Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joseph de Maistre and The Magic Mountain (2)

Here are some lines from The Petersburg Dialogues (1821) that will give you some sense of the power and clarity of de Maistre's mind (if you accept his assumptions, you have to accept his conclusions):

Do you realize, gentlemen, the source of this flood of insolent doctrines which unceremoniously judge God and call him to account for his orders? They come to us from that great phalanx we call "intellectuals" and whom we have not been able in this age to keep in their place, which is a secondary one. At other times there were very few intellectuals, and a very small minority of this small minority were ungodly; today one sees nothing but "intellectuals"; it is a profession, a crowd, a nation; and among them the already unfortunate exception has become the rule. On every side they have usurped a limitless influence, and yet if there is one thing certain in this world, it is to my mind that it is not for science to guide men. Nothing necessary for this is entrusted to science. One would have to be out of one's mind to believe that God has charged the academies with teaching what he is and what we owe him. It rests with the prelates, the nobles, the great officers of state to be the depositaries and guardians of the saving truths, to teach nations what is bad and what good, what true and what false in the moral and spiritual order: others have no right to reason on this kind of matter. They have the natural sciences to amuse them, what are they complaining about? As for those who talk or write to deprive a people of a national belief, they should be hung like housebreakers.... What folly it was to grant everyone freedom of speech! This is what has ruined us. The so-called philosophers have all a certain fierce and rebellious pride which does not compromise with anything; they detest without exception every distinction they themselves do not enjoy; they find fault in every authority; they hate anything above them. If they are allowed, they will attack everything, even God, because he is master. See if it is not the same men who have attacked both kings and the God who established them....

Now, read these lines from The Magic Mountain. The Jesuit, Naphta, is speaking:

All the pains of the Church, even the stake, even excommunication, were inflicted to save the soul from everlasting damnation . . . . any system of pains and penalties which is not based upon belief in a hereafter is simply a bestial stupidity. . . as for the degradation of humanity, the history of its course is precisely synchronous with the growth of the bourgeois spirit. Renaissance, age of enlightenment, the natural sciences and economics of the nineteenth century, have left nothing undone or untaught which could forward this degradation. Modern astronomy, for example, converted the earth, the center of the All, the lofty theater of the struggle between God and the Devil for the possession of a creature burningly coveted by each, into an indifferent little planet, and thus—at least for the present—put an end to the majestic cosmic position of man . . . . There is no such thing as pure knowledge. The validity of the Church's teaching on the subject of science, which can be summed up by the phrase of Saint Augustine, Credo, ut intelligam, ["I believe in order that I may know and understand"], is absolutely incontrovertible. Faith is the vehicle of knowledge, intellect secondary. Pure science is a myth. A belief, a given conception of the universe, an idea—in short, a will, is always in existence; which it is the task of the intellect to expound and demonstrate. It comes down every time to the quod erat demonstrandum ["that which was to be demonstrated," a phrase traditionally used at the conclusion of a geometrical proof.] Even the conception of evidence itself . . . contains a strong element of voluntarism. [The great medieval philosophers] were agreed that what is false in theology cannot be true in philosophy. We can, if you like, leave theology out of the argument; but a humanity, a cultural conception, which refuses to recognize that what is philosophically false cannot be scientifically true, is not worthy the name. The accusation of the Holy Office against Galileo stated that his thesis was philosophically absurd. A more crushing arraignment could not well be . . . . Whatever profits man, that is the truth . . . He is the measure of all things, and his welfare is the sole and single criterion of truth. Any theoretic science which is without practical application to man's salvation is as such without significance, we are commanded to reject it.. . . Let me assure you that mankind is about to find its way back to this point of view. Mankind will soon perceive that it is not the task of true science to run after godless understanding . . . it is childish to accuse the Church of having defended darkness rather than light. She did well . . . to chastize as unlawful all unconditioned striving after 'pure' knowledge of things—such striving, that is, without reference to the spiritual, without bearing on man's salvation; for it is this unconditioned, this a-philosophical natural science that always has led and ever will lead men into darkness. . . . What is called liberalism—individualism, the humanistic conception of citizenship—was the product of the Renaissance. But the fact leaves me entirely cold, realizing as I do that your great heroic age is a thing of the past, its ideals defunct, or at least lying at their latest gasp, while the feet of those who will deal them the coup de grace are already before the door. You [Settembrini, the liberal humanist, to whom Naphta is talking] call yourself a revolutionist. But you err in holding that future revolutions will issue in freedom. In the past five hundred years the principle of freedom has outlived its usefulness. An educational system which still conceives itself as a child of enlightenment, with criticism as its chosen medium of instruction, the liberation and cult of the ego, the solvent of forms of life which are absolutely fixed—such a system may still for a time, reap an empty rhetorical advantage; but its reactionary character is, to the initiated, clear beyond any doubt. All educational organizations worthy of the name have always recognized what must be the ultimate and significant principle of pedagogy: namely the absolute mandate, the iron bond, discipline, sacrifice, the renunciation of the ego, the curbing of the personality . . . . Liberation and development of the individual are not the key to our age, they are not what our age demands. What it needs, what it wrestles after, what it will create—is Terror. . . .

And the bringer of this terror?

That power is evil, we know. But if the kingdom is to come, then it is necessary that the dualism between good and evil, between power and the spirit, here and hereafter, must be for the time abrogated to make way for a single principle . . . This is what I mean by the necesssity for the Terror.

But the standard-bearer?

Do you still ask? Is your liberalism still unaware of the existence of a school of thought which means the triumph of man over economics, and whose principles and aims precisely coincide with those of the kingdom of God? The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity is a danger to the soul of man. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbor's need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time—interest, in other words—and misusing to one's advantage and another's disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation. . . They were revolted by the idea of the automatic increase of money; they regarded as usury every kind of interest-taking and speculation, and declared that every rich man is either a thief of the heir of a thief. Like Thomas Aquinas, they considered trade, pure and simple, buying and selling for profit, without altering or improving the product, a contemptible a contemptible occupation . . . . Now then: after centuries of disfavor these principles and standards are being resurrected by the modern movement of communism. The similarity is complete even to the claim for world-domination by international labor as against international industry and finance; the world-proletariat, which is today asserting the ideals of the Civitas Dei in opposition to the discredited and decadent standards of the capitalistic bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the politico-economic means of salvation demanded by our age, does not mean domination for its own sake and in perpetuity; but rather in the sense of temporary abrogation, in the Sign of the Cross, of the contradiction between spirit and force; in the sense of overcoming the world by mastering it; in a transcendental, a transitional sense, in the sense of the Kingdom. The proletariat has taken up the task of Gregory the Great, his religious zeal burns within it, and as little as he may it withhold its hand from the shedding of blood. Its task is to strike terror into the world for the healing of the world, than man may finally achieve salvation and deliverance, and win back at length to freedom from law and distinction of classes, to his original status as child of God.

Thus Thomas Mann draws out, brilliantly, the logical consequences of de Maistre's totalitarian principles. But his great novel is not nearly finished; the chapter from which the foregoing selections have been taken—Of The City of God And Deliverance by Evil—occurs at mid-point. The preposterously regal personality, the incoherent Dionysius, Pieter Peeperkorn, has yet to appear—having appropriated the love of the hero's life. Like Naphta, he will take his own life—but not, like Naphta, in a frenzy of destructive dialectic, destructiveness for its own sake.

Naphta's suicide proves nothing; it dramatizes the great fact that the argument between liberal humanism and de Maistrian—or Marxist—totalitarianism (Settembrini and Naphta) has no rational outcome.This book provides no aid or comfort—none— to believers in Reason. There is no escape from the nightmares of history. History never proves anything. Hume was right: reason is and can only be the slave of the passions. That's why people and their states fight wars.

I know of no other book of its time, the period between the great wars, so prescient of the destructive frenzy to come.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Science And The Modern World: The Trouble With Physics

What is science? What is it about the modern—Western—world that has historically encouraged or at least permitted science and  scientific institutions to flourish? These are two different but related questions.

The best answer to the first question, just now, can be found in Lee Smolin's deep analysis of the String Theory movement which threatened for a time—roughly the last quarter of the 20th century— to turn the study of physics in the U. S. into a purely theoretical science. (See The Trouble With Physics, 2006) Physics is not a purely theoretical or a priori science like mathematics; at some point its equations must have solutions that lead to experimentally verifiable predictions about the way things behave in the real world. The inability of String Theory to produce such predictions was bound to be fatal to its pretensions. What's surprising is how long it took the international scientific community to conclude that that this particular emperor had no clothes.

This story that will be painfully familiar to at least some of those who fought in the other academic culture wars of that same period; certain features of the String Theory saga remind me, at least, of the way Post-modernism politicised liberal arts curriculums during those years. These very different ideologies had similar causes (too many Ph.D.'s, relentless pressure to publish—ready or not—and too few jobs) and produced similar power struggles. There is a fundamental difference between String Theory and Post-modernism, however: physics is a science and therefore (unlike the Humanities) has built-in methods for rationally adjudicating the claims of theories

Science is an open, public, democratic enterprise, an institution, with its own rules and its own egalitarian code of ethics. There are no hidden procedures or secret evidence or private languages. All evidence is public, open to all, all claims must be verifiable by any qualified inquirer, all experiments repeatable. This is not a complete answer to the question, What is science? but it's a start.

Notice what my second question implies about the relationship between science, or knowledge, and power: knowledge is not power, as Francis Bacon and others have claimed; it is those who have power who decide what counts as knowledge. The Soviet State tolerated the science of physics for its own state interests—it wanted nuclear weapons; it destroyed the science of biology when it came into conflict with Marxist ideology.

So long as the Church was powerful, it controlled what counted as knowledge; when it began to lose power, it lost its control of knowledge.

Power, in the modern world—or at least in the constitutional democracies of the modern world—is not concentrated in a single office or institution but spread around. Science can flourish under such conditions because its findings don't threaten the interests of all of the people all of the time; just some of the people, some of the time.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Joseph de Maistre and The Magic Mountain

Trying to be clear about the meaning of the word 'modernity', or at any rate what I myself thought it meant, I set down the following remarks in the Introduction to my book on Shakespeare, Shakespearean Questions (2007):

"A realist, like Machiavelli, Shakespeare had no illusions about the future. It would be, he knew, a world that hardly bothered any longer to pretend that the state has morals as well as interests; a world in which one necessarily renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s—who leaves one in no doubt about what that is—while the question of what in this life belongs to God becomes harder and harder to answer; and ideas of a transcendent Good, or of Reason, disappear entirely. He could not have foreseen, though he might have guessed, that modernity would be characterized by a cacophony of different and sometimes incompatible gods, goods and rights; free markets, free elections, a free press; secular governments and societies; utilitarian politics, Machiavellian politicians, parliamentary democracies—and ‘authenticity’, a term which no longer refers, merely, to the provenance of certain documents or works of art but to a quality that the irresistible power of the corporate state and its innumerable institutions has forced us to demand and invent: what Marianne Moore calls “aplace for the genuine.” Shakespeare anticipated the concept of authenticity in Hamlet and Coriolanus, as he anticipated the concept of (modern) cynicism and embodied it in Iago, some hundreds of years before Europe caught up with him. Finally, we must include the deep premise of King Lear, which is also the premise of all scientific inquiry: nature is all.

"The world I have been referring to as ‘modern’ is the relatively safe and prosperous world that a fortunate few inhabit (temporarily perhaps) now: the modern, western or westernized world that the scientific revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment managed somehow or other to produce."

I knew when I wrote these words that I'd left out something huge, Germany, where Enlightenment ideas and assumptions were not generally acceptable in the 19th century, for obvious reasons: everyone knew what such ideas and assumptions had led to in France;
serious people in Germany throughout the 19th century—and well into the 20th—were more likely to be influenced by the totalitarian conservatism of Joseph de Maistre than by Voltaire or Rousseau. [See the essays on de Maistre that I posted in February, 2008.] It is easy to understand why this story is not well known: de Maistre, the arch-reactionary, is a scary thinker who puts the executioner and the inquisitor ahead of the legislatures and the courts; he despised democracy, science and "human rights;" he set his face against the entire liberal tradition, and he lost—or rather his cause, a totalitarian Church, lost; which doesn't quite explain why de Maistre has virtually disappeared from the history books, despite the fact that his ideas were still being taken seriously in Germany, between the wars: by the philosopher and theologian, Ernest Troelstch, for instance, and by a very great writer and novelist, Thomas Mann. One of most important characters, or voices, in his great novel—or allegory—The Magic Mountain, is based on de Maistre: it is the Jesuit, Naphta who speaks for and in the intransigent spirit of that radical and terrifying thinker. The other voice, with whom Naphta is locked in eternal combat, is that of the liberal humanist, Settembrini, who brilliantly but also somewhat predictably defends the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, and modernity, which for now at least seem to have won the day. It was not at all clear, in 1924, when Mann's novel was published, and it certainly would not have been clear to Mann himself, who or what—Naphta or Settembrini, de Maistre or America—would finally win out.

I call this novel an allegory and I make it sound like uninterrupted intellectual warfare of a kind that only academics or ideologues could possibly take pleasure in. It is richer and more various than that—though, admittedly, at 700 pages, too long. Nobody has time to read such long books, especially books written so long ago.

The events of the novel occur during the years preceding the great war. The hero of the book, Hans Castorp, is an intelligent young engineer from Hamburg. He comes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanitorium in Switzerland, but is himself diagnosed as tubercular and ends by staying there for seven years. These are, as it turns out, his formative years. His mind is formed by the arguments of Naphta and Settembrini who, also ill, are living nearby, and regard him as someone whose mind and soul are worth fighting over. Settembrini, at least, loves him like a son. Meanwhile he falls hopelessly in love with another patient, a married woman who eventually returns to Daghestan where she will, presumably, be destroyed by war and revolution. By 1914, his body cured—a rarity—his education complete, but lost and fit for nothing, with no idea what to do with himself, Mann sends him off to the trenches and leaves them there with a shrug; he too will in all probability, says the narrator, be destroyed.

This novel is about death, among other things: the death, above all, of European civilization as Mann had known it (he was born in 1875). For he knew that WW I was just the beginning, that the peace of 1918 was just an intermission.

I can see that I have not succeeded in showing why this is a book that everyone should read. I've actually read it twice.