Didactic poets sometimes close on a darker note. Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, meant to teach us inner tranquility, concludes with a description of a devastating plague. The first book of Vergil’s Georgics closes with the image of a chariot—the Roman state—running out of control, its driver powerless to stop it. The late Greek writer Oppian’s five-book poem on fishing ends with a sponge-diver mauled to death by creatures of the deep, his colleagues grieving over his remains. And the Ars? It ends with a comic yet disturbing portrait of a mad poet, lashing out at others like a savage bear or bleeding them dry like a parasite. (“Leech” is the final word of the poem, as “human” is the first.) For the poem’s message is in the end a negative one: “Horace does not concretely help his addressees…become better poets or become poets at all because he cannot; in fact, no one can.” Poets need talent as well as training, and for those who want to write without the former, Horace’s implicit advice is, “Don’t.”
The Misteri d’Elx is probably as close as it is possible to come to a living encounter with medieval drama. Buried in its origins is an ancient faith, along with an ancient hatred, to which the poets and composers gave a powerful expression that has miraculously endured into the present. To witness it now is to shuttle back and forth for several days between proximity and distance, engagement and detachment, attraction and revulsion. Its music, its stage magic, and its collective ardor provoke wonder, but if my days in Elche are any indication, the wonder is not unmixed with pain, pain that is a measure of the distance between the world conjured up in the celebrated work of art and the world in which we live, or at least hope to live.
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.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor