Contents of Chapter|
Other Art Historians
Bloom and Edmundson
Morris and Lorenz
Laurens van der Post
Lovejoy, Kuhn, and
the History of Science
John Ruskin was one of the most influential English writers of the nineteenth century. In the 1840’s, while still in his early twenties, Ruskin began his first book, Modern Painters. This book was designed as a defense of the English painter Turner, but it gradually grew into a five-volume work on painting in general. Ruskin followed Modern Painters with The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice. These two works praised Gothic architecture, and contributed to the architectural movement known as the Gothic Revival. Ruskin was the first major writer to devote himself to visual art. The popularity of Ruskin’s works on painting and architecture was a factor in the establishment of art history as a branch of study at major universities. The public was ravished by Ruskin’s eloquent descriptions of nature and art.
Ruskin teaches his readers to see; after reading Modern Painters, Charlotte Brontë said that she felt she had been given a new sense — sight. Ruskin teaches his readers to appreciate nature — to notice clouds, shadows, trees that they hadn’t noticed before. Ruskin also teaches his readers to appreciate architecture — to notice cornices, moldings, pediments that they hadn’t noticed before. Ruskin educates his readers by giving them a greater appreciation of the world around them — both natural and man-made.
During the nineteenth century, European intellectuals seemed to become more fervent about art as they became less fervent about religion; art was becoming a new religion. Ruskin, the leading art critic of the nineteenth century, was more than a critic, he was a prophet, he stirred people’s deepest feelings. Proust had so much admiration for Ruskin that he stumbled through everything Ruskin wrote, despite his scanty knowledge of English. Proust even translated two of Ruskin’s books into French. Proust said of Ruskin, “When I see how mightily this dead man lives, I know how slight a thing death is.” Tolstoy said, “Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but all countries and all times. He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts.”
Just as Mencius thought that only a good man could write good prose, so Ruskin thought that only a good man could create good art. And if an artist didn’t enjoy his work, if his heart wasn’t in it, it wouldn’t be good art; according to Ruskin, only the happy artist could create good art. Ruskin didn’t discuss art by itself, he discussed art in the context of morality, religion, politics, etc. Ruskin connected art to life in general, and thus his art criticism often reaches the level of philosophy. Ruskin believed that modern man couldn’t create good art because he didn’t lead a good life, because he had no religion except the worship of wealth. “A nation cannot last,” said Ruskin, “as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity... go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence.”1
Ruskin gradually evolved from an art critic into an economist. Just as he had connected art to life, so too he connected economics to life. He insisted that wealth and technology were worthless if they didn’t help people to live better. He insisted that, “there is no wealth but life.”2 His best-known work on economics is Unto This Last, a short, powerful book that criticized capitalism. Unto This Last inspired the founders of the British Labor Party, and also inspired Gandhi, who translated it into one of India’s dialects. Many of the ideas expressed in Unto This Last have become widely accepted in our time, such as the idea that there should be an esprit de corps between labor and management.
Ruskin’s complete works fill many volumes because most of his books are lengthy, and many of his lectures have been published. His best short works are the essay “Traffic,” The Seven Lamps of Architecture and Sesame and Lilies.3 The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius is an excellent commentary on Ruskin’s works. The Genius of John Ruskin is the best anthology of his writings.
Bernard Berenson was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1865, but grew up in Boston. Like many intellectuals, Berenson read voraciously during his teenage years. After studying ancient languages at Harvard, Berenson received a scholarship to continue his language studies in Europe. While he was in Europe, he became interested in visual art, and he discovered that there was much uncertainty about who had painted what. While having breakfast with a friend at an Italian café, he decided to make a thorough study of Italian painting, using the scholarly methods he had learned as a language student. “Here at Bergamo,” he said to his friend, “and in all the fragrant and romantic valleys that branch out northward, we must not stop till we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Previtali a Previtali.”4
Berenson’s first books were on Italian painting. The Harvard professor William James, who had taught psychology to Berenson, praised Berenson’s early work for its application of psychology to art criticism. One of Berenson’s early works, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, is a favorite of mine — highly readable and interesting. Like Freud, Berenson turned to more general, philosophical works in his later years. These late works — such as Sketch for a Self-Portrait and Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts — might be the best “forgotten books” of the 20th century. Art specialists have little use for these late works, which were written for educated laymen, for generalists. These late works have no audience today because, in our specialized age, generalists are an endangered species.
Though he was a U.S. citizen, Berenson spent most of his life in Italy. He was often consulted by people who wanted to authenticate paintings, and his consulting work made him rich. He bought a spacious home near Florence, I Tatti. When World War II broke out, he couldn’t bear to leave his beloved home, so he lingered in Italy until it became impossible to leave; eventually the Germans took over his house, and he barely avoided arrest.
Like Hemingway, Berenson was known for his good looks and his numerous affairs. Like Hemingway, Berenson had female descendants who were famous actresses/models. Berenson had the complicated, multi-faceted personality that Hemingway had. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, said that Hemingway had as many different facets as the sketches in a geometry text. Likewise, Kenneth Clark said, “The personality of Mr. Berenson was so strange and complex.”5
While Ruskin exemplifies the Victorian age, Berenson represents the intersection of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. Berenson lived through both world wars, and finally died in 1959 at the age of ninety-four. Berenson tried to carry classical Western culture into the twentieth century. Berenson defended the old values of Western civilization when they were threatened by totalitarian politics and by “modern art.” Berenson lacks Ruskin’s moral fervor. But Berenson didn’t bury himself in the fine points of painting; he believed that visual art should be part of culture in general, and culture should be part of life. Berenson published several volumes of journals, journals that integrate culture and life. His passion for culture didn’t flag in his old age; when he was 80, he wrote a book called One Year’s Reading for Fun.
Like many people before him, Berenson enjoyed life more when he felt it drawing to a close; when he was approaching 90, he said, “I would willingly stand at street corners, hat in hand, asking passers-by to drop their unused minutes into it.”6 He was unwilling to die, and leave his house and library; he wanted to stay around after death, and haunt it. Surrounded by his books, his paintings, his gardens, and his friends, Berenson said, “I have attained Goethe’s promise that what one ardently desires when young one will realize in old age.... It is easy now to live in ecstasy.”7
It’s symptomatic of the decline of modern culture that Berenson’s name isn’t widely known, and his works aren’t readily available. Another modern writer on art, Kenneth Clark, is more widely known than Berenson, partly because he made a television documentary, “Civilization.” Clark wrote excellent prose. I recommend all of Clark’s books: Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo, etc. One might describe Clark as a member of the English school of art history, a school that began with Ruskin; Clark was fascinated by Ruskin, and edited some of his books.
The German school of art history began with Jacob Burckhardt (whom we discussed earlier), and continued with Wölfflin and Panofsky. Burckhardt lived in Switzerland, and during the summer he would walk to Italy to study painting and architecture, then return to Switzerland in the fall, and lecture at the University of Basel about the art works he had seen. Burckhardt wrote Cicerone, which attempts to describe all of Italy’s major art works. Burckhardt’s disciple, Heinrich Wölfflin, was more precise and scientific than Burckhardt, and Panofsky is even more scholarly than Wölfflin. One might compare Burckhardt to a traveler who spends one night in each city, Wölfflin to thetaveler who spends the whole summer studying the art works of one city, and Panofsky to a traveler who spends the whole summer studying the works of one artist in one city. Perhaps every branch of knowledge goes through a similar evolution, from broad survey to narrow specialty.
Wölfflin focused on Renaissance and Baroque art, analyzing the differences between these two periods, and attempting to develop a grand theory of artistic forms. Though his work is occasionally dry and dull, it contains a deep knowledge of art, and a patient reader will find it rewarding. Wölfflin writes thus of Michelangelo:
Erwin Panofsky was born in Germany; only Germany could have produced such an erudite, scholarly writer. Because he was Jewish, Panofsky left Germany in 1933, and came to the U.S.; he ceased writing in German, and began writing in English. He was almost as prolific as Kenneth Clark, treating a wide variety of subjects, including Albrecht Durer, the Renaissance, and Gothic architecture. His specialty was iconology — that is, the meaning of artistic symbols. For example, Durer’s Fall of Man contains, in addition to Adam and Eve, a variety of animals — a mouse, a rabbit, etc.; Panofsky tries to explain what these animals signify. Panofsky’s work is dry and difficult to read; he puts two or three footnotes on each page, as if to test the reader’s patience. If the reader has sufficient patience to keep going, he’ll find that Panofsky’s work is full of profound thoughts and valuable insights.
Rudolf Wittkower was also born in Germany, and also spent much of his career in the U.S. Though not as well-known as Panofsky, Wittkower acquired a high reputation among art historians, chiefly for his works on the Italian Baroque. He also wrote a book of short biographies with his wife, Margot; it’s called Born under Saturn: The character and conduct of artists (it was believed, during the Renaissance, that Saturn’s influence caused genius and melancholy).
I can’t leave the subject of art without mentioning James Cahill’s masterpiece, Chinese Painting. Cahill’s book is clear, concise, profound, and well suited to both the specialist and the general reader. The evolution of Chinese painting styles and aesthetic theories is a remarkable story, a story that will fascinate anyone interested in culture.
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is more than a study of American society, it’s a study of democracy in general, and of modern society in general. Democracy in America is one of the outstanding works of modern times — profound, philosophical, readable. It’s on a par with Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, a book which it resembles in many ways. Though Tocqueville, like Ortega, is generally critical of modern society, his goal is to understand, not to criticize, hence he mixes praise with blame. Democracy in America would be better if it were written in aphoristic form, or if it were skillfully abridged; some of its chapters are dry, and others are repetitious.
Tocqueville matured rapidly and died young. He wrote Democracy in America when he was in his late twenties, and he died before completing the multi-volume work on the French Revolution that he had planned to write. He did, however, complete The Old Regime and the French Revolution, which is an excellent book. Many of the features that Tocqueville found in America, such as political and social equality, he also found in France.
Equality, according to Tocqueville, is the fundamental fact of modern times. Formerly, says Tocqueville, people felt themselves to be part of a class, a group, or a guild, they didn’t feel themselves to be individuals, and even the word “individuality” was unknown. Modern society, however, is virtually classless, and people don’t feel themselves to be part of anything greater than themselves. Even the family has lost its importance, and only the individual remains.
The modern individual, says Tocqueville, cares little about the past or the future, little about religion or culture. The modern individual’s chief concern is money. Though his life is filled with activity, he has no high goals, no vast ambitions, no deep thoughts. Tocqueville is pessimistic about the future of Western civilization:
Tocqueville has been translated into English numerous times; perhaps the best translation is Arthur Goldhammer’s.
Solzhenitsyn, in his speech at Harvard in 1978, remarked on several of the same traits in Western society that Tocqueville observed. Like Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn observed that Western man is obsessed with material things:
Like Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn observed that there is little intellectual freedom in the West, since the media, academia and public opinion reject and persecute views that are outside the mainstream.
Solzhenitsyn notices several traits in Western society that hadn’t yet appeared in Tocqueville’s time. For example, Solzhenitsyn notices a decline in the arts, a decline of courage, an invasion of advertising, and an emphasis on individual rights that leaves society at the mercy of criminals. In short, if Tocqueville’s picture of Western society is bleak, Solzhenitsyn’s is bleaker still.
If one considers Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech to be an essay, it’s one of the most powerful essays ever written; one can’t praise it too highly. It has brevity, the rarest of literary virtues. I also recommend a speech by Solzhenitsyn called “The Relentless Cult of Novelty,” in which he criticizes avant-garde art.10 Solzhenitsyn’s best books are his non-fiction works, The Gulag Archipelago and The Oak and the Calf; I don’t recommend his fiction, which is as harsh and unpleasing as lemon juice.
The purpose of The Gulag Archipelago is to tell the story of the prison camps run by the Russian Communists, and to make sure that the sufferings of the prisoners are remembered. The Gulag is full of vivid stories and interesting anecdotes. But Solzhenitsyn is so appalled by the crimes of the Communists, and so intent on describing them to the world, that he gives the reader too much detail, and the result is a book about 2,000 pages long. This raises questions: is the Gulag a great literary work? Is it a literary work at all? Fortunately, a good abridged version has been made by Edward Ericson. I suggest that the reader start with this abridged version, then continue with The Oak and the Calf, which describes how Solzhenitsyn wrote the Gulag, how he published it in the face of government opposition, etc. I also recommend Michael Scammell’s long biography of Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn is a man on a mission; his mission is to tell the world about one of the greatest crimes in the history of mankind, the murder of around 20-25 million Soviets, who were tortured to death, worked to death, frozen to death, and starved to death by the Soviet government.
Another eyewitness account of Stalin’s camps is Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg (the sequel is called Within the Whirlwind).
Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, discusses some of the same subjects that Solzhenitsyn discussed. But Bloom, being an American, has a more intimate knowledge of Western society than Solzhenitsyn. For example, Bloom understands the importance of rock music in Western society:
Bloom’s chief interest is higher education, hence the subtitle of his book is, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom points out that today’s students have little interest in reading serious literature; today’s students can see that a knowledge of the humanities won’t help them in any career. Today’s professors are specialists who have no interest in culture as a whole. Today’s colleges divide culture into departments, and fail to provide a general education.
Though Bloom’s book is occasionally interesting, it isn’t as profound or as concise as Solzhenitsyn’s speech. While Bloom has talent, Solzhenitsyn has genius. Though Bloom’s book is one of the classics of our time, it isn’t one of the classics of all time.
About ten years after Bloom’s book appeared, Mark Edmundson wrote an essay that was widely read and widely discussed, an essay that resembles Bloom’s book. Like Bloom, Edmundson criticized American higher education, and championed the classics. But while Bloom was fond of Plato and Leo Strauss, Edmundson was fond of Emerson and Whitman. Edmundson’s essay (“On the Uses of the Liberal Arts”) is a superb literary work, as well as a penetrating critique of the modern soul. Both Bloom and Edmundson argue that modern man doesn’t worship heroes, doesn’t admire geniuses, because he wants to feel “comfortable in his skin without having to suffer unpleasant comparisons.”12
While Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn and Bloom have a special interest in American society, Matthew Arnold has a special interest in English society. Arnold was a leading Victorian poet, as well as a literary critic and social critic. Arnold’s essays — “Culture and Anarchy,” “Democracy,” and “Equality” — discuss English society in the late 1800’s, just as Bloom discusses American society in the late 1900’s. Arnold reminds his contemporaries of the importance of culture; he argues that freedom, the right to speak one’s mind, and the right to vote, are of little value if the people lack culture, lack high ideals, and lack great thoughts. Freedom, according to Arnold, is “one of those things... worshipped in itself, without enough regarding the ends for which freedom is to be desired.”13 Freedom in modern society, says Arnold, isn’t leading to any high goal, it’s leading only to anarchy. Likewise, Arnold says that physical health is now being worshipped for its own sake, not as part of a higher ideal. Arnold argues that health and fitness shouldn’t be ends in themselves, just as wealth shouldn’t be an end in itself.
Arnold’s essays are more elegant and cultured than Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, but they aren’t as profound as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech. Arnold’s essays are written for his time, not for all time, hence they’re a kind of journalism, not real literature. If you want to read a book about Arnold, consider Lionel Trilling’s Matthew Arnold.
Weber’s name has become synonymous with sociology. Weber’s most famous book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This book, like many of Weber’s writings, opposes the Marxist view that a nation’s economy shapes its worldview; Weber argues that, on the contrary, a nation’s worldview shapes its economy. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber argues that Protestant beliefs shaped capitalism.
Weber discusses the profound impact that ascetic Protestantism had on the Anglo-American peoples. He says that it destroyed their spontaneity, and even affected their facial expression. (Frenchmen have often described Englishmen as gloomy.) Weber blames ascetic Protestantism for creating the most materialistic civilization in history. The Middle Ages had glorified poverty and begging; some monastic orders relied on begging to support themselves. Ascetic Protestantism, on the other hand, glorified work and material wealth.
While The Protestant Ethic is an interesting and readable book, most of Weber’s other books are dry. One of his books, however, is even more interesting than The Protestant Ethic: his book on Confucianism and Taoism. This book not only explores Confucianism and Taoism, it explores Chinese civilization and the Chinese soul. It sheds light on Western civilization by contrasting it with Chinese civilization. And finally, it discusses Weber’s central idea, namely, the idea that religion and ethics shape economic life.
Weber observes that the Chinese have a certain calmness, a placidity, a “striking lack of ‘nerves’,” an “unlimited patience.”14 Weber ascribes these traits to religion, to the absence of the ascetic religious practices found in the West; he also ascribes these traits to a relatively low usage of alcohol. Weber says that there was no tension in China between “nature and deity,” between “consciousness of sin and need for salvation”; such tension was at the heart of Western civilization. While the Chinese quietly adapted himself to the world, the Westerner rejected the world, aspired toward the perfection of God, and tried to transform his own nature.
An interesting sketch of Weber himself can be found in the introduction to a book called From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Gerth and Mills.
Veblen was an American professor of economics who did most of his writing in the early 1900’s. Veblen doesn’t deal with economics in the narrow sense, but rather with sociology and cultural anthropology. Veblen is best known as the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, a book which sets forth Veblen’s famous theory of “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen is one of the three or four most profound thinkers that America has produced. He has a fresh perspective on human affairs, and he sheds light on many aspects of society.
Just as Huizinga interpreted human affairs in terms of play, so Veblen interprets human affairs in terms of status. The Theory of the Leisure Class begins by arguing that people desire status, they desire the esteem of other people; only exceptional individuals are satisfied with the contempt of other people. How is status obtained? At an early period of history, says Veblen, status was obtained by trophies, by symbols of success in war or hunting. Status could be lost by manual labor, so some hunters had their wives carry the game they had killed back to their home, lest they lose by working the status that they had won by killing. At a later point in history, status was obtained by titles of nobility, coats of arms, etc. Status was also obtained by the possession of numerous women, and numerous slaves or servants.
When Veblen looks at contemporary society, he finds that men who can’t afford servants must rely on their wife to symbolize wealth and obtain status. Wives can symbolize wealth by leisure, by not working. If leisure were hidden and inconspicuous, it wouldn’t confer status, hence leisure must be flaunted, it must be conspicuous. A woman’s leisure can be displayed by having long fingernails, high-heeled shoes, clean clothes, and anything else that’s incompatible with manual labor. Men can show they aren’t laborers, and acquire status, by wearing clean white shirts, shiny shoes, etc. Veblen says that the Chinese custom of foot-binding was a means of displaying a woman’s leisure and obtaining status.
But leisure isn’t the only way to obtain status; consumption can also obtain status. But consumption, like leisure, must be flaunted, it must be conspicuous. An expensive car, for example, is a conspicuous form of consumption because it’s visible even to people who never see your home or your wife’s diamond ring. People strive for wealth, says Veblen, not merely to live, but to obtain status through conspicuous consumption.
Veblen applies his theory of status to religion, and argues that God is the epitome of status. He compares priests to footmen who confer status on their master, and he compares churches to huge palaces that confer status on their owner. He notes that people come to church in their cleanest, most expensive clothes, and they abstain from work on holy days.
The theory of status is Veblen’s central theory, but it isn’t his only theory. Veblen’s writings are full of interesting ideas. I recommend Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, “Christian Morals and the Competitive System,” “Salesmanship and the Churches,” “The Higher Learning,” and “Patriotism and the Price System.”
Desmond Morris is an Englishman who specializes in the study of animals. During the last few decades, Morris has written many books, some about animal behavior, others about human behavior. Like Veblen, Morris has a fresh and interesting perspective on human affairs. While Veblen viewed human affairs in terms of status, Morris views human affairs from the standpoint of animal behavior. Like Veblen, Morris can deepen one’s understanding of man, and of everyday life.
Morris is a student not of human thought, human history, or human nature, but rather of human behavior. He observes how people act — how they walk, how they hold themselves, how they greet each other, etc. He notes that in some primitive societies, people prostrated themselves before their king or their master. Later, kneeling replaced prostration. Later still, curtsying and bowing replaced kneeling. Curtsying is a sort of abortive kneeling, it shows an intention to kneel. Bowing is a way of lowering oneself, and thus showing respect for another. Removing one’s hat is also a way of lowering oneself. Saluting is “a stylized modification of the act of removing the hat,” just as curtsying is a stylized modification of kneeling. Embracing was once a common form of greeting, and is still found in the Latin countries. Russians, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, greet each other by kissing. Morris says that the British restrict body contacts, and prefer the handshake to the embrace. (As Weber said, ascetic Protestantism had a profound impact on the Anglo-American peoples.) When people stand erect and shake hands, it’s a sign of equality, it’s the opposite of prostration, which is a sign of inequality. (As Tocqueville said, equality is the distinguishing feature of modern society.)
When we feel uneasy, says Morris, we often “rearrange ornaments, light a cigarette, clean our spectacles, glance at a wrist-watch, pour a drink, or nibble a piece of food.”15 Morris calls these “displacement activities,” and he observes something similar in the animal world. Observing a group of chimpanzees, Morris notices that subordinate individuals “can easily be identified by the higher frequency of their displacement self-grooming activities. The truly dominant individual can be recognized by the almost complete absence of such actions.”16
Morris isn’t a literary man, and he has little interest in prose style. Morris won’t be as interesting to posterity as he is to us, because human behavior won’t be a new and unexplored field to posterity. If Morris’ works are classics, they’re mortal classics, not immortal classics. The Naked Ape, Morris’ best-known book, is a good introduction to human behavior. I also recommend The Human Zoo, Intimate Behaviour, and Animal Days.
While Morris writes for laymen, Konrad Lorenz, another student of animal behavior, writes mainly for specialists and scholars. While Morris applies his knowledge of animals to the study of humans, Lorenz generally stays within the field of animal behavior. But some of Lorenz’s remarks on animals have obvious analogies in the sphere of human behavior. Lorenz says, for example, that
Lorenz notes that animals can communicate through non-verbal means: “It is incredible, what minimal signs, completely imperceptible to man, animals will receive and interpret rightly.”18
Lorenz’s best book is King Solomon’s Ring. I recommend it highly; it’s a fascinating, concise and readable work on animal behavior. I also recommend On Aggression, which argues that aggression often plays a constructive role among animals; according to Lorenz, aggression isn’t simply the product of the death-instinct, as Freud had argued.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is a book about the life of the American physicist, Richard Feynman. It’s an interesting and amusing book that achieved wide popularity. Feynman had an inquiring mind and an abundance of vital energy, and he had many wild adventures during his life. Feynman was more than a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist; he was also a talented artist and musician. One of the people whom he played drums with, Ralph Leighton, was fascinated by his stories, and thought they should be collected in a book; “Surely You’re Joking” is Leighton’s collection of Feynman’s stories.
This is a case of a good book being created simply and naturally; this is the oldest form of literature — oral literature, storytelling. Feynman told stories because he loved them; Leighton listened to the stories, and later collected them, because he loved them. Feynman didn’t sit down at a desk and say, “I’m going to write a book because I’m a writer,” or “I’m going to write a book because I need to make money,” or “I’m going to write a book because I can’t become a professor if I don’t.” Some of Feynman’s stories are funny, some are thought-provoking, some give the reader an insight into the world of modern science.
Unfortunately, this book has vices as well as virtues. Like most modern books, it’s an un-cultured, un-literary book, and it lacks that rarest of literary virtues, brevity. One suspects that the publisher said, “let’s make this a long book, a 350-page book, so that people will be more apt to buy it, and will be willing to pay more for it. Thus, we’ll maximize our profits.” “Surely You’re Joking” was written to succeed in the modern marketplace, and to satisfy the casual, modern reader. It’s a good modern book, but it falls short of being a classic.
Feynman often wrote for a general audience. If you want to learn about physics, try Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.
Alvin Toffler is a contemporary American writer who deals with sociology, economics and “futurology” (that is, forecasting future developments). I recommend Toffler’s book, The Third Wave, which paints a comprehensive picture of contemporary society. Toffler distinguishes Third Wave civilization from industrial-age civilization, which he calls Second Wave. In Toffler’s view, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution represented the triumph of Second Wave, industrial civilization over First Wave, agricultural civilization. Toffler’s book offers the reader a view of modern history through the lens of economics, and it offers the reader a highly readable sketch of the industrial revolution.
Our age is often called the Post-Industrial Age, or the Consumer Age, or the Information Age. According to Toffler, “For Third Wave civilization, the most basic raw material of all — and one that can never be exhausted — is information, including imagination.”19 At the center of the Information Age is the computer; Toffler accurately predicted the personal computer boom. The computer leads to more people working at home; Toffler predicts that, “the home will assume a startling new importance in Third Wave civilization.”20
While Second Wave civilization was mass-oriented — mass production, mass media, etc. — Third Wave civilization is individualized. Toffler notes that George Orwell predicted a future that was increasingly mass-oriented. Speaking of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, Toffler says,
David Riesman was an American sociologist. Riesman’s fame rests on a book called The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, which was published in 1950.22 Riesman’s work is more timely than Veblen’s and more profound than Toffler’s.
While Toffler sees history in terms of three types of economy, Riesman sees history in terms of three types of character: tradition-directed, inner-directed and other-directed. The tradition-directed person follows the traditions of his family and his village. “The tradition-directed person... hardly thinks of himself as an individual. Still less does it occur to him that he might shape his own destiny in terms of personal, lifelong goals.”23 The inner-directed character, which arose around the time of the Renaissance, feels himself to be an individual, with his own goals. The other-directed character, which arose in the 20th century, tries to heed social cues, and get along with his peers. The famous names from history don’t move him to envy and emulation.
The Lonely Crowd helps one to understand the modern character, just as The Third Wave helps one to understand the modern economy.
The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America is a brief, readable analysis of the American legal system. The author, Philip Howard, is a New York lawyer who is active in civic affairs; Howard deserves credit for his effort to improve New York. The Death of Common Sense emerged from Howard’s many years of political experience, and it includes numerous anecdotes culled from the contemporary scene. Many people felt that the American legal system had gone awry, and when Howard’s book was published, it jumped to the top of the bestseller list because it described the problem, and explained its causes.
Howard describes how individual rights have multiplied, and how government regulations have multiplied. Government power is reduced by the profusion of individual rights, and government officials are shackled by detailed regulations. Though Howard’s style isn’t elegant, and his ideas aren’t profound, his book is a valuable aid to understanding contemporary society.
In addition to The Death of Common Sense, Howard has written three other well-regarded books, The Collapse of the Common Good, Life Without Lawyers, and The Rule of Nobody.
Laurens van der Post was born in South Africa in 1906, the thirteenth of fifteen children. When he was 20, he co-edited a student magazine that advocated greater racial integration in South Africa; the magazine was soon shut down by the government. So van der Post and one of his literary friends hitched a ride to Tokyo on a Japanese freighter — an adventure that van der Post discussed many years later in his autobiographical work, Yet Being Someone Other.
Returning to South Africa, van der Post began working as a journalist in Cape Town. He was critical of racial separation. Just as Lincoln predicted that, in the U.S., blacks and whites would eventually be amalgamated into one race, so van der Post predicted, “the process of leveling up and inter-mixture must accelerate continually... the future civilization of South Africa is, I believe, neither black or white but brown.”
In the early 1930s, van der Post lived in England, and became acquainted with The Bloomsbury Group — John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, etc. Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf, published van der Post’s first novel, In a Province, through their publishing company, Hogarth Press; this novel dealt with race relations in South Africa.
When World War II broke out, van der Post volunteered for the British army (ironically, his father had fought against the British in the Boer War). He served first in East Africa, where his unit led 11,000 camels through difficult terrain, and helped to restore Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne, a throne from which Mussolini’s troops had expelled him. In early ’42, he was sent to Indonesia, where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese; he remained imprisoned until the end of the war.
His prison-camp experience was the basis for his book The Seed and the Sower, which became the movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
After the war, colonial authorities twice commissioned van der Post to explore remote areas of South Africa. His first expedition resulted in a bestselling book called Venture to the Interior; the second resulted in van der Post’s most famous book, The Lost World of the Kalahari (and later a book about the Bushmen called The Heart of the Hunter). Van der Post’s experiences with the Bushmen became the subject of a BBC documentary.
In the late 1940s, van der Post met Jung, who “was to have probably a greater influence upon him than anybody else, and he later said that he had never met anyone of Jung’s stature.”25 Van der Post wrote a book called Jung and the Story of Our Time. Late in his life, van der Post helped establish a center for Jungian studies in Cape Town.
Van der Post described his travels in the Soviet Union in A Journey Into Russia (also known as A View of All the Russias). He described his experiences in Indonesia in The Admiral’s Baby (this book discusses Indonesia after World War II — the independence movement, etc.). His knowledge of Dutch (acquired in South Africa) proved useful in Indonesia, just as his rudimentary knowledge of Japanese (acquired on his early voyage to Japan) proved useful in the Japanese prison camp.
His last years were spent in England, where he advised Margaret Thatcher on African affairs, and became close friends with Prince Charles. Charles viewed van der Post as an older and wiser man — much as van der Post had viewed Jung. Charles went on safari with van der Post, and asked him to be the godparent of his first child, William.
Van der Post’s life spanned the twentieth century; he died in 1996, at the age of 90. After he died, debunkers emerged, insisting he was a rascal, a liar, etc., just as debunkers attacked Freud, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Shakespeare, etc. True, every great man has flaws, but why should we spend our time reading debunkers?
James Frazer became famous as the author of The Golden Bough, which deals with cultural anthropology — that is, the customs, superstitions and religions of primitive societies. Cultural anthropology was a new and exciting field in the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche was fascinated by cultural anthropology; Nietzsche said that what is called “world history” is only current events, and that the real history of mankind is the long history of primitive man that preceded so-called “world history.” In The Golden Bough, Frazer collected and organized the anthropological research of the late nineteenth century. The Golden Bough is a long, dry work, suitable for scholars, but unsuitable for the average reader, for the layman. I recommend the abridged version, which was made by Frazer himself, and which Frazer recommended.
Primitive man, according to Frazer, doesn’t distinguish between the internal world and the external world. Primitive man thinks that nature is governed by the same thoughts, feelings and passions that govern his own mind; the primitive worldview is animistic. While the primitive views the world in terms of his own mind, he views his own mind in terms of the world, and explains thoughts and feelings in physical terms. Primitive man thought that sorrows and sins could be transferred to inanimate objects, to other people, to scapegoats. In primitive society, tired walkers would strike themselves with stones, thinking they were transferring their fatigue to the stones, and ridding themselves of fatigue. The stone mounds thus left along trails have become known as cairns.26
While The Golden Bough is long and dry, From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie Weston, is brief and interesting. From Ritual to Romance deals with the Holy Grail, first as an ancient ritual, and later as a Christian symbol. Weston argues that many primitive religions were life-affirming: “In the ancient Aryan religion everything is aimed at the affirmation of life. The phallus can be considered its dominant symbol.”27 Weston’s book is best known as one of the sources of T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.
The French archaeologist Salomon Reinach wrote about primitive religion and also wrote Orpheus: A History of Religions, a book that’s both scholarly and popular. The introduction to Orpheus is an excellent summary of the cultural anthropology of the nineteenth century. Later in the book, Reinach discusses the history of religion after primitive times, beginning with the Egyptians and Babylonians, and ending with the early twentieth century. Reinach is a free-thinker, and often treats religion with contempt; he’s especially critical of the Catholic Church. Reinach attacks religion with the weapons of anthropology and Biblical criticism. In addition to Orpheus, Reinach wrote Apollo, a concise and readable history of art, and Minerva, an introduction to the Greek and Roman classics.
D. T. Suzuki wrote numerous books on Zen Buddhism, and played an important role in making Zen popular in the West. Suzuki has a deep knowledge of Zen literature, and of Eastern literature in general. He’s also familiar with Western literature, and often points out similarities between Zen and Christianity. Born and raised in Japan, Suzuki spent many years in the U.S., and wrote many books in English. Suzuki’s work is large in quantity, but uneven in quality; he often repeats in one book what he said in another book. I recommend his Introduction to Zen Buddhism and his Zen and Japanese Culture.
While Buddhism developed in India, Zen developed in China. After making its way from China to Japan, Zen became more influential in Japan than in China. (It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the West learned about Zen from a Japanese writer, not from a Chinese writer.) According to Suzuki, Zen expresses the practical, earthy character of Chinese thought, while other forms of Buddhism express the abstract, metaphysical character of Indian thought.
Zen doesn’t emphasize books and learning. Zen steers the individual into himself, into his own mind. If the individual is in harmony with himself and with his own unconscious, he can appreciate the present moment and appreciate nature. When a Zen master was asked about the meaning of Zen, he said,
Drinking tea, eating rice,
Suzuki’s aim is to help the reader to understand Zen, not to practice Zen. If one seeks guidance in practicing Zen, one should turn to a practical book like Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living isn’t a literary work, let alone a classic, but it’s a useful introduction to meditation, yoga, etc.
Two of Suzuki’s Western admirers are Alan Watts and R. H. Blyth. Watts was an American theology professor who specialized in Eastern thought, especially Zen. Watts was a writer of extraordinary talent, and I highly recommend his book, The Way of Zen, which is well-organized, profound and poetic. The Way of Zen is the best summary of Zen, the best summary of Eastern thought, though somewhat difficult to read. I also recommend two other Watts books, The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Book; these two books are easier to read than The Way of Zen.
R. H. Blyth was an Englishman who traveled to Japan, married a Japanese woman, taught at Japanese universities, and taught English to members of the Japanese imperial family. His knowledge of English poetry and fiction is evident in his book, Zen in English Literature, which is saturated with quotations from both Eastern and Western literature. Blyth could read both Chinese and Japanese (as well as numerous European languages), and this helped him to write a 4-volume work on haiku poetry, and a 4-volume work on the history of Zen. Blyth can teach one much about Zen and about world literature.
Another excellent book about Zen is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. Zen Flesh is made up of four small books, bound together as one 200-page book. The four books that constitute Zen Flesh are:
All four of these mini-books are highly poetic and highly profound, except “The Gateless Gate,” which is highly obscure. “101 Zen Stories” is one of the gems of world literature.
Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the chief apostle of Eastern philosophy alive today. Hanh gives many talks/seminars/retreats in the U.S. and elsewhere, and he publishes many books. Hanh has been a peace activist since the 1960s, when he advocated American withdrawal from Vietnam; he terms this activism “engaged Buddhism.” His writing is simple, clear, readable, with a certain child-like naivete. “The miracle is not to walk on water,” Hanh says, “the miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” Hanh has a broad knowledge of the Buddhist tradition and of modern science, but less knowledge of Western philosophy and literature.
Before leaving the subject of Zen literature, I must mention Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy professor who lived in Japan during the 1930s. This 80-page book describes the author’s effort to learn about Zen by studying the art of archery. Like many arts in Japan, archery was permeated by Zen; an archery Master was also a Zen Master. Herrigel describes how he tried to use conscious thought in releasing the arrow, but his teacher insisted that the arrow must be released spontaneously, without conscious thought, like an infant releasing his grip on your finger, like snow falling from a bamboo leaf. Zen in the Art of Archery is a powerful, moving work, a work that the reader will never forget.
Like Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Rinpoche is a contemporary apostle of Eastern philosophy. Rinpoche was born in Tibet, and spent his early years there; he’s steeped in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Rinpoche’s most well-known book is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which is readable and profound, an excellent blend of parable, anecdote, and argument. It can serve as an introduction not only to Tibetan Buddhism, but to Buddhism in general. It contains doctrines about the after-life that are unique to the Tibetan tradition, but it also has the sort of universal wisdom that anyone would appreciate — Socrates would like it, Confucius would like it, Hoffer would like it.
One might say that The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a readable, Westernized version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which appeared in English in the 1920s, and was a bestseller in the 1960s. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, also known as Bardo Thodol, describes the after-life, or “bardo.” The title was modeled after The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which also deals with the after-life. What I admire most in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book is the universal wisdom about life and death; I’m not as interested in the chapters that deal with the bardo.
Sogyal Rinpoche taught meditation, and he devotes part of his book to meditation techniques. He doesn’t treat meditation merely as a way to reduce stress, and sleep more soundly. For him, meditation is a way to reach enlightenment. He tells several stories about the moment of enlightenment. Here’s one:
The enlightenment of a Buddhist, or of any mystic, has nothing to do with arguments, reasons, proofs. It’s a feeling, a feeling of oneness with the universe, a feeling that comes over you when the barrier between you and the outside world dissolves, when your mind and your individuality rest.
Basho is the Japanese Shakespeare; Basho’s contribution to haiku poetry is comparable to Shakespeare’s contribution to English drama. But unlike Shakespeare, Basho wrote prose as well as poetry; Basho is the author of several travel diaries, the most famous of which is The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The Narrow Road is a highly cultured work, filled with references to Chinese and Japanese literature. Prose is interspersed with poetry. The narrative moves swiftly, never stopping on any subject for more than a paragraph or two. Basho uses none of the cheap tricks beloved by modern writers, and some modern readers might be disappointed to find that The Narrow Road contains no vulgar anecdotes, no sex and no violence.
Joseph Campbell was an American professor who wrote about mythology, psychology and Eastern religion. Campbell’s worldview is popular as well as profound; his books are widely read, and his TV appearances generated wide enthusiasm (his interview with Bill Moyers is as good as his books). Campbell influenced American filmmakers, especially George Lucas, creator of the high-tech myth, Star Wars.
In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell described the typical features of the hero myth. Campbell argued that the rites and customs of primitive societies follow the same pattern as the hero myth: “The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation — initiation — return.”30 I recommend The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Myths To Live By, and The Power of Myth (the chapter on Zen in Myths To Live By may be the best introduction to Zen). Campbell’s magnum opus is a 4-volume work called The Masks of God.
Campbell’s books are not great literary works; though Campbell was an excellent public speaker, his prose leaves something to be desired. But though Campbell wasn’t a great writer, he was a great reader, and he had a broad culture. One of his favorite writers was James Joyce, and he was an authority on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Jung was another of Campbell’s favorites, and Campbell’s criticism of Western rationalism often reminds one of Jung.
One of Campbell’s teachers at Columbia was Heinrich Zimmer. After Zimmer died, Campbell edited and published several books by Zimmer, including Philosophies of India, The King and the Corpse, and Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Jung also had a keen interest in Zimmer, and also edited a book by Zimmer.
Arthur Lovejoy, an American philosophy professor, became famous for his writings on the history of ideas. Lovejoy’s best-known works are The Great Chain of Being and Essays in the History of Ideas. Anyone interested in philosophy should read Lovejoy. Lovejoy believed that philosophical ideas influence other fields, such as literature, and that philosophy is therefore the proper starting-point for an inter-disciplinary approach to intellectual history. Lovejoy’s historical approach has thrown light on many branches of the humanities. His style is rough, but his content is extremely interesting. Lovejoy was born in the 1860’s, and he has a pre-twentieth-century frame of mind; he concentrates on Rousseau, Darwin, etc. He has a deep understanding of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism, but little understanding of such modern thinkers as Nietzsche and Freud.
Thomas Kuhn was influenced by Lovejoy, and applied Lovejoy’s historical approach to scientific ideas. Kuhn’s chief work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is a popular and respected book in academia. It’s a scholarly work, and lacks all poetic qualities, but it’s also brief, readable and interesting. Published in 1962, it has become a classic analysis of the history of science, and will surely be read for years to come. Anyone interested in ideas will enjoy Kuhn’s book.
Kuhn divides the history of any branch of science into three periods: normal science, crisis, and transition to a new paradigm. A period of normal science is a period in which the specialists in a certain field subscribe to the same general theory, or paradigm. During such a period, scientific work consists of refining the paradigm, and solving the puzzles that exist within it. A period of crisis is a period in which there are so many puzzles, and the puzzles are so difficult to solve, that specialists in the field become dissatisfied with the paradigm. When someone suggests a new paradigm, the specialists compare it to the old one, and if they prefer the new paradigm, it gradually replaces the old paradigm as a foundation for normal science.
Take astronomy, for example: at one time, astronomers accepted Ptolemy’s geocentric paradigm. During this period of “normal science,” astronomers tried to refine Ptolemy’s paradigm, and extend it to all astronomical phenomena. Eventually, however, it became so difficult to match the paradigm to the phenomena, that Copernicus proposed replacing the geocentric paradigm with a heliocentric paradigm. The new paradigm gradually replaced the old one, and then astronomy returned to “normal science.”
Those who are trained within a particular paradigm are often reluctant to make the transition to a new paradigm. Kuhn quotes Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”31
There were other historians of science before Kuhn. George Sarton was the “founding father” of the History of Science. Sarton planned to write a multi-volume work, bringing the history of science up to his own time, but he died after finishing the volumes on Greek and Arab science. In order to write about Arab science, Sarton learned Arabic, and travelled through the Middle East. Sarton has a broad culture, and discusses Vergil’s poems as well as Pliny’s observations.
J. D. Bernal wrote a 4-volume history of science (as well as various other science books); Bernal’s work has a high reputation, though some say that his communist sympathies influence his views. Bernal was born in 1901, about fifteen years after Sarton. Joseph Needham wrote a famous, multi-volume work on Chinese science and technology. G. E. R. Lloyd compared Greek science and Chinese science in Adversaries and Authorities; Lloyd also wrote highly-regarded works on the history of Greek science. Charles Coulston Gillispie was a historian of science at Princeton. His study of Laplace has a high reputation, and he also wrote a general history of science called The Edge of Objectivity.
Another notable intellectual historian is Frances Yates, who specialized in the Hermetic Tradition (Giordano Bruno, the Rosicrucian movement, etc.). If you’re interested in Hermetism, you should try Yates. Marjorie Nicolson wrote about the Newtonian revolt against Hermetism in books such as Pepys’ Diary and the New Science.