And now for something incompletely different.
Mark Lilla has an article in ‘The New York Review of Books’ about Michel de Montaigne, the great 16th-century French diarist. Lilla, always worth reading, is reviewing a new book by Sarah Bakewell entitled “How to Live”, in which she presents her take on Montaigne’s famous diary.
The subtitle of her book is “A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”. Yes, if it sounds like a self-help book, there’s a reason for that: Montaigne (hereinafter ‘MdM’) wrote one.
He wasn’t the first in Western history to do so. “How to Live” is the primary question that humans have been grappling with since at least the Greeks in the West, followed by Romans and then, in the Latin Christian tradition, St. Augustine. And in the Eastern traditions, Buddhism and Confucianism are only the most notable to have offered their own answers.
The question – Question, even – is a perennial one for us humans; we seem to have an undying need to come up with an answer that works, and each era and perhaps each generation wrestles with it, grapples with it. Nor is it just a general and abstract sort of thing: each individual lives a life and so has to deal with this Question that is also, for each human being, a challenge – or Challenge. You have to take a position on it even if your position is that you don’t want to deal with it.
Bakewell’s take on MdM, then, tries to deal with an Answer for this era.
And that’s what I think makes it informative, although in a way that reveals even more than Bakewell wants to deal with.
Because each era comes to the Question with its own ‘deep background’: each era – and most surely our own Modern and Postmodern and ‘liberal’ era in the West – comes to MdM with its own unstated, perhaps unthought or no-longer-thought-about assumptions and preconceptions that set the terms of our thinking even before we actually start to sit down and do the thinking itself.
And in our own era, alas – I would say , those preconceptions include the Big Daddy or Big Mama of all Postmodern presumptions: that you don’t really want to ‘go deep’ or 'go high' (or 'High') at all. It’s not so much a matter of a Question about ‘life’ (or Life) as it is a question about ‘life-style’: find a comfy one and then just slide along the surfaces, sort of like a Sunday-boater, as they used to say. Which is to say: take your little boat out on a nice summer Sunday afternoon for a spin around the harbor. Get high, but don't go High.
Not for this era and its generations the ‘heroic’ ship and sailor paintings of earlier ages: individuals or small groups, on a huge and perhaps darkling or stormy sea, trying to face up to the challenges to keep going or, if in a storm or shipwrecked, just try to survive until … help comes or rescue or … not.
In the American tradition, Winslow Homer comes quickly to mind: his fishermen in small boats, trying to get back to the mother ship far at sea as a storm comes up and the sky in the distance is turning an ugly and ominous shade of gray-black and the waves are starting to churn up.
But Homer was speaking to an America of the late 19th century: full of beans and Abundance, creating a phenomenon of productivity that would expand this-worldly conveniences in a burst of material progress never before seen in human history.
Not all Americans who might have seen his paintings would have felt that Progress. The age of Industrial Capitalism as it exploded here in the 19th and early 20th centuries still played out – although it didn’t necessarily have to – by creating cramped urban tenements of low-paid workers; and even a burgeoning middle-class of salaried employees who submitted themselves to the confinements of an office and office-life, submitting to the constricting downsides of organizational life, yet increasingly blessed in compensation with the apparently unending flow of conveniences that were being invented and produced in ever-expanding quantities.
No place for heroism here. No place for an individual to somehow fashion the Great Life or pursue great goals. Make lotsa money so you could enjoy stuff and prove that you could rise to the top of the food-chain in the great pond of American life. Or even just provide for your family and raise your kids to do even better than you had managed to do. That seemed a doable do. After all, the country was ever-expanding, becoming in each decade even more Abundant and more materially advanced; and after a while the unthought assumptions blocked out the ‘materially’ and folks just accepted that the country would become more ‘advanced’ and that was that and that was all there was to it.
That was all there was to life and living and Life. The country – on every day of the week – was a summer Sunday afternoon in a huge but protected harbor that had plenty of room for everybody’s pleasure craft – large or small. Some folks had sails, some had engines and yachts, some could only afford a rowboat, but everybody could take the thing out and bounce around and figure that things would be even better tomorrow or next week or next year.
That was the way it was.
Most folks were busy busy busy. There was the work to be done so the salary could be earned and the boat could float. And this time next year a better boat or maybe just a fresh coat of paint and caulking of the old one. And maybe add a new amenity or two, a new convenience from the cornucopia that just kept coming.
Not everybody was completely happy with that.
Hawthorne had written of dark recesses in the human heart that could issue in deformed souls and lives; Melville had warned that when you let your pride and will run away with you, then you could delude yourself that you could go out into the deep, chase the great white whale, and take your whole crew with you to a terrible death; Thoreau – the little fraud – spent a few months in the woods outside Concord , going back in town for supplies and handouts frequently, and claimed he had lived on his own without the need of supplies or help at all; his idol, Emerson, at least in his younger days, gushed that humans had no limits to their potential and it would all work out reely reely well if you lived on that assumption; crazy Poe created dark mysterious supernaturally haunted tales of uncontrollable and controlling forces that somehow hinted of a dark beyond and even darker and deeper mysteries of terror and danger in human life and in humans themselves.
In the century before them Jonathan Edwards had preached that all of us were merely “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, but all that religion had simply scared folks – and Americans weren’t supposed to be scared of anything, certainly not in such a Great Country, so blessed with Abundance and bigger and rougher and tougher and wiser and more knowledgeable than anyone else then or ever before. And in the century before Jonathan Edwards Cotton Mather had gone and used God as an excuse for making war on the devil and his witches up in Salem. Clearly, ‘higher things’ and ‘things unseen’ were merely superstitious paths that led to wrack and ruin and truly embarrassing outbursts of fanaticism.
In an era when William McKinley was quietly sending the first large (10,000) military force on an overseas gambit to ‘liberate’ the Philippine natives by taking over from the decrepit and superstitious Spanish Empire in order to bring them Christianity (though they had been living under Catholic Spanish rule for centuries) and the blessings of modernity, and Teddy Roosevelt was dreaming of a world-class Navy to reach out and touch the entire planet – in an age like that, what real man (as a later President would say) would want to think of limits, seen or unseen? Let alone of Limits, such as the classical authors and Augustine had spent so much time wrestling with. America didn’t ‘do limits’; America had no limits – it was ‘all about' not having any limits. Woof! Wheeeeeee! And etcetera and etcetera and etcetera.
In 1895 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – himself having been a line officer in the Civil War and come back from the brink of death from grievous wounds more than once – looked back thirty-odd years later and rhapsodized that his generation, in its youth, had been "touched by fire", and had had a chance to experience that vivid flame-stabbed clarity and sense of achievement that a later generation’s Vietnam vet would claim was to a man what child-bearing was to a woman: the experience of supreme meaning and purpose achieved.*
Across that same Harvard campus where Holmes declaimed the value of ‘martial virtues’ in a low commercial age, in the Memorial Chapel on that Memorial Day dedicated to those who had fallen in the Civil War, the philosophy and psychology professor William James – who with his brother Henry the famous author had managed to not-be-around for the Civil War (though their little brother Wilkie had gone and died in it) – regretted that his friend Holmes had raised up ‘war’ as somehow redemptive and ennobling, and wished that the country and the species could find a “moral equivalent of war” by which it could strive for and perhaps achieve a bit of that supreme clarity and sense of purpose without the violence and the soul-numbing experience of lockstep military life in the field. What sort of world would it be, what sort of people would we become, James sagely wondered, if you always had to have war and the way-of-war as the only real path to find purpose and meaning in your life?
The danger of course was that in trying to answer that question, far too many folks would simply figure that the simplest and most pragmatic solution would be to reduce your sense of meaning and purpose rather than to find non-warlike ways to achieve the height and depth and breadth of human fulfillment. Reduce the whole concept of ‘fulfillment’ to more manageable (and lesser) proportions than the ancients (including the increasingly ancient Civil War vets) and your problem would be neatly solved. One thinks of John Wayne’s drunk-in-the-saddle Rooster Cogburn, falling off his horse in the middle of the afternoon, and from that position, sitting on his bum in the grass with a bottle in his hand, declaring authoritatively to Mattie and La Boeuf: “We’ll camp here tonight”, as if he had planned it all along. Real men don’t screw up; they had always planned for it to turn out this way. That was 1969.
MdM had something of the same problem. He lived in a France now wracked by the Wars of Religion; a spinoff of the Reformation that horrified Luther as he watched them unfold earlier in the 16th century, these Wars used the matter of religious belief – Catholic or Protestant – as a handy pretext for growing national sovereignties to jostle each other and the Pope (at that time a temporal sovereign in his own right) for political power.
All this preoccupation with Higher Things, all this heroic striving to impose the right way of doing things through military force, was a profound turn-off for MdM – and what decent human being wouldn’t be shocked and repelled by rampaging semi-professional armies trampling enemy soldier and civilian alike in order to Win? (They were not yet the disciplined military forces, bound by the ‘laws of war’ of a later age, though the Germans pretty much ignored those laws when on the grounds of ‘military necessity’ in the Great War, and on the grounds of racial and national superiority in the Second, as did just about everybody else for one reason or another when push came to shove.)
His solution: just get to know your plain old ordinary self and be that. Stop the striving for something better, to be something better, and just settle for what you are and knock off the ‘heroics’. No strenuous climb up some Ladder of Perfection to become more of that ‘perfect’ self that the Catholics had claimed to be the fulfillment of Virtue and Belief, and that the Reformers insisted should not be the goal of merely some varsity team of ‘monks’ but rather should be the personal goal of every Christian.
In his pleasant, modestly self-deprecating way, MdM said Phooey to all the Higher stuff. Be what you find yourself to be and stop putting everybody else – and yourself – through all this drama and ‘agon’ (Greek for the dramatic struggle against things that push-back and obstruct you on your path to your goal); as Garrison Keillor would say about the denizens of his mythical Lake Wobegone, Minnesota: “sumus quod sumus”, we are what we are.
This is MdM’s counsel not only to nations but to individuals: if trying to reach Higher requires ‘heroics’, then save yourself and everybody else the trouble and just ‘be’. A century and a half later Jean-Jacques Rousseau would improve on that approach: people are just naturally good deep down, and it’s only society and its constrictions and restrictions that deform and block (and, to use a more current term, ‘oppress’) them; if they would just get free of ‘civilization’ and just ‘be’, then everything would work out just fine because deep down people are really really … well, ‘groovy’.
Which brings us rather quickly into somewhat familiar territory. In the beginning, with the 1950s Beats and the Flower Children of the Boomer Age, this presumption of Rousseau’s made total sense. Just ‘be’ and everything would be groovy.
This was before the later Sixties became soused, on top of all that, with the more revolutionary cadres – themselves soused with Lenin and Mao – who figured that only the dedicated vanguard cadres – those who did ‘get it’ – knew what had to be done and where things had to go, and where people had to be made to go.
Lenin and Mao were religious without the religion: they were very much into striving, heroically and violently, in order to bring about the Great and Good and Right Thing. They just didn’t see that it had anything to do with Higher Things or Things Unseen or anything beyond this world that humans could see and touch – and that those humans who ‘got it’ had to change things as quickly and roughly as need be. And Lenin and Mao were absolutely certain that they ‘got it’ and most people ‘just didn’t get it’ and so whatever it took to get the Thing done, well that was what real revolutionaries were all about.
Lenin wasn’t looking to achieve any classical or Christian ‘perfection’. He was looking to create, almost overnight, the New Soviet Man (or Person). He took over the Czar’s machinery of government. And took it to a whole new level.**
Back to MdM.
His approach had its charms: if we all just ‘be’, then we can all get along and knock off the terror and the violence that seemed to be the result of Striving for Something Better and Higher. He was into the less ‘heroic’ virtues: tolerance, civility, personal decency, and generally live-and-let-live. No ceaseless efforts to ‘change’ or ‘improve’, either as a nation or as an individual. THAT is simply going to lead to conflict of one sort or another and who needs it? Folks just wind up fighting among themselves or – as individuals – within themselves. Change pretty much guarantees violence, whether physical or – especially in terms of an individual life – psychological … that’s where he was going with it.
Nice, and – as I mentioned before – even nicer when you layer onto his cake the thick and sugary frosting of Rousseau: we’re all just reely reely good and if we just turn ourselves loose and get ourselves free of ‘civilization’ and conformity then things will automatically turn out to be a neat summer afternoon in a San Francisco park, looking at the scenery through the high and gauzy haze of much weed-puffing and celebrating with whatever sex happens to come along. Groooooooovy.
But, as Lilla notes, MdM’s solution to the problem of violence – against others or against one’s own peace of mind – didn’t and doesn’t take all of the human complexity into account. To have a life that is a permanent San Francisco summer afternoon in the park, an endless Sunday boating trip around the harbor, you pretty much have to disconnect a whole lotta wires in the human self; you have to – not to put too fine a point on it – betray yourself.
Buddhism sort of made the same stab in that direction: get away from yourself and retreat into some sort of inner Fortress of Quietude, doing the same in regard to the moosh and muck of daily human affairs. (And no wonder the Boomers – though of course not the cadres of the revolution(s) – sorta reely liked Eastern ‘religion’ more than the stuff of Western civilization and its religion. Though when push came to shove, few of them were really up to the strenuous Eastern task of disciplining the self to withdraw from all the ‘inferior’ selves within you and quiet the many dynamic energies that need to be mastered. The whole idea was NOT to have to be ‘strenuous’ and to just chill and groove.)
MdM had to fly in the face of millennia of Western experience: that the human self is a complex and dynamic thing, sort of like a chariot drawn by a couple-three horses (as some of the Greeks saw it) that had to be controlled in order to pull the chariot where the driver wanted to go, and not just go galloping off towards the nearest clump of tasty grass or even just turn around and head back to the barn and a nice comfy stall.
THIS is the great beating heart of the human experience: the mastery of this complex dynamic thing – the chariot (maybe even the 20-mule team, which multiplies your driving challenge considerably) or the sailing ship with its complex rigging and its ever-changing challenge of harnessing sail and wind and wave (the latter two elements not under the driver’s/captain’s control) in order to complete the voyage (which presumably has a purpose or mission) while out on the utterly powerful sea (you get an idea of how powerfully beyond humans the sea really is by thinking of, say, tsunamis in Japan). Americans don’t have personal experience of this sort of thing; Winslow Homer did time on sailing ships before he took up painting.
And humans have realized it ever since Day One.
In fact, they have so unchangingly realized it that Plato figured such consistency had to come from the fact that all humans are born with some unshaped visceral memory of the more perfect world of Forms from which each human, when born, descends into this muck and moosh, this “booming buzzing confusion” (William James’s term for it) of human life on this plane of existence.
Which leads to the idea of a Higher Plane of existence. Which Christianity adopted, since Jesus also presumed it most clearly, with the idea of a Kingdom not of ‘this world’ where we are all headed after passing though the portal of a physical death which is exactly that: only a physical death.
Which leads to the idea that there is a spiritual existence beyond death.
Which He then insisted results in a spiritual dimension that exists in each human even in this life on this plane of existence.
All of which leads to the thought that within each human being there is also a hierarchy of being, a hierarchy of higher and lower (in Eastern terms, perhaps, Inferior and Superior potentials of the Self) characteristics.
Which leads to the idea that what you want to do as a human being is to climb up into your Higher or Superior characteristics and qualities and potentials and not simply remain stuck in the lower ones like a hog in a wallow.
It is in the attempt to somehow shed some light and accumulate some wisdom on how to go about this that Western religion developed, seeking to support this Climb up the Ladder, which is actually not an abandonment of personal peace-and-quiet as it is a growth into a more genuine Self that somehow also enables one to participate more fully (and more genuinely or authentically) in the true human identity as a child and creation of a benevolent God (and in a world of tsunamis and all sorts of other uncontrollable forces, humans can use all the Help and Hope they can get). Come to think of it, in a time of declining Abundance, when folks start to realize that this plane of existence isn’t going to automatically provide all the cozy comforts one might like and be used to, Hope in ultimate Help is probably a handy thing to have.
And such a task provides a Trellis upon which the unruly vines of the Self and its powers can be Shaped into something less weed-like. And if everybody is working along those lines, then human community will come to be more like a Garden and less like a Jungle.
Of course, it’s a strenuous sort of business: it’s a form of mountain-climbing and a journey and a learning of mastery all wrapped up into one. None of that is easy.
It’s a lot of work. But really, if this is what you assume human-being to be, there’s no other way to proceed once you exist. The years – from year one – bring to humans an increasing challenge to master themselves because that’s the only way to ‘fulfillment’. And ‘freedom’ is nothing if you don’t know how to use it for this purpose of genuine fulfillment.
And ‘freedom’ is a tricky thing anyway. It is not itself a Virtue (although trying to do the right thing with it does constitute a demanding discipline-toward-Virtue); it is merely the 'space' to pursue an objective or goal. You can use it to embrace this voyage and get on with it. Or you can just keep the boat tied up to the pier and kill time on-shore. But then, to use Edgar Lee Masters’s fine phrase and image, they will inscribe on your tombstone that you lived your life as “a ship longing for the sea, and yet afraid”. Which sad possibility is merely intensified if you are raised to presume without much thinking that you aren’t afraid but rather – as Dick Cheney said of his not-being-around for the draft in the Vietnam era – you have “another agenda” and that you are simply pursuing ‘other options’.
And if the whole dodge becomes culture-wide and culturally-reinforced, then nobody will inscribe the Masters insight on your tombstone because they won’t realize, won’t any longer remember, that that was what your life – and theirs – was all about in the first place. And this is how civilizations, I would say, become un-civilized. And decline.
And come to think of it they won’t really pay much attention to your tombstone because, being completely sunk in this plane of existence and its muck and moosh and boombuzz, they won’t like to think of death anyway, since they can’t see that there’s anything beyond it and nobody likes total and permanent Endings, especially their own.
You see where this sort of thing can go.
MdM, however, wasn’t quite into such a broad and high and deep view of human be-ing. His approach is a sort of: No, we can’t. We can’t get into the climb toward higher possibilities of self, let alone toward Higher Things or Things Unseen, even if that includes a relationship to a loving God; it’s just wayyyy too much trouble and there are just too many ways it can all go wrong. Better to keep tied up the pier you found yourself tied-to when you were born. In his own case, that was the comfortable life of a member of the country aristocracy, replete with a nice country manse and the odd servant or two to take care of the nitty-gritty. Sort of a 16th century Masterpiece Theatre sort of life. Nice.
No French peasant, seeking to sustain self and family while beholden to the many forces that make or break a summer’s crop; no French villager or city-dweller trying to keep body and soul together earning the coin to buy food and keep a roof over the family’s head … none of them would be deluded into thinking you could just do the San-Francisco summer afternoon thing and call it a life-plan. Even if you meant to avoid all the ways – many of them violent – that human striving and seeking could go wrong. They were too realistic and realized that the luxury of sky-box seats was not the way life usually works.
And as the Greeks and the Church taught them, and as Jesus had pointed out: that’s not all there is. And humans are forever asking that question: is that all there is? Is this all there is?
Something in us longs for the sea, dangers or not. And not the actual ocean (although a lot of folks made it to the New World that way) but the ocean within and above and Above. Although the one Above, unlike the ones below, offered that relationship – or Relationship – with the Source of all Help and Love.***
Too much trouble, says MdM. Too much can go wrong. Better if you Just Say No and be whatever it is you are. Saints and heroes and sages … why try for it? Whatever you are is already your fulfillment, so why go to the trouble – and cause the trouble – that further effort to develop yourself requires?
That whole approach Flattens human be-ing lethally, no matter how cutesy and gentle it is presented. Fulfillment, once you’re operating out of these assumptions (whether you realize that you hold them or not), is flattened and Flattened. You become trapped by those assumptions in a world that has neither height nor depth. You wind up simply with a bunch of options (and maybe not so many) as to how you can slip-slide along the hard bright (or dark) surfaces of this-worldly life. Which becomes an even more lethally oppressive prison than one of bars and stones. The soul is squashed from the get-go, even before it runs into any of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.
Humans are possessed of an abiding yearning for transcendence: to get beyond the surfaces of things, especially if it is in an Upward direction somehow.
In the Postmodern Age, and in the American politics-driven era of the past 40-plus years especially, this Flattening has been found to serve many purposes. If there is no Way to do things, then nobody can say that anybody else’s preferred approach is ‘wrong’ or that it doesn’t work. That would be judgmental and intolerant and oppressive.
If we actually were each driving a chariot or sailing a ship, or even taking a Sunday spin around the harbor, then it would be clear pretty damned quick what ‘works’, what way seems to meet all the basic elements of the challenge, and what doesn’t. If you let your horses go wherever they have a mind to, then it will become abundantly clear pretty quickly that you aren’t going to be going anywhere except off the road or back to the stable. If you don’t know how to align sails and wind then the ship isn’t going to be going anywhere. And if you choose to simply use your boat as a party-site, tied up at the pier as if it were a floating sofa bobbing along at the end of its holding ropes, then it’s going to become clear pretty quickly that you aren’t even a Sunday boater and aren’t even a boater at all.
American abundance – which since at least the early Seventies has been a kind of illusory, paper-shuffling money-printing sort of magical mystery tour anyway – has always masked this. How could we be doing things wrong if we are so ‘wealthy’ and have such great stuff? How can you say I don’t have a fulfilled and active life if I have a hundred Tweets and a thousand ‘friends’ to keep up with, tap-tap-tapping away? My car is a year newer than yours so I’m clearly doing life better than you are. And I’ve got this great new personal communications device with an app that lets me know when there’s a burger two-fer within a mile radius of wherever I happen to be at the moment. How can you say I am not living life? I sure as hell FEEL busy! So how can you say I’m not fulfilled?
MdM would say that we are what we are, you are what you are, so just enjoy and make nice.
But he couldn’t have imagined where that has led to today. And an example of where THAT is exists in a newly published book entitled “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age”, reviewed here by Garry Wills. Written by a couple of ranking professors (one of them head of the Harvard Philosophy department, although he seems rather very young – but then wisdom isn’t really required for the job any longer in the really elite academic venues), it trolls the corpus of Western classics in search of what it’s searching for. (Though, when you include “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull” and “The DaVinci Code” and give top billing to such as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Gilbert (authoress of the recent and only modestly fatuous “Eat, Pray, Love”), you pretty much undermine your gravitas from the get-go.)
The professors, I think, have set themselves the task of giving current students a sense of reading the Western classics while simultaneously a) preserving them from any of the profundity of those classics and b) ensuring that the students get the impression that the current Postmodern Correctness is actually the crowning achievement to which the entire Western tradition has been leading all along.
It is necessary to ensure (a) because the current Correctness refuses to accept any Interiority or Verticality within the human being let alone Beyond the human being; and in one form or another much of Western classical thought was wresting fruitfully along those axes. And it is necessary to ensure (b) because Correctness has to be inculcated as quickly as possible as the ‘new normal’, as the unthought and unexamined screensaver of the social imaginarium, lest anybody start asking unpleasant questions as to whether the New Left’s Postmodern liberatory projects have really worked and whether any rational adult human should have undertaken them in the first place.
(Be ye not deceived: the New Left and the Cadre-Advocates of the Revolutions of the Identities no more want their handiwork and the how-we-did-it history of their agenda exposed to public Tire-Kicking than the Wall Street banditti-grossi want their own track-record dragged into the light. Both sets of sludgeballs have paid the pols well in votes or cash so as to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and the ensuing political conspiracy to not-notice is the most successful example of bipartisanship in the Beltway to date.)
The professors (who are paid out of tuition monies to preach this stuff) assert that the great thing about Current Correctness is that you don’t get saddled with anxiety about having total “choice” (which you have, of course, since there is no one Way to Be or to Do). In the Middle Ages those poor schmucks didn’t have such anxiety because, cartoonishly, the profs claim that they had no choices at all: the mean old Church ran every aspect of their lives.
In our ultra-enlightened Correct era we have total and unlimited choice in everything. But the danger is that some poor fools might actually try to ‘think’ about which choices to make and how one choice might, through some applied thinking and concentration, be compared to another as to its rationality, its prudence, its possible or probable consequences, or perhaps – the horror! – its legitimacy in the context of a human life and community. Gack!
The profs urge a solution that, they claim, was the very core (not to say heart-and-soul) of Western philosophy until bad old Saint Augustine’s time: the solution is to simply live by skating along on the appearances of life without trying to get beneath the ice. Much like, to use my own image, gobs of fat skittering along on the hot iron surface of a skillet. Oh happy day!
This entire core of Western philosophy and literature stretching back to Socrates and even Homer a millennium before Christ, was cruelly overshadowed – insist the profs – when Saint Augustine (writing in the 5th century A.D.) introduced (!) to the West the nefarious concept of “interiority”, defined as the human’s effort to develop an awareness of his/her inner life, powers, and potentials (in such areas as mind, heart, and soul).
Worse, that nasty old Augustine had to ‘get’ people to realize they had an inner life (thus a ‘self’) because before him that had never occurred to any human being. Augustine thus, perhaps we might say, did mightily and originally oppress them, and even victimize them, by making them see what either wasn’t there or was there but they had never realized it: they were possessed of an Interior and a Vertical, two axes which simply increase the complexity of your life and, therefore, by definition victimize and oppress you.
Such cartoonish and patently ludicrous inaccuracy and such blatant and cartoonish demonization of one individual selected as the Perpetrator is far too emblematic of the type of ‘thinking’ and ‘study’ that Correctness has imposed not only upon the eager Academy but upon the entire Citizenry, young and old. The country became the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party long long before the present political organization took the name.
Wills singles out, among other egregious readings to which this whackulent approach commits the authors, their assessment of Meliville’s “Moby Dick”. Ahab is singled out as an example of what happens when you embrace “monomaniacal monotheism” – which is to say, if you are faithful to any version of the Western religious tradition of seeking Deep and High meanings which the profs’ Postmodern Correctness is seeking to supplant. But Ahab was no example of Christianity; he was intended to be seen as a madman who arrogated the power of Heaven to himself and whose embrace of the omnicompetence of the human will deranged him while leaving his awful powers of persuasion intact. He was not deranged by God but deranged because he tried to be God.
Worse, the profs’ Pomo agenda requires them to select as the ‘hero’ of the piece poor crazy Pip the cabin boy, to whom all ‘gods’ are the same and equally relevant or irrelevant on the ‘pure and open’ flat plain of history’s surfaces. And a kindly professorial nod is given to the harpooner Queequeg, whose history and religion is tattooed onto his body (in as nifty an image of ‘pure surfaces’ as you’re likely to find). So the take-away for Harvard students and other students and those how have only shelled out 26 bucks instead of seventy-large a year is that the Pomo elites would like to see – HAVE TO SEE, actually – a country full of Pips.
They need to have a country full of Pips in order to keep their ungrounded and unstructured skein of Flatness and Exteriority from being exposed through any amount of ‘classical Western analysis’ (you know, the stuff feminists have been claiming was nothing more than the entrenched oppression of patriarchy). Nowadays, apparently, the Party Line has changed (and again, I didn’t get the Memo): there IS an acceptable Western tradition, and by the most amazing coincidence it happens to lead precisely to the ‘philosophy’ you are holding in the book you have just bought (for 26 bucks or seventy-large).
That book says that there is no interior to you, there is no vertical, and the only challenge you face is making your ‘choice’ but without thinking too much, especially if you are trying to Go High or Go Deep. No Verticality, no Interiority; just lotsa shiny surfaces you can exercise your ‘choice’ on. If you can accept that with a straight face, you clearly haven’t gotten a tuition bill from Harvard yet. Or really been out on Life's open ocean.
The upshot being that Homer, the Greek philosophers and tragedians, and even the early Church thinkers of the Patristic Age (well before Augustine) had no concept of the “agon” (and agony) of having to analyze in order to make a correct choice. None of them and none of their writings, the profs apparently want their students and readers to believe, ever demonstrate “the struggle to choose”, nor the struggle to focus thought in order to analyze and decide and then live with the anxiety of wondering if you’ve made the right choice, or whether even the right choice is going to bring pain and loss in its train. Yah.
And, really, he couldn’t imagine the height and the depth and the breadth of be-ing human even back then.
No, we can’t – is what he decided, with a friendly old wink and a twinkle in his eye.
Betrayal and profound mistakes come in many forms and many guises. His was – and is – one of the most lethal. No matter how benevolent and helpful his intentions.
But it gets worse.
Because for all their capacity to transcend Upwards - climbing the Ladder into the Superior potentials even as, perhaps simultaneously, they establish a bond with the Source of all Being – humans have also reliably demonstrated a tendency to indulge their Inferior potentials. That is to say, they will give themselves over to anger and greed and deceit (which do violence to self, community and the overall human quantum) as well as physical violence.
Indeed, it was one of the sad developments in reaction to the urbanized, civilized, and rationalized programme of the 18th century Enlightenment that some thinkers then sought to re-establish not only mystery and emotion (the Romantics) but also the wildness and even feral assertions of the unfettered human Will (Nietzsche and others) as expressions of human vitality and of the basic human spirit.
There is a darkness within human beings, one that if embraced or allowed to become habituated will result in awful consequences for the individual source and for others as well. Original Sinfulness was the Christian term for it: not so much an act but a tendency, but a profound and universal one among the species.
This insight – a core insight of Christianity, though it was not the only world-religion to deal with what we would call sin and sinfulness – was part of that ‘religion’ that MdM sought to downplay in his general plan to back away from those thorny matters of ‘religion’ that had generally played so causative a role in the Wars of Religion. Best, he thought, not to talk about in too much depth and detail.
Rousseau, even more than the Reason-minded Enlightenment (the best and maybe only worthwhile part of humans is their ability to reason things out), would dismiss the matter altogether, insisting that humans are good to the core, if only they weren't not deformed by ‘civilization’, ‘manners' and society generally.
The Buddhists – wisely, I think – not only recognized ‘sin’ but also recognized ‘drib’, the staining and fouling that accrues to a human being simply as a result of participating in the deranged and deranging muck and moosh of human affairs. To use my ship image: you not only have to worry about damage to the ship that comes through your own or another captain’s mistakes and failures; you also have to worry about your hull being ‘fouled’ simply as a result of sailing along through the water for a long enough period – the hull tends to pick up microorganisms that grow on it and increase the drag coefficient as the hull tries to move cleanly and efficiently through the water. So periodically, even if you haven't had any accidents or made any screw-ups, you have to take the ship out of the water and get the hull scraped clean; otherwise you will continually lose more and more ability to move through the water.
Hence, in the Buddhist vision, one must not only calculate the amount of karmic debit incurred by this and that actual sin, but also the amount of karmic debit incurred by ‘drib’, for which you must also cleanse yourself and atone. Living a life utterly free of sin – even if it were possible – would still leave you with a bill to be paid for the ‘drib’ that fouls you simply as a matter of course as you make your way through this human dimension.
Blaise Pascal, early 17th century French thinker and mathematician, noted this acutely about MdM’s writings, and Lilla nicely quotes him at length: “It is dangerous to show man too often how much he resembles the beasts, without showing him his grandeur. And it is even more dangerous to show him too often his grandeur without also his baseness. It is more dangerous still to let him ignore both.”
In other words: ‘Can’t we all just be nice and pleasant and just get along?’ isn’t a sufficient philosophy for getting a handle on being human. Indeed, it pretty much guarantees you that you have brought a knife to a gunfight, or brought a ball of twine to use as the reins on a powerful horse.
Human nature possesses simultaneously a tremendous potential for genuine life (in communion, I would say, with its Creator) and an insidiously powerful potential for betraying its best potentials and indulging evil. The 'grandeur' comes from the potentials for Good and the Human Nature gifted to humans - I would say - by the Creator. The beastliness comes from the inherent tendency to use 'freedom' in pursuit of objectives that are generated in the lower or Inferior parts of the Self. And if that's sounds 'judgmental' or 'essentialist' ... well, try and sail a ship on the sea without making important judgments and knowing what the essentials of the ship are, which you cannot ignore without wrecking yourself out on the deep.
Seeking to smooth the sharp and in his day blood-soaked edges of the glittering or darkling human realities by stepping back and accentuating the pleasant and gentle in order to avoid the possibly bloody and surely strenuous work of achieving mastery of your Inferior potentials and solidly grounding your Superior potentials, MdM shrewdly and not indecently tried to find a way around the terribilita of his times.
But Lilla would say, and I would agree with him, that MdM gave up too much hard-won human wisdom and practical skill developed around the care, handling, and mastering of the human self. It was a ‘deal’ that has not served Western humanity well, and that much was clear as early as Pascal and probably even before, in MdM’s own lifetime.
To “achieve a just a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”, and within ourselves, we humans shall need to read sterner stuff than the genial sage Montaigne. Because we ourselves are made of sterner, and in places darker, stuff.
*During that Civil War Holmes, a captain of infantry, had actually met Lincoln himself. Towards the end of the War, the President had come down to the Union lines besieging Petersburg, Virginia. Rather unmistakable in his trademark stovepipe hat on top of his already-tall frame, Lincoln had stood up over the parapet to get a better look at the Confederate lines, making a target of himself (and, of course, drawing the attention and probably fire of any rebel batteries or snipers who cared to take a few shots in his general direction). Holmes roughly grabbed the Presidential shoulder and exerted forceful downward pressure: “Get down, you damned fool!” he respectfully advised. The rough but practical equality of the battlefield.
**Actually, in October 1917 he overthrew and took over the Kerensky government that the popular revolution had set up in February in the hopes of establishing something a little closer to democracy. His revolution was not against the Czar (who had already abdicated for himself and his dynasty) but against the Russian people, who found themselves in short order most bitterly betrayed. And most truly ‘oppressed’. No use doing things half-way with ‘reform’, Lenin thought; what this country needs is a ‘revolution’ and me and my cadres are just the ones to do it.
***The English language, richly marvelous though it is, is particularly poor in its vocabulary when it comes to ‘love’. God’s is not the love of a groovy high in that summer park, but rather a burning faithful dynamic bond of ultimate care, like a committed parent only even more so. And it flows into us, and from us, properly nourished, out into the world – this world – of other human beings. The Greek word for it is ‘agape’, different from ‘eros’ which is the vitality for engaging your desires and ‘philia’ which is the love for personal friends.
To bring things into even more contemporary focus, Zadie Smith reviews a book entitled “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto” in ‘The New York Review of Books’ issue of November 25, 2010. The book’s author, Jaron Lanier (born 1960) is writing to the current generation of kids (and by this point former kids) who have been raised with Facebook, Tweets, assorted virtual-reality web gaming, and an entrancing myriad of Personal Communication Devices and apps.
Lanier, himself a master programmer and virtual-reality pioneer, notes "the ways in which ‘people reduce themselves’ in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate”. [italics mine] The information available through all these media “underrepresents reality”, he observes, and yet like the fish who have been swimming in water since they were born don’t even realize the water is there, these busy players don’t realize that their ‘information’ is so limited, nor that their grasp of the reality of life and even of themselves is so limited and partial.
“There is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a ‘person’ … but when we get online we tend to forget this”. This strikes me as an electronically-enhanced variant of the consequences of MdM’s minimizing of Self.
Worse, Lanier thinks, is the subtle but lethal psychological dynamic whereby, having become so dependent on the electronic system as a guide (or, in olden terms, ‘idol’), the now entrapped users will reduce the needs and aspects of whatever Self they manage to perceive in order to sustain the necessary sense that the software they idolize isn’t limited, isn’t merely a ‘thing’ that can offer no meaning but only an ultimately pathetic and destructive escape and an illusory sense of fulfillment and Self-hood. And don’t even begin to think about ‘transcendence’.
What will a society, a culture, a civilization be – do you think – when its chronological adults are ensnared in such dynamics?
Smith herself offers an even more chilling and startling observation: she has encountered ‘memorial walls’ on Facebook for members (young) who have died suddenly. Reading the ‘condolence messages’ and ‘expressions of grief’, Smith senses something else, and much “darker and frightening”: that the message-writers don’t really grasp the reality of the member’s death because, since they only knew the member virtually and the member’s virtual presence is still glimmering there on their screen, then the member isn’t really dead at all. At least not for virtual purposes … which – ach! – may be the only purposes they grasp or know.
And how preserve a sense of reality – or a real democracy – when increasing numbers of citizens will not actually be able to distinguish ‘virtual’ from ‘real’? It is a Leviathan’s dream.
And a Leviathan is what we well may wind up with, as a result of the sustained assault on the foundations and structures that constitute the hull of Our culture's Vessel. In a recent obituary for the noted sociologist and former committed Marxist Daniel Bell, Mark Lilla writes that Bell - having been there and done that - realized in 1971 exactly why the then-recently deceased Marxist die-hard Georg Lukacs exercised so vital an attraction upon the American New Left: "The secret of Lukacs's appeal to the Western intelligentsia is the concealed history of heresy, the repudiation of common sense and conventional morality, and the creation of an esoteric doctrine and a Gnostic faith for an inner elite."
In what seemed the twinkling of an eye, back there in the early Seventies, the hidden conspiracy of patriarchy was suddenly 'revealed' by heroic investigative feminist cadres who by dint of brilliance and courage uncovered what had eluded almost every human being since (about) the beginning of recorded time; 'common sense' and 'conventional morality' were derided as merely tools of 'male oppression'; Postmodern 'theory' created a body of thinking that instantly rivaled the arcane and miasmic density of Soviet ideology; and the only way to earn a public hearing was to 'get it' even though the vast majority of Americans 'just didn't get it'.
(Of course, presented for what may have been the first and last time with the opportunity to express their judgment of this platter of revolutions and revolutionary blabber, the American people rejected it in late 1972, 49 States to one.) Now just HOW has so much of the country managed to forget THAT?
But from his time as one of Bell’s students, Lilla rather eloquently riffs on what he learned from the Bell who had backed away from the brink of an abyss: “I learned that what converts seek in faith is warmth, not light and that when scales fall from eyes, harder and more opaque ones grow back in. I learned that an epiphany is not an argument, it is a license, usually to destroy. I learned that when belief in a divinity gives way, a reserve army of idols stands ready to take its place – ideas, dogmas, leaders, movements. Aren’t these lessons a preparation for modern history? Aren’t they a preparation for the present? The end of ideology will not take place …”.
Surely, this applies to this country nowadays, as it has for the past 40 Biblical years.
Nor will a facile ‘hope’ (small ‘h’) or any form of optimism be sufficient. Nor can We simply accept what has happened (and what has been deliberately and eagerly done) as ‘the new normal’ and ‘established’ and just go forward into the future. Huge holes have been ripped in vital structures in order to create ‘space’: structures of belief and reality at the most profound level. So much remains to be done then, and re-discovered and repaired and rewoven. Recovery is going to be a long hard slog along a winding road road.