Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

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Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad 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.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.

Are Artists Obligated?

Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.

It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?

During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to  even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.

Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.

We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.

I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.

A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”  His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.

Huck’s Values

In an otherwise insightful introduction to a new edition of five of Mark Twain’s finest novels, Elizabeth Boyle Machlan, Ph.D., makes a fundamental error. She begins with Huck’s fairly long reflection about whether he did the right thing to lie in order to save the runaway slave Jim:

“I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than you do now? No, says I. I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do the right thing when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.

Commenting on this passage, Machlan, Ph.D., tells us that:

“Through Huck, Twain reveals the relativity of right and wrong in a fundamentally unjust society.”

In fact, this passage from Huckleberry Finn does not show the “relativity of right and wrong.” On the contrary it shows the universal nature of certain values, such values as friendship and loyalty and perhaps even true justice. While the boy has been brought up to believe that black men and women are inferior to whites and as slaves they are property that should be returned to their owners, he senses that this is simply quite wrong. That is to say, he is not simply a product of what sociologists like to call “enculturation” since he rejects those values he has been brought up to espouse in favor of a deeper sense that it would be quite simply wrong to turn Jim over to the authorities. Lying is wrong, to be sure, (and he feels bad about that), but telling the truth in this case would be much worse, especially if it means giving up your friend.

It is possible that Twain is embracing the ideas of natural human sympathy that were “in the air” at the time, originating in Scotland and finding their way into the thinking of such diverse thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. This was the notion that there is a strong bond of human sympathy that holds us together. We naturally care about other human beings, even if we don’t know them and even if they are on the other side of the planet. Smith thought this sympathy would keep the capitalist from becoming overly wealthy at the cost of exploiting those who worked for him (!). In any event, we don’t know whether Twain embraced those ideas. But he did sense, as did Huckleberry that there is something more valuable than the value of property ownership that demands the return of slaves fleeing for their lives.

Rather than demonstrate the “relativity” of values, then, Twain is demonstrating the transcendental nature of certain values, what philosophers are inclined to call the “objectivity” of values. Huck Finn is not simply a young boy raised in Missouri to believe that blacks are inferior to whites. He is a sensitive young boy who prizes the friendship that has grown between himself and Jim the slave. He cannot give him up. To do so would bother his conscience at least as much as lying to save his friend’s life.

We do live in a relative age, an age in which we insist that values are relative to individuals or, at best, to  cultures. But Twain is asking us to consider the possibility that there are values that transcend those cultures and which are deeper and more precious — more valuable, if you will. Society, or culture, does not dictate what we hold to be true and false, good or bad. It helps us learn to think about such things and teaches us much about what is and is not important. But while we might be influenced (some more than others) by society, it does not follow that our values are determined by society. Huck Finn, like Socrates, Jesus, and even thinkers such as Edith Wharton, are evidence of individuals who have seen beyond the values of their culture and have embraced deeper values, “objective” values, values that transcend any given culture and are much more difficult to cast aside in a crisis.

Thus, Dr. Machlan is mistaken. She may know a great deal about Mark Twain. But she doesn’t understand the true nature of Huck Finn’s dilemma or, indeed, the nature of objective values that are not to be identified with the values that a particular culture espouses and teaches its young — if, indeed, it bothers to teach the young about values at all. Certain values simply are not relative — not to individuals and not to cultures. Huck sensed that and that is why we think of him as an extraordinary young man and admire his honesty, loyalty, friendship, and good sense.

Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.