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.

1 comment:

  1. I am a believer in Reason and Mann's book provides comfort to me. Mann put words in Naphta's mouth accepting and even defending the idea of Hell--the ultimate concept of mercilessness and injustice. Faith, whether religious or political, is the cause of intolerance and therefore of war. Mann may have predicted the horrors of World War II, but he also knew that it would be caused by people with blind faith in their nonsensical ideas, whether religious, political, or racist. The lines Mann gave to Naphta are the ultimate attack against the idea of faith.