Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rousseau's Wake-Up Call

If it weren't for the fact that our political wars have emptied the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' of meaning, I might have been tempted to call myself a Burkean conservative on the strength of my last posting. Well,that's what I am I guess, which means that there is one thing I most definitely am not: romantic. (Big surprise)

Rousseau began The Social Contract (1762) with one of the greatest manifestos and battle-cries of all time: "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains." He thereby he gave the word 'radical' a meaning that it has retained--with diminishing clarity and intensity to be sure--ever since.

"Wake up from the nightmares of history," Rousseau was saying, in effect; "identify your oppressors, claim your birth-right, build a new polity, with justice for all, on the ruins of the old regime in which privileges, initially seized by the Church and the landlords, have been allowed over the centuries to harden into rights. Since no right is ever peacefully relinquished, blood will have to be shed." Of course he didn't actually say any of this; these words and ideas are entailed, merely, by what he does say.

Rousseau did not invent the idea that government originates in a contract, freely entered into, according to which a people relinquish certain rights in exchange for peace and security. Hard-headed philosophers, like Locke and Hobbes, had come up with this idea as a way of providing a secular explanation of the origin of government and political authority--their point being that God had had nothing to do with it.

The contractual theory of the origin of government is, obviously, unhistorical; it is a logical construct, with no basis in history. Now Locke and Hobbes were not the least bit romantic--romanticism had not yet been invented--by romantics, of course. So it is amusing (if nothing else) to notice that the idea of an escape from history which is so characteristically romantic, is deeply rooted in the very materialism of Enlightenment science and philosophy that later romantic poets and philosophers reacted violently against.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'liberty', 'freedom', 'rights'

One enters this territory at one's peril; whatever you say will be used against you. Angels rush in; fools shrug: why bother?

To begin, you can't understand the first two without being clear about the third. What is a right? A right is an enforcible claim to a power: the power to do or say certain kinds of things without interference. Such a power is never acquired without a struggle of some kind,for the obvious reason that a power or a right gained by one party is a power or a right lost by another. Every right we possess had to be fought for, sometimes literally.

Without rights, one has no power and no freedom. Without power, one cannot enforce one's claims to a right; a right that cannot be backed up by power is meaningless. It is equally meaningless if the struggle for the power or the freedom represented by a right never ends: rights can only exist in a stable political and legal framework. Therefore as Hobbes demonstrated and Rousseau conveniently forgot, there can be no rights in a state of nature; or to say the same thing in a more familiar way, there is no such thing as a natural or human right outside or independent of, or precedent to, history. The concept of human rights, like that of the social contract is a fiction. Fictions have their uses, however; they are not necessarily meaningless.

What I've just set forth could be called an operational definition of 'freedom' and 'rights.' What about 'liberty'? It is interesting that the uses of this term don't always correspond to the uses and meanings of 'freedom'. We know what the opposite of 'freedom' is: slavery. The opposite of liberty isn't quite so tangible and obvious as slavery: those who live under tyrannical or despotic regimes--which may be most of the people on this planet--are subject to the demands of arbitrary and capricious rulers but are not slaves; or not exactly (if such a determination can be made with exactitude); what these multitudes long for but have no experience of is the rule of law. Liberty is life under the rule of law.

'Liberty' for example is related to words like 'liberal' and 'libertarian' that could not have been

derived from the words 'free' or 'freedom.' A free spirit is not necessarily a liberal one, nor is a liberal necessarily free. 'Liberty' is an abstraction: freedom from certain restrictions. A free man or woman is free--or at liberty-- to go or do or be whatever he or she pleases within certain limits; there is no such thing as an unlimited or absolute right. A free person is a person who has acquired certain rights. A right is a claim to be able to act in a certain kind of way, in certain situations, without interference from others. There are no natural, or human rights; every right that we take for granted today had to be fought for--sometimes literally--including those "inalienable rights" that Jefferson refers to. Rights are soaked with blood; liberty does not come cheap; keeping it can be a bloody business as well. And what is this abstraction, liberty, all about? Or rather what does it mean? Liberty is a kind of freedom: freedom from arbitrary or capricious government, i.e. life under the rule of law.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Politics and Poetry

One can change the language of poetry but not the language of politics. The language of politics has its own universal grammar and syntax which is always the same. Every city (or 'polis'), city-state, state, must have a way of deciding who gets what and who pays the bills. That's what politics is at bottom all about: money and power; history is politics writ large which is why the deep structure of historical narratives is always the same. Don't get me wrong: I don't say that history is not worth studying; history is not bunk as Henry Ford is supposed to have been fond of saying. The ways of money and power, like God and Nature, are deep down mysterious; if you don't know that you don't know anything. You are an ignoramus: one who disdains the study of history.

New ideas are rare, especially philosophical ideas. The last five hundred years have been exceptional. Not all new ideas are good ideas, however. I am thinking of one in particular, which has proven to be especially catastrophic. During the 18th century, the ancient Christian doctrine of the end of history (at the last judgment, when the books would be closed on the human experiment) got partially secularized: we may not be able to end history (just yet: Karl Marx would figure that out) but maybe we can escape it. Or, as Stephen Dedalus would say ever so grandly(in either Ulysses or Portrait of The Artist, I'm not sure which),"History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

The idea that we can change the deep structure of politics and history--that we can escape from history, awake from that "nightmare"--is a romantic idea, and a fateful one. The French Revolution was the first of the Romantic political revolutions which convulsed Europe and the world for two hundred years.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Romantic Revolutions

As I fumble about in the fog of history, I notice something interesting: I have not been taking a random walk, after all—as I had supposed--but have been circling round and round the main point rather, and gradually closing in on it: the deep connection between the romantic 'revolution' (that may not be the right word but I can't think of a better) in literature and the arts at the turn of the century (the 19th of course) and the great political revolutions of modernity—beginning, naturally, with the mother of them all in France in the 1790s.

Wordsworth as a young man was a great admirer the Revolution—he had been on a walking tour in France as the earth was beginng to shake and had been quite taken up with the excitement of it all. But he was not thinking politically—or at least not consciously so—when, in his 1800 Preface to The lyrical Ballads he said that the language of poetry had become merely artificial and that poets had better begin to speak the real language of ordinary men if they expected anyone to pay attention to their poetry. (In fact, by that time, he like a lot of other reasonable people, had been horrified by the bloody mess that France had become.)

In Wordsworth and The Revolution, two very different things are juxtaposed (here, by me of course): at about the same time that the revolutionaries were saying that the traditional language, assumptions, procedures, institutions of politics in France—and by implication Europe—are dead, finished, useless; wipe the slate clean and start over; Wordsworh, and others, were saying something similar about poetry (but not about music. Not yet.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

'Romantic' (continued)

'Romance' and 'realism' have always been very different words with generally incompatible meanings.

No one ever thought that the medieval romances described the adventures of historic personages—until Cervantes invented a character who is profoundly confused on just this point and made of him a new kind of hero in a new kind of book: not only the first novel but the first realistic novel. More realistic than what? More realistic than the romances that had been feeding the imagination not only of Don Quixote but of many earlier generations of readers. It is of the essence of Cervantes' novel that most of the people that Don Quixote meets know what he is talking about when he describes himself as a “knight errant”--they may not have actually read the romances he refers to (though some have) but they understand the Chivalric code that the Don lives by; they just don't think it's relevant to the lives that they and everyone else they know are living.

“More realistic than what?” Realism is relative: there's no such thing as 'absolute' realism. Is 'romantic relative, in the same way? I'm not sure.

The English tourists who 'discovered' the Swiss Alps in the 18th century may have been the first romantics. They thought those mountains were 'sublime'--a new word and idea invented or rather taken over from Latin for just this purpose. The peasants who actually lived there just thought these mountains were a nuisance—a difficult and dangerous part of the world to have been unluckily born in. No one had ever climbed these mountains for the fun of it—or just because they were “there” which is how foolish people now talk about the climbing of mountains.

Romanticism changed the way we think about mountains and nature. Those Swiss peasants woke up one day to find that their luck had changed thanks to the gods of history. Mountains and mountain climbing had just become profitable.

Those late 18th and early 19th century romantics could afford to contemplate nature—-wild, not domesticated nature; they had the money and the time; they were largely middle-class types and perhaps the first non-aristocratic leisure class.

Can we lay it down as a law of history then, that romantic ideas and attitudes are never (or almost never) invented by aristocrats or proletarians? Romanticism--like serious science, philosophy and art--is mostly a middle-class or bourgeois development?

Aristocracies are too smug or too anxious to think new thoughts—they pay others to do that for them. A famous line from a 19th century romantic poem, Axel, by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam—in fact the only line the poem is famous for—says in all seriousness of the life devoted to the religion of Art that the hero, Axel, and his lover propose to lead, “As for living, we'll leave that to our servants.” Axel as I remember is supposed by the scion of some noble family. The lives of peasants and proletarians, on the other hand, are too desperate for anything but survival.

One thing is pretty clear about the word 'romantic': if we want to understand what it means, we have to look at the ways it is used. (Any lexicographer could have told me that.) 'Romanticism' is another and different kind of story altogether.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Was anyone in the U.S. reading Fichte? A ridiculous question, surely, but it makes a point: romantic self-assertiveness would have been an absurdity in this huge, dangerous and largely lawless land. Law was what was needed, not people strutting around claiming to be above or beyond the law. (As free autonomous individuals, they made their own laws.)

But I think there is a deeper reason for the irrelevance of European romanticism in America. Romanticism is anti-bourgeois and implicitly aristocratic (despite the paradoxical fact that romanticism is a purely bourgeois invention). “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” says Wordsworth, and middle-class getting and spending is what makes modern economies work. It is also a succinct account of the treadmill that Hobbes defines with a kind of god-like irony as “felicity.” A life-time on that treadmill doesn't leave you much time for the felicities of Art, to say the least, and for that the middle-classes who ought to have been pitied were despised. To be 'bourgeois' was to be beneath contempt, an insect. But America had no aristocracy partly because it hadn't had time to develop one but mainly because an aristocracy requires a lot of land and a peasantry that has to live on it and work it because it has no other choices. An aristocracy, in other words, requires a feudal system of land ownership and management—which only existed in the slave states. An aristocracy based on slavery was a hard thing to romanticize in egalitarian America; in Europe it was easy, which is one reason though not perhaps the main reason, why the Europeans tended to side with the south during the Civil War—or The War Between The States as it was referred to by those who refused to admit that it was all about slavery.

The French Revolution, which at bottom may have been about feudalism, made it easy to romanticize aristocracy.

Artists, who tended to think of themselves as natural aristocrats, despised the bourgeois whose tastes in art were naturally conservative and conventional, and romanticized socialism: once liberated from the Hobbesian treadmill, they thought, everyone would have the time and capacity to appreciate the latest things in music and the arts.

You will have noticed, by now, how I tend to use the terms 'romantic' and 'romanticize', begging the question so to speak, i.e. assuming the very point that needs to be demonstrated. This is a bad habit of mine. The word 'romantic' ought not to be used as synonymous with 'unrealistic' as if the meanings of 'real' and 'realism' were not themselves in contention.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Now What? What Follows?

Such are the questions that every writer, even a blogger (and what could be more ephemeral than a blog?) is forced to ask not merely from chapter to chapter but from paragraph to paragraph, sentence by sentence. What's next? Where is this thing going? Serious writers--poets, novelists, scholars and the like (even mathematicians)--must have moments of blind panic when suddenly, from nowhere, comes the terrible thought that they don't know where they are or what they are doing there. For a writer like me, who writes for amusement merely, without obligations to anyone or anything, except The Truth which like a mountain can be acknowledged and admired from a distance (you don't actually have to climb it) or, like the ocean, can be examined bit by bit: such a writer, I say, can take short-cuts or avoid the depths (or, as Swift says, slurp up the cream leaving the sour and dregs for others to lap up).

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Romantic Will: Conclusion

"'The Tree of knowledge has robbed us of the tree of life.'" The early German romanntic plays and novels are inspired by an attempt to expose the concept of a stable, intelligible structure of reality which calm observers describe, classify, dissect, predict, as a sham and a delusion, a mere curtain of appearances designed to protect those not sensitive or brave enough to face the truth from the terrifying chaos beneath the false order of bourgeois existence. 'The irony of the cosmos plays with us all, the visible is about us like carpets with shimmering colours and patterns...beyone the carpets is a region populated by dreams and delirium, none dare lift the carpet and peer beyond the curtain.' (Tieck)

"After this the way lies clear for Schopenhauer's world tossed hither and thither by a blind, aimless cosmic will.... a world without frontiers or barriers, within or without, shaped and expressed by art, by religion, by metaphysical insight, by all that is involved in personal relationships--this was the world in which the will is supreme, in which absolute values clash in irreconcilable conflict, the 'nocturnal world' of the soul, the source of all imaginative experience, all poetry, all understanding, all that men truly live by. It is when scientifically minded rationalists claimed to be able to explain and control this level of experience in terms of their concepts and categories, and declared that conflict and tragedy arise only from ignorance of fact, inadequacies of method, the incompetence or ill will of rulers and benighted condition of their subjects, so that in principle, at least, all this could be put right, a harmonious, rationally organized society established, and the dark side of life be made to recede like an old, insubstantial, scarcely remembered nightmare, that the poets and the mystics and all those who are sensitive to the individual, unorganisable, untranslatable aspects of human experience tended to rebel. Such men react against what appears to them to be the maddening dogmatism and smooth good sense Enlightenment rationalists their modern successors.

"Both liberals and socialists, and many who put their trust in rational and scientific methods designed to effect a fundamental social transformation, whether by violent or gradual methods, have held this optimistic belief with mounting intensity during the last hundred years [this essay was published in 1975]. The conviction that once the last obstacles--ignorance and irrationality, alienation and exploitation, and their individual and social roots--have been eliminated, true human history, that is, universal harmonious cooperation, will at last begin is a secular form of what is evidently a permanent need of mankind. But if it is the case that not all ultimate human ends are necessarily compatible, there may be no escape from choices governed by no overriding principle, some among them painful, both the to the agent and to others. From this it would follow that the creation of a social structure that would, at the least, avoid morally intolerable alternatives, and at most promote active solidarity in the pursuit of some commmon objectives, may be the best that human beings can be expected to achieve--if too many varieties of positive action are not to be repressed, too many equally valid human goals are not to be frustrated.
"But a course demanding so much skill and practical intelligence--the hope of what would be no more than a marginally better world, dependent on the maintenance of what is bound to be an unstable equilibrium in need of constant attention and repair--is evidently not inspiring enough for most men, who crave a bold, universal, once-for-all panacea. It may be that men [as T. S. Eliot said] cannot face too much reality, or an open future, without a guarantee of a happy ending....

"One is not committed to applauding or even condoning the extravagances of romantic irrationalism if one concedes that, by revealing that the ends of men are many, often unpredictable, and some among them incompatible with one another, the romantics have dealt a fatal blow to the proposition that, all appearances to the contrary, a definite solution of the jigsaw puzzle [of the perfect politics of the perfect society] is, at least in principle, possible, that power in the service of reason can achieve it, that rational organization can bring about the perfect union of such values and counter-values as indidividual liberty and social equality, spontaneous self-expression and organized, socialy directed efficiency, perfect knowledge and perfect happiness, the claims of personal life and the claims of parties, classes, nations, the public interest. If some ends recognized as fully human are at the same time ultimate and mutually incompatible, then the idea of a golden age, a perfect society compounded of a synthesis of all the correct solutions to all the central problems of human life, is shown to be incoherent in principle. This is the service rendered by romanticism and in particular the doctrine that forms its heart, namely that morality is moulded by the will, and that ends are created not discovered. When this movement is justly condemned for the monstrous fallacy that life is or can be made a work of art, that the esthetic model applies to politics, that the political leader is, at his highest, a sublime artist who shapes men according to his creative design, and that this leads to dangerous nonsense in theory and savage brutality in practise, this at least may be set to its credit: that it has permanently shaken the faith in universal, objectve truth in matters of conduct, in the possibility of a perfect and harmonious society, wholly free of conflict or injustice or oppression--a goal for which no sacrifice can be too great if men are ever to create Condorcet's reign of truth, happiness and virtue, bound 'by an indissoluble chain'--an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history."