January 20, 2003

1. Perceval and I

Our book group started to read The Grail Legend, a Jungian interpretation of the Holy Grail story. The authors are Jung’s wife (Emma Jung) and one of Jung’s chief disciples (Marie-Louise von Franz). It was probably not a good choice on my part; it’s rather long, rather scholarly, and it assumes a greater acquaintance with Jung’s works than I have a right to assume. On the other hand, it presents some of Jung’s ideas more clearly than Jung himself does, and it displays a deep knowledge of psychology. In short, I’m glad that I’m reading it, but I regret asking others to read it.

The most striking thing about The Grail Legend is the way it speaks to my own experience. I’ve read many books that speak to my own experience, but I didn’t expect that the life of Perceval, a medieval knight, would have so much in common with my own life.

Like many heroes, Perceval is fatherless, and is raised by his mother in a forest, far from civilization. One day he sees five knights in shining armor, and is “overwhelmed by the splendid sight”.1 One of the knights tells Perceval that his armor was given to him by King Arthur. “Perceval unhesitatingly decides to seek out the King and entreat a similar suit for himself; he is determined to become a knight. This knowledge and this intention are the first expression of a budding awareness of himself which plainly reveals — although in the form of a childish wish to begin with — what will prove to be his ultimate goal and true vocation.... It often happens that such an intense experience in childhood or early youth is decisive for an individual’s entire later life.”2

I myself had such an “intense experience” in my early youth, and it did prove decisive for my later life — including the writing of this newsletter. When I was fifteen, I happened to pick up a world history textbook, and I suddenly became acquainted with the culture heroes of Western civilization. These culture heroes were my knights in shining armor, and I wanted to live in the world of culture myself.

As Perceval approaches Arthur’s castle, he meets Arthur’s enemy, the Red Knight, and kills him. Our authors tell us that the Red Knight represents Perceval’s own shadow. “This killing of the red shadow-knight corresponds to a violent repression of Perceval’s own individual affects and emotions as a first step towards building up a conscious personality. Every young person who grows up in a social milieu and develops into a responsible personality must go through this phase of a merciless subjugation of individual inner primitive emotionality before he can develop further.”3

I myself went through a Stoic phase, a phase of “violent repression”; I worked hard in school, read a lot on my own, and carefully regulated my diet. I found a similar Stoic phase in the lives of others. I wrote about this phase in an aphorism, “Stages of Youth”.

One day, Perceval is out riding, and he encounters the Grail Castle. Everything about the castle has a “peculiar otherworldly quality”4, and our authors argue that Perceval’s visit to the Grail Castle is a dream, a descent into the unconscious. “It is a well-known fact that ‘big dreams’, which are a determining factor in the later life of the young person, often occur at puberty, so that it is not misleading to interpret this experience of Perceval’s in a similar manner.”5

When I was 15 or 16, I had a series of dreams or visions that shaped my future, or foretold my future. These dreams resembled the textbook that I had read — they dealt with Western civilization, especially ancient Greek literature, the clarity and simplicity of Greek literature.

Next Perceval fights l’Orguelleus de la Lande (The Pride of the Land). Like the Red Knight, l’Orguelleus embodies Perceval’s own shadow, but he embodies a different shadow than the Red Knight, he embodies “the pride of chivalry.... It is natural that a young person who sets himself a lofty ideal such as is represented by chivalry should, without noticing it, succumb to a certain arrogance.”6

Doubtless some readers of The Grail Legend will say, “Wait a minute. How can you be sure that l’Orguelleus represents Perceval’s own pride?” The evidence may be thin, but the conclusion agrees perfectly with my own experience. After I was dazzled by the culture heroes, and began to follow The Way of Culture, pride was my constant companion, a companion whom I strove in vain to escape. I remember seeing the American philosopher Eric Hoffer on TV, and wondering, “how come he isn’t bursting with arrogance?”

By the age of 19, my fascination with the culture heroes in general had turned into a fascination with Nietzsche in particular. The example of Nietzsche is a dangerous one, and no one ever followed Nietzsche’s example with more ardor than I, so it’s surprising that I didn’t die trying to become Nietzsche, or at least lose my sanity. Nietzsche is dangerous because he doesn’t deflate pride, he inflates it. In the preface to his Anti-Christ, Nietzsche wrote, “This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet.” As I read these words, I felt he was speaking directly to me. Then he said, “one must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul — in contempt.” As I read this, I felt that I was reading my own thoughts.

Nietzsche’s ethics, like his politics, are somewhat extreme, somewhat one-sided. Nietzsche is part of the Western tradition, part of a tradition that exaggerated the ego, exaggerated consciousness, exaggerated reason. Though I still regard Nietzsche as the leading Western philosopher, I think his philosophy should be supplemented by Jung and Zen — by Jung’s respect for the unconscious, and by Zen’s respect for the Here and Now, and Zen’s merging of the ego with the universe.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes his vision of the shepherd and the snake. The shepherd has a snake in his mouth, bites off its head, spits it out, then laughs. Jung says, “the shepherd laughed on getting rid of the snake — a wild hysterical laughter, because he had dished the compensation from the unconscious.... The unconscious insinuates itself in the form of a snake if the conscious mind is afraid of the compensating tendency of the unconscious.... The problem as it presented itself to Nietzsche was insoluble, for nobody could expect the shepherd to swallow down a snake under such circumstances. We are confronted here with one of those fatal cases, by no means uncommon, where the compensation appears in a form that cannot be accepted and could only be overcome by something that is equally impossible for the patient. Cases of this kind occur when the unconscious has been resisted for too long on principle, and a wedge violently driven between instinct and the conscious mind.”7

Nietzsche’s resistance to the unconscious helped him to achieve a high level of consciousness, but also gave his philosophy an exaggerated character, and contributed to his eventual madness. Nietzsche’s philosophy is too warlike: it puts the individual at war with himself, it puts the individual at war with other people, and it puts social groups at war with other social groups.

2. Affirmative Action

In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed affirmative action — more specifically, affirmative action in college admissions. I received e-mail from Amrit Hallan, a Phlit subscriber in India, who said that this was a hot issue in India when he was a college student, in the early ’90s. In India, the term “reservation” was used, instead of “affirmative action” or “quota”. The government of India argued that “there had been so many atrocities committed upon the backward classes and now was the time to make amends for them. We, as students who didn’t belong to the backward classes, thought that why do we have to pay for the actions of our ancestors, and besides, why doesn’t the government improve the overall economic conditions so that there are no backward classes, and hence, no unfair reservation policies. Due to an unprecedented backlash by the students from all over the country, the government had to halt the implementation.”

3. Copyright

Three cheers for MIT, for putting course information and course notes online. One might say that MIT has adopted an “open source” policy. This has been my policy for many years; I’ve made everything that I have to offer available online, at no charge.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently took a step in the opposite direction, a step in the direction of “closed source”. It upheld a 1998 law that extended copyright protection for another twenty years. Congress passed this law to win favor with Disney and other big entertainment companies, who want to control their intellectual property for more than fifty years.

Two justices, Stevens and Breyer, dissented from the Court’s decision. Breyer argued, “The qualitative costs to education, learning and research will multiply as our children become ever more dependent for the content of their knowledge upon computer-accessible databases — thereby condemning that which is not so accessible, say, the cultural content of early 20th-century history, to a kind of intellectual purgatory from which it will not easily emerge.” The majority of the court felt that the Constitution gave Congress power over copyrights, and therefore Congress was within their rights in lengthening the duration of copyrights.

Writers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche believed that copyright was harmful: “Writing for money,” wrote Schopenhauer, “and reservation of copyright are, at bottom, the ruin of literature.”8

4. Elliott Banfield

In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed Edward C. Banfield, author of The Unheavenly City. His son, Elliott Banfield, is an artist who is based in New York City, and works in a traditional/classical style. Elliott works in a variety of genres — illustration, design, prints, paintings — and samples of his work can be found on his website. He even designed a monument for the World Trade Center site; this design was inspired by his friend Henry Reed, a critic of modern architecture and the author of a book called The Golden City.

On his website, Elliott lambasts the choice of Elvis for a postage stamp: “I sense a moral void that I find intolerable. That void was clearly revealed when the [Postal Service] put the face of Elvis on a stamp. Elvis was important in the popular culture, yes. But how important is the pop culture? Important only to those who can’t see anything higher or better. It’s scary to think that people like that are in charge of public policy. But they are, and the Elvis stamp proves it.” Click here to see Elliott’s own postage-stamp designs.

5. American Conservatives

One of Elliott’s projects was designing and illustrating The Claremont Review of Books, which is published by The Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank. A visit to the Claremont website gives one an insight into the thinking of American conservatives. A Claremont mission statement says: “Other conservative organizations share our dedication to limited government, free markets, and a strong national defense. But only the Claremont Institute is devoted to understanding how the moral and political philosophy of the American founding can guide us today.” Conservatives believe that a small, limited government fosters individual freedom, and agrees with the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

Another Claremont mission statement: “The mission of the Claremont Review of Books is to make war on the progressive administrative state.” Conservatives believe that the “progressive administrative state” blossomed under Franklin Roosevelt. “In Roosevelt's view, individual freedom had brought about the catastrophe of the Depression. He believed that selfish behavior on the part of individuals and corporations had to give way to rational social action informed by a benevolent government.... Government is an ethical organization, an engine of compassion, which establishes a common ground of freedom by progressively redefining and securing human rights, now synonymous with social needs.”9

Since needs are infinite, the number of “rights” grows and grows.10 Government, too, grows and grows, in order to satisfy the growing number of rights. Since people have a right to housing, government must provide housing; since people have a right to medical care, government must provide medical care, etc., etc. Conservatives argue that this wasn’t the intention of the Founding Fathers. They argue that a big government, a government that tries to satisfy the infinite needs of the people, stifles individual freedom. Government should leave people alone, say conservatives, and let them satisfy their own needs. Go back to the original vision of the Founders.

Conservatives argue that they’re more idealistic than liberals, that liberals cater to people’s basest instincts: “Liberals believe (and, worse yet, hope) that people have no higher aspirations than to suck what they can out of a common pot in hopes of attaining security — ‘security’ in the contemptible sense that assumes someone else is looking out for both the common defense and the economic production that supports us all. In today's world, it is only conservatism that assumes people are capable of pursuing a more noble course than scrapping for a slightly bigger piece of the pie that someone else baked.”11

What this writer calls “scrapping” is often done by segments of society — by an ethnic group or by some other subdivision of society. Thus, scrapping for government largesse divides society into competing groups. One prominent conservative, James Q. Wilson, lamented that “social activists tried to change our world by... empowering groups based on their racial or ethnic identity, and so they began the great splitting apart of American life designed, it would seem, to undercut the central principle of American democracy — that it can make one people out of many.”12

6. Leo Strauss

Many conservative intellectuals, such as Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute, draw inspiration from Leo Strauss, one of the most influential American professors of the last century. Strauss taught political philosophy — Plato, Aristotle, etc. — he didn’t deal with practical political issues. From 1949 to 1967, Strauss was on the faculty of the University of Chicago. Chicago had a proclivity for the classics even before Strauss came; Robert Maynard Hutchins, who served as Chicago’s president, inspired the classics-oriented curriculum of St. John’s College. At the end of his career, Strauss joined the faculty of St. John’s.

I recently read an essay on Strauss by Ed Banfield. Banfield attempts to explain why Strauss was revered by his students: “Here was a man who seemed to know all languages, ancient and modern; who seemed to have read everything worth reading... and to have remembered it all; who seemed to have no ego that required being shown off to a captive audience; who was wholly absorbed in making clear what was often very obscure... How could a student... fail to stand in awe of such a teacher?”13

Strauss was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1899. One of his early interests was the Jewish philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza introduced him to what he called “the theological-political problem”, that is, the conflict between the claims of revelation and the claims of reason. Strauss believed that this conflict was irreconcilable, and was “the secret of the vitality of Western civilization.”14 Strauss’s view reminds us of Panofsky’s view (discussed in an earlier issue of Phlit) that the Renaissance and the Baroque were torn between admiration for Christianity, and admiration for antiquity; like Strauss, Panofsky argued that this tension was a source of vitality.

Strauss admired Plato and Aristotle because they cared about virtue, and they connected politics to ethics, they connected politics to the search for The Good Life. Thus, Strauss opposes the amoral philosophy of Nietzsche. In Strauss’s view, politics should be based on absolute moral standards, on natural laws; moral relativism leads to nihilism and disaster.

Strauss opposes not only Nietzsche and Machiavelli, he opposes the whole modern tradition of political philosophy, including the liberal democratic tradition. “A liberal state must recognize and protect a private sphere, but to do this it must permit and thus in fact foster whatever evils are of a ‘private’ kind.”15 In the first edition of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers, I made a similar argument, I argued that “democratic theorists like Locke don’t make democracy part of a comprehensive philosophy, don’t build their political thought on an ethical foundation.” The only ethical foundation, in Strauss’s view, is the Greek foundation; Strauss seems to have been unacquainted with Eastern philosophy.

Strauss revered the classics, and the men of genius who wrote them. He didn’t attempt to create such classics himself. “Strauss presented himself,” Banfield writes, “not as a philosopher but as a scholar, an historian of political philosophy. So far as I know he never pronounced in his own name on a philosophical problem. Philosophy, he thought, is for great thinkers, who possess ‘all the excellences of which a man’s mind is capable, to the highest degree’; they are so extremely rare that ‘it is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one’s time.’”16

Strauss believed that philosophers concealed their views from fear of persecution, and from fear that their views would have a harmful effect on society. Straussians argue that many philosophers, from Machiavelli on, were atheists, but concealed their atheism. When I was an undergrad at Harvard, I heard a Straussian argue that Locke was an atheist, a concealed atheist; I took issue with that view then, and I take issue with it now. In my view, the search for hidden meanings is more likely to lead one astray than accepting a philosopher’s words at face value.

According to Banfield, “[Strauss] expected his students to learn to read as he did... looking for passages in which an author contradicted himself and (because a great thinker would not contradict himself by accident) pondering the meaning of the contradiction.”17 In an earlier issue of Phlit, I argued that contradiction is common in philosophy; human nature is contradictory, the world is contradictory, truth is contradictory. My own work is contradictory, and I strive in vain to make it consistent. Contradiction doesn’t indicate that a philosopher is hiding something. “Jung was highly inconsistent,” wrote one of his disciples, “and well aware of this fact. Many formulations in his writings seem inconsistent too. But as the nature of the psyche is not straightforward and does not always obey the laws of logic, these inconsistencies are only apparently out of place; they reflect psychic truth better than straightforward thinking. So it was high praise, though of an unusual kind, when Jung informed me one day that I had been gloriously inconsistent.”18

In my view, Strauss was at home with rational thinking, logical thinking, and wasn’t at home with the mystical, the irrational, the unconscious. Strauss’s approach is more popular in academia than the opposite approach, than Jung’s approach. Scholars want to believe that truth can be reached by hard work and intelligence.

Strauss’s books are praised for their “scholarly incisiveness”, but I prefer books like Montaigne’s Essays and Thoreau’s Walden, books that are neither scholarly nor incisive. Strauss’s books appeal to scholars rather than laymen. In my view, literary works should be intended for the educated layman.

One of Strauss’s most famous disciples was Allan Bloom, Chicago professor and author of the bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom was a passionate champion of a broad education, based on the classics. He deplored the trend toward specialization: “Most professors are specialists, concerned only with their own fields, interested in the advancement of those fields in their own terms, or in their own personal advancement.”19

One might compare Strauss with Friedrich Hayek. Both Strauss and Hayek were born in 1899, both taught at Chicago in the ’50s, both had a conservative bent. While Strauss was an influential philosophical thinker, Hayek was an influential economic thinker. The next generation of conservative thinkers, younger than Strauss and Hayek, included Banfield (domestic affairs), Kedourie (international affairs), and Milton Friedman (economics). These five thinkers (Strauss, Hayek, Banfield, Kedourie, and Friedman) will influence the conservative thinkers of today and tomorrow.

7. Four Ph.D. Projects

I recently applied to the University of Chicago. I applied for a Ph.D. program in a department called “History of Culture”, which describes itself as the most inter-disciplinary department in a school that has long been known for inter-disciplinary studies. I looked for programs called Humanities, but only about three universities in the country offer a Ph.D. in Humanities. Humanities seems to be gaining popularity as a concentration for undergrads, but it’s still rare at the Ph.D. level.

In addition to inter-disciplinary programs in the Humanities, I also looked for Philosophy programs, non-analytic Philosophy programs. The chief non-analytic Philosophy programs are Penn State, Vanderbilt, and Stony Brook; the vast majority of Philosophy programs in the U.S. focus on analytic philosophy. Of the three non-analytic programs, Penn State seems to be the leader. It accepts only about ten students each year, and during recent years, it has placed all of its graduates in teaching positions. It also guarantees “full funding” for five years (the usual duration of a Ph.D. program). Chicago, on the other hand, seems to accept more students than it can place in teaching positions, and more students than it can fund.

I applied to the Philosophy programs at Penn State and Vanderbilt, as well as the History of Culture program at Chicago. “Why? I thought you were a critic of academia.” I think that computer programming (my present career) draws me away from literature, and I think that a change might be good for me.

When I applied to Chicago, I was asked to describe a Ph.D. project — an inter-disciplinary project that wouldn’t fit into any of the usual departments. I wrote down four “project ideas”, which are perhaps my four strongest interests, and which I’ve often discussed in this newsletter:

  1. East and West: is there a convergence between Eastern thought and Western thought? Or is there an irreconcilable contradiction between them? How can we create a philosophy that draws upon both East and West — that respects Western individuality, while merging the individual with the universe? How can we strive for improvement, yet also be aware of the present moment? The Zen element in Thoreau and Whitman: is it spontaneous, or is it the result of studying Eastern literature? Does it point to an “Eastern drift” in Western thought? If there is an “Eastern drift”, is it stronger among American writers than European writers? The Zen element in Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement: is it a “Culture Zen”, distinct from Thoreau’s “Nature Zen”? The Zen element in Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. The Zen element in ancient philosophers, especially Stoics and Epicureans (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, etc.). Compare these Zen elements in Western thought with the equally striking anti-Zen elements. (For a fuller discussion of this idea, click here or here.)
  2. Psychic phenomena: the largest unexplored continent in the intellectual world, and a subject for which academics generally have a deep aversion. Psychic phenomena in imaginative literature (Ibsen, Proust, Shakespeare, Joyce, Tolstoy, etc.); in philosophy (Schopenhauer, Kant, the idea of synchronicity in Chinese philosophy); in psychology (Jung, Freud); in primitive culture (voodoo, etc.); in physical science (action-at-a-distance, etc.); in biology (telepathy among animals, etc.); in popular legend and popular culture (communication with the dead, ghosts, near-death experiences, etc.); in everyday life (talk to the man on the street). (For a fuller discussion of this idea, click here.)
  3. Society as an organism (Vico, Herder, Hegel, Spengler, Ortega, Dilthey, Plato, Polybius); combining this idea with Freud’s theory of the life- and death-instincts of organisms, to create a theory of the life- and death-instincts of societies, that is, a theory of renaissance and decadence; I believe this is an epoch-making theory, I believe it is the philosophy of our time, and I believe it points to a renaissance in our time, but is there any way to substantiate it? What are the criteria of renaissance and decadence? Are there other causes of renaissance and decadence besides the life- and death-instincts of societies? Can I improve upon my earlier attempt to set forth my theory of decadence and renaissance? It’s my most original idea, but also the worst chapter of my book, Conversations With Great Thinkers. (For a fuller discussion of this idea, click here.)
  4. The revolt of the masses. This phrase comes from Ortega y Gasset’s well-known book, The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega says that the masses no longer look up to any leaders, they have become self-satisfied. Consider the roots of this idea in Mill and others. Consider how often one finds this idea in modern thinkers (Tocqueville, Kierkegaard, Ruskin, Nietzsche, Freud, etc.). Consider examples of this idea in imaginative writers (Flaubert, Kundera, etc.). Consider its relation to Riesman’s famous theory of personality (tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed). Has the revolt of the masses reached an extreme in our time? If so, how does this revolt affect our society, and what does it portend for the future? Or has it become obsolete — a theory that no longer applies? (For a fuller discussion of this idea, click here.)

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. The Grail Legend, ch. 2, p. 48 back
2. ibid, pp. 49, 50 back
3. ibid, ch. 3, p. 57 back
4. ibid, ch. 4, p. 68 back
5. ibid, p. 69 back
6. ibid, ch. 5, p. 82 back
7. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, ¶585-587 back
8. The Art of Literature, “On Authorship” back
9. see John Marini’s article in The Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2002 back
10. In my book of aphorisms, I define “right” as, “Something one desires, and thinks that one deserves. There’s a right to have a job, a right to have housing, a right to have a color television set, a right to be informed of your rights, a right to march in order to demand your rights, a right to invent new rights, etc., etc.” back
11. John Hinderaker, posting to the Claremont blog (bulletin board), 1/2/03 back
12. Edward C. Banfield: An Appreciation, “Memorial Service” back
13. Remembering the University of Chicago, “Leo Strauss”, §5 back
14. ibid, §2 back
15. This is Banfield’s interpretation of Strauss; ibid, §4 back
16. ibid, §3 back
17. ibid, §5 back
18. From the Life and Work of C.G. Jung, by Aniela Jaffé (Harper & Row, paperback), ch. 4, p. 111 back
19. The Closing of the American Mind, III, 3, i back