Stevenson died on 3 December 1894 on the island of Upolu, in his study, where he had been working that morning on his novel Weir of Hermiston. After writing the words, ‘It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature,’ he put down his pen, and he collapsed later that day. The death that had long threatened him arrived without notice. James was inconsolable and remained that way for a long time. ‘I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,’ he wrote, ‘but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him ... He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.’ James was among those of us who are greatly affected by the deaths of others. He never forgot his cousin Minnie Temple, or his brother Wilky, or Alice, who ‘died in London at the age of 43, regretting only that she would not have the pleasure of knowing and reporting herself dead’.†
James had 22 years to live. He would look back at Bournemouth as a time of special dreaming, a time when his sister and his friend – ailing at opposite ends of the town – drew him out and tested his love and gave him matter to dwell on. In just a few years, Robert Louis Stevenson, the singular R.L.S, would become a thing of publicity and history. For his own part, James could reach back into the vanished evenings of that time, and speak about literary vision, about the way ‘the rarest works pop out of the dusk of the inscrutable, the untracked.’ In 1916, close to his own death in Carlyle Mansions, he dictated a series of not quite coherent letters to his secretary, Miss Bosanquet. He spoke in the voice of Napoleon, addressed his late brother and sister, and ‘wandered off’, Edel writes, ‘to allude to ... the great R.L.S. of those days’. There was a surge of words, a stream of consciousness, the shards of broken plates lapping up on the shore.
So the Greeks got their myths from the Egyptians, but the Egyptians never had an Aristotle (that we know of). Why? As Sassi argues, something unique happened with the naturalistic thought of the early Greeks. The “real significance and innovation” of their thought, she argues, is in developing a notion of nature that “pivots around the idea of an internal regularity independent of the intervention of supernatural forces.” In other words, the Greeks were the first to think about the world and nature as things that can be explained without reference to mythology or religion. They were, Sassi argues, the first secular thinkers.
In this, Sassi would seem to agree with Aristotle, who called Thales (625 BCE-546 BCE) the “father of philosophy” because he was the first to break from a purely mythical recounting of the origins of the cosmos, theorizing that the universe derived from water and not from the will of an anthropomorphic force.
But the question Sassi seems to be really asking with this book is, “What is philosophy?” To her credit, she herself notes “the inseparability of the issue of the beginnings of philosophy and that of the nature of philosophy itself.” But then, she narrows her sense of what philosophy is, defining it as thought with “critical intent directed toward traditional, or at any rate established, points of view” and discourse written in “an argumentative” mode. Does that describe philosophy? Sure. But it’s not inclusive enough. Lying outside of Sassi’s bandwidth would be philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in an aphoristic mode, and Thomas Aquinas, who tended to support rather than criticize tradition. It seems that what Sassi is really looking for are intimations not of philosophy but of a kind of secular, post-Enlightenment worldview.
The most intriguing chapter of The Eclipse of the Demos is on cybernetics. David Easton, drawing on the cybernetic systems theories of Norbert Wiener, thought of the polity as an “information processing system,” a kind of prototype of nudge economics in which social control embedded within a system which responds to feedback but only in service of hidden goals ultimately formed by a centralized bureaucratic authority. The problems with this should be obvious. For one, as Son argues, it is meant to “eliminate the independent judgement of members at the lower levels of the system and to concentrate decision-making powers at the top.” So, it kills democracy in order to save it from itself. It also doesn’t really work all that well, as we saw in Vietnam. Son enlists as evidence the example of Robert McNamara, who brought cybernetics to the Department of Defense—and grossly misunderstood the war he was fighting. Cybernetics requires quantifiable data to measure as input, and it can only capture reality in terms of that data. But the number of bridges you destroy don’t matter if troops ford rivers on foot. The number of armored transports destroyed doesn’t matter if people move things on their backs. And body counts don’t matter if your enemy is more existentially invested than you. “The problem of input distortion,” Son writes, “points beyond the problems of centralized decision-making and overblown faith in systems management. It compels us to confront another imperative to which systems science is susceptible: that everything, including human behavior, must be turned into measurable and predictable units of a grand information-processing system. To operate, systems science had to reinvent the human.”
A science of human behavior can be created only by simplifying it, fragmenting it, and debasing it. For example, to create a science of economics with predictive value (or claiming predictive value), the economist has to reduce human beings to utility maximizers—a “utility” ordinarily understood in material terms. The view of humanity taken by Machiavellian prudence is ultimately Epicurean in origin: Human nature is an unstable material substance that experiences a stream of selfish and insatiable desires ending only in death; once illusions are stripped away, the only real human goods are security and pleasure. Machiavellian prudence is intrinsically adversarial and selfish, both in the case of individual selves and our collective selves as members of states; it is directed to improving one actor’s position vis-à-vis another’s. It assumes that human beings cannot prefer interpersonal human interests to individual ones except when seeking collective security, and that states operate under the same necessity with respect to other states. In short, it assumes that human beings can never prefer interpersonal interests to personal ones. Machiavellians thus assume that cooperation and consensus can be based only on fleeting, unstable shared interests and can never rest on universal principles—on ideals.
Human beings, of course, are often adversarial and selfish, and other nasty things as well. But that’s not the whole picture. We can be decent, even noble, caring and even self-sacrificial. Aristotelian phronesis is not blind to our baser impulses. But it knows that man is, as Pascal observed, both angel and beast. This allows for a truer realism in those who must govern, one that accounts for our worst impulses and yet is alive to our higher desires.
Still, persons wrapping themselves in the white coat of the laboratory continue to make claims to know the future, with the wildly inconsistent results we see all about us in our current crisis. When a culture is inclined to regard scientistic predictions as operational intelligence, those with authority over us are easily tempted into foolish, harmful, and even immoral decisions. One may well ask whether in our modern world, where the moral foundations of our polities are falling into ruins, it is Machiavellian scientism or Aristotelian phronesis that provides us with the better guide to personal morality and public policy.
In Ordinary Vices, Shklar took up two insights from Nietzsche. First, our fear of physical cruelty is not natural or self-evident, but the product of a particular set of historical contingencies. The modern West’s feeling of “horror” toward the bodily suffering of others is something unique in the history of the world. Inhabitants of ancient Rome, with its gladiatorial games, or the Aztecs, with their human sacrifices, reveled in cruelty that shocks and outrages us.
Our sense that all human beings are endowed with moral worth that ought not to be degraded, especially by inflicting pain, appeared to Shklar, and to Nietzsche, as the product of our peculiar religious heritage. Shklar argued that Christianity had taught Western cultures to value compassion and feel with those who suffer—but only in an “ex-Christian” and secular society can these values become paramount. Fear of cruelty to human beings can only be the worst vice for people who no longer fear God but have been enduringly shaped by their historical encounter with religion.
Hankins’s take is straightforward. As he demonstrates in detail, humanism was a movement with a political mission. Its founder was Petrarch. His inspiration was the ethical, political, and rhetorical works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. His aim, and that of those who followed his example, was not just the recovery and dissemination of the lost works of classical antiquity. It was also their deployment in an attempt to provide a moral formation and a schooling in political prudence for the ruling orders in the various communes and principalities of Italy and of Europe more generally. In the thinking of Petrarch and those who came after, Hankins insists, regime questions did not loom large. These men were not “civic humanists” of the sort imagined by Baron. They were humanists, to be sure, and they cared passionately about the civitas--but they were not republican ideologues hostile to monarchy as such. For the most part, Hankins believes, they were content with monarchical rule. What they cared about was the character and discernment of those who ruled, and they regarded moral rearmament along classical lines as a panacea for the very considerable ills of the age in which they lived. Statecraft was from their perspective soulcraft, and they treated the inculcation of moral and intellectual virtue as the highest form of politics.
To this end, the Renaissance humanists of Italy broke with their medieval Scholastic predecessors by eschewing logic and metaphysics and by emphasizing ethics, rhetoric, and the study of history. Although they all professed Christianity, and some were actually devout, they were less interested in the salvation of souls than in promoting good governance. They advocated education in what we now call the liberal arts. They aspired to be tutors to and the advisors of princes, and the impact their sense of purpose had on European—and eventually American—affairs was, and still is, immense. Although Hankins doesn’t say so, those of us who teach history, philosophy, and literature in high schools, colleges, and universities are the heirs of these humanists. In attempting to civilize and teach prudence to those who aspire to join today’s elite, we, too, practice what Hankins calls “virtue politics.”
In the story he tells, the odd man out is Niccolò Machiavelli. Uniformity is not a word that can be used to describe the humanists. On various questions, they were at odds. And yet, for the most part, when it came to fundamentals, Giovanni Boccaccio, Bartolomeo Platina, Giovanni Pontano, Cristoforo Landino, Buonaccorso da Montemagno, Niccolò Perotti, Aldus Manutius, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pier Paolo Vergerio, Coluccio Salutati, Guarino of Verona, Poggio Bracciolini, Pier Candido Decembrio, Leonardo Bruni, Flavio Biondo, Cyriac of Ancona, Leon Battista Alberti, George of Trebizond, Francesco Filelfo, Aurelio Lippo Brandolini, Francesco Patrizi, and the other figures inspired by Petrarch’s summons to arms were on the same page. None of the men named, whom Hankins examines one by one in some detail, rejected as a waste of time Petrarch’s program of moral rearmament or the ethical teachings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. This, however, Machiavelli did—and in the most ostentatious way possible: by denying the very existence of moral virtue, asserting that a legislator must assume all men rogues, and suggesting that the channeling of self-regarding passions through institutional restraints is the only plausible road to good governance in a republican setting.
That is what I want to discuss today. To lay my cards on the table a bit, I’m going to argue that the kind of liberal justifications of liberal education I grew up with are no longer effective, and that teachers of humanities need a different way of defending the value of what we do and love. I think we can find such a way if we go back to the very beginning of the humanities in the mid-fourteenth century, which is also the beginning of the Renaissance. The Renaissance can teach us how to make a case for the study of old books that is compatible with the values of a pluralist society. The humanist literati of the Renaissance, beginning with Petrarch, taught that the humanities can provide the moral discipline or soulcraft that is needed to produce the kind of rulers and citizens necessary for successful government. The humanities—rightly understood, taught, and practiced as a way of life—can cultivate human moral and intellectual excellence, the qualities our tradition refers to as virtue.
Many people now are beginning to see that virtue is precisely what is needed in the crisis of contemporary civilizations that stretches from North and South America and Europe into India and China. That crisis, as I see it, is caused by a paralysis of moral leadership and the inability of demoralized, globalized elites and elite culture generally to command the respect of non-elite citizens in nation-states. It is a crisis that bears a remarkable resemblance to the civilizational crisis of the fourteenth century that brought the humanities into existence in the first place. It also resembles in some respects the crisis of the communist elite in China, where there has been for some years a movement to revive the Confucian tradition, in part with the hope of providing a more acceptable moral basis for governance.
Book III of Aristotle’s Politics looks on its surface like the work’s most narrowly “political” book. It channels partisan voices of democrats and oligarchs, who occasionally even swear at each other. It also begins the eminently practical exercise of political compromise, combining features of democracy and oligarchy into a new constitution, a “mixed regime.”
Despite this apparent practicality, it is the thesis of Delba Winthrop’s posthumously published Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science that Book III also contains a metaphysical inquiry which underlies its political one. Her line-by-line, occasionally syllable-by-syllable commentary on the text contains more than a dozen references to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and seven to Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (1968). Winthrop’s question is: Do aggregates of distinct parts ever form a unified whole? Whether it be in politics, in the soul, or in the cosmos, can unum ever really come into being e pluribus?
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