December 14, 2017

1. A Dialogue

A:How many philosophers have there been in the history of the U.S.? Emerson, Thoreau, William James, perhaps Berenson and Hoffer — about four or five. So for every ten Presidents, there’s one philosopher.
B:Can we talk about something else?
A:Name three philosophers from ancient Greece.
B (reluctantly):Plato, Aristotle...
A:Socrates. Now name three politicians from ancient Greece.
A:My point is that philosophers are remembered when all the politicians are forgotten. Philosophers have a much bigger impact on civilization than politicians have.
B:Now can we talk about something else?
A:One more question: Who had a bigger impact on history, Karl Marx or Bill Clinton?
A:Marx’s impact was infinitely greater than Clinton’s. This shows that the man of ideas, who spends his time reading and writing, can impact history far more than the politician.
B (perking up):Okay, now are you done?
A:If I said I was going to run for President, if I really believed that I was going to become President, you’d think I was very ambitious. But the ambition to become a philosopher is a far higher ambition than the ambition to become a President.
B:You really are crazy. Why do they let you walk the streets, and rub elbows with the sane? What are insane asylums for, what are strait-jackets for, if not people like you?

2. Gettysburg

After Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Nietzsche wrote, “Human nature bears a triumph less easily than a defeat; indeed, it might even be urged that it is simpler to gain a victory of this sort than to turn it to such account that it may not ultimately prove a serious rout.”1 When the Kaiser was crowned at Versailles in 1871, Burckhardt said, “That is the doom of Germany.”2 Nietzsche and Burckhardt felt that Germany had become big-headed after its victory, that Germany was infected with hubris, that it would over-reach, that it was “riding for a fall.”

Perhaps this is why Lee lost at Gettysburg: his stunning successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville caused him to over-reach, to become over-confident. One of Lee’s aides said that, at the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville,

Lee’s presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable bursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who has not witnessed them.... One long unbroken cheer... rose high above the roar of battle and hailed the presence of a victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of — triumph; and as I looked at him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from some such scene that men in ancient days ascended to the dignity of gods.3

Did anyone, in either army, anticipate that Lee’s success would lead to over-confidence and disaster?

3. Sex Scandals

In recent months, a series of successful men have been ruined by reports of sexual misconduct. As we saw above, success is hard to handle, success causes people to over-reach, to become over-confident. Success is often the enemy of personal growth. “Why should I grow and change? I’m successful.”

Proust said, “the great thing about the stock market is losing.” Losing and failing can lead to humility, resignation, personal growth. In my book of aphorisms, I wrote about “growth from disaster.” Man has a deep-seated urge toward personal growth, balance, wholeness. Our unconscious sometimes arranges setbacks and losses in order to foster personal growth. The recent sex scandals show that success is sometimes a curse, failure a blessing.

4. Movies

A. I enjoyed Lion (2016), which is set in India and Australia. It’s based on a true story, as many good movies are. Fans of Proust will notice that the protagonist’s memories of his early life are triggered by food, by the smell of something he craved as a youngster, as Proust’s memories were triggered by the taste of a madeleine.

B. I also recommend The Imitation Game (2014), which is about Alan Turing and his effort to break the German code. During World War II, Turing was part of the code-breaking team that worked at Bletchley Park, outside London.

C. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov, is an excellent documentary about life in Siberia. The people are highly self-sufficient, making their own canoe, their own cabin, their own skis, etc. But they also depend on modern machines — the snowmobile, the chain-saw, the motor-boat. The film shows how ethnic Russians find a measure of happiness in Siberia, while the native people struggle with poverty, alcoholism, etc.

Happy People focuses on a trapper who says he despises those who trap pregnant animals, and trap out-of-season. In an earlier issue, I discussed jagdfrevel, and said “one who violates the hunting code is guilty of jagdfrevel. Examples of jagdfrevel are ‘shooting pregnant deer or hunting in the closed season.’” The trapper in Happy People follows the hunting code, and despises frevelers.

D. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) seems like a silly British comedy at first, but it grows on you. It has a great final wedding scene starring a deaf man in the archetypal role of hero/dummling.4 It also has a great funeral scene featuring a poem by W. H. Auden.

5. Holmes and Banfield

I started writing philosophy in the summer of 1984, when I was living in western Ireland. In late 1984, I moved to Boston, and began showing my manuscript to Harvard professors, publishers, etc. One of the Harvard professors whom I contacted was Stephen Holmes, who’s now at NYU. Holmes had been one of my professors in Harvard’s Government Department. I didn’t know him personally — in fact, I didn’t know any professors personally while I was an undergrad.

Holmes is highly intelligent; he read my manuscript closely, and made some astute comments about it. “You’re referring to these great writers of the past,” Holmes said. “The danger is that people will think that you see yourself as one of them.” This implies that having a high ambition is not laudable but dangerous, foolish, shameful. If you have a high ambition, you expose yourself to the resentment of others. One ought to be part of the group, not try to rise above it; one who tries to rise above it is psychologically and morally sick.

In the past few years, several commentators have argued that higher culture is dying. Michael J. Lewis, for example, argued that “The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture.” Joseph Bottum argued that “Novels have disappeared from public-intellectual life.” Joseph Epstein argued that “Contemporary art across the board has lost its power.”

But these commentators have difficulty explaining why culture is dying. Perhaps the best explanation is that, if someone has a high ambition, if someone tries to rival the great writers of the past, they’re viewed as psychologically and morally sick. The human race is shrinking, the individual is being submerged in the group. As Mill said, in earlier times “the individual was a power in himself; and if he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd.”5 Kierkegaard spoke of the “leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race.”6

Another professor to whom I showed my manuscript in late 1984 was Ed Banfield. Banfield was at least as intelligent as Holmes, and read my manuscript at least as closely. It must have been obvious to Banfield that I aspired to be a philosopher, but he saw nothing shameful or foolish in that aspiration. Banfield was from an earlier generation than Holmes. In Banfield’s day, a big ambition wasn’t viewed as a sickness. The leveling process that Kierkegaard spoke of has advanced in recent decades; for Holmes’ generation, a high ambition is a sickness.

Since the leveling process has advanced at the same time that culture has declined, one wonders if the leveling process is a cause of cultural decline. The advance of the leveling process is, in Kierkegaard’s words, the “self-combustion of the human race.”

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. Untimely Essays, “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer,” #1 back
2. Quoted in Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Ch. 8 back
3. Wikipedia back
4. In an earlier issue, I discussed Jung’s disciple Marie-Louise von Franz: “Von Franz’s specialty is fairy tales, and she believes that one of the stock characters of fairy tales represents integrity. She speaks of, ‘the famous fairy tale motif of the Dummling, the simpleton, who appears in an infinite number of fairy tales. For instance, a king has three sons and the youngest is a fool whom everybody laughs at; but it is always this fool who becomes the hero in the story.’” back
5. On Liberty, Ch. 3 back
6. The Present Age back