Christendom, this is in comparison enlightened and magnanimous to spend so lavishly for an institution intended for individuals who were in no sense the elite of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

V0013271 Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, with houses either side, sh

Thus the idea of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization must itself be broadened to account for the possibility of a civilization that only accrues to the benefit of the most privileged members of society (a different conception of a narrow conception of civilization) and a civilization that accrues to peoples of a society across social classes and irrespective of privilege and hierarchy (a different conception of a broad conception of civilization). Earlier in his exposition of the Reformation Clark noted how Protestantism became an excuse for uneducated individuals to take out their fury on a higher culture in which they did not share. One might argue that this is a consequence of cultivating a narrow conception of civilization in which the benefits of civilization are not distributed widely.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

Nearer to our own times, communism, like Protestantism before it, was often used as an excuse for the uneducated, lower strata of society to release its fury against a high culture in which it did not share. We have all heard the stories of the horrors of communism, and I would not wish to minimize them, having often written on the topic. On the other hand, there were moments in which the communist leaders grasped that it was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their concern for the masses in whose name they undertook the revolution by lavishing resources on the people that once would have gone into Tsars palaces. The most famous example of this is the Moscow Metro, the stations of which were designed as “people’s palaces,” which the working class could enjoy during their commute.

Moscow Metro station

Moscow Metro station

Of course, the idea of a broadly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a broadly conceived civilization, as the idea of a narrowly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a narrowly conceived civilization. Yet in the case of narrowness we can see that narrow conceptions foster narrow bases, and narrow bases foster narrow conceptions, so the two are not unrelated. Probably also a broadly based conception of civilization fosters a broadly conceived civilization, but this is not as intuitively striking as the coincidence of narrowness.

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A Civilized Countryside

21 February 2013

Thursday


Tuscan countryside

When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.

In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:

“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography

There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.

Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”

It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.

The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.

A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.

At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.

But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.

I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.

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Wednesday


Clausewitz is a philosopher more closely associated with the idea of war than the idea of civilization, but Clausewitz’s conception of war can also shed some light on civilization. Allow me to review some familiar ground in regard to the Clausewitzean conception of war. Here is a famous passage from On War that gives Clausewitz’s famous formulation of war as a continuation of politics by other means:

“…war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the art of war in general and the commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 24

Before this Clausewitz gives a sense of how the military aim and the political aim give way to each other based on the presumed progress of a conflict:

“The law of the extreme, the view to disarm the adversary, to overthrow him, has hitherto to a certain extent usurped the place of this end or object. Just as this law loses its force, the political object must again come forward. If the whole consideration is a calculation of probability based on definite persons and relations, then the political object, being the original motive, must be an essential factor in the product.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 11

This insistence upon the political character of war is the reason Anatol Rapoport identified Clausewitz’s philosophy as a political theory of war, which Rapoport contrasted to cataclysmic and eschatological theories of war (something that I have discussed in More on Clausewitz, Toward a Dialectical Conception of War, Species of War and Peace, and War and Peace, Again).

More recently, as I have continued to think about these Clausewitzean themes, I wrote this on Twitter:

“Uncharitably, we can say that civilization is an epiphenomenon of war; charitably, we can say that war is an epiphenomenon of civilization.”

Then reformulated the same idea in A Shift in Hemispheres:

“Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.”

And reformulated the idea once more in The Agricultural Apocalypse:

“Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.”

Obviously, this has been on my mind lately. And as unlikely as this may sound, when I was writing these observations I was thinking of a passage in Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. In an appendix to this work, after describing the response among mathematicians when Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated that Hilbert’s program (the finite axiomatization of mathematics) could not be carried out, Weyl wrote:

“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”

Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”

A generalization of Weyl’s observation beyond the exclusive concern for creative activities of man might comprehend both creative and destructive activities of man, and that human activity, whatever form it takes, is conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defies complete objective rationalization. Of course, I doubt even Clausewitz (Enlightenment philosopher of war that he was) would have thought that war transcended history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but we must of course think of this in comparative terms: we would have high expectations for mathematics to conform to this ideal, and relatively low expectations for warfare to conform to this ideal, but all human activities would presumably fall on a continuum defined at its end points by that which is entirely immanent to history and that which entirely transcends history. It is the degree of being “conditioned by the decisions of history” that marks the difference between abstract and a priori disciplines like mathematics and concrete and a posteriori disciplines like war.

It would be interesting to construct a philosophy of war based upon the idea that war does in fact transcend the accidents of history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but I will not attempt to do that at the present moment (but I will suggest that we might call this, in contradistinction to the political, eschatological, and cataclysmic conceptions of war, the transcendental conception of war). In the meantime, I will assume that war eludes a transcendental theory and must be given a theoretical treatment (if at all) as being “conditioned by the decisions of history” to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, I will make the same assumption about civilization, which appears to be as “conditioned by the decisions of history” as is the constant warfare that has attended civilized life. Civilization also eludes complete objective rationalization. In this, then, we already see that war and civilization belong to similar spheres of human endeavor, residing near the empirical end of the a priori/a posteriori continuum, while mathematics and logic lie at the opposite end of the same continuum. That is to say, we have similar theoretical expectations for war and for civilization.

Nevertheless, Clausewitz himself points out the continued need to elucidate philosophical truth even from historically contingent events by attending to the essential elements:

“Whoever laughs at these reflections as utopian dreams, does so at the expense of philosophical truth. Although we may learn from it the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other, it would be rash to attempt to deduce laws from the same by which each individual case should be governed without regard to any accidental disturbing influences. But when a person, in the words of a great writer, “never rises above anecdote,” builds all history on it, begins always with the most individual points, with the climaxes of events, and only goes down just so deep as he finds a motive for doing, and therefore never reaches to the lowest foundation of the predominant general relations, his opinion will never have any value beyond the one case, and to him, that which philosophy proves to be applicable to cases in general, will only appear a dream.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 6, Chapter 6, section 5

Clausewitz, throughout his treatise, maintains his focus on the political nature of war as a means to the end of discerning, “the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other,” and in so doing finds his inquiry led to broader considerations such as, “the general state of intellectual culture in the country” (Bk. 1, Ch. 3, “On Military Genius”), which must be, at least in part, a function of civilization. Clausewitz goes on to say in the same section:

“If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilised people; for in the former almost every warrior possesses it; whilst in the civilised, whole masses are only carried away by it from necessity, never by inclination. But amongst uncivilised people we never find a really great general, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilised state. That a civilised people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilisation, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in war, belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.”

Thus, for Clausewitz, the highest degree of civilization coincides with the highest degree of military genius; high achievement in civilization is the necessary condition for high achievement in war. Military exploits can be the work of genius, like a sculpture of Michelangelo or a fugue by Bach. Brilliance, then, whether expressed in war or in any other endeavor of civilization, requires the achievements of high culture (presumably cultivated by civilization) to reach its ultimate expression.

All of this has been stated — as Clausewitz stated it — giving civilization the priority, but all of these formulations can be inverted ceteris paribus, with war given priority, so that, for example, the highest degree of war coincides with the highest degree of civilizational genius; high achievement in war is the necessary condition for high achievement in civilization. Here we see again, as we have seen before, that war and civilization are convertible. The antithetical view is that war and civilization are not convertible, but antithetical.

It has become a kind of truism — usually unchallenged — in discussing the violence and brutality of the twentieth century to segue into a critique, implicit or explicit, of industrial-technological civilization, which inevitably resulted in the industrialization of war and the application of science and technology to violence and brutality. We find this, for example, in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, in which he says in regard to the fate of some of Europe’s cultural treasures during the Second World War:

“Many buildings of the eighteenth century were erected simply to give pleasure by people who believed that pleasure was important, and worth taking trouble about, and could be given some of the quality of art. And we managed to destroy a good many of them during the war including the Zwinger at Dresden, the palace of Charlottenburg in Berlin, and the greater part of the Residenz in Wurzburg. As I have said, it may be difficult to define civilization, but it isn’t so difficult to recognize barbarism.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, pp. 240-241

In a similar vein, after the 1981 Brixton riots Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” Earlier in the above-quoted work (p. 220), Clark made a related reference that extended his critique from industrialized warfare to industrialized civilization itself:

“…the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism… stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society…”

For Clark, industrialized society and industrialized warfare is transparently barbaric and antithetical to civilization. This is what many of us would like to believe, but in order to believe this we must adopt a systematic blindness of the history of civilization, since war is implicated at every step. In every age of organized human activity, civilization has built monuments to itself, and war has destroyed most of them. A few treasures remain for us from the past, but they are the exception, not the rule. The history of civilization without war is also the exception, not the rule.

We flatter ourselves when we only condescend to give the name of civilization to a certain range of values that we believe reflect well on humanity. This reminds me of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society in which the professor ridicules the overly-refined and delicate way in which Shakespeare is often presented. In the film this is a laugh line, but in real life people really convince themselves civilization is the equivalent of the comedic presentation of Shakespeare.

Even as we attempt to flatter ourselves by associating humanity with a certain selection of values, we also impoverish ourselves. We must convince ourselves, against experience and reason, that civilization is a delicate and fragile thing, rather than the robust reality that it is, forged in war, tried by fire, and built out of sacrifices.

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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz

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Friday


Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Sunday


Jonathan Meades in his Magnetic North

Jonathan Meades in his Magnetic North

It is always interesting to discover a “new” personality. Last Thursday, three days ago, I first learned about Jonathan Meades. Before that, I had never heard the name. I have been mentioning Kenneth Clark’s BBC series Civilisation from 1969 in this forum, and it was in searching for materials on Clark that I ran across an article in the New Statesman, High art lite, written by Jonathan Meades, which was ostensibly a review of a book by Jonathan Conlin published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Clark’s Civilisation.

While, as I said, ostensibly a review, the New Statesman article by Jonathan Meades was an attack — not thinly veiled, but a frontal assault — on Clark’s Civilisation: its cinematography, its opinions, its reception, its influence, and so forth. I might have dismissed this out of hand, but one of the comments on the article, left by an earlier reader, read thus: “If he weren’t a trenchant atheist, I’d say Jonathan Meades was pretty well God…” Well, apparently, some people take Jonathan Meades pretty seriously. I decided to look into it.

As it turns out, Jonathan Meades has written and appeared in an impressive number of television documentaries than had been broadcast on the BBC. I do not think that Mr. Meades is well-known in the US, but honestly I cannot say this for sure, as I really don’t know what exactly people in the US watch on TV. But I have some evidence that this is the case. I checked the main US Amazon.com website, and there was not a single thing to be found on DVD by Mr. Meades. Next I checked the UK Amazon site, and there one could purchase a DVD collection of some of Meades’ documentaries, though not necessarily the ones that I had since learned about and wanted to see.

Then I remembered that we live in an age of instant gratification, so I went to YouTube, and there found for free what could not be had for money in the US: a generous selection of Meades’ documentaries. So I spent some time — more time than I had planned to spend — watching Meades. Mr. Meades is obviously a talented raconteur and an outspoken aesthetic curmudgeon who takes a certain pleasure in contrarianism. So far, so good. I watched both of the episodes of “Magnetic North” about his appreciation of northern Europe (each episode was made available in six ten-minute segments) and his documentary on Nazi architecture. I noticed that, while more the six thousand people looked at the first segment of “Magnetic North”, subsequent segments were watched about two thousand times, and the last couple segments were watched fewer than two thousand times. I, of course, watched them all, and watched them twice, but that’s the kind of person I am: a delver.

I watched Meades’ documentary twice, and then thrice, for the same reason that I have repeatedly watched, and continue to watch, Clark’s Civilisation: both have something interesting to say, and both are very comfortable being themselves. Meades, in his New Statesman review, quoted Cyril Connolly on Kenneth Clark, whom Connolly had called, “a polished hawk-god in obsidian” in comment on Clark’s good looks. Meades went on to add, “…that statuesque demeanour remained with him into late middle age. Clark delivered opinions as if they were irrefutable truths.”

Cyril Connolly wrote The Unquiet Grave under the Pseudonym of Palinurus, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, being the name of Aeneas' helmsman.

Cyril Connolly wrote The Unquiet Grave under the Pseudonym of Palinurus, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, being the name of Aeneas' helmsman.

I can still remember the first time I opened up a copy of Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, written under the Pseudonym “Palinurus”, and thrilled to the first sentence in which he claims that nothing matters but writing a masterpiece. So when Connolly says something, I pay attention. But the focus on Clark’s one-time good looks, as though intended to indirectly call into question the intellectual merits of his presentation, aren’t quite true from an American perspective. Sure, Clark is passably good looking for an English gentleman, but he definitely isn’t what Americans expect from television talking heads. For one thing, his teeth are crooked. In American television culture, that would spell the end of the career right there.

Not surprisingly, Meades is exactly the same way as he described Clark: Meades delivers his opinions as if they were irrefutable truths, but, as befits the present time, he does so with self-deprecating humor. But both share the perfectly deadpan English delivery. Meades demonstrates his seriousness about his subject matter by wearing a suit, but shows that he is hip and very much a man of his time (our time) by wearing sunglasses in almost every scene.

It was instructive to go back and read Meades’ review after seeing his documentary presence, since I then had Meades’ voice in my head, and as I read I could hear his dry deadpan delivery, and it made much more sense with that in mind. Knowing Meades’ delivery, when I read his words I could hear the ironic, Lettermanesque tongue-in-cheek humor in the background, knowing that he is having a great deal of fun with what he is doing, but is way too cool to let on or to laugh out loud. But, while I sympathize, I’m not quite so refined in my cool, and I’m still sufficiently vulgar to laugh out loud. In fact, I laughed as I watched Meades’ documentaries and enjoyed them immensely.

I enjoyed Meades almost as much as Clark, and for similar reasons, as noted above. Meades’ criticism of Clark must be taken in this context. Meades is supplanting Clark’s role, and he is as much a man of his time as Clark was a man of his time. In both, one can recognize the age in the man and the man in the age. This is a virtue, so far as I am concerned. In Literary Serendipity I wrote about Gibbon being as much a testament to the Enlightenment as to the history of the Roman Empire, and quoted Alfred North Whitehead to this effect. There I detailed some of the virtues of those who bring the spirit of their age into their intellectual activity.

Thus when Meades writes, “To a certain cast of plodding mind, art remains a necessarily important thing, something intrinsically good, improving. And it is even better when rendered popularly ‘accessible’ with stirring music, doting cinematography and big ideas that are easy to follow.” We see that part of this is his contemporary skepticism and cynicism, but if this hip, cool veneer is stripped away, he is doing exactly the same thing. And he does it well. Clark keeps my interest because he deals with ideas as though they matter. And they do. Meades may use of different soundtrack, an ironic and contemporary soundtrack, but he too engages with ideas, and does so in an intriguingly personal way, as did Clark. One difference, however, that is probably a difference between Clark’s time and Meades’ time is that Clark can explicitly mention philosophers and their ideas with a straight face, while Meades doesn’t even attempt this. Meades liberally exposes us to the kind of contemporary art that is revered in some quarters even as it is reviled in other quarters, but this intellectual edginess does not extend into the pure realm of ideas. That, apparently, would be beyond the pale.

So my second reading of Meades on Conlin on Clark was different that the first. I understood with the second reading that Meades is speaking at least in part for effect. He has to say outrageous things, because in order to be heard above the media cacophony of today, one must be what is called a “bomb-thrower.” One says outrageous things in order to get noticed, and then once you get people’s attention you can talk to them on a little more sane and intelligent level. By no means is Meades the worst offender on this account; on the contrary, he is a civilized and intelligent alternative to the vulgar American approach to making a living from the mass media. So while I think that Meades is wrong about Clark, and that in fact Meades is the Clark of today, I am more sympathetic to his approach now than when I first stumbled across his review last Thursday.

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