Saturday, March 21, 2020

The World Turned Upside Down

"Adeo mihi certe persuadeo res aequabili ac iusta aliqua ratione distribui aut feliciter agi cum rebum mortalium, nisi sublata prorsus proprietate, no posse."  

"Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely abolished, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can the business of mortals be conducted happily."

Thomas More certainly didn't invent the idea of a community of goods.  And though his is probably the best-known early modern articulation of the idea, there's nothing I know of in his later career where anything close to the idea was considered as a practical policy or political goal.  

A little over a century later the idea of a community of goods was no longer simply a humanist conceit but a political program, a program whose advocates were not rulers or lawyers or clerics, but peasants and tinkers and others of that ilk.  

Christopher Hill is a distinguished British historian.  His life's work was centered on the England in the mid-seventeenth century, the period of what is conventionally called the English Civil War, but which HIll insists on calling the English Revolution.  He was raised in a pious Methodist family, but joined the Communist Party after losing his faith at Oxford in the thirties.  He resigned from the Communist Party in the fifties after the Soviet Union suppressed the Hungarian Revolution, but remained, for the rest of his lift, identified as a Marxist historian.  Hence his understanding of the English Civil War more as a class revolution, the displacement of royal feudal rule with parliamentary rule, driven (even after the return of kings) by an increasingly merchant, commercial class.

In textbook Marxism phenomena like religion are considered "superstructure," things unreal in themselves which simply reflect the dominant mode of material production.  A classic example of this is the assertion that catholicism reflected the traditional feudal mode of production, in contrast with protestantism, which came out of the emerging capitalist economies of early modern Europe.  

Hill never returned to his childhood faith, but he never forgot it either.  Growing up in the fervent tradition of English religious dissent, outside of the established Church, left him with a real sympathy for working class religion and undoubtedly inspired his research into its more radical forms.  It also perhaps supported his increasing understanding of religion as a force, not of course entirely divorced from economic relationships, but also impelled by its own interior logic.

In The World Turned Upside Down Hill examines a variety of social and religious movements that rose in the wake of the war between king and parliament.  The religious aspect of the war is conventionally presented as one between Anglicans and Puritans, with the Puritans, after the death of the king, breaking into strict Presbyterians, who themselves sought to establish a new national church, and the more tolerant Independents, whose strength lay in the military rule of Oliver Cromwell.  Hill in this book is little concerned with any of these, focusing instead on the proliferation of more radical groups--Levellers, Diggers, Agitators, Muggletonians, Grindletoniams, Third Monarchists, Seekers, Ranters and Quakers--and their ultimate failure.

The context of course is an England that has been Protestant for about a century, where the bible has been translated into English and sent out into the land.  Early hope that the single written authority of the scripture would produce a single authoritative form of Protestantism soon foundered.  The civil war was an inter-Protestant war, but Hill's heros, unlike the key players, declined to read the bible as Luther, or Calvin, or Cranmer did.  Here is Gerrard Winstanley, the most eloquent of the Levellers:

"Not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another....But...selfish imaginations...did set up one man to teach and rule over another.  And was brought into bondage, and became a greater slave to such of his own kind than the beasts of the field were to him.  And hereupon the earth...was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made...slaves.  And that earth that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respecter of persons, delighting in the comfortable livelihood of some and rejoicing in the miserable poverty and straits of others.  From the beginning it was not so." 

The sources of this are purely biblical--the common origin of all mankind, God's breaking of the bondage of the children of Israel in Egypt, the denunciation of monarchy by the prophet Samuel, the execrations brought down by the later prophets against the oppressors of the poor, Jesus' virtual exclusion of the rich from the Kingdom of Heaven, and the holding of all goods in common by the earliest Christians, as related in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  The Protestant freedom to interpret the bible was taking an unexpected turn.  

None of these emerging groups was formally organized.  Levelers were those who sought to abolish distinctions in rank and wealth.  The Diggers entered unused, "waste" land and began cultivating it, claiming a right based on just use and the alleviation of poverty, not feudal privilege or formal ownership.

More radically, the Ranters began to question the bible itself, to ask on what basis laws and punishments were imposed.  If the bible were truly subject to individual interpretation, what right had anyone to tell me that I could not interpret it as nonsense?  The Ranters did indeed have some basis in the tradition for their claims, not only in Luther and Calvin, but going back to Augustine's "Love, and do what you will."  The Ranters certainly did what they wanted, and gained a reputation for drinking, swearing and whoring which accounted, perhaps, both for their initial attractiveness and eventual violent suppression.  They had no catechism, but if they did, it would surely read something like William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  And they are certainly fun to read (e.g. Joseph Salmon's "the Lord grant that we may know the worth of hell, that we may forever scorn heaven," or Thomas Webbe's "there's no heaven but women, nor no hell save marriage").

Of all these movements, only the Quakers survive today, at least in name.  (I should note that part of my interest in this subject comes from the fact that, in my paternal line, my ancestors who came to this country were Quakers, and remained so until the First World War).  Hill is quick to emphasize that in their origin the Quakers were far different from their eventual successors.  The commitment to pacifism came much later; many of the original Quakers served in the New Model Army.  The standard source for Quaker history is George Fox's Journal, but Hill points out that Fox's later acknowledged leadership of the Quakers was not so apparent in the early days.  They were then much closer to Ranters, a sect that refused to remove their hats before their betters, disrupted the worship of other sects, denied original sin, affirmed that a free man could attain perfection wholly apart from compliance with conventional Christian standards, and looked for guidance, not to the bible, but to the "inner light," by which God spoke to every individual.  In the Ranters these ideas led to an intolerable libertinism.  Fox managed, in contrast, to forge a new people with a new spirituality admired grudgingly even by detractors.  But one of the ways he did it was by de-politicizing them.  The Quakers were not particularly liked by the establishment under Charles II and James II and William III--but they didn't threaten it, either.  And so they survived and later flourished in William Penn's Wood in America.

A final note:  I can understand how those of you reading this might have been surprised that a post called "The World Turned Upside Down" wasn't related to the current COVID-19 crisis.  It's mainly my own slowness.  I began this post at a time not so very long ago when Senator Sanders, ahead in the early delegate count, was being widely acclaimed as the all-but-inevitable Democratic nominee for the presidency, accompanied by much hand-wringing about the monstrousness of a major candidate advocating "socialism."  This subject, I thought, was somewhat topical for providing some little-known historical context, and reminding ourselves that "socialism" didn't begin or end with Karl Marx.  But in a way the two subjects seem to come together this morning when I read, in the Santa Fe New Mexican's editorial page, a reader commenting that "The unjust criticism that Bernie is a socialist no longer has meaning.  For the next few months, the country will be an effectively socialist country, or we will perish."  Where we turn in a crisis is always revealing of our deepest values.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Speaking of Being

In an earlier post on the subject of Karl Rahner I observed that existentialism hasn't kept the edginess  it still had in my college days.  Its various proponents (express and otherwise) have retained their roles as significant thinkers, but, like the Hegelians before them, their successors and disciples are now less scruffy revolutionaries than safely-tenured seniors.

So the experience of reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe was in some ways a nostalgic return to those dangerous days of the existentialists.  The book is a narrative of a twentieth century movement; pre-1900 precursors are duly noted and largely ignored.  The genre is collective biography, with a greater cast characters than those featured at the top of the cover above.  Yes, we have Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty.  But we also have Arendt, Weil, Levinas, Brentano, Marcel and many lesser known figures.  Ms. Bakewell not only takes us chronologically through these tangled lives (and loves) but interweaves the crises they faced with the kernal of their ideas.  So it's an intellectual history of existentialism plus celebrity gossip.

Now Ms. Bakewell is a serious scholar.  She teaches at Oxford's Kellogg College and is the author of an award-winng biography of Montaigne.  She begins her account with Sartre's decision in 1933 to attend Husserl's lectures on phenomenology in Berlin.  In some ways Husserl's phenomenology is the source of the whole movement, the exhortation to go "Zu den Sachen selbst" ("to the things themselves"), to bracket out one's theories and systems and confront the bare phenomena of existence.  ( I remember that for decades I owned one of those impossibly thick paperbacks, cover blazened only with the words:  HUSSERL PHENOMENOLOGY, and never really cracked it between purchase and eventual re-sale.)

And from there we're off.  But despite the large cast of characters, the focus keeps returning to the two around whom the others, to some extent, revolve:  Heidegger in Germany and Sartre in France.  Each is a charismatic figure, drawing disciples to the cafes of Saint-Germaine-du-Pres or the rural fastness of the Black Forest.  Each exemplifies what might be considered the fundamental ethical scandal of existentialism, that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party, and that Sartre for too long defended the most violent excesses of Stalinism.  They met once:  after Sartre had defined existentialism as  a "humanism" in which "existence precedes essence," Heidegger disclaimed any intent to respond to such superceded "metaphysical" categories--and denied being an existentialist.  When finally brought face to face in 1952, their private meeting was apparently awkward and fruitless for both.

In a book like this there must obviously be a lot of simplification in summarizing the thought of a dozen or so difficult and nuanced thinkers.  I was a little surprised, myself, to realize about halfway through that, though I felt I was familiar with most of these characters and their characteristic assertions, I had really actually read the work of only a few:  Heidegger's Being and Time and a couple essays, a pair of novels by Camus and his "Myth of Sysiphus," Sartre's essay on existentialism referenced above, and a book-length essay by Merleau-Ponty on Arthur Koestler's Darkeness at Noon and the Communist problem.  It was good to get a broader overview, but at the same time I was more dissatisfied with the summations that covered ideas I thought myself most familiar with.  It's not that I imagine that I could do a better job.  It's more perhaps that the topic of existentialism well-illustrates the general limitations of reducing complexities to slogans, summaries, abstracts or maxims.

And that of course leads me to wonder about the value of this very blog, or of any blogs, or of applications like Twitter.  When I was growing up, the Reader's Digest company sold these things called "Condensed Books."  They took mostly best-selling books, abridged them to about a quarter of their original size, and would publish four or five in a volume, on the assumption that writing required compression if it was to keep relevant to the frantic pace of modern life in the mid-sixties.  We had rows and rows of the things, and I even had a twelve-volume set of condensed classics for young people.  They were scorned, for good reason, and I rarely find them in used-book stores.  But we modern  readers are still impelled by that same impulse to epitomize.

So I can certainly recommend the book as a page-turner, as something even of a pot-boiler, a portrait of an important part of the age, and an introduction to an increasingly remote climate of thought.  But as Richard Bentley said of Alexander Pope's Iliad, "It is a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer."  And one might, in the same vein, with Husserl insist, regarding the existentialists, that one there also go (however reluctantly and deliberately) "zu den Sachen selbst":

Monday, March 9, 2020

Max von Sydow, 1929-2020

"Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place."