The Nature of Evil

Edmund Burke famously said “For evil to flourish it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Burke was given to the pithy, memorable statements and was also a wise and extremely well-informed thinker. But today even though we might quote Burke there is little doubt in the minds of growing numbers of people that evil, as such, is a fiction. Indeed, in our relativistic age, “good” and “evil” are nothing more than words we use to describe things we either approve of or condemn. Today it’s all about US and how we feel. Students are asked not what they think about their reading (if they have done any) but how they feel. And they are asked to write “reaction papers,” rather than thought papers. And outside, in the “real” world, ask any Tom, Dick, or Sally and they will tell you it’s all a “matter of opinion.”

But one who took seriously the notion of evil was Hannah Arendt who, in 1963, was asked to write a series of articles for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Granted, the “final solution” was close enough in the memories of many people to make such a series of articles timely and pertinent. In fact, they were later collected in a book, published by Penguin under the title Eichmann  in In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil.  Note, please, the sub-title. Arendt’s point was that folks like Eichmann are just like us. He was nothing more, and nothing less, than a bureaucrat, a tiny little man who simply did what he was told to do. In her words:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

The thing about the Holocaust that is so deeply disturbing, along with the fact that many deny it ever happened, is the strange matter-of-fact manner in which the “Final Solution” was carried out.  Hannah Arendt was appalled by the indifference with which people like Eichmann went about the business of calmly eliminating from the face of the earth over six million human beings. Such people are hollow: they have no soul. Eichmann never turned on the gas, but he was intent on making sure the trains ran on time so the victims could be delivered to their execution on schedule. He was not especially sadistic; he probably never thought about the people who were being gassed at all. But his callous indifference goes to the heart of Arendt’s dismay over his behavior. He was “just doing his job.” Evil can indeed be “banal.”

In a longer observation earlier in her book, Arendt seems to be providing a corollary on Burke’s statement quoted at the outset of this post:

“For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Of course, for any of this to make any sense whatever, we must first accept that the Holocaust did happen — it was not a fiction. And, secondly, we must accept that evil is indeed a fact of life. It is real and some of us, indeed, many of us, are capable of committing evil actions or going along with others who commit them. One would think that both of these things would be easy to accept, but in this age of Newspeak and “false news” it may be too much to ask. We are asked, instead, to forget the past and get caught up in the chaos of the present, to accept lies as the truth and go along with the atrocities that are committed in the name of making America “Great” again. We are overwhelmed each day with information and misinformation mixed together in such a way that it takes the greatest possible effort of will, intellect, and attention to separate the two. Most people simply do not bother. And with our education system failing fewer and fewer people are able to make the separation even if they wanted to.

We would do well to pause and reflect on the nature of evil — which is very real — and the things that have happened in the past that inform the present and should make us wary of so much of what is going on around us. Arendt was right: evil is banal. And while it may be something any one of us is willing to engage in, we should seek above all else to be one of those who recognizes it for what it is and who simply says “No.” With emphasis.

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“My” Truth

In a comment she made to a post I wrote about the nature of truth and falsity, Sha’Tara made the following remark: “In my world there is no truth whatever unless it is ‘my’ truth. . . “ I dismissed this claim as “indefensible,” which was a bit flippant. It deserves closer examination, though in the end I will try to show why it is indefensible. In effect the position is what has been called “solipsism,” and it has been around since humans began to think about truth and falsehood. The position rests on the assurance that I am the only one; I alone know about the “world” which is regarded as “real.” Truth, which is my personal fiction, is mine and mine alone.

As I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara, the claim “there is no truth” also claims to be true and this paradox is the key to the dismissal of the position. At best the claim itself is a half-truth. Some truths are mine while most have nothing whatever to do with me. To be sure, we all look at the world differently; each of us brings with us a large suitcase full of bias, prejudice and, at the very least, individual perspective. No question. But we bring this large piece of luggage to a world we share with others who also bring their own luggage. And we try to make sense of it, to make claims that can withstand criticism and which seem evidential. The evidence is itself available to others and can be examined and verified or rejected as the case warrants.

But in the end, claims from the axioms of Euclid (“Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another”) to the claims of the scientist (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) to the claims of the historian (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”) can be verified. They are true because there is considerable intuitive, mathematical, historical, or sensory evidence to support them. They are not “my” truth: they are “our” truth. If we disagree about the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, we must bring evidence forward that provides an indisputable case against that claim. Indeed, like any claim, this one can be dismissed willy-nilly, because no one holds a gun to the head of anyone else (we would hope), but the dismissal is pure whimsy. There are no grounds for doing so, except that it makes the person himself or herself feel good. All the evidence supports the above claims in the parentheses.

The chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book in 1958 titled Personal Knowledge in which he argued that the scientist, no matter how exact the science itself, always brings with him or her a personal element. All claims, even the most precise and exact ones supported by mathematics and empirical observation are couched within a context of “personal knowledge.” Nonetheless, Polanyi insists, the knowledge itself is not in question because of the personal element. Polanyi’s goal was to restore science to a place within the body of human studies, to show that it is human knowledge and not so impersonal and somehow clinical that no one would approach it without rubber gloves and no interest whatever in the relationship between scientific truth and the truth in the social sciences and the Humanities. In a word, Polanyi wanted to substitute for the objective, impersonal ideal of scientific detachment an alternative ideal which gives attention to the personal involvement of the knower in all acts of understanding. But, note please, he did not reject all knowledge or all truth out of hand. Indeed, he affirmed the certainty of certain truths, while admitting the elements of personal involvement in the discovery and formulation of those truths.

The point of all this philosophical rambling is to show that truth is in a sense “mine,” but as truth it is there for anyone else. I am not all alone (solus ipse). I share a world with others with whom I can agree or disagree but with whom I also share a body of knowledge. I can get on the airplane with confidence that it will take off and land safely — because science tells me it is safe. I can drive my car and it will start and stop when I ask it to. The danger in rejecting truth is that we become open to manipulation by those in power who seek to instill in us a body of half-truths and “false facts” that allows them to realize their political goals. We are susceptible to the demagogue and the politically ambitious. We need to insist that there is truth and knowledge available to all who take the time to search and seek to validate it because if we do not do so we have nothing with which to defend ourselves from clap-trap and political nonsense.

This is why education is so important, especially in an age in which there are people “out there” who would have their way with us, convince us that black is white and that theirs is the only truth when, in fact, the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.

True Or False?

I begin with a rather lengthy quote from Wikipedia regarding one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by one group of human beings against another. I refer, of course, to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, also referred to as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, between 1941 and 1945. Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event involving the persecution and murder of other groups, including in particular the Roma and “incurably sick”, as well as ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, gay men and Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in up to 17 million deaths overall.

Germany implemented the persecution in stages. Following Adolf Hitler‘s rise to power in 1933, the government passed laws to exclude Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Starting in 1933, the Nazis built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and people deemed “undesirable”. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Over 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other detention sites were established.

The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question“, discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout German-occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.

There are those among us who would insist that we cannot judge the Nazis because we haven’t walked in their boots. Seriously. There are also those among us who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, who insist that it is a fiction. These people also believe, many of them at any rate, that the moon landing was staged and never happened. I suspect these people also believe the earth is flat and that the sitting President of the United States is an exemplary human being.

What we need to think about when it comes to truth and falsity — which are being conflated these days in order to carry forth hidden agendas by those in power, I strongly suspect — is that the truth need not be pleasant. It need not fit in with our preconceptions and predilections. It can even be a bit ugly — like the truth about the Holocaust. The sheer numbers in the above quote beggar belief. And since the quote is from Wikipedia there are many who would question the truth of those claims. But there is a considerable body of evidence — available to anyone who wants to examine it — that those figures are accurate. Indeed, this is the nature of truth and how we can separate it from the falsehoods that parade as true because we (or someone out there) wants to (us) believe them. The truth can be corroborated by anyone at any time and in any place. Falsehoods cannot: they dissolve in the face of evidence, criticism, and sound argumentation. More than ever before, perhaps, it is imperative that we insist upon the difference between the two.

The way one goes about proving a statement, as we know from the hard sciences, is to seek to disprove the statement. If we cannot do so, we must accept it as true, like it or not. This was once known as the “Socratic method,” the method Socrates used in pleasant conversations with young men in Athens to test the claims that were floating about in the air — seeing if he could prove them to be mere “wind-eggs.” So much of what we hear today is in that category and we, as responsible adults, should dismiss them out of hand and insist that we be told the truth.

There is much to learn from history and we ignore it to our peril. We must test all claims, including those of historians — and if they are any good they would insist that we do so. But if those claims can stand the test of criticism and review then we must accept them, like it or not. That’s the nature of truth.

Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

The Real Villains

Bernie Sanders knew who the real enemy is — and it isn’t the Republican Party or our clown President. They are a mere diversion. The real villains in the political drama that is playing out before our eyes are the corporations. And because Sanders was becoming too loud he had to be silenced. The Democratic Party, which is funded by the corporations in large measure (as, of course, is the Republican Party) saw to it that his candidacy came to an end. He has been set aside and is now no more than a whimper, something the corporations can ignore because the rest of us can’t hear him, or refuse to listen.

The corporations are the modern face of capitalism and many of the criticisms by people like Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism) are more properly directed at the corporations than they are at capitalism, per se. The corporations were recently allowed to come from behind the political curtain and declare themselves openly when, in “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court determined that corporations are persons and entitled to make huge donations to the political parties without having to do so under the table. As a result their cover is blown, but they are now beyond our reach because we do not know who the hell they are! That’s the problem, and that’s precisely why they are NOT persons: they are insubstantial and they cannot be found responsible for their misdeeds because they are like a shadow that suddenly is no longer there. Assigning responsibility to the corporations is like nailing Jello to the wall:  it cannot be done. They will be bailed out when in financial difficulty by the government, which they own, and if they should be discovered doing the dirty they will throw one of their own under the bus — or cover over the mess like the Valdez oil spill, with clever P.R. They are insidious because they are essentially vaporous and operate in secret.

Mark Fisher paints a vivid picture the Kafkaesque world of the corporations which is now our world. And toward the end of his book he outlines for us the effects of capitalism on the family and education — two of the pillars of our civilization — and the sorry state to which each has been brought mainly because of corporate influence. I quote him at some length because his message is worth pondering:

“It is the parents’ following of the trajectory of the pleasure principle, the path of least resistance, that causes most of the miseries in the families. In a pattern that quickly becomes familiar, the parents’ pursuit of the easy life leads them to accede to their children’s every demand, which becomes increasingly tyrannical.. . .

“The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to be based on rejecting. In a culture in which the ‘paternal’ concept of duty has been replaced by the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment. Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents work; in these conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will often be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of the [corporations] to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear) to want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego — the stern father in the home — is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results in a refusal to challenge or educate?”

Corporations remain out of focus in our world of constant entertainment and diversion — provided, of course, by the corporations (who also see to it that both parents must work in order to “provide for their families”). Thus the corporations are able to determine not only political but cultural outcomes while remaining  anonymous. And those outcomes are always about the same thing: profits for their shareholders and C.E.O.s. The shareholders themselves feel they are benefitting because they enjoy a higher standard of living and are able to take advantage of the diversions provided for them by  — wait for it — the corporations! It is a circle, and it is a vicious circle. Bernie Sanders saw this clearly. But his voice has been silenced. Will anyone have the courage to speak up — say, Elizabeth Warren? Or will her voice also be silenced as well before she can shout “wolf” loud enough to be heard by those who really don’t want to listen.

In any event, the notion that we live in a “democracy” is no longer tenable. In fact, we live in a tyrannical bureaucracy run by numerous powerful corporations that are above the law because they determine what the laws will allow or disallow. The founders worried about the influence of money on the tenuous threads that hold a Republic together, but they never, in their worse nightmares, imagined the power that could be wielded by giant multinational corporations. The Republic they envisioned, resting as it  precariously did on the balance of powers, has been replaced by the all-powerful corporations and the unimaginably wealthy few who run the show.

 

 

 

Motion Sickness

Have you ever thought about how much is going on around us all the time — filling our eyes and ears? There is constant motion and noise. It’s so much a part of our world we scarcely notice it, though in our cities it never stops: the air planes taking off and landing, the police and ambulance sirens, the cars and trucks on the Interstates, and the hub-bub of constant people noise. It never stops. Even in rural areas there are the barking dogs, the trains and motorcycles, loud pickups and kids’ cars with their modified mufflers, and the occasional crop duster roaring in the distance. Noise.

And if you watch TV for a while without paying attention to what is on you will notice that it now consists of thousands of quick shots from various angles — a frantic download of pictures in constant agitation. It jars the nerves and rattles the brain. It can’t be good, though I am not aware of any studies to help us understand what this constant noise and movement does to our nervous system.

I am not talking about the actual events portrayed on the television or reported in our papers and on the radio. That is enough to chill the bones — especially these days with “false news” and lie after lie trying to scare the bejesus out of us. But I speak about the constant agitation. As I say, it can’t be good.

Lionel Trilling wrote an essay in 1976 about a class he was putting together at Columbia University on the novels of Jane Austen. He wanted the class to be small, about 20 students, but over a hundred signed up! He culled the group and managed to reduce the number to 40, but he was astonished that so many students would want to read an author who wrote novels so long ago. He thought about it and concluded it was because in Austen’s day “there were more trees than people.” This was a cute way to get across the point that those young people were tired of all the noise and agitation (even in 1976!) and wanted to retreat to a calmer and quieter world, the world of Jane Austen. Austen lived between 1775 and 1817. She wrote most of her novels in the early part of the nineteenth century.

A generation later George Eliot (who was born two years after Austen’s death and was the wisest of women) could already express her exasperation over the noise and agitation that was growing around her. Between Austen and Elliot the Industrial Revolution had burst forth in all its glory, noise, and pollution — visual, nasal, and aural! One of my favorite passages in Eliot’s novels is the following in which she expresses her own feelings about the coming of the “machine in the garden,” as it has been called. She pined for a time when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

There is no way we can turn back the clock. And as I have noted in previous posts, I would not want to do so (for the most part). But there was a time when people took things slowly and had time to reflect and enjoy the world around them. Things took time; that was just a fact of life. As things stand at present we are always in a hurry and are surrounded by noise pollution and constant visual agitation, as noted. Ours is a hectic world and one in which we cannot find time to simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the world around us. For the most part, the world won’t let us: it obtrudes. But even when it does let us escape, when we retreat to a quiet nook away from the noise and agitation, we take our electronic toys with us in order to listen to our tunes and to make sure we don’t miss out on anything important — like the latest photo on our phones of our friend’s evening meal or the cute trick by her pet poodle. Important stuff.

Eliot was right. Things happen too fast and furiously and it is not good for the soul. We need to “take a nap” every now and again, get away from it all — and I mean ALL — and think about the many good and beautiful things that surround us. And forget the noise and agitation and especially forget the folks that seem to be running the show these days who simply add to the noise and agitation without making our world even a little bit better.

Capitalist Realism

I am reading a short book with the above title written by Mark Fisher. The author is a teacher in England who is both well read and articulate, though a bit enamored of postmodern jargon. His argument is a fascinating blend of insight and overstatement.

An example of his tendency to overstatement is his sweeping generalization about the inevitable destruction of the planet by “capitalist realism.” As he would have it, “. . .capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” This claim flies in the face of the endeavors of such people as Elon Musk and the growth, world-wide, of the renewable energy movement which is clearly driven by the profit motive. The fact is that alternative energy is a step in the direction of saving, not destroying, the planet. And it is a step taken by capitalists — and those governments that support capitalism.

Fisher also conflates religion and superstition, almost in passing, as do so many intellectuals. The two are not the same, though in the case of many devotees the differences may be hard to make out. Superstition is a crutch the fearful lean upon to help them make it through the day and it attempts to explain the mysterious in simple terms that can be understood by the tiniest minds. It is above all things self-regarding.  Religion, on the others hand — at least in principle — requires faith in a Being greater than the self and demands constraints on impulse and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the name of sympathy, if not love, for others. In a word, religion demands that its followers do their duty; superstition demands nothing.

But when it comes to the topic of education, which is close to Fisher’s heart, the man has important things to say. Much of what he says rings true and echoes my own experience and that of the folks I have read and spoken with who are also concerned about the sorry state of education in our day.

Fisher worries about what he calls the “post-disciplinary framework” within which education finds itself today, a time when the very notion of discipline has been lost in the wave of education’s gobble-de-gook about “self-esteem” that leads invariably toward a sense of entitlement in the spoiled child. He worries, as do I, that education has also succumbed to the dreaded business model and is now all about profit and loss rather than about the students and their ability to function in an increasingly complicated world. He has also discovered the truly disturbing effects of the fascination on the part of the young with electronic toys and the social media. He is aware, as are growing numbers of people (backed by several recent studies) that they are addictive and that they stand between the young and their ability to use their minds in a thoughtful and productive way — a way that will benefit them and those around them. He draws upon first-hand experience to help us understand the pitfalls of the digital age in which these young people live and thrive:

“Ask students to read more than a couple of sentences and many — and these are A-level students mind you — will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it is boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is of issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed ‘boring.’ What we are facing here is not the time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. . . .

“The consequences of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated, impassivity, an inability to connect or focus. Students’ incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation . . . . What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture — a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”

In a word, the new electronic toys to which the young have become enslaved are standing between them and the possession of their own minds. They cannot possibly become educated citizens who are involved and able to creatively address the problems they will indubitably face in the future. Worse yet,

“By contrast with their forbears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged . . .[Moreover, they] seem resigned to their fate.”

Fisher blames it all on capitalism and he may be right. I suspect he is. But whether he is right or wrong about the cause of the inability of today’s young to become responsible participants in their own future what he says is disturbing, to say the least. And while many will dismiss his claims on his inability to understand the young — the latest version of the generation-gap — we must remind ourselves that he is himself young and much involved with others younger even than himself. And, more to the point, he just may be right. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger and think about what he is saying.

The Canon

The word I have used in my title refers not to the large gun, called a “cannon,” but to a list of sacred works that need to  be protected against the erosion of time. The latter meaning has come to be used to refer to a list of “Great Books” which should be read by all who can read. This list has of late it been called “elitist”  or irrelevant by the multicultural hordes who have taken over the universities and now dictate, in large measure, what the students read — if they read at all.

In 1994 Harold Bloom wrote a large book about the “Western Canon” that included a long list of the books he thought were not necessarily sacred but at any rate ought to be read by anyone who treasures the thoughts of those who have lived before us and who have had important things to say. His book was a best-seller, but has done nothing to quiet those in the academy determined to bring down Western Civilization itself in the name of “justice” and “fairness.”  Those who would defend a list of books written by “dead, white, European males” (as is charged) are a dying breed and students in our colleges and universities now have been turned in the direction of correcting the many wrongs that have occurred in the past, as determined by their professors, and away from the thoughts of great minds. Indeed, the argument is that there are no great minds or, indeed, any such thing as “greatness” itself. We live in a relativistic age in which there is no truth, only opinions or “alternative facts.”

I will print a full disclosure, which will come as no surprise to any who have read more than one or two of my posts: I was educated at a small college in Annapolis, Maryland where we spent four years reading the “hundred Great Books,” as they were then called. We never counted them. We just read them and discussed them in small groups in an attempt to help us think a bit about the most pressing problems exceptional minds worried about in the past and which continue to perplex us today. I am, therefore, a defender of the Canon, I guess, though we never referred to the list of books in that manner. We revered them, of course, but we did not regard them as sacred. We were asked to participate in the “great conversation” with the best minds that had ever set pen to paper.

The multiculturalists who have taken over the colleges and universities intent upon correcting past errors, and who, I strongly suspect, have never read most of the Great Books, insist that those books have brought about the many of the ills that now affect society. They dismiss the books out of hand as simply an attempt by past educators to instill in the minds of the young wrong-headedness, a sort of indoctrination which they will now correct by replacing those wrong ideas with their own. However, as was clear to those of us who read and discussed these books, no two authors in the entire list agreed about much of anything. They were anything but monolithic. Thus reading and discussing the Great Books cannot be viewed as a form of indoctrination because of the sheer variety of the ideas contained in those books. There is no single message. There are thousands of messages and the only way out of the morass is to begin to form ideas of one’s own. One need not be told that the West has a record of injustice if one reads the words of those who have again and again addressed the question: what is justice? One figures it out on one’s own — as one should.

In a word, the Canon should be defended and read in our schools because it contains the best that has been thought and written for thousands of years. It need not contain only the thoughts of those in the Western world who have written; it can be broad enough — indeed it should be broad enough — to include the best that has been thought and written in the East as well. But the selection ought to be carefully made and based on aesthetic criteria and the principle that no single “message” should come through except that what is being read is important and has influenced the minds of those who have gone before us.

Education is not about indoctrination. It is about enabling the young to take possession of their own minds. Education is about freedom, true freedom, and it should not be directed by a handful of instructors who have a not-so-hidden agenda to save the world. It should be directed by the Canon, because the best teachers are the books themselves. And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.

Infantile Narcissism

Near the end of a most interesting essay on “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Lionel Trilling has a brief summary of one of the many insights Freud had into human psychic development. It deserves serious reflection because regression is a phenomenon of increasing familiarity.  As Trilling notes:

“According to Freud, in the very earliest stages of infancy, the self is not experienced, let alone conceived, as separate from its environment. In the first months of life the universe is, as it were, contained within the infant’s sensory system. Only by gradual stages in the process of maturation does the infant come to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it, and learns to surrender the omnipotence of its subjectivity. Recognizing the imperative nature of the objectified universe, the infant acquires the ability to deal with the external world in individual acts of will. Thus it survives, and to the agency of its survival, to that element of the psychic economy which has guided the infant in making this necessary differentiation between itself as subject and the world as object, Freud gave the name of ego.

“The development of the ego is a process of infinite complexity, of which one aspect is its periodic reluctance to go forward in its growth. Sometimes it is tempted to regress to a less active and effectual stage, even to turn back to the comfortable condition of subjective omnipotence, to the megalomania of infantile narcissism.”

Freud called this the development of the “reality principle,” the slow and at times painful awareness that the self is not all, that there are cruel necessities “out there” that are separate from us and demand our attention. To the extent that the world becomes more threatening, to the extent that our attention turns back upon itself and dwells on its own immediate pleasures and desires, to that extent is growth and maturity stunted. And it is this phenomenon that demands our attention, because today we demand that the world be of our own liking and to the extent that it is not, to that extent is its objectivity denied and the truths that are painful twisted into “alternative facts” and “false news.” The phenomenon of “regression” is of particular interest.

Recently ours is a world of immediate gratification, a world in which our desires are satisfied as soon as they are felt — like those of the infant who cries and is fed or changed. Indeed, increasingly we seem to lack the ability to mature, to grow as adults and face the demands of a world not of our own making. Instead we retreat into our world of things which we have “bought” on time — because we want them now, not later, a world of pleasure where everything is as we would have it be. If our world is not as we would have it be, we reject it and refuse to allow that it is real. We seem to have developed a very weak reality principle, as Freud would have it, and prolonged our infancy well into old age. As Trilling notes, in the normal maturation process the infant as he ages “comes to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it.” We seem to struggle with that realization, to fight against it. Triggered, perhaps, by our growing fear and uncertainty we submerge ourselves in a world of entertainment — including, but not restricted to, the electronic toys that allow us to prolong the illusion that we are in total control of the world around us. This supports Trilling’s contention that many of us may be regressing to a stage of “infantile narcissism.”

What to do? It would seem that until or unless we address the matter head-on it will simply grow worse. We need to come out of ourselves, admit that the world is not of our own making, that things are not always as we would have them be, in order to begin to grow as human beings. Above all else, though Freud pays little attention to this feature of human development, we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment. These are key ingredients to developing a healthy reality principle, an adult relationship with the world around us.

The alternative, as Freud would have it, is to continue to wish, unconsciously no doubt, to return to the womb where it was safe and warm and all our needs were immediately gratified. That’s not the “real” world; that is the world of “subjective omnipotence,” the “megalomania of infantile narcissism.”

Truth In Art

In this day of “false news,” alternative facts, and countless untruths told by our sitting president, it seems appropriate to turn once again to the age-old question of whether there is any truth in (of all things) art. At the very least it might help us recall that there is truth (and falsity) and that at times it hides its face but remains there for those who wish to take the time and trouble to look for it.

There are three ways in which something can be said to be true. In all three cases there must be corroboration by others. A statement can be said to be true if it corresponds with a fact. Thus “The president tells porkies” is true if, in fact, he does so. (And, as we all know, he does.) A statement can also be said to be true if it “fits in with” a body of known facts. Thus the statement that “humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor” is true if it accords with a body of known facts — based on such things as the fossil records. This is known as the “coherence” theory of truth. And the third way in which something can be said to be true is if it is intuitively clear. We “see” it with the “mind’s eye,” as it were. This is the sense in which there is truth in the fine arts, including literature. Intuitive truth, which tends to be a bit subjective, must accord with common sense and be plausible.

To begin with literature, a good novel tells us a  great deal about the human condition — its strengths as well as its foibles. I just finished William Dean Howells’ short novel about The Rise of Simon Lapham, for example, and he does a skillful job of depicting the pretense of blue-blood Bostonians and their tendency to look down their noses at all who are beneath them — which includes all who are not to the manor born, not themselves several generations of Bostonians. The novel tells about Simon Lapham’s attempts to be accepted by the more “cultured” Bostonians. He has become very wealthy but his money cannot buy their acceptance. He eventually goes bankrupt and this is the start of his “rise.” As the narrator tells us, in one of those flashes of insight that marks the exceptional novel (there being so many more important things than mere wealth):

“Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and trickle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him.”

In painting the artist seeks to show us the soul of the person whose portrait she paints or the hidden beauty in the ordinary landscape we are presented with on the canvas. The dancer seeks to show us the grace of human movement while the actor draws us into the world of another to enable us to know ourselves and our fellows on a deeper level. Even the raised middle finger of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who placed a urinal in a museum, reveals our own pretense as we wander through art galleries and museums and glory in our self-importance — instead of acknowledging our own ignorance.

In a word, the artist who creates is intent upon showing us our own world in a clearer and more detailed fashion. She opens our eyes to the world around us and takes us out of ourselves — at least for a brief moment. This is a good thing in a world in which we tend to get lost within ourselves and preoccupied with our own small selves. We need to be reminded that our world is a world of tender beauty along with the mess we have created with our attack on the earth, our crass business models, and our dirty politics. There is considerable truth in the works of the poets and novelists as well as the painters, actors, and even in the music that is created to open our ears to the sounds around us and quiet the storms within. We need simply to open our eyes and ears.

In a world in which truth has been reduced to subjective opinion and annoying facts are dismissed as fictions, it is good to remind ourselves that there is, indeed, a deeper truth available to us in the works of genius that are readily available. Those works abound and the truth they reveal is undeniable and lends the lie to the notion that all is whatever we want to make of it. Truth in art is not always pleasant, but it commands our assent if we simply attend to what the artist has to say.