Category Archives: Intellectual History

Love Actually

 

Ann Heberlein, On Love and Tyranny:

The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Before she became a celebrated New York public intellectual, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) lived through some of the 20th century’s darkest moments. She fled her native Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, living in France for several years.  In 1940, she spent time in two intern camps, then departed for the United States, where she resided for the second half of her life.  In 1950, Arendt became an American citizen, ending nearly two decades of statelessness.  The following year, she established her reputation as a serious thinker with The Origins of Totalitarianism, a trenchant analysis of how oppressive one-party systems came to rule both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century.  As a commentator observed in The Washington Post, Arendt’s work diagnosed brilliantly the “forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism was one of a handful of older works that experienced a sudden uptick in sales in early 2017, after Donald Trump became president of the United States (George Orwell’s 1984 was another).  The authoritarian impulses that Arendt explained and Trump personified seem likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, both in the United States and other corners of the world.  For that reason alone, a fresh look at Arendt is welcome.  That is the contribution of  Ann Heberlein, a Swedish novelist and non-fiction writer, with On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt.  

Heberlein’s work, ably translated from the original Swedish by Alice Menzies, constitutes the first major Arendt biography since 1982, when Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s highly-acclaimed but dense Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World first appeared.  On Love and Tyranny, by contrast, is easy to read yet hits all the highlights of Arendt’s life and work.  Disappointingly, there are no footnotes and little in the way of bibliography. Heberlein makes use of the diaries of a key if problematic figure in Arendt’s life, philosopher Martin Heidegger, which only became public in 2014 and cast additional light on Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies.  But it is difficult to ascertain from the book itself what other new or different sources Heberlein utilized that might have been unavailable to Young-Bruehl.

Although Arendt studied philosophy as a university student, she preferred to describe herself as a political theorist.  But despite the reference to politics in her title, Heberlein’s portrait accents Arendt’s philosophic side.  She emphasizes how the turbulent circumstances that shaped Arendt’s life forced her to apply in the real world many of the abstract philosophical and moral concepts she had wrestled with in the classroom.  As the title suggests, these include love and tyranny,  but also good vs. evil, truth, obligation, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

At Marburg University, where she entered in 1924 as an 18-year-old first year student, Arendt not only studied philosophy under Heidegger, already a rising star in German academic circles, but also began a passionate love affair with the man.  Heidegger was then nearly twice her age and married with two young sons (their affair is detailed in Daniel Maier-Katkin’s astute Stranger from Abroad, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness, reviewed here  in 2013).   Arendt left Heidegger behind when she fled Germany in 1933, but after World War II re-established contact with her former teacher, by then disgraced because of his association with the Nazi regime. A major portion of Heberlein’s work scrutinizes Arendt’s subsequent, post-war relationship with Heidegger.

Heberlein also zeroes in on Arendt’s very different post-war relationship to a seemingly very different man, Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  Arendt’s series of articles for The New Yorker on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, in which she portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.

The phrase “banality of evil,” now commonplace thanks to Arendt, followed her for the rest of her days. How the phrase applies to Eichmann is of course well-ploughed ground, to which Heberlein adds a few insights.  Less obviously, Heberlein lays the groundwork to apply the phrase to Heidegger.  Her analysis of the banality of evil suggests that the differences between Heidegger and Eichmann were less glaring in the totalitarian Nazi environment, where whole populations risked losing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

* * *

Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha Arendt, prosperous, progressive, and secular German Jews.  Paul died when Hannah (born Johanna) was 7, but she remained close to her mother, who immigrated with her to the United States in 1941. Meeting with Heidegger as a first-year student in 1924 was for Arendt “synonymous with her entry into the world of philosophy,” Heberlein writes.  Heidegger was “The Philosopher personified: brilliant, handsome, poetic, and simply dressed” (p.28).  The Philosopher made clear to the first-year student that he was not prepared to leave his wife and family or the respectability of his academic position for her.  She met him whenever he had time and was able to escape his wife.

The unbalanced Arendt-Heidegger relationship “existed solely in the shadows: never acknowledged, never visible”, (p.40) as Heberlein puts it.  Arendt was never able to call Heidegger her partner because she “possessed him for brief intervals only, and the fear of losing him was ever-present” (p.41).   Borrowing a perspective Heberlein attributes to Kierkegaard and Goethe, she describes Arendt’s love for Heidegger as oscillating “between great joy and deep sorrow—though mostly sorrow” (p.31).  For these writers, whom Arendt knew well, love consisted “largely of suffering, of longing, and of distance” (p.31).  The 18-year-old, Heberlein concludes, was “struck down by a passion, possibly even an obsession, that would never fade” (p.31).

Arendt left Marburg after one year, ending up at Heidelberg University.  She later admitted that she needed to get away from Heidegger.  But she continued to see him while she wrote her dissertation at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s conception of love. Her advisor there was the esteemed theologian and philosopher Karl Jaspers, with whom she remained friends up to his death in 1969.

After university, Arendt worked in Berlin, where she met Gunther Stern, a journalist, poet and former Heidegger student who was closely associated with the communist Berthold Brecht.  Arendt married Stern in 1929 at age 23.  Sometime during her period in Berlin, she cut off all contact with Heidegger.  But after the Nazis came to power, Arendt began hearing alarming rumors about several specific anti-Semitic actions attributed to Heidegger at Fribourg University, where he had been appointed rector.  She asked him in a letter to clarify by responding to the rumors, and received back a self-pitying, aggressive response that she found entirely unconvincing.

1933 was also the year Arendt and her mother left Germany and wound up in Paris. There she met Heinrich Blücher, a self-taught, left wing German Jewish political activist. She and Stern had by then been living apart for several years, and she divorced him to marry Blücher in early 1940. The couple remained together until Blücher’s death in 1970. They were sent to separate intern camps just prior to the fall of France in 1940, but escaped together through Spain to Portugal, where they immigrated to the United States in 1941 and settled in New York.

Arendt’s first return trip to Europe came in late 1949 and early 1950.  With Blücher’s approval, she sought out her former teacher, then in Fribourg, meeting with Heidegger and his wife Elfried in February 1950.  Understandably suspicious, Elfried seems to have understood that Arendt was in a position to help rehabilitate her husband, besmirched by his association with the Nazi regime, and accepted that he wanted Arendt to again be part of his life.  Arendt maintained a warm relationship with her former professor until her death in 1975 (Heidegger died less than a year later), writing regularly and meeting on several occasions.

In the post-war years, as Arendt’s star was rising, she became Heidegger’s unpaid agent, working to have his writings translated into English and negotiating contracts on his behalf.  She also became an enthusiastic Heidegger defender, going to great lengths to excuse, smooth over, and downplay his association with Nazism.  She once compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient Greek philosopher who was so busy gazing at the stars that he failed to notice that he had fallen into a well.

On the occasion of Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1969, she delivered an over-the-top tribute to her former professor, reducing Heidegger’s dalliances with Nazism to a “10-month error,” which in her view he corrected quickly enough, “more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him” (p.236).  Arendt argued that Heidegger had taken “considerably greater risks than were usual in German literary and university life during that period” (p.237).  As Heberlein points out, Arendt’s tribute was a counter-factual fantasy: there was no empirical support for this whitewashed version of the man.

Heidegger had openly endorsed Nazi “restructuring” of universities to exclude Jews when he became rector at Fribourg in 1933 and his party membership was well known. His diaries, published in 2014, made clear that he was aware of the Holocaust, believed it was at least partly the Jews’ fault and, even though he ceased to be active in party affairs sometime in the mid-1930s, remained until 1945 a “fully paid-up, devoted supporter of Adolph Hitler” (p.238).  Arendt of course didn’t have access to these diaries when she rose to Heidegger’s defense, but it seems unlikely they would have changed her perspective.

Arendt’s 1969 tribute left little doubt she had found her way to forgive Heidegger for his association and support for a regime that had murdered millions of her fellow Jews, wreaked destruction on much of Europe, and forced her to flee her native country to start her life anew an ocean away. But why? Heberlein writes that forgiveness for Arendt was the conjunction of the conflicting powers of love and evil.  “Without evil, without betrayal, insults and lies, forgiveness would be unnecessary; without love, forgiveness would be impossible” (p.225).  Arendt found the strength to forgive Heidegger in the “utterly irrational emotion” that was love. Her love for Heidegger was “strong, overwhelming, and desperate. The power of the passion Hannah felt for Martin was stronger than the sorrow she felt at his betrayal” (p.226).  But whether it was right or wrong for her to forgive Heidegger, Heberlein demurely concludes, is a question only Arendt could have answered.

Did Arendt also forgive Eichmann for his direct role in transporting a staggering number of Jews to death camps? Is forgiveness wrapped within the notion of the banality of evil? Daniel Maier-Katkin suggests in his study of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship that in her experience with Heidegger, Arendt may have come to the notion of the banality of evil “intuitively and without clear articulation.”  That experience may have prepared her to comprehend that each man had been “transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism.”

Heberlein’s analysis of Eichmann leads to the conclusion that the notion of the banality of evil was sufficiently elastic to embrace Heidegger.  Heberlein sees the influence of Kant’s theory of “radical evil” in Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.  For Arendt, as for Kant, evil is a form of temptation, in which the desires of individuals overrule their “duty to listen to, and act in accordance with, goodwill” (p.198).   The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility.  Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting” (p.138).  Arendt’s sense of evil recognizes an uncomfortable truth that seems as applicable to   Heidegger as to Eichmann, that most people have a tendency to:

follow the path of least resistance, to ignore their conscience and do what everyone else is doing.  As the exclusion, persecution, and ultimately, annihilation of Jews became normalized, there were few who protested, who stood up for their own principles (p.199).

For Arendt, forgiveness of such persons is possible. But not all evil can be explained in terms of obedience, ignorance, or neglect. There is such a thing as evil that is “as incomprehensible as it is unforgiveable” (p.200).   In Heberlein’sinterpretation of Arendt, the genuinely evil person is the one who is “leading the way, someone initiating the evil, someone creating the context, ideology, or prejudices necessary for the obedient masses to blindly adopt” (p.201).  Whether Eichmann falls outside this standard for genuine evil is debatable. But the standard could comfortably exclude Heidegger, as Arendt had in effect argued in her 1969 tribute to her former teacher.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils that the Nazis established in occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  The “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” Arendt wrote.  The “pathetic and sordid” behavior of Jewish governing councils was for Arendt the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust – darker than the mass shootings and gas chambers — because it “showed how the Germans could turn victim against victim.”

The notion that Arendt was blaming the Jews for their persecution “quickly took hold,” Heberlein writes, and she was “forced to put up with questions about why she thought the Jews were responsible for their own deaths, in virtually every interview until she herself died” (p.192).  After Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was shunned by many former colleagues and friends, repeatedly accused of being an anti-Israel, self-hating Jew, “heartless and devoid of empathy . . . cold and indifferent” (p.192).  When her husband died in 1970, Arendt’s isolation increased.  She was again in exile, this time existential, which surely enhanced her emotional attachment to Heidegger, the sole remaining link to the world of her youth.

* * *

Arendt’s ardent post-war defense of Heidegger, while generating little of the brouhaha that surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem, is also a critical if puzzling piece in understanding her legacy.  Should we consider the continuation of her relationship with Heidegger as the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, an enduring schoolgirl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel?  Heberlein’s earnest biography points us inescapably in this direction.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 12, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog  maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Filed under History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Deciphering a Confounding Thinker

 

 

Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil:

A Life in Five Ideas (University of Chicago Press)

 

Simone Weil is considered today among the foremost twentieth-century French intellectuals, on par with her luminous contemporaries Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. And yet she was not widely known when she died at age 34 in 1943. Although she wrote profusely, only small portions of her writings were published during her lifetime. Much of her written work was left in private notebooks and published posthumously. It was only after the Second World War, as Weil’s writings increasingly came to light, that a comprehensive picture of her thinking emerged —comprehensive without necessarily being coherent. In The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky attempts to provide this coherence.

Indeed, Weil was a confounding thinker whose body of thought and the life she lived seem awash in contradictions. As Zaretsky notes at the outsetWeil was:

an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, [and] the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self (p.2).

 Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the Anglophone world’s most fluent writers on French intellectual and cultural history, aims not so much to dispel these contradictions as to distill Weil’s intellectual legacy, contradictions and all, into five core ideas encapsulating the body of political, social, and theological thought she left behind. These five ideas are: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness—each the object of a separate chapter.

Unsurprisingly, these five Weilian ideas are far more intricate and multi-faceted than the single words suggest, and they are inter-related, with what Zaretsky terms “blurred borders” (p.14).  Moreover, the five ideas are presented in approximate chronological order: the first three chapters on affliction, attention, and resistance concern mostly Weil in the 1930s; while the last two on rootedness and goodness primarily cover her wartime years from 1940 to 1943—her most productive literary period.

Each chapter can be read as a standalone essay, and Zaretsky would likely discourage us from searching too eagerly for threads that unite the five into an overarching narrative. But there is one connecting thread which provides context for the apparent contradictions in Weil’s life and thought: collectively, the five ideas tell the story of Weil’s transformation from an exceptionally empathetic yet otherwise conventional 1930s non-communist, left-wing intellectual—Jewish and secular—to someone who in her final years found commonality with conservative political and social thought, embraced Catholicism and Christianity, and was profoundly influenced by religious mysticism. Although not intended as a biography in the conventional sense, The Subversive Simone Weil begins with a short but helpful overview of Weil’s abbreviated life before plunging into her five ideas.

* * *

Weil was born in 1909 and brought up in a progressive, militantly secular bourgeois Jewish family in Paris. Her older brother André became one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished mathematicians. She graduated in 1931 from France’s renowned École Normale Supérieure, the same school that had accorded diplomas to Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron a few years earlier.  After ENS, she took three secondary teaching positions in provincial France, and also managed to find her way to local factories, where she taught workers in evening classes and with limited success did some of the hard factory work herself.

In 1936, Weil joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was briefly involved in combat operations before she inadvertently stepped into a vat of boiling cooking oil, severely injuring her foot. After she returned to France to allow her injury to heal, she had three seemingly genuine mystical religious experiences that set in motion what Zaretsky characterizes as rehearsals for her “slow and never quite completed embrace of Roman Catholicism” (p.134).  When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Weil and her parents caught the last train out of Paris for Marseille, where they stayed for almost two years before leaving for New York. While in Marseille, Weil was deeply influenced by Joseph-Marie Perrin, a nearly blind Dominican priest, and came close but stopped short of a formal conversion to Catholicism.

Weil left her parents in New York for London, where she joined Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, with ambitions that never materialized to return to France to battle the Nazis directly. While in London, her primary responsibility was to work on reports detailing a vision for a liberated and republican France. Physically frail most of her life, Weil suffered from migraines, and may have been on a hunger strike when she died of complications from tuberculosis in 1943, in a sanatorium south-east of London.

* * *

Malheur was Weil’s French term for “affliction.” This is the first of the five ideas that Zaretsky distills from Weil’s life and thought, in which we see Weil at her most political. Her idea of affliction appears to have arisen principally from her experiences working in factories early in her professional career.  Yet, affliction for Weil was the condition not just of factory workers, but of nearly all human beings in modern, industrial society—the “unavoidable consequence of a world governed by forces largely beyond our comprehension, not to mention our control” (p.36).  Affliction was “ground zero of human misery” (p.36), entailing psychological degradation as much as physical suffering.

The early Weil was attracted politically to anarcho-syndicalism, a movement that urged direct action by workers as the means to achieve power in depression-riddled 1930s France, with direct democracy of worker co-operatives as its end. In these years, Weil was an “isolated voice on the left who denounced communism with the same vehemence as she did fascism” (p.32), Zaretsky writes, comparing her to George Orwell and Albert Camus. With what Zaretsky describes as “stunning prescience” (p.32), she foresaw the foreboding consequences of totalitarianism emerging both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

Attention, sometimes considered Weil’s central ethical concept, involves how we see the world and others in it. But it is an elusive concept, “supremely difficult to grasp”  (p.46).  Attention was attente in French: waiting, which requires the canceling of our desires.  Attention takes place in what Zaretsky terms the world’s salle d’attente, its waiting room, where we “forget our own itinerary and open ourselves to the itineraries of others” (p.54).  Zaretsky sees the idea of attention at work in Weil’s approach to teaching secondary school students, where her emphasis was on identifying problems rather than finding solutions. She seemed to be telling her students that it’s the going there, not getting there, that counts. Although not discussed by Zaretsky, there are echoes of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship in Weil’s notion of attention.

Zaretsky refrains from terming the Spanish Civil War a turning point for Weil, but it seems to have been just that.  Her brief experience in the war, combined with a growing realization of the existential threat which the Nazis and their fascist allies posed to European civilization, prompted her to revise her earlier commitment to pacifism. This is one consequence of resistance—Zaretsky’s third idea — which aligned Weil with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who taught their followers to resist recklessness, panic and passion. For Weil, resistance was an affirmation that the “truly free individual is one who takes the world as it is and aligns with it as best they can” (p.64), as Zaretsky puts it. Weil’s Spanish Civil War experience also gave rise to a growing conviction that “politics alone could not fully grasp the human condition” (p.133).

Rootedness—the fourth idea—arises out of Weil’s visceral sense of having been torn from her native France.  Déracinement, uprooting, was the founding sentiment for The Need for Roots, her final work, in which she emphasized how the persistence of a people is tied to the persistence of its culture—a community’s “deeply engrained way of life, which bends but is not broken as it carries across generations” (p.99).  Rootedness takes place in a “finite and flawed community” and became for Weil the “basis for a moral and intellectual life.” A community’s ties to the past “must be protected for the very same reason that a tree’s roots in the earth must be protected: once those roots are torn up, death follows” (p.126).

There is no evidence that Weil read either the Irish Whig Edmund Burke or the German Romantic Johann Herder, leading conservatives of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Nonetheless, Zaretsky finds considerable resonance between Weil’s sense of rootedness and Burke’s searing critique of the French Revolution, as well as Herder’s rejection of the universalism of the Enlightenment in favor of preserving local and linguistic communities.  Closer to her own time, Weil’s views on community aligned surprisingly with those of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, two leading early twentieth-century French conservatives whose works turned on the need for roots. Zaretsky also finds commonalities between Weil and today’s communitarians, who reject the individualism of John Rawls.

But Weil also applied her views on rootedness to French colonialism, putting her at odds with her wartime boss in London, Charles de Gaulle, who was intent upon preserving the French Empire.  She perceived no meaningful difference between what the Nazis had done to her country—invaded and conquered—and what the French were doing in their overseas colonies.  Weil was appalled by the notion of a mission civilisatrice, a civilizing mission underlying France’s exertion of power overseas. It was essential for Weil that the war against Germany “not obscure the brute fact of French colonization of other peoples” (p.111).  Although Weil developed her idea of rootedness in the context of forced deportations brought about by Nazi conquests, she recognized that rootlessness can occur without ever moving or being moved. Drawing upon her idea of affliction, Weil linked this form of uprooting to capitalism and what the nineteenth-century English commentator Thomas Carlyle termed capitalism’s “cash nexus.”

Zaretsky’s final chapter on Goodness addresses what he terms Weil’s “brilliant and often bruising dialogue with Christianity” (p.134), the extension of her three mystical experiences in the late 1930s.  The battle was bruising, Zaretsky indicates, because as a one-time secular Jew Weil’s desire to surrender wholly to the Church’s faith ran up against her indignation at much of its history and dogma.  “Appalled by a religion with universal claims that does not allow for the salvation of all humankind,” Weil “refused to separate herself from the fate of unbelievers. Anathema sit, the Church’s sentence of banishment against heretics filled Weil with horror” (p.135).  Yet, in her final years, Catholicism became the “substance and scaffolding of her worldview” (p.34), Zaretsky writes.

But Zaretsky’s emphasis is less on Weil’s theological views than on how she found her intellectual bridge to Christianity through the ancient Greeks, especially the thought of Plato.  Ancient Greek poetry, art, philosophy and science all manifested the Greek search for divine perfection, or what Plato termed “the Good.”  For Weil, faith appears to have been the pursuit of Plato’s Good by other means. The Irish philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who helped introduce Weil to a generation of British readers in the 1950s and 1960s, explained that Weil’s tilt toward Christianity amounted to dropping one “o” from the Good.

* * *

Simone Weil was a daunting figure, intimidating perhaps even to Zaretsky, who avers that her ability to plumb the human condition “runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things” (p.38).  Zaretsky, however, takes his readers well below the surface of her body of thought in this eloquent work, producing a comprehensible structure for understanding an enigmatic thinker. His work should hold the interest of readers already familiar with Weil and those encountering her for the first time.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 31, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Digging Deeply Into The Idea of Democracy

 

James Miller, Can Democracy Work:

A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World

(Farrar, Strauss & Co.,) 

and

William Davies, Nervous States:

Democracy and the Decline of Reason

(WW Norton & Co.)

[NOTE: A condensed version of this review has also been posted to a blog known as Tocqueville 21: https:/tocqueville21.com/books/can-democracy-work.  Taking its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy, Tocqueville 21 seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The sight is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies.  I anticipate regular postings on Tocqueville 21 going forward.]

Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump?  Variants on this question, never far from the surface during that four-year presidency, took on terrifying immediacy in the wake of the assault on the US Capitol this past January. The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond.  If nothing else, the Trump presidency and now its aftermath bring home the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy, looking more closely at its history, theory, practice, and limitations, asking what are its core principles and what it takes to sustain them.  But we might shorten the inquiry to a single, pragmatic question: can democracy work?

This happens to be the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World.  But it could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written during the Trump presidency, fall short of providing definitive or even reassuring answers to the question that Miller, professor of politics and liberal studies at New York’s New School for Social Research, has taken for his title.  But each casts enriching yet altogether different light on democratic theory and practice.

Miller’s approach is for the most part historical. Through a series of selected – and by his own admission “Eurocentric” (M.12) — case studies, he explores how the term “democracy” has evolved over the centuries, beginning with ancient Athens.  The approach of Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is more difficult to categorize, but might be described as philosophical.  It is grounded in the legacy of 17th century philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, his departure point for a complex and not always easy to follow explanation of the roots of modern populism, that combustible mixture of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear that seemed to have triumphed at the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States later that year.  Davies is most concerned about two manifestations of the “decline of reason,” his subtitle: the present day lack of confidence and trust in experts and democratically elected representatives; and the role of emotion and fear in contemporary politics.

Miller frames his historical overview with a paradox: despite blatant anti-democratic tendencies across the globe, a generalized notion of democracy as the most desirable form of government retains a strong hold on much, maybe most, of the world’s population.  From Myanmar and Hong Kong to the throng that invaded the US Capitol in January, nearly every public demonstration against the status quo utilizes the language of democracy.  Almost all the world’s political regimes, from the United States to North Korea, claim to embody some form of democracy.  “As imperfect as all the world’s systems are that claim to be democratic,” Miller writes, in today’s world the ideal of democracy is “more universally honored than ever before in human history” (M.211).

But the near-universal adhesion to this ideal is relatively recent, dating largely from the period since World War II, when the concept of democracy came to embrace self-determination of populations that previously had lived under foreign domination.  Throughout most of history, democracy was associated with the danger of mob rule, often seen as a “virtual synonym for violent anarchy” (M.59).   Modern democracy in Miller’s interpretation begins with the 18thcentury French and American Revolutions.  Revolts against the status quo are the heart of modern democracy, he contends.  They are not simply blemishes on the “peaceful forward march toward a more just society” (M.10).  Since the early 19th century, representative government, where voters elect their leaders  — “indirect democracy” – has come to be considered the only practical form of democratic governance for populous nation-states.

* * *

But in 5th and 4th century BCE Athens, where Miller’s case studies begin, what we now term direct democracy prevailed.  More than any modern democracy, a community of near absolute equality existed among Athenian citizens, even though citizenship was tightly restricted, open only to a fraction of the adult male population.  Many of Athens’ rivals, governed by oligarchs and aristocrats, considered the direct democracy practiced in Athens as a formula for mob rule, a view that persisted throughout the intervening centuries.  By the late 18th century, however, a competing view had emerged in France that some sort of democratic rule could serve as a check on monarchy and aristocracy.

In revolutionary Paris in early 1793, in the midst of the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Condorcet led the drafting of a proposed constitution that Miller considers the most purely democratic instrument of the 18th century and maybe of the two centuries since.  Condorcet’s draft constitution envisioned a wide network of local assemblies in which any citizen could propose legislation.  Although not implemented, the thinking behind Condorcet’s draft gave impetus to the notion of representative government as a system “preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy” (p.M.86).

The debate in the early 19th century centered on suffrage, the question of who gets to vote, with democracy proponents pushing to remove or lesson property requirements for extending the franchise to ever-wider segments of the (male) adult population.  A cluster of additional institutions and practices came to be considered essential to buttress an extended franchise, among them free and fair elections, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and adherence to the rule of law.  But Miller’s 19th century case studies are instances of short term set backs for the democratic cause: the failure of the massive popular movement known as Chartism to extend the franchise significantly in Britain in the 1840s; and the 1848 uprisings across the European continent, at once nationalist and democratic, which sought representative political institutions and something akin to universal male suffrage, but failed everywhere but in France to extend the franchise.

In the second half of the 19th century, moreover, proponents of democracy found themselves confronting issues of economic freedom and social justice in a rapidly industrializing Europe.  Karl Marx, for one, whose Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, doubted whether democracy – “bourgeois democracy,” he termed it – could alleviate widespread urban poverty and the exploitation of workers.  But the most spectacular failure among Miller’s case studies was the Paris Commune of 1871, which collapsed into disastrous violence amidst tensions between economic and political freedom.  Ironically, the fear of violence that the Commune unleashed led to a series of democratizing political reforms throughout Europe, with the right to vote extended to more male citizens.  The organization of workers into unions and the rise of political parties complemented extension of the franchise and contributed to the process of democratization in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

In the United States, a case apart in Miller’s case studies, a genuinely democratic culture had taken hold by the 1830s, as the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized during his famous 1831-32 tour, ostensibly to study prison conditions.  As early as the 1790s, there was a tendency to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms for the American constitutional system, even though none of the drafters of the 1787 Constitution thought of himself as a democrat.  James Madison derided what he termed pure democracies, “which have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” (M.99).  The constitution’s drafters envisioned a representative government in which voters would select a “natural aristocracy,” as John Adams put it, comprising “men of virtue and talent, who would govern on behalf of all, with a dispassionate regard for the common good” (M.92).

The notion of a natural aristocracy all but disappeared when Andrew Jackson split Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party’s in two in his successful run for the presidency in 1828.  Running as a “Democrat,” Jackson confirmed that “democracy” from that point forward would be an “unambiguously honorific term in the American political lexicon” (M. 110), Miller writes.  It was during Jackson’s presidency that Tocqueville arrived in the United States.

Aware of how the institution of slavery undermined America’s democratic pretensions, Tocqueville nonetheless saw in the restlessness of Jacksonian America what Miller describes as a “new kind of society, in which the principle of equality was pushed to its limits” (M.115).  As practiced in America, democracy was a “way of life, and a shared faith, instantiated in other forms of association, in modes of thought and belief, in the attitudes and inclinations of individuals who have absorbed a kind of democratic temperament” (M.7).  Tocqueville nonetheless seemed to have had the Jacksonian style of democracy in mind when he warned against what he called “democratic despotism,” where a majority could override the rights and liberties of minorities.

Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to the US Congress that the United States enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” constitutes the beginning of the 20thcentury idea of democracy as a universal value, Miller argues.  But Wilson’s soaring faith in democracy turned out to be “astonishingly parochial” (M.176).  The post-World War I peace conferences in 1919 left intact the colonies of Britain and France, “under the pretext that the nonwhite races needed more time to become fully mature peoples, fit for democratic institutions” (M.190-91).

The Covenant of the League of Nations, the organization that Wilson hoped would be instrumental in preventing future conflict, “encouraged an expectation of self-determination as a new and universal political right” (M.191), even as the isolationist Congress thwarted Wilson’s plan for United States membership in the League.  For countries living under colonial domination, the expectation of self-determination was heightened after the more murderous World War II, particularly through the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Although a text without enforcement mechanisms, the declaration helped inspire human rights and independence movements across the globe.

Miller finishes by explaining why he remains attracted to modern attempts at direct democracy, resembling in some senses those of ancient Athens, particularly the notion of “participatory democracy” which influenced him as a young 1960s radical and which he saw replicated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement of ten years ago.  But direct democracy, he winds up concluding, is no more viable today than it was at the time of the French Revolution. It is not possible to create a workable participatory democracy model in a large, complex society.  Any “serious effort to implement such a structure will require a delegation of authority and the selection of representatives – in short the creation of an indirect democracy, and at some distance from most participants”  (M.232-33).

The Trump presidency, Miller argues, is best considered “not as a protest against modern democracy per se, but against the limits of modern democracy” (M.239).  Like Brexit, it expressed, in an “inchoate and potentially self-defeating” manner, a desire for “more democracy, for a larger voice for ordinary people” (M.240) – not unlike the participatory democracy campaigns of the 1960s.  At the time of Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Miller appreciated that he remained free to “protest a political leader whose character and public policies I found repugnant.”  But he realized that he was “also expected to acknowledge, and peacefully coexist with, compatriots who preferred Trump’s policies and personal style.  This is a part of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal democracy” (M.240)  —  a portentous observation in light of the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol.

Democracies, Miller concludes, need to “explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish” (M.234).  Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, this sounds much like an acknowledgement that present day populism is here to stay.  By an altogether different route, Davies reaches roughly the same conclusion.

* * *

Davies is far from the first to highlight the challenges to democracy when voters appear to abandon reason for emotion; nor the first to try to explain why the claims of government experts and elected representatives are met with increased suspicion and diminished trust today.  But he may be the first to tie these manifestations of the “decline of reason” to the disintegration of binary philosophical distinctions that Descartes and Hobbes established in the 17thcentury — Descartes between mind and body, Hobbes between war and peace.

For Descartes, the mind existed independently of the body.  Descartes was obsessed by the question whether what we see, hear, or smell is actually real.  He “treated physical sensations with great suspicion, in contrast to the rational principles belonging to the mind” (D.xiii).  Descartes gave shape to the modern philosophical definition of a rational scientific mind, Davies argues, but to do so, he had to discount sensations and feelings.  Hobbes, exhausted by the protracted religious Thirty Years War on the European continent and civil wars in England, argued that the central purpose of the state was to “eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence” (D.xiii).  If people don’t feel safe, Hobbes seemed to contend, it “doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands” (D.xvi).

Davies shows how Descartes and Hobbes helped create the conceptual foundation for the modern administrative state, fashioned by merchants who introduced “strict new rules for how their impressions should be recorded and spoke of, to avoid exaggeration and distortion, using numbers and public record-keeping” (D.xiii), not least for more efficient tax collection.  Using numbers in this pragmatic way, these 17th century merchants were the forerunners of what we today call experts, especially in the disciplines of statistics and economics, with an ability to “keep personal feelings separate from their observations” (D.xiii).

The conclusions of such experts, denominated and accepted as “facts,” established the value of objectivity in public life, providing a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common.  Facts provided by economists, statisticians, and scientists thus have what for Hobbes was a peace-building function; they are “akin to contracts, types of promises that experts make to each other and the public, that records are accurate and free from any personal bias or political agenda” (D.124), Davies explains.  But if democracy is to provide effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and disagreements, there must be “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize,” he warns. “Some things must be outside politics, if peaceful political disputes are to be possible” (D.62).

Davies makes the bold argument that the rise of emotion in contemporary politics and the inability of experts and facts to settle disputes today are the consequences of the break down of the binary distinctions of Descartes and Hobbes.  The brain, through rapid advances in neuroscience, rather than Descartes’ concept of mind, has become the main way we have come to understand ourselves, demonstrating the “importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making” (D.xii).  The distinction between war and peace has also become less clear-cut since Hobbes’ time.

Davies is concerned particularly with how the type of knowledge used in warfare has been coopted for political purposes. Warfare knowledge doesn’t have the luxury of “slow, reasonable open public debate of the sort that scientific progress has been built upon.”  It is “shrouded in secrecy, accompanied by deliberate attempts to deceive the enemy. It has to be delivered at the right place and right time” (D.124), with emotions playing a crucial role.  Military knowledge is thus weaponized knowledge.  Political propaganda has all the indicia of military knowledge at work for political advantage.  But so does much of today’s digital communication.  Political argument conducted online “has come to feel more like conflict” (D.193), Davies observes, with conspiracy theories in particular given wide room to flourish.

The upshot is that democracies are being transformed today by the power of feeling and emotion, in “ways that cannot be ignored or reversed” (D. xvii-xviii).  Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature “can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions”  (D.xiv).  While we can lament the decline of modern reason, “as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians” (D.xv), Davies suggests that we would do better to “value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions”  (D.xvii).

Yet Davies leaves unanswered the question whether there are there limits on the forms of fear, pain and anxiety to which democracy should give voice.  He recognizes the potency of nationalism as a “way of understanding the life of society in mythical terms” (D.87).  But should democracy strive to give voice to nationalism’s most xenophobic and exclusionary forms?  Nowhere does he address racism which, most social scientists now agree, was a stronger contributing factor to the 2016 election of Donald Trump than economic disparity, and it is difficult to articulate any rationale for giving racism a voice in a modern democracy.

In countering climate change skepticism, a primary example of popular mistrust of expert opinion and scientific consensus, Davies rejects renewed commitment to scientific expertise and rational argument – “bravado rationalism,” he calls it  — as insufficient to overcome the “liars and manipulators” (D.108) who cast doubt on the reality of climate change.  But he doesn’t spell out what would be sufficient. The book went to press prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Were Davies writing today, he likely would have addressed similar resistance to expert claims about fighting the pandemic, such as the efficacy of wearing masks.

Writing today, moreover, Davies might have used an expression other than “barbarians storming the citadel of truth,” an expression that now brings to mind last January’s assault on the US Capitol.  While those who took part in the assault itself can be dealt with through the criminal justice process, with all the due process protections that a democracy affords accused law breakers, an astounding number of Americans who did not participate remain convinced that, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.

* * *

How can a democracy work when there is widespread disagreement with an incontrovertible fact, especially one that goes to democracy’s very heart, in this case the result of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power after an orderly election?  What if a massive number of citizens refuse to accept the obligation that Miller felt when his candidate lost in 2016, to acknowledge and peacefully coexist with the winning side?  Davies’ trenchant but quirky analysis provides no obvious solution to this quandary.  If we can find one, it will constitute an important step in answering the broader question whether American democracy survived the Trump presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 17, 2021

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, United States History

Papa Franz’ Columbia Circle

 

Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air:

How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender

In the Twentieth Century (Doubleday)

 

A book billed as an inside look at the anthropology department of Columbia University from the 1890s through the 1940s seems unlikely to send readers scurrying for a copy.  But readers might be inclined to scurry if they knew that in this timeframe, a small circle of anthropologists associated with Columbia essentially rewrote the books on anthropology and more generally on human nature, giving shape to modern ways in which we think about issues of race, sex and gender, along with what we mean by culture and how we might understand people living in societies very different from our own.  These epic transformations in thinking and the anthropologists behind them constitute the subject of Charles King’s engaging Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender In the Twentieth Century.

King’s work revolves around Franz Boas (1856-1942), who taught in Columbia’s anthropology department off and on from 1887 through the late 1930s, and three of his star students, all female: Margaret Mead (1901-1978), Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), and Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960).   The cantankerous Papa Franz, as he was known, was a German immigrant who made a career of warning against jumping from one’s own “culture-bound schemas to pontificating about the Nature of Man” (p.247), as King puts it.  More than any other intellectual of his era, Boas attacked the pseudo-science that seemed to support society’s deepest prejudices, jousting frequently with late 19th and early 20th century racial theorists who “confidently pronounced that they had all of humanity figured out” (p.247).

Mead and Benedict are today better known than Boas, often thought of together as 20th century pioneers in anthropology and the social sciences. Mead gained fame for her studies of adolescent girls in far-flung places, and how they formed their attitudes toward sex and gender roles.  Benedict almost singlehandedly refined and redefined how we think about the word  “culture,” coining the term “cultural relativity.”  But the two pioneering anthropologists also enjoyed an intimate personal relationship throughout much of their adult lives, even as Mead regularly ran through and disposed of husbands.  King provides probing detail on the Mead-Benedict relationship and the many men in Mead’s complex personal life.   Hurston, African American, was a talented novelist, poet and essayist as well as anthropologist.  Although she lacked Mead or Benedict’s public profile in her lifetime, she has vaulted since her death into the upper echelon of 20th century African-American intellectuals, especially after being “rediscovered” by the poet and novelist Alice Walker in 1975.

King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, ably captures how Papa Franz and his circle of renegade anthropologists used Columbia as a point of departure while traveling to the furthest reaches of the globe to develop their insights on human nature and human cultures.  While their insights varied, the four Columbia anthropologists all saw humanity as an indivisible whole.  They put into practice the notion that we can best understand other societies with a data driven methodology, where conclusions are always subject to refinement and change.  Social categories, such as race and gender, they agreed, should be considered artificial, the products of “human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society” (p.10).  For all four, the “most enduring prejudices” were the “comfortable ones, those hidden up close; seeing the world as it is requires some distance, a view from the upper air” (p.345).

To the personal stories and professional thinking of Columbia’s renegade anthropologists, King deftly adds rich detail on their cohorts and contemporaries and the times in which they all lived.  The resulting work, written in a mellifluous style, is at once riveting yet surprisingly easy to understand – ample reason to scurry for a copy.

* * *

Franz Boas was born in 1856 into an assimilated Jewish family in Prussia, before Germany had become a unified country.  At age 28, he set out to study migration patterns of the Inuit, the indigenous people on Baffin Island in the Artic.  Boas actually lived among the Inuit people, a novelty for his time. When he put together his conclusions from his time on the island, he began using the German word Herzenbildung, the “training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another” (p.30), a notion that would shape his overall approach to anthropology over the next sixty years.

Boas immigrated to the United States in 1884, primarily to pursue his love interest in his future wife, Austrian American Marie Krackowizer.   Anthropology was then a term, King explains, that people were beginning to use for the combination of travel, artifact collection, language learning, and bone hunting.  But for Boas, anthropology was a data-driven discipline, a form of social science.  More than his peers, Boas emphasized the relationship between the data and the practitioner. “What counted as social scientific data – the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes – was relative to the worldview, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves” (p.71).   A good anthropologist had to be committed to the critical refinement of his or her own experience in light of data gathered.  That was the “whole point of purposefully throwing yourself into the most foreign and remote of places. You had to gather things up before you refined them down” (p.247).

Boas’s penchant for following the data put him on what King describes as a “collision course with his adopted country’s most time-honored way of understanding itself, a cultural obsession that Europeans and Americans had learned to call race” (p.77).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the concept of race was central to the field of anthropology, part of an “unshakable natural order” (p.79).  Humans had races in the same way that other animals had stocks or pedigrees.  A person’s lips, hair texture, nose or head shape, and skin tone all confirmed the multiplicity of human races, arranged in a sort of pyramid, with the white “races” of Northern and Western Europe and Protestant America at its apex.

Boas set forth his most comprehensive rejoinder to early 20th century race theories, purporting to be based on science, in his 1911 book, The Mind of Primitive Man.   Physical traits were a “poor guide to distinguishing advanced peoples from more backward ones” (p.100), Boas contended.  Not only was there “no bright line dividing one race from another, but the immense variation within racial categories called into question the utility of the concept itself” (p.101).  European success in exploiting resources in Africa and American success in settling the North American continent were not due to some inherent superiority on the part of the people typically called “civilized.”  Chance and time could be “equally good explanations for disparities in achievement” (p.100), he suggested.

Our ideas about race are themselves products of history, Boas implied, a “rationalization for something a group of people desperately want to believe”(p.106).  The pseudo-scientific racial theories that abounded in early 20th century Europe and America helped convince people that they are “higher, better and more advanced than some other group.  Race was how Europeans [and Americans] explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement” (p.106).  For Boas, the spread of Europeans overseas during the age of exploration and the establishment of empires across the lands they conquered may have “cut short whatever material and cultural development had been in process there” (p.100).

Boas died in 1942, a time when racial theories emanating from his native Germany, then in the throes of Nazi rule, were being applied to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  On the day he died, he purportedly told a refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris, “We should never stop repeating the idea that racism is a monstrous error and an impudent lie” (p.316).  Among Boas’ disciples, Margaret Mead was considered his closest intellectual heir.  Through Mead, Boas’ core ideas “lived on and spread to a broader audience than Papa Franz ever could have dreamed” (p.338), King writes.

Mead, who grew up in a highly educated Philadelphia family, graduated in 1923 from Barnard, Columbia’s “sister” school.  From there, she became one of the first women to enroll in Papa Franz’ fiefdom,  Columbia’s graduate program in anthropology.  Under Boas’ guidance, Mead charted a “new way of doing anthropology itself” (p.148).  She “wanted to know about peoples’ lives: how they thought about childhood and aging, what it meant to be an adult, what they thought of as sexual pleasure, whom they loved, when they felt the sting of public humiliation or the gnawing sickness of private shame” (p.148).  What set Mead apart from her peers was that she determined to do this with the “invisible mass of people whom anthropologists . . . always seemed to miss – women and girls” (p.148).

After completing her dissertation, Boas suggested that Mead conduct first-hand field research, much as he had done as a young man on Baffin Island, and pointed her to American Samoa, a United States territory in the South Pacific.  Mead spent much of her time on three villages on the remote island of Ta’u.  The point of examining Samoa was to “see the schemes that people halfway around the world, in a very different environment, climate, and culture, had devised for rendering children into adults” (p.163).  To understand the lives, fears, passions, and worries of adolescent girls, Mead spent her time talking directly to them, the “true experts of the crisis of adolescence” (p.167).

The result of Mead’s study of adolescent girls in the Ta’u villages was Coming of Age in Samoa.  The book’s basic claim was that the Samoans of Ta’u “did not conceive of adolescence in precisely the same way that Americans tended to see it,” (p.167).  Samoan girls knew as much about sex as their counterparts in New York, probably more, Mead found.  But she observed no real sense of romantic love, inextricably linked in Western societies with monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy, and undeviating fidelity.

Growing up in New Guinea, Mead’s sequel to Coming of Age in Samoa, appeared in 1930, before she was 30.  Given her frank discussions of sex and her “refusal to acknowledge the self-evident superiority of Western Civilization,” Mead was already considered an “outspoken, even scandalous public scientist” (p.185).  Seemingly overnight, she had become “one of the country’s foremost experts on the relevance of the most remote parts of the globe for understanding what was happening back home” (p.185).  From that point until her death in 1978, Mead was the “face of her discipline, the epitome of an engaged scholar,” even though other academics considered her “somehow outside the mainstream” (p.340).  King summarizes Mead’s core idea as a full recognition of women as human beings, “with the power to choose whatever social roles they wanted – mothers and caretakers as well as anthropologists and poets” (p.339).

As a young woman, Mead had enrolled in Columbia’s graduate program in anthropology at the urging of Ruth Benedict, fourteen years Mead’s senior and already a respected anthropologist.  Benedict served initially as Mead’s teacher, mentor and intellectual anchor.  Thereafter, their relationship evolved into something more intimate and decidedly more complicated.  But it was never quite the relationship Benedict hoped for.

Before she arrived at Columbia, Mead had married Luther Cressman, then a theology student and later an Episcopalian minister.  By the time Boas suggested she travel to American Samoa, Mead was having an affair with a prominent Canadian anthropologist, Edward Sapir, a former student of Boas, even though she was then finding herself increasingly attracted to Benedict.  Another dashing male lover later replaced Sapir, with Benedict serving as what might be unceremoniously described as Mead’s “backup.”  At least two other men subsequently swept Mead away. The players may have been different for Mead in the often cruel game of love, King writes, but it was always the same script, with Mead returning to Benedict until the next Mr. Right Now came along.  Mead’s enduring but erratic love for Benedict, King suggests, underscores her life-long inability to “settle down to one kind of relationship, whether with one person or with one gender” (p.258).

Benedict was always disappointed when the object of her affection moved from one man to the next (there’s no indication of other women in Mead’s life).  But she was herself a formidable anthropologist who rose to be Boas’ chief assistant at Columbia and was primed to become the department chairman upon his retirement, only to have the position given to a man from outside the university.  Unlike Mead, who was most interested in how individuals function within the structures that a given society constructs, Benedict was a “big picture” theorist, fashioning some of anthropology’s most sweeping insights about those structures.

In her signature work, Patterns in Culture, published in 1934, which King describes as arguably the most cited and most taught work of anthropological grand theory ever” (p.267), Benedict argued that real analysis of human societies starts with discarding prior assumptions that one’s own way of seeing the world is universal.  Paying attention to broad patterns enables one to grasp what makes a society “both different from all others and intrinsically meaningful to itself – its way of seeing social life, custom, and ritual, of defining the goals and pathways of life itself” (p.265).  All societies, each with its own coherence and sense of integration that “allows for individuals inside that society to find the way from childhood to adulthood,” Benedict argued, are “just snippets of a ‘great arc’ of possible ways of behaving” (p.264).

During World War II, while in Washington working at the Office of War Information, Benedict wrote her final book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  Benedict was tasked with explaining Japan to America’s policy makers, part of an effort to understand the country’s enemy.  The standard view within the United States government was that the conflict in the Pacific, unlike that in Europe, was “nothing less than a struggle for racial dominance” (p.320).  The Japanese were considered inherently sneaky, treacherous, untrustworthy, and given to a fanatical allegiance to their country, whereas Germany was made up of essentially good people whose government had been hijacked by an evil clique.

Although she had no serious expertise in Japan, and no way to study Japanese culture first hand in wartime, Benedict aimed to counter the prevailing US government view of the Japanese.  The point of her title, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was that a society that had “delicate, refined ideas of beauty and creative expression could also value militarism, honor, and subservience” (p.327).  The work was made available to the general public in 1946.  In the years that followed, King notes, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword earned a “good claim to being the most widely read piece of anthropology ever written” (p.330).

Benedict wanted to go to Japan with the American occupation after the war, but was turned down as being too old and, likely, being female.  After an exhausting trip to Europe in 1948, Benedict, then age 61, died suddenly of a heart attack.  Over her long career,  King writes, Benedict  provided a “clearer definition than anyone before her of how social science could be its own design for living.”  She distilled what she had seen, where she had been, and what she was into a “code that was at once analytically sharp and deeply moral” (p.266).

While Zora Neale Hurston did not come close in her lifetime to achieving the high profile of Benedict and Mead, King suggests that this was due at least in part to the same racism that impeded all African-Americans in her time.  The “chasm of race,” he writes, “separated Hurston from the other members of the Boas circle, even at a time when Boas’ students were assiduously denying that race was a fundamental division in human societies” (p.293).

Hurston was born in Alabama but grew up in Central Florida.   All four of her grandparents had been slaves.   Like Mead, she enrolled at Barnard and from there found her way to Columbia’s anthropology department.  Simultaneously, Hurston became part of the African-American intellectual and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a “sweeping experiment in redefining blackness in a country that had been built on defining it for you,” (p.193), as King puts it.  She became close to many of its leading luminaries, particularly the poet Langston Hughes.

Hurston returned to her native Central Florida at a time when Ku Klux Klan terror was widespread.  A “fully formed yet unappreciated recipe for living as a human being seemed to be lurking in the dense pinelands and lakeshores of northern and central Florida” (p.201-02), King writes.  More than Mead or Benedict, Hurston “found her calling in fieldwork,” (p.201).  No member of the Boas circle could claim to have gone as deeply as Hurston into the “lived experience of the people she was trying to understand” (p.292).

The result of Hurston’s  work in Florida was Mules and Men, published in 1935.  Mules and Men  marked an unprecedented effort to send the reader “deep inside southern black towns and work camps – not as an observer but as a kind of participant” (p.212).  Boas wrote the book’s preface, describing it as the first attempt to understand the “true inner life of the Negro” (p212).   Mules and Men confirmed the “basic humanity of people who were thought to have lost it, either because of some innate inferiority or because of the cultural spoilage produced by generations of enslavement” (p.214).

Mules and Men appeared the same year as another of Mead’s major studies, Sex and Temperament.  The critics did not view the two works in equal terms. “Volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society,” King observes, whereas one about African Americans in the American South was a “quaint bit of storytelling” (p.275).  Hurston subsequently spent time in Jamaica and Haiti, producing significant works on voodoo and folklore, while she also churned out essays, short stories and novels.  King derived his title from a deleted chapter in Hurston’s 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks, where she wrote that the “gods of the upper air” had uncovered many new faces for her eyes.

Hurston died unheralded in 1960.  But in 1975, poet and novelist Alice Walker wrote an essay for Ms. magazine in which she recorded her efforts to retrace Hurston’s life journey.  Hurston, Walker wrote, was “one of the most significant unread authors in America.” (p.336). Walker’s essay marked the start of a Hurston revival that would “elevate her into the pantheon of great American writers, with an almost cult like following” (p.337). Today, King suggests, Hurston’s reputation arguably exceeds that of Langston Hughes and her other contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance.

* * *

Boas and the Columbia anthropologists in his circle steered human knowledge in a remarkable direction, King concludes, “toward giving up the belief that all history leads inexorably to us” (p.343).  They deserve credit for expanding  the range of people who should be “treated as full, purposive, and dignified human beings” (p.343).  But Boas would be the first to admit that expansion of  that range remains a work in progress.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 1, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

15 Comments

Filed under American Society, European History, Gender Issues, Intellectual History, Science

Deciphering Buber’s Judaism

 

 

Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber:

A Life of Faith and Dissent

(Yale University Press)

From the late 1890s through the mid-1960s, Martin Buber seemed to be in the middle of every public debate over what it meant to be Jewish and how one could be a good Jew in the modern world.  Although he resisted being labeled either a “theologian” or a “philosopher of religion,” Buber fashioned his own idiosyncratic version of Judaism, a version that rejected most traditional Jewish ritual.  He rarely observed Yom Kippur, and in general disdained the liturgical practices associated with the Jewish faith.  Buber rather spent his adult life searching for what he termed the “primal spirituality” of Judaism, all the while encouraging Jews to embrace people of other faiths.  Buber’s version of Judaism, sometimes referred to as “Jewish humanism,” sometimes more lightheartedly as “religious anarchism,” seemed to some of his critics geared to appeal more to Christians than to his fellow Jews.

I first encountered Buber in an undergraduate comparative religion course, where we were assigned his best-known work, “I-Thou,” generally thought to be the foundational text for what has come to be known as Buber’s “philosophy of dialogue.”  I remember thinking I was in way over my head in trying to decipher what seemed like a deeply serious but altogether inscrutable work.  Now, several decades later, Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has provided me with another chance to get a handle on Buber.  In his recent biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr charts Buber’s multifaceted intellectual journey, emphasizing how Buber’s thinking and writing evolved over the years.

Buber, a quintessential product of what the Germans call Mitteleuropa and its vibrant late 19th century Jewish culture, was born in Vienna in 1878.  He spent most of his youth in the city then known as Lemberg (today Lviv, part of Ukraine), at the time the capital of Galicia, a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a substantial Polish-speaking population.  But it was in Germany where Buber made his professional mark.

Buber lived through Germany’s defeat in World War I and its post-war experiment in democracy, the Weimar Republic.  He survived the early years of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime after it assumed power in Germany in 1933.   Although required as a Jew to cede a university position, Buber continued to write and speak in Germany as a highly visible spokesman for Judaism until 1938, when he fled with his family for Jerusalem, in what was then termed Palestine.  Jerusalem was his home base for the remainder of his life, but he traveled extensively in the post-World War II era, including numerous trips to the United States, up to his death in 1965.  What was arguably the single most consequential event in Buber’s long life occurred in Vienna at age three.

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Buber’s parents separated and his mother eloped with a Russian military officer when he was three years old.  The young Buber witnessed his mother leaving, but she did not bid him farewell and he did not see her again.  Buber never recovered entirely from this early childhood trauma. Images of motherhood appeared in his writings and speeches throughout his adult life, indicating that he was still feeling the “enduring impact” of yearning to be reunited with his “inaccessibly remote mother” (p.3), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.  After his parents’ breakup, young Martin moved to Lemberg, where he lived with his grandparents until his teenage years.

Solomon Buber, Martin’s grandfather, was a successful businessman who was also a recognized Jewish scholar and interpreter of Jewish texts. Solomon taught his grandson Hebrew and the panoply of rules and customs required in an observant Jewish household.  Buber’s subsequent rejection of much of formalized Judaism probably had its roots in a rebellion against his grandfather’s pedagogy.  At age 14, Buber moved back with his father, who by then had remarried and moved to Lemberg.  While the young Buber as an adolescent and young adult remained largely estranged from his grandfather, the two reconciled prior to Solomon’s death in 1906.

Although the emotional scars left from his mother’s early departure never left him, while a university student in Zurich in 1899 Buber fortuitously found the woman who would always be there for him, fellow student Paula Winkler.  One of the few women in the university, Winkler was from a Catholic family and considerably taller than the diminutive Buber.  Their romantic attachment quickly produced two daughters, born in July 1900 and July 1901.  Buber did not inform his father or grandparents of Paula or his daughters until after the couple married in April 1907 and Paula had converted to Judaism.  By then, grandfather Solomon had died.

Despite its unconventional beginnings, Buber’s marriage to Paula endured until her death in 1958, at age 81.  Throughout their years together, Paula served as her husband’s confidante, editor and general sounding board for much of the thinking that he put to paper or delivered to audiences, while doing much writing on her own.   Buber found in Paula, Mendes-Flohr writes, “not only the mother figure he longed for, but also a soul mate; they were bonded by both romantic love and their enduring intellectual and spiritual compatibility” (p.13-14).

When Buber first met Paula, he was already active in Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.  His attraction to Zionism was due in no small part to his relationship with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), often considered the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Buber initially saw Zionism as a way to maintain solidarity with his fellow Jews even as he rejected most communal Jewish religious practices.  The young Buber was fascinated with the idea of a Jewish renaissance and saw in Zionism a means to revitalize the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish people.   Zionism provided Buber and many young Jews of his generation with a “revolutionary, secular alternative for maintaining a Jewish national consciousness and solidarity” (p.22).

But Buber and Herzl had a personal falling out, and by 1905 Buber had ceased to be involved in Zionist activities.   He signed onto a letter that denounced the conventional Zionist vision of a future Jewish state arising in the ancient homeland as “aping Euro-Christian culture” while “utterly bereft of Jewish content” (p.38). For Buber, the movement had come to be based on what he termed the “bonds of blood alone” (p.88). Yet he still saw in Zionism a potential to “reintroduce contemporary Jews to the ‘Jewish spirit’” and to Judaism’s “spiritual and cultural resources” (p.32), becoming what Mendes-Flohr terms a “cultural” rather than  “political” Zionist.

The German experience in World War I further shaped Buber’s approach to Zionism. Like many Jews of his generation, Buber saw no conflict between his allegiance to Judaism and his allegiance to Germany.  That young Jews were joining the war ranks on equal terms with other Germans was initially a positive feature of the war effort for Buber, presenting an opportunity to bring about a higher degree of national unity.  But as the conflict endured, Buber came to oppose not only the war itself, but all forms of chauvinistic nationalism.

These views crystallized when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which it asserted its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  Buber’s opposition to the Declaration placed him at odds even with fellow cultural Zionists. If a Jewish state were to materialize in Palestine, he contended, it should be “for humankind . . . for the realization of Judaism” (p.115-16).  For the remainder of his life, Buber continued to criticize Zionism –and the State of Israel when it came into existence in 1948 — for what he  considered its “self-enclosed, parochial nationalism” (p.199).

Buber’s festering doubts over the Zionist project prompted him in 1919 to begin work on a manuscript that aimed to establish what he termed the “general foundations of a philosophical (communal and religio-philosophical) system to which I intend to devote the next several years” (p.131).  He was alluding to I and Thou (Ich-Du in the original German), the work with which Buber would be identified for the rest of his life and thereafter, first appearing in 1923 but not translated and published in English until 1937.

 I and Thou probed the ramifications of the German word Begegnung, meeting, which for Buber meant, in Mendes-Flohr’a words, an “interpersonal encounter between individuals that occurs in an atmosphere of mutual trust” (p.3).  Buber himself once wrote that “[a]ll real life is meeting” (p.3).  His call to engage the world in dialogue, our life with others, “also recognized the painful truth of how difficult it is to achieve, how often life’s journey is filled with mismeetings and the failure of I-Thou encounters to take place” (p.3-4).

Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” and his “philosophy of dialogue” can be understood only in relationship to “I-It,” the opposite of “I-Thou.”  These are Buber’s “two fundamental and dichotomous modes of relating to the world” (p.141), Mendes-Flohr explains..  The human person “achieves the fullness of being by experiencing both modes of existence” (p.262-63).  I-It entails the “physical, historical, and sociological factors that structure objective reality,” in other words the “labyrinthine world we often call ‘reality’” (p.262-63).  To attain the fullness of life, our relationships with other human beings cannot be based on an object — It — but on Thou, as an “automatous subject with a distinctive inner reality” (p.263), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.

As if to show the I-Thou principle in action, much of Mendes-Flohr’s narrative involves Buber’s exchanges with thinkers, colleagues and friends over the course of his long life, among them such luminaries as early Zionist visionary Herzl, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and David Ben-Gurion, modern Israel’s founding father who served as its first prime minister.  But his most influential exchanges were with two men whom he also considered  friends, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).  Landauer led Buber away from Judaism and into mysticism, while Rosenzweig took Buber out of mysticism and helped him reach what Mendes-Flohr considers his most mature understanding of the Jewish faith.

A leading early 20th century German anarchist, Landauer knew Buber from 1900 onward, although their friendship deepened as World War I broke out.  Landauer, who had by then withdrawn entirely from formal Judaism, helped steer Buber away from the nationalist sentiments he had entertained at the outbreak of the war.  Landauer imparted to Buber his interest in Christian mysticism and Buddhism, aiding Buber’s search for the “essential spiritual unity of all beings” (p.53).  Landauer was active in Kurt Eisner’s revolutionary coup d’etat in Bavaria in 1919 and was murdered by counter-revolutionaries in that conflict.   Buber was “deeply shaken by the tragic death of his friend; he viewed Landauer as a martyred idealist, a gentle anarchist who had sacrificed his life in a doomed effort to herald an era of politics without violence” (p.127).  Landauer was, in Mendes-Fllohr’s view, Buber’s ”intellectual and political alter ego” (p.51; he was also the paternal grandfather of American film-director Mike Nichols, born several years after his death).

Rosenzweig, eight years Buber’s junior, was already making his mark as an iconoclastic German philosopher when he first met Buber in Berlin in 1914.  Their friendship blossomed after 1920, not coincidentally after Landauer’s death (Rosenzweig had by then famously backed out at the last minute of a conversion to Christianity, discussed in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, reviewed here in 2017).  Mendes-Flohr credits Rosenzweig with helping Buber get past his infatuation with mysticism.  The pair undertook to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, a project that was both lingual and theological.  Their task was complicated when Rosenzweig contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known to Americans as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), which killed him in 1929.  Buber’s friendship with Rosenzweig led to what Mendes-Flohr considers the maturation of Buber’s understanding of Judaism, in which genuine spiritual renewal lies neither in “culture” nor “religion” but rather in the “lived everyday” (p.164).  The sensibility we sometimes call “faith,” Buber wrote, “cannot be constituted by the inwardness of one’s soul: it must manifest itself in the entire fullness of personal and communal life, in which the individual participates.” (p.209).

Buber also met several times after World War II with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  Although one of Germany’s most original and complex 20th century philosophers, Heidegger’s professional reputation was permanently tainted by his affinity for Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s.  Buber was aware that Heidegger had supported the Nazi regime and studiously avoided the “difficult questions attendant to Heidegger’s Nazi past” (p.281).  Heidegger for his part eagerly engaged with Buber, motivated by his desire to receive at least an implicit exculpation for his Nazi past.  Buber’s meetings with Heidegger tested his vision of reconciliation, “undoubtedly shaped by a Jewish theological sensibility that there can be no divine pardon for offenses against others until one has turned to one’s fellow human beings whom one has offended, and not only asked their forgiveness, but also adequately repented for the wrongs done to them” (p.286).

The Heidegger meetings failed to rise to the level of what Buber considered genuine dialogue, making reconciliation unattainable.  Buber and Heidegger entertained “divergent horizons of expectations” that reflected “very different conceptions of grace and atonement,” (p.285).  In a subsequent lecture, delivered in 1960, Buber argued that through his uncritical embrace of Nazism, Heidegger had neglected the interpersonal responsibility of one individual to the other, “even to a stranger who bears no name, allowing for the excessive celebration of ‘superpersonal’ social and political institutions in our ‘disintegrating human world’” (p.290; Heidegger’s post-World War II attempts at reconciliation with his former girl friend Hannah Arendt are analyzed in a work by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed here in 2013),.

In 1938, when he was 60 years old, Buber and his family immigrated to Palestine, where he began a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Although Jerusalem was  Buber’s home until his death in 1965, he was never fully at ease there.  His appointment at the Hebrew University was in “Philosophy of Society,” in which he was to draw upon the “principles and methods” of sociology.   With no formal training in sociology, Buber used his university position to stress sociology’s ethical dimensions, very much at odds with its general character as a value-free discipline.

When the State of Israel was created ten years later, in May 1948, a civil war broke out between Arab and Jews, leaving Buber aghast.  With his World War I era objections to the Balfour Declaration and political Zionism resurfacing, Buber wrote that when he had first joined the Zionist movement 50 years previously:

[M]y heart was whole. Today it is torn. The war being waged for a political structure might become a war of national survival at any moment. Thus against my will I participate in it with my own being, and my heart trembles like any other Israeli.  I cannot, however, even be joyful in anticipating victory, for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism (p.250).

Buber words were directed at least in part to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), with whom he had developed an odd friendship.  The pair disagreed upon almost every issue that Israel faced in its early days, starting with the fate of displaced Arabs, yet they were bound to one another by a deep reservoir mutual respect.  Buber lobbied Ben-Gurion in 1961 to spare the life of Adolph Eichmann after his capture in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem, to no avail (Deborah Lipstadt’s account of the Eichmann trial was the subject of a review here in 2013).

Buber subjected himself to searing criticism in Israel in 1951 when he accepted, in abstentia, the Goethe Prize from the University of Hamburg for his “promotion of supranational thinking and humanitarian endeavors in the spirit of Goethe” (p.270).  Many in Israel considered Buber’s acceptance of the prize as exonerating Germany for its extermination of six million Jews, contending that he should have ostentatiously refused the prize.  Buber responded that by rejecting the prize, he would “undercut the commendable efforts of those Germans ‘fighting for humanism’ and thereby play into the hands of their enemies, even to those guilty of mass murder” (p.271-72).  As a Jew and an Israeli citizen, Buber considered it his duty to “acknowledge (and thus encourage) the German advocates of a rededication to the humanistic tradition associated with Goethe” (p.272).

Then, in 1953, Buber came under further fire when he accepted a prize and gave a lecture in what had once been St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt, destroyed in the war and the city’s first public building to be rebuilt afterwards.   The building had not been used for religious purposes since 1848, a fact that was “ignored by or unknown to some of Buber’s Israeli critics, who excoriated him for speaking in a church” (p.276).  In his lecture, which was attended by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Huess, Buber acknowledged the vast pain and immeasurable suffering which the Nazi regime had inflicted upon his people.  Yet, he recognized that not all Germans had acquiesced in the Nazi horrors.  Some had resisted, others had assisted and protected endangered Jews. “Reverence and love for these Germans now fills my heart” (p.278), Buber told the audience.

Buber’s wife Paula, who never felt accepted in Jerusalem as a Jew despite her conversion, died unexpectedly in 1958 in Venice, where the couple had stopped en route back to Jerusalem after a tour in the United States that had included a stint for Buber at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  Paula was buried in the 13th century Jewish cemetery on the Lido.   Buber had a  difficult time resuming his work in the aftermath of his wife’s death.  In his twilight years, he “increasingly cherished friendships and visits, particularly by youth from abroad and Israel” (p.304).  On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 1963, Buber indicated to well wishers that he wanted to be remembered as a “naturally studying person,” someone  for whom “learning and study are an expression of human freedom” (p.320).  Two years later, at age 87, Buber died in his sleep in his Jerusalem home.

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Throughout his long career, Martin Buber’s idiosyncratic version of Judaism sought to sharpen the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow Jews while urging their expanded commitment to the larger family of humankind.  But with his  complex and often portentous thinking, Buber’s writings and lectures were never easy to grasp.  Paul Mendes-Flohr is therefore to be lauded for ably distilling Buber’s thought in this penetrating biography, a work that should appeal even to readers not schooled in Jewish history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 20, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Religion

Conservatives, Where Are They Coming From?

Roger Scruton, Conservatism:

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

(St. Martin’s Press)

Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition should be read in tandem with Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, reviewed here earlier this month.  Scruton, a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature who currently teaches at the University of Buckingham, has produced a work much like that of Rosenblatt, an erudite yet eminently readable piece of intellectual history.  Whereas Rosenblatt’s work centers on the etymology of the word “liberal,” Scruton focuses on what he terms the “tradition” of conservatism — but that may be a distinction without a difference.

The journey that Scruton takes his readers on overlaps at a surprising number of junctures along the way with people and places highlighted in Rosenblatt’s work, including a focus on the same core countries: France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  Scruton’s work accords more attention to Great Britain than to the other three and might be considered first and foremost a portrayal of the British conservative tradition.  But Scruton locates the origins of that tradition in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Rosenblatt’s starting points for modern liberalism.

Modern conservatism, Scruton writes, began more as a “hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and philosophy in its own right” (p.33).  The relationship between liberalism and conservatism, he emphasizes, should not be thought of as one of “absolute antagonism” but rather of “symbiosis” (p.55).  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, liberals and conservatives sparred in various contexts over the implications and limitations of the revolution’s ideals of liberté and égalité and the management of change.  Conservative hesitations “began to crystallize as theories and policies” (p.33) as a necessary counter to what Scruton terms the “liberal individualism” that the French Revolution seemed to prioritize.

Liberal individualism leads to a belief in the “right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs” (p.6), Scruton writes.  In the eyes of conservatives, liberal individualism does not regard liberty as a “shared culture, based on tacit conventions” (p.6).  This perception runs counter to the liberalism that Rosenblatt depicts, in which liberals at least until World War II consistently grounded individual rights in the needs of the larger community.  But liberalism makes sense, Scruton contends,  “only in the social context that conservatism defends” (p.55), a proposition Rosenblatt would likely endorse.

In Scruton’s account, conservatism in the mid-19th century found its natural antithesis not in liberalism but rather in the cluster of movements known as “socialism,” movements that spoke for an emerging working class as the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.  For the remainder of the century and into the 20th, conservatives opposed socialist schemes to reform society from top to bottom, whether utopian,  evolutionary, revolutionary or dictatorial.  Scruton’s conservative tradition might therefore be thought of as a flashing yellow light for liberalism – slow down! – and a stark red light for socialism – – stop!!

With conservatism and socialism at odds from the start, one strand of conservatism aligned with what was termed “classical liberalism,” which favored free markets and generally unfettered industrial capitalism.  But another strand, termed “cultural conservatism,” found itself largely in agreement with much of the socialist analysis of the deleterious effects of capitalism.  This strand, which has proved surprisingly enduring, proposed culture as “both the remedy to the loneliness and alienation of industrial society, and the thing most under threat from the new advocates of social reform” (p.82).

Scrtuon, again like Rosenblatt, is at his best when he describes the conservative tradition during the 19th century.  He too seems to run low on fuel when moving into the 20th century, especially the post World War II era.  Readers may be disappointed to find, for example, no analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to modern conservatism, or the implications of Brexit and the “populism” which purportedly fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a term Scruton scrupulously avoids.

But these voids underscore what I suspect may be Scruton’s main if implicit point: that the key to understanding the conservative tradition lies more in an appreciation of conservative attitudes and dispositions than in comprehending discrete principles or the evolution of thinking over the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French Revolution.  Scruton acknowledges that conservatives have not always been good in defining or explaining their goals and notes wryly that they “suffer under a burden of disapproval, which they believe comes from their habit of telling the truth, but which their opponents ascribe either to ‘nostalgia’ for an old and misremembered way of life or a failure of compassion toward the new ways of life that are emerging to replace it” (p.154-55).

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Scruton begins by emphasizing the debt that modern conservatism owes to Aristotle, to the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the philosophies of such key 17th century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).  But modern conservatism received its first extended articulation in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, more than a year after the fall of the Bastille but prior to the execution of King Louis XVI and the advent of the Reign of Terror.  Burke (1729-1797), the Irish-born Whig Parliamentarian whom Scruton considers the “greatest of British conservative thinkers” (p.26), demonstrated in Reflections an “astonishing” ability to “see to the heart of things and to predict the way in which they are bound to go” (p.44).

Burke questioned the revolutionaries’ abstract faith in reason.  He favored a more particularized form of reasoning that emerges “through custom, free exchange and ‘prejudice’” (p.51). To Burke, the revolutionaries in France had failed to take account of the passions and sentiments that govern human character at least as much as reason.  The past to Burke was not something to be discarded and overcome, as the most radical of the revolutionaries seemed to maintain, but rather something to be built upon (among the radicals Burke had in mind was the American Thomas Paine, whose debates with Burke are ably captured in Yuval Levin’s work reviewed here in 2015).

Burke and his Reflections provided modern conservatism – or at least the British version – with a blueprint that defined its distinctive character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century: a “defence of inheritance against radical innovation, an insistence that the liberation of the individual could not be achieved without the maintenance of customs and institutions that were threatened by the single-minded emphasis on freedom and equality” (p.104).  To be sure, human societies must change over time, but only in the name of “continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have” (p.3).  Burkean conservatism should not therefore be mistaken for political reaction.

The most articulate of the reactionaries, diehard French lawyer and philosopher Joseph Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), defended the divine right of kings, advocated for restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and saw the Enlightenment as a an “insurrection against God” (p.69).  De Maistre spoke for a wide range of ultra-royalists, disaffected nobles and backward-looking Catholics who sought in essence to undo the whole Enlightenment project and restore all that had been swept away by the French Revolution.  Scruton sees in de Maistre’s thinking a “certain remorseless extremism” (p.69) which does not fit comfortably within the conservative tradition he depicts.  Since de Maistre’s time, Scruton argues, conservatism in France has “almost invariably” been connected with a “reverence for the Catholic faith and for France as bearing witness to that faith” (p.71).

In German-speaking lands in the early 19th century, the differences between liberalism and conservatism were placed in sharp focus by debates between the two greatest German-speaking political philsophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  Kant in many ways epitomized the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, placing the “freely choosing individual into the very center of his world view” and judging “all institutions and procedures in terms of that one idea” (p.56; in a work on the 18th century Enlightenment reviewed here in 2015, Anthony Pagden argued that Kant was the Enlightenment’s single most important thinker).

Hegel by contrast regarded Kant’s freely choosing self as an “empty abstraction. The self does not exist prior to society, but is created in society, through . . . custom, morality and civil association” (p.59).  Hegel found the “roots of legitimate order” (p.70) not only in custom but also in continuity and free association.  In Scruton’s phrase, Hegel “rescued the human individual from the philosophy of individualism” (p.66).

But as conservatives and liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century ruminated over the limitations to the French Revolution’s ideal of liberté , it fell to the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of France’s leading 19th  century liberals, to spell out conservative hesitations over the the revolutionary ideal of égalité.  Tocqueville’s views were shaped by his tour of the United States in the 1830s, as expressed in his classic work, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville considered equality among citizens to be the hallmark of American democracy, although he was aware that the institution of slavery undermined the country’s claims of equality.

Tocqueville wrestled with how equality might be reconciled with liberty in the “increasing absence of the diversity of power that had characterized traditional aristocratic regimes” (p.75).  For Tocqueville, unchecked pursuit of equality breeds loss of individuality that tends, as Scruton puts it, “towards uniformity, and begins to see the eccentric as a threat” (p.76).  Tocqueville was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment is in a position to override the rights of minorities.

Tocqueville was among those mid-19th century liberals who shared conservative anxieties over the rise of the diverse working class movements known as “socialist.”  Conservatives recoiled at what they perceived to be socialism’s “gargantuan schemes for a ‘just’ society, to be promoted by the new kind of managerial state” (p.104).  Socialism for conservatives seemed altogether indifferent if not hostile to the very traditions they revered, and was bent upon undermining the bonds among citizens that they regarded as the glue holding societies together.  Conservative opposition to socialism in all its forms hardened in the 20th century after Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, leading to a “tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France” (p.104).

One conservative response was to align with so-called “classical liberalism,” that strand within liberalism that championed free trade, market capitalism and economic laissez faire.  But not all conservatives found the answer to socialism in laissez faire economics.  Many saw free markets as altogether amoral, exalting individualism and financial profit above the needs of the community.  The “cultural conservatism” that emerged in the mid-19th century included a strong anti-capitalist strain, addressing concerns that the demographic changes brought about by industrialization had detached people from their religious and social roots.

Scruton finds a nascent cultural conservatism in Germany with the thinking of Johann Gottried von Herder (1744-1803), once a student of Immanuel Kant.  Herder posited culture, consisting of “language, custom, folk tales and folk religion,” as the element that “unites human beings in mutual attachment” (p.96).  Herder’s cultural conservatism, Scruton notes, became a “kind of political radicalism, influencing the revolutions of 1848,” in which German speakers “laid claim to a shared identity within boundaries that would bring them together as a single nation state” (p.97).  In Britain, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was among the earliest cultural conservatives.

Coleridge sought to infuse religion back into society, but was also a strong proponent of increased government assistance for the poor, thereby setting the agenda for “subsequent cultural conservatives who opposed unbridled free market economics” (p.83).  After Coleridge, the cultural conservative banner was carried by the poet and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900), the essayist Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and, in the 20th century, by the poems, plays and essays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and the religious reflections of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).  But Scruton’s analysis of the conservative tradition in 20th century Britain revolves primarily around the thinking of three key theorists: lawyer and legal historian Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), a transition figure from 19th to 20th century conservatism; the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1993), who almost single handedly kept the argument for free market capitalism alive in the mid-20th century; and the complex and often enigmatic political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) who — also almost single handedly — was able to maintain the academic respectability of conservatism in post-World War II Britain.

* * *

In a series of posthumously published lectures, The Constitutional History of England (1908), Maitland contended that the foundations for liberty in Britain lay not in the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but in the English common law and the tradition of parliamentary representation.   Limited government,  he maintained, had been the rule rather than the exception in England from medieval times onward.  The rights claimed by Britain’s 17th and 18th century theorists in Maitland’s view had always been implied in the English common law.

Half a century later, Hayek linked Maitland’s insights into the English common law with his case for unfettered free market capitalism – for “classical” liberalism — as a further argument against centralized government planning.  In a work published in 1960, The Constitution of Liberty, his second best known work after his 1944 best seller, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek portrayed the English common law as the “heart of English society,” living proof that justice resides in the “transactions between freely associating people and not in the plans of sovereign power” (p.110).  Just as the free market is an example of a “spontaneous order, which arises by an invisible hand from free association,” generating solutions to economic problems “of its own accord,” the common law also generates a “spontaneous legal order, which, because it grows from particular solutions to particular conflicts, inherently tends to restore society to a state of equilibrium” (p.107-08).

Oakeshott attacked the murderous collectivist ideologies of the 20th century — communism, fascism and Nazism — but a part of his argument also applied to Britain and democracies generally: the damage done when politics is directed from above.  Oakeshott mounted an assault on what Scruton terms the “dirigisme” that entered British politics after World War II, in which the state would “manage” not only the economy, but also education, poverty relief, housing, employment, “just about anything on which the well-being and security of the people might seem to depend” (p.114).  Scruton goes on to note that Oakeshott utilized his position as a professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics (where Hayek also taught) to “build up a network of sympathetic students and colleagues.”  For a while,  the LSE politics department “became a center of conservative resistance to the prevailing socialist consensus” (p.115).

This passage hit me like a thud.  In the late 1960s, I was fortunate to participate in this Oakeshott-led program in political philosophy, which I considered at the time to be a stimulating but relatively obscure academic enterprise.  Scruton even mentions the contributions to conservative thought of my advisor that year – termed “tutor” at LSE – Elie Kedourie, and those of Professor Kenneth Minogue, who was my instructor for an in-depth course on Thomas Hobbes.  In Scruton’s view, Oakeshott’s program in political thought at the LSE bore some resemblance to that of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the same time period – although it is easier to say “Straussian” than “Oakeshottian” (Strauss and the influence of the Straussians were the subject of a review here in 2015).  None of this even remotely registered with me during an otherwise memorable year at LSE.

But overall, British conservatism since World War II for Scruton has been at best a “fragmentary force on the edge of intellectual life, with little or no connection to politics” (p.127).   Conservatism as the antithesis of socialism and Bolshevism more or less fell with the Berlin wall, and it has had difficulty establishing new moorings.  Today, British conservatism’s main enemies in Scruton’s view are religious extremism, especially an “armed and doctrinaire enemy, in the form of radical Islam” (p.148), the emerging orthodoxy of multi-culturalism, and “political correctness,” that “humorless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising” (p.128).  Not by accident, recent intellectual conservatism in Britain has been buttressed by many immigrant voices.  It is the “privilege of the immigré,” Scruton writes, to “speak without irony of the British Empire and of the unique culture, institutions and laws that have made Britain the safe place of refuge for so many in a smoldering world” (p.131).

* * *

The hesitations that are baked into the conservative tradition that Scruton depicts have doubtless served as useful checks on liberal enthusiasm over the past two centuries.  But readers may leave Scruton’s work wondering how these  hesitations fit into today’s cantankerous political debates.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 19, 2020

 

4 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome

To the Twenty-First Century

(Princeton University Press) 

             If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month,  you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention.  But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.”  These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265).  American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?

Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:

People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).

Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.

The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character.  Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9).  During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.

Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other.  These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).

Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States.  France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3).  More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue.  The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany.  But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or  dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.

From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.”  For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4).  People have rights because they have duties.  Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4).  Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4).  The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.

Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term.  Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage.  Voting was a trust, not a right.  Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule.  Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became  synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”

While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal).  But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.

Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute?  Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty?  This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.

* * *

With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant).  The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre.  As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.”  Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted.  Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).

Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state.  Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66).  A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed.  Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.

Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état.  They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family.  They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful.  Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community.  In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68).  English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism.  For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).

Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the  bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe.  Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël.  Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism.  He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities.  But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals).  Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).

Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist.  Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103).   The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor.  They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth .  They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226).   French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).

But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck.   Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability.  Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).

Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222).  Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222).  Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny.  They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226).  On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.

* * *

During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258).  Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized.  Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.

Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life.  By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).

The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism.  But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261).  American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had.  Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.”  American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).

Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism.  He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261).  For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.

In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism.  Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller.  Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom.  “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism.  “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.

Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning).  During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.”  To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”

* * *

The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271).  Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good.  Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271).  In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273).   Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).

Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete.  A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 7, 2020

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

A Time for New Thinking

 

Arthur Haberman, 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast

(Wildred Lurier University Press) 

 

            Anxiety reigned in Europe in 1930.  The Wall Street stock market crash of the previous October and the ensuing economic crisis that was spreading across the globe threatened to undo much of the progress that had been made in Europe after recovering from the self-inflicted catastrophe of World War I.  A new form of government termed fascism was firmly in place in Italy, based on xenophobic nationalism, irrationality, and an all-powerful state.  Fascism seemed antithetical in just about every way to the universal, secular and cosmopolitan values of the 18th century Enlightenment.  In what was by then known as the Soviet Union, moreover, the Bolsheviks who had seized control during World War I were firmly in power in 1930 and were still threatening, as they had in the immediate post-war years, to spread anti-capitalist revolution westward across Europe.  And in Germany, Adolph Hitler and his unruly Nazi party realized previously unimaginable success in legislative elections in 1930, as they challenged the fragile Weimar democracy.  But if anti-democratic political movements and economic upheavals made average citizens across Europe anxious in 1930, few foresaw the extent of the carnage and destruction that the next 15 years would bring. Things were about to get worse — much worse.

In 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast, Arthur Haberman, professor of history and humanities at York University, seeks to capture the intellectual and cultural zeitgeist of 1930. “What makes 1930 such a watershed is that rarely have so many important minds worked independently on issues so closely related,” Haberman writes. “All argued that something was seriously amiss and asked that people become aware of the dilemma” (p.1).  Haberman focuses on how a handful of familiar thinkers and artists expressed the anxiety that their fellow citizens felt; and how, in different ways, these figures foreshadowed the calamities that lay ahead for Europe.  There are separate chapters on Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Ortega y Gasset, Bertolt Brecht, and Sigmund Freud, each the subject of a short biographical sketch.  But each either published a major work or had one in progress in the 1929-31 time frame, and Haberman’s sketches revolve around these works.  He also includes two lesser known sisters, Paulette and Jane Nardal, two Frenchwomen of African descent who promoted writing that expressed identity and solidarity between blacks in Europe, the Americas and Africa.  Another chapter treats the visual arts in 1930, with a dissection of the various schools and tendencies of the time, among them surrealism, cubism, and fauvism.

But before getting to these figures and their works, Haberman starts with a description of an unnamed, composite European middle class couple living in a major but unidentified city in one of the World War I belligerents.  With all the maimed young men walking the streets using canes and crutches, the “metaphor of sickness and a need to be healed was part of everyday life” (p.7) for the couple.  The couple’s unease was “mirrored by the intellectuals they admired, as they all grappled with what Europe had become and where it was heading” (p.15).

In an extensive final chapter, “Yesterday and Today,” and an Epilogue, “”Europeans Today” — together about one quarter of the book — Haberman assigns himself the herculean task of demonstrating the continued relevance of his figures in contemporary Europe.   Here, he seeks to summarize European anxiety today and the much-discussed European crisis of confidence, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn.  It’s an overly ambitious undertaking and the least successful portion of the book.

The key figures Haberman portrays in the book’s first portions were a diverse lot, and it would be an uphill task to tie them together into a neat conceptual package. But if there is a common denominator linking them, it is the specter of World War I, the “Great War,” and the reassessment of Western civilization that it prompted.  The Great War ended the illusion that Europe was at the forefront of civilization and introduced “deep cultural malaise” (p.6).  The “so-called most civilized people on earth committed unprecedented a carnage on themselves” (p.36).  It was thus necessary to think in new ways.

Haberman identifies a cluster of related subjects that both represented this new thinking and heightened the anxiety that average Europeans were sensing about themselves and their future in 1930. They include: the viability of secular Enlightenment values; coming to terms with a darker view of human nature; the rise of the politics of irrationality; mass culture and its dangers; fascism as a norm or aberration; identity and the Other in the midst of Western Civilization; finding ways to represent the post war world visually; and dystopian trends of thought.  The new thinking thus focused squarely on what it meant to be European and human in 1930.

* * *

            None of the figures in Haberman’s study addressed more of these subjects in a single work than the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset, whose Revolt of the Masses appeared in 1930.  Here, Ortega confronted the question of the viability of liberal democracy and the durability of the Enlightenment’s core values.  Ortega emphasized liberal democracy’s potential for irrationality and emotion to override reason in determining public choices.  He described a new “mass man” who behaved through “instinct and desire,” could be “violent and brutal” (p.55), and “will accept, even forward, both political and social tyranny” (p.53).  Ortega referred to Bolshevism and Fascism as “retrograde and a new kind of primitivism” (p.54).  The two ideologies, he concluded, gave legitimacy to the brutality he saw cropping up across Europe.

Although Ortega posited a dark view of human nature, it was not far from what had been apparent in the works of Sigmund Freud for decades prior to 1930.  Freud, whom Haberman ranks on par with Einstein as the most famous and influential intellect of his time, was 74 years old in 1930.  Although ill with throat cancer that year, Freud used an extended essay, Civilization and its Discontents, to reflect upon the conscious and unconscious, on sanity, insanity, and madness, and on the contradictions we live with.  His reflections became “central to how humans understood themselves as individuals and social beings” (p.143).

Culture and civilization are more fragile than we had thought, Freud contended. We must constantly reinforce those things that keep civilization going: “the limitations on our sexual life, the rule of law, the restrictions on our aggressive nature, and the hopeless commandment to love our neighbors, even if we don’t like them” (p.150).  The insights from Civilization and its Discontents and Freud’s other works were used in  literature, art and the study of religion, along with philosophy, politics and history.  These insights – these Freudian insights — opened for discussion “matters that had been sealed” (p.162), changing the way we think about ourselves and our nature.  Freud “tried to be a healer in a difficult time,” Habermas writes, one who “changed the discourse about humans and society forever” (p.162).

Virginia Woolf claimed she had not read Freud when she worked on The Waves, an experimental novel, throughout 1930.  The Waves nonetheless seemed to echo Freud, especially in its idea that the unconscious is a “layer of our personality, perhaps the main layer.  All of her characters attempt to deal with their inner lives, their perceptions” (p.44). In The Waves, Woolf adopted the idea that human nature is “very complex, that we are sometimes defined by our consciousness of things, events, people and ourselves, and that there are layers of personality” (p.43).  There are six different narrative voices to The Waves.  The characters sometimes seem to meld into one another.

Woolf had already distinguished herself as a writer heavily invested in the women’s suffragette movement and had addressed  in earlier writings how women can achieve freedom independently of men.  Haberman sees Woolf as part of a group of thinkers who “set the stage for the more formal introduction of existentialism after the Second World War . . . She belongs not only to literature but to modern philosophy” (p.46).

With Mario and the Magician, completed in 1930, novelist Thomas Mann made his first explicit foray into political matters.  Mann, as famous in Germany as Woolf was in Britain, suggested in his novel that culture and politics were intertwined in 1930 as never before.  By that year, Mann had become an outspoken opponent of the Nazi party, which he described as a “wave of anomalous barbarism, of primitive popular vulgarity” (p.29).  Mario and the Magician, involving a German family visiting Italy, addressed the implications of fascism for Italy and Europe generally.

Like Ortega, Mann in his novel examined the “abandonment of personality and individual responsibility on the part of the person who joins the crowd” (p.24).  Like Freud, Mann saw humanity as far more irrational and complicated than liberal democracy assumed.  The deified fascist leader in Mann’s view goes beyond offering simply policy solutions to “appeal to feelings deep in our unconscious and [tries] to give them an outlet” (p.24).  Mann was in Switzerland when the Nazis assumed power in 1933.  His children advised him not to return to Germany, and he did not do so until 1949.  He was stripped of his German citizenship in 1936 as a traitor to the Reich.

Still another consequential novel that appeared in 1930, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, was one of the 20th century’s first overtly dystopian works of fiction, along with Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (both influenced George Orwell’s 1984, as detailed in Dorian Lynskey’s study of Orwell’s novel, reviewed here last month).   Brave New World used “both science and psychology to create a future world where all are happy, there is stability, and conflict is ended” (p.132).  The dystopian novel opened the question of the ethics of genetic engineering.   In 1930, eugenics was considered a legitimate branch of science, a way governments sought to deal with the undesirables in their population, especially those they regarded as unfit.  Although bioethics was not yet a field in 1930, Huxley’s Brave New World made a contribution to its founding.  Huxley’s dystopian work is a “cautionary tale that asks what might happen next.  It is science fiction, political philosophy, ethics, and a reflection on human nature all at once” (p.132).

Haberman’s least familiar figures, and for that reason perhaps the most intriguing, are the Nardal sisters, Paulette and Jane, French citizens of African descent, born in Martinique and living in 1930 in Paris.  The sisters published no major works equivalent to Civilization and Its Discontents or Revolt of the Masses.  But they founded the highly consequential La Revue du Monde Noir, a bi-lingual, French and English publication that featured contributions from African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, along with French-language intellectuals.   Writings in La Revue challenged head-on the notions underlying French colonialism.

Although France in 1930 was far more welcoming to blacks than the United States, the French vision of what it meant to be black was, as Haberman puts it, a “colonialist construction seen through the eyes of mainly white, wealthy elites” (p.89) that failed to acknowledge the richness and variety of black cultures around the world.  Educated blacks in France were perceived as being  “in the process of becoming cosmopolitan, cultured people in the French tradition, a process they [the French] called their mission civilatrice” (p.89).  Like many blacks in France, Paulette and Jane Nardal “refused to accept this formulation and decided that their identity was more varied and complex than anything the French understood” (p.89).

The Nardal sisters advanced the notion of multiple identities, arguing that the black spirit could be “informed and aided by the association with the West, without losing its own core” (p.92).   Blacks have an “alternative history from that of anyone who was white and born in France. Hence, they needed to attempt to get to a far more complex concept of self, one deeper and richer than those in the majority and the mainstream” (p.100).   The Nardals also came to understand the connection between black culture in Europe and gender.  Black women, “like many females, are a double Other, and this makes them different not only from whites but from Black men as well” (p.101; but conspicuously missing in this work is any sustained discussion of the Jew as the Other, even though anti-Semitism was rising alarmingly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in 1930).

Between 1927 and 1933,  Bertold Brecht collaborated with Kurt Weill to rethink theatre and opera.  Brecht, alone among the thinkers Haberman portrays, brought an explicit Marxist perspective to his work.  Brecht supplied both the lyrics and dialogue to the pair’s plays, while Weill composed the music.   The Three Penny Opera, their joint work first performed in Berlin in 1928, was a decidedly non-traditional opera that proved to be spectacular success in Weimar Germany.

In 1930, the Brecht and Weill produced The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an even less traditional production.  Brecht termed Mahagonny “epic theatre,” whose purpose was “not to entertain or provide the audience with an imitation of their lives” (p.70), but rather to engage the audience in issues of social justice.  Epic theatre was designed to “force the spectator to be active, to query his own assumptions”(p.78).

Haberman describes Mahagonny as an angry anti-capitalist production, a strange sort of “utopia of desire,” where money rules.  Its lesson: in a capitalist society, all is “commoditized, no relationship is authentic . . . [M]oney cannot satisfy human needs” (p.81-82).  The Nazis, who enjoyed increased popular support throughout 1930, regularly demonstrated against Mahagonny performances. Both Brecht and Weill fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in early 1933.  Neither The Three Penny Opera nor Mahagonny was performed again in Germany until after World War II.

Haberman sees Brecht and Weill as stage and musical companions to surrealist painters such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali, who were also juxtaposing traditional elements to force audiences to ask what was really going on.  Magritte’s The Key to Dreams, a name that is a direct reference to Freud, was a painting about painting and how we construct reality.  Words are not the objects themselves, Magritte seemed to be saying.  Paintings can refer to an object but are not the object itself.   Salvador Dali was the rising star of surrealism in 1930.  His paintings were at once “provocative, mythic, and phallic, while also using juxtaposition to great effect” (p.115).  As with Magritte, the code of understanding in Dali paintings is “closer to Freudian psychology than it is to ‘reason’” (p.115).

The most transformative shift in the visual arts by 1930 was the abandonment of mimesis, the idea that a work of art should represent external reality.  Artists from the many varying schools regarded external reality as “just appearance, not realty at all.  Now it was necessary to go through or beyond appearance to investigate what was real” (p.107).  Artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse “wanted a painting to be seen holistically before being analyzed in its parts” (p.118). Like Woolf in literature, these artists by 1930 were depicting “multiple realities,” with the “whole, deep world of the unconscious guiding us” (p.108).

In the end, Haberman concludes, the perspective of the major artists of 1930 was in line with that of the writers he portrays. All in their own way:

feared where humanity was headed, in some cases they feared what they discovered about human nature. They wrote and created art. They did so in order to both help us know about ourselves and offer some redemption for a hard time. They did so because, in spite of their fears, and in spite of their pessimism, they had hope that our better nature would triumph.   Their works are relevant today as they were in 1930 (p.212).

* * *

                        Articulating their contemporary relevance is the purpose of Haberman’s extensive final chapter and epilogue, where he also seeks to summarize contemporary Europe’s zeitgeist.  The Enlightenment faith in the idea and inevitability of progress has now “more or less ended,” he argues, and the world “no longer seems as automatically better as time moves on” (p.171) – the core insight which World War I provided to the generation of 1930.  The politics of irrationality of the type that so worried Ortega seems again resurgent in today’s Europe.  Nationalism – in Haberman’s view, the most influential of the modern ideologies born in the 19th century – “persists and appears to be growing in Europe in a more frightening manner, in the rise of racist neo-fascist and quasi-fascist parties in many countries. What was once thought impossible after the defeat of Hitlerian Germany is now coming into being” (p.168).

Despite the rise of European social democracy in the aftermath of World War II, there is a trend toward appropriation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with the gap between the rich and poor widening.   Traditional religion has less hold on Europeans today than it did in 1930 — although it had no apparent hold on any of the writers and artists Haberman features. The question of the place for the Other – marginalized groups like the blacks of the Nardal sisters’ project – has come to the fore in today’s Europe.  Haberman frames the question as whether today’s Europe, theoretically open, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian, is so “only for those who conform to the norm – who are white, indigenous to whatever place they live, nominally or deeply Christian, and identifying strongly with the nation.”  Or is there something “built into European culture as it is taught and practiced that automatically marginalizes women, Blacks, Jews, Roma, and Muslims?” (p.185).

After posing this unanswerable question, Haberman finishes by returning to his composite couple, explaining how their lives were changed by events between 1930 and 1945.  They lost a son in battle in World War II and some civilian relatives were also killed.  Haberman then fast-forwards to the couple’s granddaughter, born in 1982, who married at age 30 and is now pregnant.   She and her husband are ambivalent about their future.  Peace is taken for granted in the way it was not in 1930.  But there is pessimism in the economic sphere.  The couple sees the tacit social contract between generations fraying. The issues that move the couple most deeply are the environment and concerns about climate change.

* * *

               Through his individual portraits, Haberman provides a creative elaboration upon the ideas which leading thinkers and artists wrestled with in the anxious year of 1930.  Describing contemporary applications of these ideas , as he attempts to do in the latter portion of his work, would be a notable accomplishment for an entire book and his attempt to do so here falls flat.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 15, 2020

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual History

Relighting The City of Light

 

Agnès Poirier, Left Bank:

Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950 

(Henry Holt & Co., $30)

             Agnès Poirier, a Paris-born and London-educated journalist, takes on two weighty subjects in Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950: Parisian artistic, cultural and intellectual life during what was surely Paris’s darkest 20th century period, the four years of German occupation, 1940-44; and the efforts to restore the City of Light to its former eminence in all things artistic, cultural and intellectual in the remaining years of the turbulent decade.  Her book consists primarily of short anecdotes or vignettes – what she terms a “collage of images” (p.4) — about some of the leading artistic and intellectual personalities in 1940s Paris.  With much emphasis upon the shifting romantic attachments among these personalities, the book has a gossipy flavor.

             The grim occupation years constitute only about a third of Poirier’s narrative.  The book begins to gather momentum when she turns to the second of her two weighty subjects, how artists and intellectuals sought to regain their footing in the second half of the decade.  One of the primary tasks Poirier sets for herself is to capture the euphoria that accompanied the liberation of Paris in 1944 and the end of hostilities the following year.

            Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long partner Jean-Paul Sartre are undoubtedly the book’s lead characters, the personalities Poirier returns to consistently in this collection of anecdotal portraits.  In an appropriate rebalancing from other works on philosophy’s ultimate power couple, Beauvoir receives more attention than Sartre; she is the book’s star.  Behind Sartre in supporting roles are novelists Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler (both Camus and Koestler have been subject of books reviewed on this blog, here and here).   In addition to these four, Poirier provides glimpses of a dizzying number of luminaries who congregated at the Café de Flore and the other Left Bank cafés along or near the Boulevard St. Germain where Beauvoir and Sartre hung out.

            At the outset, Poirier provides a list of 32 individuals who make up the book’s “Cast of Characters” — her “band of brothers and sisters” (p.2), as she terms them, the men and women who appear in the book’s vignettes as we glance at their personalities and interactions in their professional and personal lives. Among the continentals likely to be familiar to readers are Raymond Aron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paulhan, and Simone Signoret.  Irish playwright Samuel Beckett makes several appearances.  There is also a heavy contingent of Americans, including James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Saul Bellow, Art Buchwald, Alexander Calder, Miles Davis, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway,  Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Theodore White, and Richard Wright.  They were “budding novelists, philosophers, painters, composers, anthropologists, theorists, artists, photographers, poets, editors, publishers and playwrights” (p.1).  Most were under 40 when the war ended and many either came to Paris from abroad in the post-war period or returned to Paris after taking refuge elsewhere during the war years.

            Together, Poirier’s band of brothers and sisters:

founded the New Journalism, which . . . forever blurred the lines between literature and reportage. Poets and playwright slowly buried Surrealism and invented the Theater of the Absurd; budding painters transcended Socialist Realism, pushed Geometric Abstraction to its limits, and fostered Action Painting.  Philosophers founded new schools of thought such as Existentialism . . . Aspiring writers found their voices in Paris’s gutters and the decrepit student rooms of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while others invented the nouveau roman.  Photographers reclaimed their authorship through photojournalism agencies . . . black [American] jazz musicians, fleeing segregation at home, found consecration in the concert halls and jazz clubs of Paris, where New Orleans jazz received its long-overdue appreciation while bebop was bubbling up (p.2).

            Despite this range of creativity and artistic output, Poirier argues that after 1944 “everything was political” in Paris (p.2).  Among Left Bank denizens, there was a near-universal conviction that France desperately needed an independent, social democratic political movement.  Such a movement would challenge not only the Communist Party that dominated the post-war French political landscape but also the hyper-nationalist Gaullist movement that was the Communists’ main rival and the American free-market capitalist model that hovered in the background.

            The elusive quest for an independent political movement constitutes one of two threads that tie together the book’s vignettes and elevate the text to something more than a series of gossipy anecdotes.  The second is Beauvoir herself, especially the development of her seminal work, The Second Sex, and how she became a model of female emancipation, breaking social conventions by combining intellectual ambition, financial independence and sexual freedom.

* * *

            Poirier’s vignettes begin before the German occupation and follow a rough chronological order.  She provides some sense of how Parisian artists and intellectuals survived the war years.  A deeper and more satisfying study of Parisian artistic and cultural life during the occupation may be found in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012.  As in Riding’s book, Poirier delves into France’s pained efforts to decide how to come to terms with these dark years, and how writers, artists, and intellectuals fared after the war in a process termed épuration, best translated as “purification.”

            Epuration in Poirier’s view amounted to little more than an entire nation adopting the fiction that almost everyone had been part of the resistance during the occupation, with Charles de Gaulle willing to go along and even encourage this fiction as the most effective means to reunite a divided and demoralized nation.  But she characterizes the épuration process as a “murky affair, and the discrepancy in punishments opened up a national debate on the nature of revenge and justice.  Never more public than among writers and journalists, the debate tore friends apart” (p.74).

            One writer, Robert Brasillach, who had collaborated with the Nazi and Vichy governments, was executed, notwithstanding petitions signed by Sartre, Camus and other writers who abhorred Brasillach’s political convictions yet pleaded to spare his life.   Every other writer with collaborationist tendencies avoided this fate.  Poirier wryly notes the generosity underlying the épuration process, which seemed designed to demonstrate that it was “never too late to be a patriot” (p.71).  Those French men and women who had lived through the four years of the occupation “with the shame of the armistice but had not had the courage to join the Resistance or go to London seized the opportunity to clear their conscience” (p.71).  As Beauvoir observed, the joie de vivre which liberation generated was “tempered by the shame of having survived” (p.76).

            Poirier earnestly seeks to capture that tempered joie de vivre.  As Paris’s galleries, boulevards, jazz clubs, cafés, bistros, and bookshops returned to life, the city’s intellectuals and artists were, she writes, eager to unleash their “unquenchable thirst for freedom in every aspect of their lives.  Whether born into the working class or the bourgeoisie, they wanted little to do with their caste’s traditions and conventions or with propriety. Family was an institution to be banished, children a plague to avoid at all costs” (p.116).  It was, Poirier writes, a time to “stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it” (p.95), a time to “experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchante the world” (p.95).

            It was also a time of sexual liberation, for women as much as men, Poirier emphasizes, with a high percentage of assertive bi-sexual women and “female Don Juans” (p.3) among the book’s cast of characters.  In post-war Paris, where such traditional categories as race and religion were deemed inconsequential, gender still counted. “Only the strongest of women survived,” Poirier writes, but those who did “shook the old male order.” Using their “wizardry with words, images, and concepts,” Left Bank women “revolutionized not only philosophy and literature but also film and modern art” (p.288-89).  The romantic interactions among the band of brothers and sisters, a theme to which Poirier returns consistently, were multiple and complicated, none more so than those involving Beauvoir herself.

            By 1944, Beauvoir and Sartre were more like business partners, writing and generating ideas together while pursuing romantic interests independently (not unlike Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; see Jospeh Lelyveld’s His Final Battle: The Last Six Months of Franklin Roosevelt, reviewed here in March 2017).  Beauvoir’s interests included both Koestler and Camus.  Beauvoir was attracted to Koestler upon reading the initial proofs of his signature novel, Darkness at Noon.   Poirier describes in some detail one intensive soirée the couple spent together, perhaps their only one, after which Beauvoir concluded that Koestler was a “violent and impulsive man, a world-weary seducer” (p.122).

            The electricity between Beauvoir and Camus lasted longer although, we learn, Camus was frightened by Beauvoir’s intelligence.  Beauvoir, by contrast, had “no reservations about [Camus].  Nothing in him could turn her off, except perhaps his moralizing” (p.120).  Poirier also pays close attention to Beauvoir’s most sustained and deepest heterosexual relationship in the post-war period, with American writer Nelson Algren.  During her affair with Algren, Beauvoir appears to have ceased liaisons with countless younger women, many of whom Sartre also pursued.

            Both Sartre and Camus “often fell for pretty students and groupies.  It was easy, Poirier writes. ” Those young lovers were enthusiastic, malleable, a little naïve perhaps, and would recover in no time once the affair with the great man had ended” (p.120).  The two men, at different times, also pursued Koestler’s girlfriend and wife-to-be Mamaine Paget, while Koestler was ranging  widely among the Left Bank female contingent.  One of Koestler’s liaisons was with Dominique Aury, who translated some of Koestler’s articles into French.

            Poirier describes Aury as a “seductress, a conqueror of both men and women [who] knew how to snare her prey” (p.125).  Aury’s most intriguing relationship was with not Koestler but Édith Thomas, a relationship Aury struck up after leaving an unidentified man whom Poirier speculates might have been Camus.  Both Aury and Thomas had been part of the resistance during the war.  Aury was from a traditional, right-wing Catholic family; Thomas,  a published novelist, was  a member of the Communist Party. Despite these differences, they shared a “passion that would transport Édith to a state of delirious ecstasy” (p.127).  But Aury, a “born huntress” who after passion subsided “always chased other prey” (p.125), ended the affair with Thomas for another with a married man, famed publisher and literary critic Jean Paulhan, leaving Thomas with a sense of betrayal she never got over.  And so it went on the Left Bank.

            Amidst the musical beds, Sartre and Camus endeavored to establish a social democratic alternative to the Communist party.  By 1946, the first full year after the war, France’s leading political parties were the Communists and the Gaullists. The non-Communist Socialist Party was too splintered to be a force attractive to Parisian artists or intellectuals.  Nor were they attracted to the bourgeois nationalism and cautious reformism of the Gaullists. The French Communist Party’s association with wartime resistance, moreover, gave it a huge advantage with the public.

            The “terrible and deep guilt felt by so many French people who did not take part in active résistance against the Nazi occupiers meant that they could not and would not criticize the Communists, the most active members of the French Resistance” (p.158).  With a “kind of spiritual power over the youth and the intelligentsia,” the Communist party was for many a “conscience, and a magnet” (p.138).  The party was “intent on invading every nook and cranny of public life” (p.138).  It received a jolt of positive energy when Picasso officially joined in 1944.

            Few Left Bank artists or intellectuals followed Picasso’s example, although in Poirier’s view most saw Communism, on balance and in theory, as preferable to capitalism.  Beauvoir and Sartre certainly felt the tug of the party’s appeal, but were not ready to “bargain their freedom, espirit critique, and independence for the sake of acceptance into the Communist fold” (p.143).  Although Camus and Koestler had both flirted with Communism in their younger days, by 1946 they were among the Left Bank’s most vocal anti-Communists.  

            Camus had credibility as having been an active member of the resistance (Sartre, by contrast, was as an “armchair” resistant although he had been jailed during the war, p.67).  Koestler, even more firmly anti-Communist, leaned toward the Gaullists and tried with limited success to convince his Left Bank associates that there was “no greater threat in Europe than Communism” (p.153).  Although the Left Bank denizens may have been clashing among themselves at the Café de Flore and elsewhere over arcane philosophical and historical implications of Marxism and Communism, the Party, hardly into nuance, “put them all in the same bag” (p.160) as traitors. The influential French Communist press “used all their might to promote their ideology and to attack all those who did not think like them, including Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir” (p.77).

            Poirier credits Camus with having a vision for a political alternative. Rather than promote a “tired compromise between left and right,” Camus “dreamt of a humanist socialism, of new boldness in politics, a fresh, harsh and pure new elite coming from the Resistance to rule over an old country.   He dreamt of social justice and of individual freedoms” (p.136-37).   But it fell to Sartre to take concrete steps toward building a new political party, the Rassemblement Démocratique et Revolutionnaire (the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance or RDR), which he co-founded in 1948 with novelist David Rousset.

            The RDR’s aim was to unite the non-Communist Left and promote an independent Europe as a bridge between the Soviet and American blocs. The RDR opened to a big splash, with the public support of Camus.   But the party never really got off the ground.  The cantankerous Left Bank intellectuals “proved too heterogeneous a mélange to speak with one strong voice” (p.157) on the notion of a third force that would be hostile to both the Gaullists and the Communists. The inglorious end of the RDR prompted Sartre to withdraw from political activism.  “No more party membership. From now on, there would be only literature” (p.265).

            Beauvoir lent little support to Sartre’s RDR project. She was feverishly at work at what had started as a short essay and grew into the voluminous The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe in French), as well as deeply involved with Nelson Algren.  The Second Sex, a meticulously researched and easily accessible work, sought to demonstrate “how men oppress women” (p.285).  Looking at biology, psychoanalysis, and history, Beauvoir found “numerous examples of women’s ‘inferiority’ taken for granted but never had she found a convincing justification for it” (p.285).  Poirier summarizes Beauvoir’s composite portrait of women as:

conditioned by society into accepting a passive, dependent, objectified existence, deprived as they are of subjectivity and the ambition to emancipate themselves through financial independence and work. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or prostitute, women are made to conform to stereotypes imposed by men . . . [O]nly through work, and thus economic independence, can women obtain autonomy and freedom (p.286)

             The Second Sex’s brilliance lay in Beauvoir’s “rigorous intellectual approach combined with a cool and superbly concisely style” (p.132). Beauvoir “at last” was “considered worldwide an equal to Sartre and Camus” (p.285).

* * *

            Poirier indicates at the outset that Left Bank is not an “academic analysis” (p.4), to which she could have added that the book is not a conventional history either.  Herein lies the primary reason why,  despite its weighty subject matter, the book fell short of my expectations.  While Poirier’s anecdotal portraits of the leading lights in Paris during a fraught decade make for entertaining reading, they don’t add up to a portrait of the city itself during the decade.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 26, 2019

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

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          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

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            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

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            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

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