Tuesday, January 29, 2008

An Anatomy of a Satire By Swift

To read Swift is to enter his space. You do so at your peril. I speak metaphorically of course but there is no other way to describe the experience of breathing an atmosphere of unpredictably calibrated uneasiness--sort of like finding yourself alone in a cage with a large, lean, unidentifiable though possibly feline and almost certainly feral, beast.

Swift takes advantage of the fact that in whatever setting we find ourselves in, we always want to know where we are and what's expected of us. If there are jokes afoot, for example, we want to be on the laughing side. So he encourages us to think we know where we are at the same time hinting rather broadly that if that's what we think we are in for a painful surprise. But we don't take the hint because we don't understand the rules of Swift's game--never give the sucker and even break. And sure enough, we get sandbagged when we least expect it. And then we go through the same process all over again. And the purpose of all this skulduggery? We'll get to that, but first I want to look at the famous or infamous sentence (it IS a famous sentence)that whacks us in the face every time we read it: "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse." This sentence is a trap: by reading it you tacitly accept the speaker's tone of objective, impersonal, scientific curiosity. In other words, you've just been sandbagged. (Of course I am making some assumptions of my own: first, that you are not the sort of person that Swift here is ironically making you out to be, a man or a woman who can calmly look on as another person--possibly a living person-- is being scientifically and publicly disassembled.)

How has Swift brought us to this point of refined felicity--or cruelty?

At first the choice offered is a simple one: a life passed in the "common forms, without any thought of subduing multitudes" to one's own power or reasons or visions; versus the lust for power that overtakes a man when his "fancy gets astride of his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors." The onset of madness is here presented as a political allegory with the fancy and the imagination seizing power from reason, the senses, commmon understanding and common sense. That, says Swift is the hard part; once a man has succeeded in deluding himself, it becomes easier to delude others,"a strong delusion always operating from without as vigorously as from within." The political metaphor is dropped, almost immediately, as we are hurried along toward the idea that Swift has been aiming at all along: a definition of happiness as "a perpetual possession of being well deceived." Then the argument--or the illusion of argument--proceeds along the lines of the familiar appearance-reality distinction, somewhat as follows: the pleasures and entertainments that we prefer are those that "dupe and play the wag with the senses." That is why we prefer fiction to truth. For imagination can create much more beautiful and wonderful things than Nature can afford to supply: "How sad and insipid do all objects accost us that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion! How shrunk is everything as it appears in the glass of Nature [as if we were looking through the wrong end of a telescope]" That is why we love theatrical displays and performances. Indeed, if it weren't for glitz, glamor and "the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish and tinsel" it would become painfully obvious that we are all in the same boat, that no one is having any more fun than anyone else, and life is (at best) all manner of boring. Of course we don't want to believe that our lives are devoid of any distinction whatsoever and therefore essentially meaningless, which is why we REALLY OUGHT to hate those who try to tell us the truth and deprive us of our illusions--instead of telling them what great philosophers they are. Which is completely irrational and doesn't make any sense at all.

So, now I'm going to try, one more time [says Swift, as my paraphrase continues] to prove to you for your own good that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity, and that we would all be much better off if we would simply accept the common, conventional order of things, and not try to dig too deeply below the surface. Take the surface commmonly known as 'skin.' It's a surface like any other, separating the inside from the outside. What happens when, in the interest of science and the advancement learning, we remove it? Well, I'll tell you. Last week I saw a woman being skinned and you have no idea how it altered her appearance for the worse. It was disgusting. See what I mean? You can think of this a sort of metaphor for philosophical and scientific inquiry in general. What these people, these so-called philosophers and scientists, OUGHT to be doing instead of poking around in the innards of human nature and the political order, is finding ways to patch up and cover over, cosmetically, the imperfections they've discovered--instead of publishing them for all the world to see. If we were truly wise we'd stay where we belong, on the surface of life and nature, in the world of appearances and delusions, skimming off the cream of life, so to speak, and leaving the rest for those pretended philosophers to lap up. And THIS, folks is what I mean by the sublime and refined point of felicity called the possession of being well-deceived, the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.

Now, speaking in my own voice, I want to say that that last sentence cannot be paraphrased because it defines a dilemma that reason has created but cannot resolve. And Swift knew it. The life of reason is no fun. The truths about human nature and human life are so terrible--as Shakespeare shows us for instance in OTHELLO and KING LEAR--as to be almost unbearable, but what's the choice? Well, you can choose not to know and remain in the comfortable world of appearance and delusion--and be robbed blind by those who know and understand the ways of the world.

My Question About Blogs

Having just read the New York Review article on blogs by Sarah Boxer, I have a question (to which I think I know the answer): Are there any other scholarly bloggers out there in the virtually infinite blogosphere?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Short Selection from A DIGRESSION ON MADNESS by Jonathan Swift (1704)

"The reader will, I am sure, agree with me in the conclusion that, if the moderns mean by madness only a disturbance or transposition of the brain, by force of certain vapours issuing up from the lower faculties, then has this madness been the parent of all those mighty revolutions that have happened in empire, in philosophy, and in religion. For the brain in its natural position and state of serenity disposeth its owner to pass his life in the common forms, without any thought of subduing multitudes to his own power, his reasons, or his visions, and the more he shapes his understanding by the pattern of human learning, the less he is inclined to form parties after his particular notions, because that instructs him in his private infirmities, as well as in the stubborn ignorance of the people. But when a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself; and when that is once compassed, the difficulty is not so great in bringing over others, a strong delusion always operating from without as vigorously as from within. For cant and vision are to the ear and the eye the same that tickling is to the touch. Those entertainments and pleasures we most value in life are such as dupe and play the wag with the senses. For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, it is manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth, and the reason is just at our elbow: because imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish. Nor is mankind so much to blame in his choice thus determining him, if we consider that the debate merely lies between things past and things conceived, and so the question is only this: whether things that have place in the imagination may not as properly be said to exist as those that are seated in the memory? which may be justly held in the affirmative, and very much to the advantage of the former, since this is acknowledged to be the womb of things, and the other allowed to be no more than the grave. Again, if we take this definition of happiness and examine it with reference to the senses, it will be acknowledged wonderfully adapt. How sad and insipid do all objects accost us that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion! How shrunk is everything as it appears in the glass of Nature, so that if it were not for the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish, and tinsel, there would be a mighty level in the felicity and enjoyments of mortal men. If this were seriously considered by the world, as I have a certain reason to suspect it hardly will, men would no longer reckon among their high points of wisdom the art of exposing weak sides and publishing infirmities - an employment, in my opinion, neither better nor worse than that of unmasking, which, I think, has never been allowed fair usage, either in the world or the playhouse.

"In the proportion that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity, so far preferable is that wisdom which converses about the surface to that pretended philosophy which enters into the depths of things and then comes gravely back with informations and discoveries, that in the inside they are good for nothing. The two senses to which all objects first address themselves are the sight and the touch; these never examine farther than the colour, the shape, the size, and whatever other qualities dwell or are drawn by art upon the outward of bodies; and then comes reason officiously, with tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate that they are not of the same consistence quite through. Now I take all this to be the last degree of perverting Nature, one of whose eternal laws it is to put her best furniture forward. And therefore, in order to save the charges of all such expensive anatomy for the time to come, I do here think fit to inform the reader that in such conclusions as these reason is certainly in the right; and that in most corporeal beings which have fallen under my cognisance, the outside hath been infinitely preferable to the in, whereof I have been further convinced from some late experiments. Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. Yesterday I ordered the carcass of a beau to be stripped in my presence, when we were all amazed to find so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen, but I plainly perceived at every operation that the farther we proceeded, we found the defects increase upon us, in number and bulk; from all which I justly formed this conclusion to myself, that whatever philosopher or projector can find out an art to sodder and patch up the flaws and imperfections of Nature, will deserve much better of mankind and teach us a more useful science than that so much in present esteem, of widening and exposing them (like him who held anatomy to be the ultimate end of physic). And he whose fortunes and dispositions have placed him in a convenient station to enjoy the fruits of this noble art, he that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the films and images that fly off upon his senses from the superfices of things, such a man, truly wise, creams off Nature, leaving the sour and the dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity called the possession of being well-deceived, the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Science and The Liberal Tradition (continued)

The Puritan revolution in England and the Thirty Years War in Germany, following the bloody conflicts of the 16th century, had concentrated the minds of all religious moderates.

The brilliance of Newton's PRINCIPIA, in unifying earthly and heavenly 'mechanics' within a single set of mathematical equations which could be understood by any mathematically literate person--a qualification that was not nearly so difficult to acquire then as it is today--had brought about a great "paradigm shift." It occured to those who were weary of religious conflict that one of the basic assumptions of Christian theology and traditional theories of natural law might be false: the planets and the stars were not part of God's spiritual realm but material objcts subject to the same principles operative here on earth--and vice-versa. Newton became a hero in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin became a hero for the same reason: by showing that lightning and static electricity were essentially similar phenomena, Franklin had also shown that heaven and earth are part of the same entirely natural universe. Nature is all. Spinoza was right.

There was no limit, it seemed, to the reach of human reason. Law, economics, finance and government became objects of intense study and analysis. And lo! the new world of North America was right there, a political blank slate where a new political entity could be constructed without having to clear away a thousand years of feudal rubbish. The men who designed our constitution--especially Hamilton--were acutely conscious of their unique opportunity.

Everyone knows this story, and the belief in human reason and human progress it fostered. The reaction to this story began almost immediately. We think we know all about the dark side of reason, but Jonathan Swift got there first--and rubbed our faces in it, as a good satirist should and Swift was the greatest satirist of all time. No one has ever made us squirm so frantically or try so desperately to evade his hook. And what was his object, the purpose of that hook? Swift liked people, taken singly, and had many friends but he despised the human race, especially his fellow Christians whom he considered to be Christians in name only; real Christianity, he thought, had never or rarely been tried, largely because it is inconsistent with the schemes of wealth and power that are our real concern. And the man and book that he hated above all was Hobbes and Hobbes' LEVIATHAN. That was the fish he was angling for, in his first satire, A TALE OF A TUB (published in 1704 but written about ten years earlier)--or at least that's what he said. But what he was really getting at, it seems to me, was Hobbes' modern redefinition of Reason as merely instrumental reasoning devoid of moral restrictions--a way of thinking which, as Swift rightly thought, can lead us to observe horrific cruelties with perfect equanimity so long as they are perpetrated with scientific detachment and objectivity in the name of progress and the advancement of learning.

And now, my purely hypothetical reader, I am about to do something that may very well lose you once and for all: I'm not only going to show you some pretty nifty satirical writing--by Swift of course--but also try to explain how it works. What follows, in my next posting, is a short selection from A TALE OF A TUB, SECTION IX. - A DIGRESSION CONCERNING THE ORIGINAL, THE USE, AND IMPROVEMENT OF MADNESS IN A COMMONWEALTH, a title which I shall shorten to "A Digression On Madness."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Science and The Liberal Tradition

So far so good (or bad, depending on how one feels about the way science has corroded the underpinnings of religious and moral beliefs). But there's more to modernity than Spinoza, Newton and Hume; more, that is to say, to modernity than the idea that nature is all, that mathematics is the only language it understands, and that the normative claims of Reason are unsustainable--reason alone cannot tell us how we ought to live.

What we want and need to understand is the connection (for there must be one) between the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of political liberalism and free-market economies in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 'liberalism' I mean the once revolutionary idea that the best governments are those that govern least, restricting themselves to the maintenance of (secular) law and order, a stable currency, and the advancement of learning. (That's not what the word 'liberal' means now, at least in the U.S., where the egalitarian idea got a grip on the imagination long before liberalism was invented. The egalitarian fire now burns more brightly in the liberals of today, who largely inhabit the Democratic party, than in the old liberals who now call themselves Republicans.)

It is immediately obvious, first of all, that the Protestant Reformation (or revolution) made liberalism and modernity possible. (Or, more figuratively, it was the blood of religious warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries that fertilized the European soil . . . ) For example: when the protestant churches (most of them anyway) of the 16th century democratized the interpretation of scripture,they unwittingly established the great principle of modern, democratic societies: no one has privileged access to the idea of the good or the truth--if any--about how people should to live.

Eighteenth century liberalism led, in the 19th century, to constitutional democracy in the U.S. and parliamentary democracies (of a sort) in England and France. (See, Louis Hartz, THE LIBERAL TRADITION IN AMERICA.) The richly interesting question is this: how did the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries help to make the liberal revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries possible? The by-now conventional answer to this questions seems to me to be correct, though very much in need of a new look and new vocabulary.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Scientific Knowledge: Discovered or Invented?

A famous (or infamous) and false dichotomy, like the one about character (whether inborn or made, whether nature or nurture counts for more in our lives.) The answer, clearly is both: knowledge is discovered AND invented.

Let's think about the history of mathematics, which begins with counting, the natural numbers (1,2,3 . . .),the invention of proper notation, the invention of the zero together with the rules for its use by Hindu mathematicians in the ninth century, the algorithms of basic arithmetic, and plane geometry which was perfected by the ancient Greeks and axiomatized by Euclid in the late fourth century BC. It may be that the phrase "natural numbers" begs the question i.e. assumes that which is to be proved. Still, the natural numbers would seem to deserve to be called 'natural': nature really does allow one to select groups or clusters of things each of which has the same cardinality. So we encounter various sets of stones, trees, ducks, deer, fishes etc. While the algorithms of arithmetic had to be invented they proved their usefulness (and therefore truth?) by making accurate calculations possible. And that is how it has gone with all the inventions of physicists and mathematicians.

The calculus was invented by Newton (and Leibniz) along with the laws of accelerated motion (f=ma) in order to generalize Kepler's laws of planetary motion. Using this mathematical tool, Newton's formula for the acceleration of an object in a gravitational field then followed logically from Kepler's laws.

Kepler was building on the work of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, as well as Galileo and Copernicus. Almost two hundred years of astronomy and physics are summarized in Newton's equations.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Idea of An Invented World

Of course poets and artists (even scientists) do it (invent worlds) all the time, even if that is not what they think they are doing, and it has now become fashionable among those who want to think of themselves as 'post-modern'(without having tried to think coherently about the meaning of 'modern' or 'modernity') to say so at every opportunity. What the fashionably post-modern mean is that the idea of objective truth is a myth (or better yet, a smoke-screen) more or less deliberately constructed by the politically powerful classes in order to support the arguments that justify and legitimize their authority and their privileges. In Post-modernism, in other words, we encounter the last refuge--and hear the last gasps--of academic marxism.

It does not follow from the fact that the meaning of words like 'truth' and 'justice' is always in dispute that these words are meaningless or bait merely for the squamous minds of those who don't understand the ways of the world or can't tell the difference between benefits and injuries.

I want to think about the idea of an invented world without falling into post-modern stupidities. It is immediately obvious that honor and justice (for example) are human inventions which have commonalities in all human societies. In any society it is important to be a person of one's word; one does not earn honor or respect, as a rule, by failing to keep promises or telling lies or pretending to be what one is not. Charles Doughty, travelling alone as an acknowledged Christian among the Bedouins of Arabia, in 1870, never made excuses, always told the truth, always took the moral high-ground and was remembered there decades later as an honorable man.

The 17th century philosophers, Hobbes and Spinoza, could not be more different from each other in their assumptions and ways of thinking, but they agree about one very important matter (on which Hobbes strongly influenced Spinoza): people invent the rule of law and the state that enforces it because the alternative--the state of nature and what Hobbes calls the war of all against all--is intolerable, and they know that God is not going to save them from themselves if they screw up.