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Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

It’s fatal when I’m left to wait with time on my hands near a book shop, especially with three book tokens burning a hole in my wallet – well, it’s perhaps more accurate to say they were making it too thick to fit comfortably into my pocket. I had nearly half-an-hour to kill within one hundred yards of a Waterstones. I gravitated first towards my usual ground floor book-stacks – Smart Thinking, hoping I’d learn how to do it one day, and Biography. Zilch. History was tucked into a corner to my left. I usually don’t bother. History books bore me as a general rule.

Not this time. For some reason one book I wasn’t remotely looking for leapt out at me: The Islamic Enlightenment. I pulled it down and skimmed the inside of the dust cover. I saw the words ‘brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn.’ I flipped to the index. ‘Baha’ism 144-147.’ 

Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.

I quickly Googled for reviews and came across this one from the Guardian. There were clearly many other good reasons to buy this book, which is lying on my desk at this very moment along with several others, waiting its turn to be read in a rather long queue. Below is a short extract from the review: for the full post see link.

A celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.

Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.

The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.

The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.

On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake. I realised too late that I had jumped over two posts to leap to 5a – so here they come, better late than never!

At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.

It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.

In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:

There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.

Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.

We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’

The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.

Guernica

The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon[1], an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by, them.

Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth[2] next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

My edition of Shelley

It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:

Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

I could only fill in the gaps without further research because Holmes, Wroe and my Blackwell edition had done so.

The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):

Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.

Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.

Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.

Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.

What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.

800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin

Goya’s ‘El tres de Mayo’ (for source of image see link)

What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.

Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.

Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.

It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.

Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.

This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.

In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.

[1] John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.

[2] Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.

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EdmundsonAs I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.

It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.

In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:

There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.

Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.

We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’

The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.

Guernica

The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon[1], an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by, them.

Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth[2] next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

My edition of Shelley

It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:

Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

I could only fill in the gaps without further research because Holmes, Wroe and my Blackwell edition had done so.

The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):

Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.

Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.

Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.

Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.

What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.

800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin

Goya’s ‘El tres de Mayo’ (for source of image see link)

What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.

Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.

Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.

It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.

Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.

This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.

In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.

[1] John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.

[2] Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.

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The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, and would think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny or be carried away by wrath.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 136)

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality from under one’s feet.

(Twilight of the Gods: Friedrich Nietzsche)

There are two kinds of book that normally cause me problems: books about physics and books about philosophy. My shelves are populated with many such volumes whose bookmarks stall about halfway through, just about where good intentions foundered on the rocks of complete incomprehension.

At last, though, I’ve found a philosophy book that I could finish and not only that: I could follow its main lines of argument relatively easily and immediately see their relevance to our problems today. This is the book.

Neiman’s starting point is to renege on the ‘non-interference pact’ in which philosophers agree not to meddle with the details of history as it unfolds and historians sign up not to interfere with morality. She sees it as critical that philosophical acumen is brought to bear on political realities. Once she has asserted her right to participate in the debate, she proceeds to argue that the typical understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is flawed. In her view, though deeply intertwined, they are essentially independent. Her position, though, is not simplistic (page 112):

To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.

While I still think it is possible and rational to argue the case for a different relationship between religion and morality, one which places our idea of God not just our idea of good at centre stage, her position leads to some interesting possibilities not least a revision of the current distortion of the enlightenment viewpoint. This is typically seen to be atheist with a potentially lethal utopian view of the power of reason (see John Gray’s Black Mass for an eloquent example of this view). By contrast she contends (page 126):

The Enlightment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress is necessary, only that it is possible.

She goes on to add that the Enlightenment also confronted torture and inherited privilege. She sees it as referring back to Plato’s belief that truth, beauty and goodness are connected. She goes onto examine in detail its commitment to ‘happiness, reason, reverence, and hope.’

She focuses on the thinking of Kant, for example the way he treats the discrepancies between is and ought. She summarises this by saying (page 153):

Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality: reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals.

She argues that (page 158-159):

The gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is too great to be bridged by good intentions. . . . . Ideas are like horizons – goals towards which you can move but never actually attain.

She is wonderfully clear about the relationship between happiness, virtue and social progress (page 177):

Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.

She sees this as an essential corrective to self-righteous abuses of power, especially if we focus on the other person’s concept of happiness not our own. This is very close to the Bahá’í view where we are urged to focus on ploughing our own furrow straight rather than causing ourselves to stray off line by picking holes in our neighbour’s ploughing.

She seeks to correct what she regards as a fundamental misconception of the Enlightenment view of reason (page 190):

One nearly constant theme [of the Enlightenment] was the idea that reason is not omnipotent.

Nor, she feels (page 194), was reason set up as opposed to feeling but rather to its bête noire: ‘authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism.’ Reason, she argues, is what enables us not to be restricted by our biology: we have become able to create our own ends, and should not simply become means to other people’s ends (pages 202-203).

She follows this analysis with detailed examinations of examples through which she seeks to rehabilitate the tarnished concepts of heroism and evil. Her treatment of these nicely complements Zimbardo’s psychological approach, which he explores in depth in The Lucifer Effect.

At the end of the 450 pages of this excellent and supremely accessible book, where does she leave us?

Other posts on this blog, for example on the nature of reflection and the limits of reason, explain in depth why I can’t accept as a complete and adequate explanation her view that reason alone is the means for our transcendence. However, much else that she derives from this argument is compelling.

For example, a key point she makes is that moral conviction and a sense of evil have been highjacked by powerful interests and thereby devalued in the public eye. They need to be reclaimed and put to proper use if we are to understand the nature of the realities that confront us and which demand appropriate and proportional responses.

We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to fear that certain actions – whether we privately feel guilty about them or not – could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.

She concludes her analysis, before moving on to considering particular examples, by stating in ringing terms (page 380):

Evil presents an unacceptable gap between ideals and reality; judging something to be evil is a way of setting limits on what we are willing to endure. The language of good and evil is vulnerable to exploitation because it’s the most powerful language we have. . . . . To abandon talk of evil is to leave that weapon in the hands of those who are least equipped to use it.

This book raises serious and important issues and reflects deeply upon them. While I do not agree with everything she says, I respect the way she says it and have to acknowledge that she has significantly deepened my understanding of these themes.

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the direction our civilisation is taking. And it’s readable enough for me to have finished it – no mean achievement for any author writing from a philosophical perspective.

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