September 27, 2006

It’s often said that Socrates didn’t write anything. This is false. He wrote a good deal, but he never managed to find a publisher. At the time of his death, he had given up his quest for a publisher, and was trying to find a literary agent. “If I can find an agent,” he reasoned, “then the agent will find a publisher, and relieve me of that unpleasant task, on which I have spent so many frustrating years.” “But isn’t finding an agent just as difficult as finding a publisher?” asked his favorite disciple, Plato. “Yes, it is,” Socrates responded, “it may even be more difficult. But in my quest for a publisher, I’ve reached the point of despair. My quest for an agent has just begun, and hasn’t had a chance to reach despair, it’s still a fraction of an inch from despair.”

1. Modern Art

A. My sister now has a major show at the Mt. Holyoke Art Museum (Mt. Holyoke is her alma mater). Rather than containing new work, the show sums up her existing body of work. When the show leaves Mt. Holyoke, it will travel to about six other museums around the country, over a period of about three years. I attended the opening of the Mt. Holyoke show, and heard Jane speak about her work for almost an hour — longer than I’ve ever heard her speak about her work. I have a better grasp of her work now than I previously had.

One of the works that she discussed was Fallen. I discussed this work in an earlier issue, and said that Jane had fabricated thousands of leaves, and written on each leaf the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq. Fallen is one of Jane’s most important works because it commemorates war dead (something that can never be done too much), it has the beauty of fall foliage, it draws a valid parallel between the dying of leaves and the dying of soldiers, and it’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship. The American artist Robert Rauschenberg said, “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” Fallen has this contemporary quality.

B. Of course, one could also argue that the artist’s job is to transcend his time, and to depict the timeless, the universal. The Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko said the opposite of what Rauschenberg said: “only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” Great art can be timely or timeless; perhaps it can be both timely and timeless. Michelangelo’s David is as timeless as the human body, but it also captures the spirit of the time, the spirit of the Renaissance, in its boldness, confidence and individuality. Art is so diverse that it’s difficult to make generalizations about it; any generalization about art is only half true.

The contemporary American poet John Yau once said that all literature is local (one of his books deals with Manhattan, and is called Crossing Canal Street). Here again we have a generalization that is half true. One can think of great literary works that have a local flavor (such as Dubliners), and works that are universal (such as Hamlet). And some literary works, such as Tolstoy’s and Proust’s, depict a time and a place, but also depict universal themes.

There’s an old debate about whether literature is subjective or objective, autobiographical or impersonal. I argued that great literature can be either subjective or objective; furthermore, the best literature is often both subjective and objective.

Literature and art can be timely or timeless, local or universal, subjective or objective.

C. According to Hegel’s dialectic, one condition reaches an extreme, and then passes into its opposite. I’ve argued that an extreme of decadence turns into a renaissance. While Hegel is a prominent champion of this idea, he didn’t originate it, it can be found in Chinese philosophy and Greek philosophy; Heraclitus spoke of an enantiodromia (running towards the opposite). Proust noticed an enantiodromia in the literary world: “The critics of each generation,” Proust wrote, “confine themselves to maintaining the direct opposite of the truths admitted by their predecessors.”1 There’s a striking enantiodromia in modern art: Abstract Expressionism depicted the interior world, then Pop Art went in the opposite direction, and depicted everyday objects in the external world. Perhaps now these two “theses” (Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art) can form a “higher synthesis” — a blend of interior and exterior, subjective and objective.

D. There’s a new documentary by Ric Burns about Andy Warhol. I’ve studied the eccentricities and foibles of genius for many years, but I never encountered anything like this, I was shocked by the nihilism and perversity that I found here. In my book of aphorisms, I had some hard words for modern art, but I never forged my weapons from the biographies of modern artists. After seeing the Warhol documentary, though, I began to think that one could construct an attack on modern art based on the biographies of modern artists; the nihilism and perversity in the work seems to have a counterpart in the biography. Perhaps the work and the life both come from the same source: the collapse of religion, the collapse of tradition, the collapse of earlier ideals.

For the sake of family harmony, I hereby exempt my sister from any attacks (past, present, or future) that I make against modern art.

E. As I explored modern art on the Internet, I was struck by the connections between the artists. Two leading American artists, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, were close from about age 20, and remained close for many years. The gallery-owner Leo Castelli discovered Johns while visiting Rauschenberg’s studio. Both Rauschenberg and Johns were close to the avant-garde composer John Cage; Cage’s silent composition, 4'33", is said to have been inspired by Rauschenberg’s “blank-canvas” paintings. Such empty works aren’t necessarily pessimistic; Zen finds peace in emptiness, and John Cage liked to quote the Zen saying, “every day is a good day.”

Painters working with composers, poets working with painters — one notices a fusion of the arts. But while they work with each other, these modern artists don’t reach the average person; the average person hasn’t heard of John Cage or Robert Rauschenberg or John Ashberry — even the average educated person. Modern artists don’t strike a chord with the man on the street. Modern artists are generally obscure, and people don’t enjoy obscurity. Even when a modern artist depicts something simple — like the American flag, Johns’ most famous subject — it raises a host of questions: “Why is it art? Why did he do it? Why would someone pay for it?” etc. Modern art is obscure and baffling even when it’s simple.

F. Modern art is sometimes so wild that it’s absurd, and makes one laugh, as when some prominent French artists signed a declaration, “we are not artists.”

G. Perhaps it’s useful to refer to artists like Rauschenberg and Jane as “creative people” rather than as “artists,” since their work doesn’t fit into the traditional categories of art (drawing, painting, sculpture, etc.). Their work is not only different from traditional art, it’s often different from what they themselves did before. They aren’t interested in The Same, they’re interested in The Different.

2. Thoreau and The Weekly Standard

A couple months ago, I wrote a Letter to the Editor in response to an article in The Weekly Standard (my letter wasn’t published):

I’m writing in response to your article “Thoreau’s Declaration of Independence: What ‘Walden’ really stands for.”2 The Thoreau that you describe espouses the conventional monotheism that your magazine often champions. The real Thoreau, I would argue, rejected traditional, Standard religion, and turned to Eastern religion and to other non-traditional forms of spirituality. These alternative approaches to religion have been gaining in popularity for several decades -- not just in the U.S., but in Europe and around the world. Thoreau is one of the chief prophets of the religion of today and tomorrow -- not of the religion of yesterday.

According to your article,

Thoreau recognized that though man lives in nature, he has a supernatural end transcending nature and the world. He would have been critical of modern day environmentalists who “no longer camp for a night, but have camped down on earth and forgotten heaven.”

Thoreau admired Indians and other primitives who lived wandering lives, and he contrasts such people with modern men, who build fixed habitations. Thoreau is critical of modern materialism, which ignores culture and spirituality. This doesn’t mean, however, that Thoreau would prefer the modern churchgoer to the modern environmentalist. Thoreau himself avoided church like the plague. When he was dying, Thoreau was asked, “What are your thoughts about the next world?” He responded, “One world at a time.” When a friend asked how he felt about Christ, Thoreau said that a snowstorm meant more to him than Christ.

According to your article, Thoreau believed that man “has a supernatural end transcending nature and the world,” but in fact Thoreau’s emphasis is on this world. Thoreau makes a religion of nature and the world, not a religion that transcends nature and the world. Thoreau’s approach is similar that of Eastern religion, and has much in common with the approach of the environmentalists whom you speak of so scornfully.

After Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he went back to Cambridge and asked the Harvard librarian for borrowing privileges. His purpose was to study Eastern literature and philosophy; he had a keen interest in the Eastern spirit. He admired Whitman’s work because it had a mystical, Eastern spirit, and it rejected conventional religion. Thoreau traveled to New York to meet Whitman, and Thoreau began the conversation by saying, “Have you studied the Eastern classics? Your work has their spirit.”

I hope that your magazine will someday acknowledge that we don’t have to choose between traditional religion and secularism/atheism -- there is another alternative. Thoreau represents the alternative approach, which looks to the East and to nature, rather than to traditional churches and creeds.

3. The Pope’s Speech

Pope Benedict XVI recently gave a speech in Germany that aroused a storm of protest in the Muslim world. The Pope discussed the place of reason in theology, and in human life in general. In previous issues of Phlit, I’ve argued that one’s attitude toward reason is a key element in one’s philosophy. The Pope is an admirer of reason; I’m a critic of reason.

As I read the Pope’s speech, I was impressed by the power of his mind, and the depth of his erudition. He’s a person that the Catholic Church can be proud of; the Church may wish that he were 58 instead of 78.

The Pope takes a rational approach to the life of the mind,3 and a rational approach to religion. He says that the task of theology is to correlate faith with reason. He says that God Himself is rational: “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Pope points out that “Word” is logos in the original Greek, and “logos means both reason and word”. The Pope applauds John for underlining the importance of reason: “John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God.”

The Pope argues that John’s rational view of God isn’t unique to John, and isn’t unique to John’s era. According to the Pope, even the early Hebrews had a rational view of God — or at least, a more rational view than the myth-making early Greeks.

The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush [see Exodus, 3:2], a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares “I am”, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.

One of the Pope’s chief goals in this speech is to connect Christianity with Greek philosophy — to argue that Christianity is rational, just as Greek philosophy is rational. I don’t deny that the Hebrew-Christian tradition may be more rational than the luxuriant mythology of Hinduism.4 Nonetheless, I suspect that the Pope has exaggerated the rational side of the Hebrew-Christian tradition; there are so many irrational elements in Christianity that it seems difficult to connect it with Socrates and Aristotle. A God who becomes man, a God who is three and yet one, a God who appears at a particular moment in history, to a particular people — all this, and much more, is difficult for reason to make sense of.

The Pope argues that there has been a convergence of Greek philosophy and Christianity. He notes that there have been some critics of reason within the Christian tradition — Duns Scotus, for example, who said that we can’t look for reasons behind God’s will, we can only accept that His will is His will. But the mainstream of Church thinking, according to the Pope, has stressed the rational nature of faith. The convergence of Greek philosophy and Christianity has, the Pope says, “created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”5

But the Pope notes that there have been movements, in modern times, to strip the Greek element out of Christianity. The Pope mentions three “de-hellenizing” movements:

  1. “Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century.... The principle of sola scriptura... sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen.”
  2. “The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative.... It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.... Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favor of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.”
  3. “In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux.” The Pope scornfully dismisses this: “This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision.... The relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself.”

The Pope argues that, if we can’t reason about religion and ethics, then religion and ethics must be regarded as merely subjective. “This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” We can overcome these dangers only “if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.”

What does this have to do with Islam? The Pope says that Islam hasn’t converged with Greek philosophy, that Islam doesn’t stress the rational nature of God: “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” According to the Pope, Islam resembles the teaching of Duns Scotus. The Pope discusses the views of a Byzantine emperor:

Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, [the emperor] says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.” [The Byzantine emperor] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Although the Pope speaks of the emperor’s “startling brusqueness,” Muslims are acting now as if the Pope heartily approved of the emperor’s words, or as if these words were the Pope’s own.

The Pope only mentions Islam in passing, he doesn’t focus on Islam. It’s possible that Islam isn’t entirely irrational and Scotist. Perhaps there are various threads within Islam, as there are within Christianity. Certainly the Muslims were careful students of Greek philosophy, including Aristotle. Indeed, Europe acquired Greek manuscripts partly from Muslim scholars. “In the fourteenth century the University of Paris admitted Aristotle only as explained in Averroes’ commentary. Leading Muslim scholars were regarded with awe.”6 It can be argued that Aquinas took a rational approach because he believed Muslims respected reason.7

4. The Pope and The Weekly Standard

As I read the Pope’s speech, I was struck by its similarity to the Straussian School — the same respect for reason, the same respect for Greek philosophy, the same loathing for subjective ethics. I felt that Straussians would applaud the Pope’s speech, and sure enough, within a few days, an article appeared in The Weekly Standard praising the Pope’s “moving and heroic speech.”8

“The spirit that animates Benedict’s address is... the spirit of Socrates,” wrote Lee Harris. Harris draws a parallel between the Pope and St. Clement:

St. Clement argued that Greek philosophy had been given by God to mankind as a second source of truth, comparable to the Hebrew revelation. For St. Clement, Socrates and Plato were not pagan thinkers; they prefigured Christianity. Contrary to what Tertullian believed, Christianity needed more than just Jerusalem: It needed Athens too. Pope Benedict in his address makes a strikingly similar claim: “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.” This encounter, for Benedict, was providential, just as it had been for St. Clement.

Harris describes the difference between the Greek attitude toward reason, and the modern attitude:

The Greeks felt that they could reason about anything and everything — about the immortality of the soul, metempsychosis, the nature of God, the role of reason in the universe, and so on. Modern reason, from the time of Kant, has repudiated this kind of wild speculative reason.... Modern reason, after Kant, became identified with what modern science does. Modern science uses mathematics and the empirical method to discover truths about which we can all be certain

It’s surprising to hear Harris speak of “wild speculative reason,” since this is the sort of reason that he seems to be advocating. Unless, perhaps, he thinks that there’s some sort of “golden mean,” some sort of perfect balance, between narrow, Kantian reason, and wild, Greek reason. I have little interest in Kantian reason or in Greek reason, or in finding a perfect middle-ground between them. My position, as I’ve described it in earlier issues, is that we should seek to find our own center, we should respect our intuition/feelings/unconscious, and try to attain spontaneity, rather than rationality. I turn neither to Aristotle nor to Kant, but to Jung and to Eastern philosophy.

Though he admits that Greek reason is “wild” and “speculative”, Harris condemns modern reason for avoiding ethical and religious questions:

What disturbs [the Pope] is the assumption that scientific reason is the only form of reason, and that whatever is not scientifically provable lies outside the universe of reason. Modern reason argues that questions of ethics, of religion, and of God are outside its compass. Because there is no scientific method by which such questions can be answered, modern reason cannot concern itself with them, nor should it try to. From the point of view of modern reason, all religious faiths are equally irrational, all systems of ethics equally unverifiable, all concepts of God equally beyond rational criticism. But if this is the case, then what can modern reason say when it is confronted by a God who commands that his followers should use violence and even the threat of death in order to convert unbelievers? ....Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion?

Harris’ ideal is a community of rational people, a community founded on Socratic dialogue:

If the individual is free to choose between violence and reason, it will become impossible to create a community in which all the members restrict themselves to using reason alone to obtain their objectives.... Modern reason says that all ethical choices are subjective and beyond the scope of reason. But if this is so, then a man who wishes to live in a community made up of reasonable men is simply making a personal subjective choice.... A culture of reason is one in which the ideal of the dialogue has become the foundation of the entire community.

I would argue that reason can justify anything, and that the most rational regimes, the regimes that were most scornful of mythology and religion — those of the French revolutionaries, the Soviets, etc. — were among the worst regimes. As Kierkegaard said, “‘On principle’ one can do anything.”9

Harris speaks scornfully of the scientific-secular worldview:

Modern reason has produced its own ersatz god — a blind and capricious universe into which accidental man has found himself inexplicably thrown. It is a universe in which all human freedom is an illusion, because everything we do or think was determined from the moment of the Big Bang. It is a universe in which there is no mind at all, but only matter. Yet without mind, how can there be reason? Without free will, how can there be reasonable choices? Without reasonable choices, how can there be reasonable men? Without reasonable men, how can there be communities in which human dignity is defended from the indignity of violence and brute force?

Harris insists that Socrates would have rejected the scientific-secular worldview, just as he would have rejected Islamic irrationalism:

Socrates.... would have fought against those who teach that the universe is an uncaring thing, or who tell us that freedom is an illusion and our mind a phantom. Ultimately, perhaps, Socrates would have seen little to distinguish between those who bow down trembling before an irrational god and those who resign themselves before an utterly indifferent universe.... Shall we abandon the lofty and noble conception of reason for which Socrates gave his life? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character?

Harris doesn’t tell us how to distinguish “lofty and noble” reason from “wild speculative” reason. The lofty and noble kind can easily slip into the wild speculative kind, and when speculative reason is turned into government policy, the results are wild indeed. Just as reason can be used to support any political position, so too it can be used to support any theological position. The unity of the Catholic Church has been maintained not by reason but by authority — authority often supported by the sword.

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. Guermantes Way, Part II back
2. Daily Standard, 7/4/06 back
3. The Pope describes the mission of a university as “working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” back
4. The Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri says that the British in India were repelled by Hinduism: “They were taken in by the deceptive simplicity of the Muslim and repelled by the apparent bizarrerie of Hinduism and its rococo excrescences. I wonder if it was the Hebraic element in the British ethos which was responsible for this.”(A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, edited by Peter Childs, Extract from Nirad Chaudhuri, “Passage To and From India”) Chaudhuri would probably agree with the Pope that the Hebrew-Christian tradition is more rational than Hinduism; perhaps Chaudhuri would add that Islam, with its roots in Judaism, is also more rational than Hinduism. back
5. Is reason European? Have any civilizations outside Europe taken the rational approach that Europe has taken? back
6. Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation, X, 3 back
7. According to Grunebaum, Thomas Aquinas said you could dispute with Jews using the Old Testament as an authority, and you could dispute with heretics using the New Testament as an authority, but you couldn’t use the Old Testament or the New Testament when disputing with Muslims, since they didn’t acknowledge the authority of either. Aquinas tried to prove the truths of Christianity using reason instead of authority.(Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation, II, 3) back
8. “Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason” by Lee Harris, 10/02/2006, Volume 012, Issue 03 back
9. The Present Age back