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Blood to Drink

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So, my day started-well, it started before it was a day, actually, when the brownout hit around three o’clock.  The full scale power outage made it in at four thirty. 

That last one was the kicker, because of course I  had a couple of freezers full of food, and the power company kept telling me they’d have the power back on by about…oh, maybe quarter after eleven.

It actually worked out all right, because if you have lots of food frozen solid in a freezer and never open the doors, it takes more than half a day for anything to even start thawing out, so we weren’t hit too badly.

But I couldn’t use the computer or otherwise distract myself, so as soon as the day got light enough for me to read, I sat down and devoured a huge hunk of this book I’ve been reading, by Yvor Winters.   It’s actually four short books all collected into a single volume, which I usually don’t like.  But four or five years ago, when I went looking for the one book  I wanted–Maule’s  Curse:  Four Studies in American  Obscurantism–this was the only wa to get it. 

Winters is not only exactly the kind of critic most present-day academics in literature think they’re rebelling against, he was the critic most Fifties New  Critics were rebelling against.  The interesting thing is that he’s still in print at all.

At any rate, me being the person I am, when I finally sat down to read this thing, I  sat down to read it all, all four of the included volumes.   It’s just an odd coincidence that this morning, when I had all this time to read and think, I’d actually just reached the text of Maule’s  Curse itself.   “God will give you blood to drink,” Matthew Maule says to old Judge  Pyncheon at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables, and in this case both Maule and Hawthorne knew what they were talking about.

I want to go back to a point Robert rased a couple of posts ago and that I have raised several times myself–that the great destructive power of one strand of philosophical thinking in the West (the Plato/Rousseau/Marx strand) is caused by the assumption that you can turn human beings into anything you want them to be–that the power of nuture is absolute over the power of nature.

The intellectual history of the United States begins in  Puritan New England.  Much of the general history of the United States starts there, too, but for whatever reason, the other and contemporary settlements didn’t throw up much in the way of theology, philosophy, poetry or art.  They would, later, but especially in the seventeenth century, they were a little slow to get started.

The thing to remember about Puritanism is that its purity lay not in strict moral adherence to absolute definitions of virtue and sin, but in strict adherence, often to the point of incoherence, to the doctrine of predestination.

The Puritans were, in a way, the ultimate anti-Romantics.  If the Romantics believed that men and women could be changed into anything at all–pacifist vegetarians who would never even consider going to war, for instance–the Puritans believed that men and women could not be changed at all, ever.  God had decided the fate of every human person before the beginning of time.

But here’s the thing.  The Puritans may have believed that, or said they did, but they did not behave as if they believed it.  They established laws and punishments on the assumption that such things would serve as deterrents to prospective criminals.   They constructed school curricula on the assumption that such curricula had an effect on the kind of men and women children would grow into.  

Jonathan Edwards was a very late Puritan–a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin, not the Salem witch trials–but he wrote a book, called Freedom of the Will, proving that human beings have none.   He also preached a very vigorous revival in the First Great  Awakening, and quite obviously thought it was possible for men and women to be converted by being persuaded by sermons.

In other words, it’s not just philosophers who think that men and women can be changed by their environment–it’s everybody. 

I know I’ve tended to use “think they can chane human nature” as a handy way of categorizing the Romantic impulse in morals and politics, but I’ve been less than correct.  

The  Romantics didn’t think they could change human nature, any more than  John Locke did.  They thought human nature was something different than Locke thought it was.  And they were more wrong than Locke was, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

Philosophy is the project of applying reason to the understanding of life on earth–all life, from its material base to its ethical base to its political arrangements and on around again.

Political philosophy is the project of applying reason to the workings of governments.

Rousseau is a philosopher, but so is Locke–they came up with different prescriptions for the governments of men, but they were both engaged in the same activity when they did it.

Their differences are partially ones of assumptions–Locke was much less sanguine about the goodness of mankind than Locke could be–but partially ones of calculation.  And the calculations are crucial.

All philosophers look at the world and see the same things in terms of base data, the same things the rest of us see.  They see that there is a lot of violence and pain, that men and women ruin themselves and each other with stupidity and avarice and spite.   They see that some men live better than others and hold power, and that often these men not only seem to have done nothing to deserve their good fortune, but to exhibit qualities that make such good fortune a slap in the face of justice.

They see that some people work hard all their lives and barely manage to feed themselves and their families, while others work not at all and get anything and everything they want.  In their time, they would have seen–as Plato and Aristotle saw–that some men live in bondage to others, that some are used worse than animals as slaves in mines and quarries. 

They see rape, and murder, and theft, and torture, and–especially from the perspective of nearly 300 years ago–endless wars that on second look seem completely senseless, and that destroy entire peoples, lay waste to the landscape, and make all but a very small group of people on the winning side worse off than when they started. 

They see, as well, wars of religion, and religious persecutions–one human being torturing, murdering, thieving against another in the name of upholding the honor of  God. 

We’ve come a long way since the eighteenth century.  We’ve improved our technlogy to the point where casual starvation is no longer common, where famines are rare.  We’ve improved our understanding of the way men live under governments so that we’ve managed to minimize–but not eliminate–that problems of injustice in inequality of outcome.

But given that this is what all philosophers see, the fact that all philosophers think that human nature is at least in some degree and in some directions malleable is tautological–of course they do.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be philosophers.  What would be the point of engaging in political philosophy if you couldn’t improve the lives of human beings from what you see around you?

John Locke and  Ayn Rand want to make radical changes in society just as much as Plato and Rousseau do, they just want to make different changes, and they consider as “problems to be solved” different things.

It makes no sense, to me, for Americans to decide that philosophy is nothing but destructive and worthless trash that should be removed from the “core curriculum,” because while the Puritans and the Romantics wer fighting it out in New England, the Virginians were reading Locke and–yes–Rousseau. 

And on that basis they managed to found a government that was the first ever concceived and constructed on the basis of philosophy–and we’re still here. 

Like it or not, Philosophy  R Us.  You need philosophy to build the gulags, but you also need it to build the Bill of Rights.

Of course, the philosophy that had its brief vogue during and directly after the American Revolution has never been particularly popular–and I would guess a full, whole-hearted acceptance of its principles was close to nonexistent even at the time.

One of the exercise I like to do in some of my classes is to assign a set of readings from the period–Federalist papers, letters, public procolamations, etc–on two subjects:  the right of the people to bear arms, and the separation of church and state.

I’ll absolutely guarantee you I make nobody happy.  The right wing guys are happy about guns–whee! they did mean an individual right to gun ownership–but appalled at how very much support there is for a strict separation of church and state, and even more appalled at how hostile so many of these men were to traditional Christianity.

The left wing people are happy with the separation of church and state until they realize that this meant that individuals and nongovernmental organizations had an absolute right to hire and fire people based on their religion, and they don’t know what to do with the gun rights thing at all.

Then there’s freedom of speech, which absolutely nobody but a few fanatics ever seems to actually believe in.  Most of us believe in “freedom of speech, but…”  “But not if it’s child pornography.”  “But not if it’s unpatriotic.”  “But not if it’s hate speech.”

I’m going to go back to Yvor Winters for a while.

I do want to point out that the first half of thise was written yesterday, and at about the point of that last paragraph about Jonathan Edwards we had a second power outage, this one also lasting five hours, and  I had to stop.

But today looks pretty, so I have my fingers crossed.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2009 at 7:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Blood to Drink'

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  1. “Political philosophy” covers a lot of ground. From here, the founding fathers look less like Plato and Rousseau, and more like Truman, FDR or Churchill–negotiating the overgovernment their individual existing governments could live with. Hopefully, it would be strong enough to serve the necessary collective purposes without being able to run roughshod over the individual component governments. (If you want to see this done without regard to political reality, check out a certain administrator from Princeton.)

    If you’d asked them about the nature of man, you’d have gotten a very wide range of answers–and different ones in private, in some cases. But when you asked them how governments behaved, history–not philosophy–gave them a narrower range of answers, around which they could construct a government, not by abstract “should” but by historical experience’s “does” or “has.”

    Correct me on this one, but I believe Aristotle called us the political animal, not the philosophical one.
    Though Mark Twain may have been closer yet–the only animal that blushes–or needs to.


    18 Jul 09 at 11:22 am

  2. Have you looked at the political compass? It doesn’t put everyone on a spectrum from left to right, but on a two-dimensional plane where one axis is economic and the other social. It clears up a lot for me–since I am economically quite left but socially quite libertarian–why I end up in fights with everybody. I don’t think your class would make me unhappy, as I’ve already read a lot of that, and agree with them a lot! I’m very nearly a free speech absolutist, a gun rights supporter, and a church/state wall supporter. And everybody from every side hates me. The Dems think my gun rights support is evil, and that if we pay for someone’s health care, we should be allowed to control their behavior (no!). The Repubs think my economic support of highly progressive taxation is evil. The feminists are pissed that I am OK with no censorship (as long as no actual children or adults were abused to make it). The socialists are pissed that I think incentives are important enough that income inequality is necessary. Is human nature malleable? Yes, a little. But making policy without taking the givens into account is just stupid.



    18 Jul 09 at 11:36 am

  3. I suspect that deconstructionism and the kind of jargon-ridden nonsense which passes for much of contemporary “philosophy” is to blame for any current belief that philosophy is “nothing but destructive and worthless trash that should be removed from the “core curriculum.”” Derrida had a point; a text may have more than one interpretation. But he & his disciples have taken it way too far. As for the rest of it–it gives real philosophy a bad name. Most sensible people avoid all of it in disgust, and the fear that words like “hermeneutics” might reach out and turn their brains to mush.

    Lee B

    19 Jul 09 at 12:33 am

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