February 26, 2013
In his essay “Nature,” Emerson concludes a set of teachings with the phrase, “Thus my Orphic poet sang.” This phrase probably inspired Nietzsche’s phrase “Thus spoke Zarathustra.” As Walter Kaufman wrote, “Long steeped in Emerson, [Nietzsche] reread him and annotated him again during the period of The Gay Science and just before he wrote Zarathustra.” The English term for Zarathustra, Zoroaster, occurs in Emerson’s essays, and was doubtless translated as Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s German version. Nietzsche’s title Gay Science may also owe a debt to Emerson, who called himself “a professor of the Joyous Science.”
A section of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra may have been influenced by the Bible. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists eight kinds of people who are blessed:
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Since the Latin word for “blessed” is “beatus,” these sayings are called the beatitudes.
In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, we find a similar list, replacing “blessed” with “I love.”
I love him whose soul is overfull, so that he forgets himself and all things are in him: thus all things become his downfall.
Since the Latin for “to love” is “amare,” these sayings have been called Nietzsche’s “amatitudes.” They were influenced not only by the Bible, but also by Goethe. In Goethe’s Faust, the sybil Manto is introduced to Faust and says, “I love the man who craves the impossible” [Den lieb’ ich, der Unmögliches begehrt].1 The Faustian striving for the impossible and the infinite has been called the hallmark of Western civilization.
I was recently exploring the website of The New Criterion, and I found a 1990 essay by my old friend Elie Kedourie — a review of William McNeill’s biography of Toynbee.2 It was natural for Kedourie to be tapped to write this book review, since he had a longstanding interest in (or rather, a longstanding animosity toward) Toynbee. And it was natural for McNeill to be tapped (by Toynbee’s son) to write a biography of Toynbee, since McNeill specialized in global history, much as Toynbee did. One might say that Toynbee and McNeill were tillers of the same field, the same vast field. And I suppose it’s natural that I’ve been tapped (by myself) to write this review of Kedourie’s review, since I have a longstanding interest in both Toynbee and Kedourie, and in the clash between them. I hope you aren’t in the mood for an original work because what follows is commentary: my commentary on Kedourie’s commentary on McNeill’s commentary on Toynbee. In short it’s commentary to the third power, commentary cubed.
The clash between Toynbee and Kedourie is a clash between liberal and conservative: Toynbee was a liberal who put his faith in the United Nations, and criticized the United States, while Kedourie was a conservative who took a dim view of modern ideologies and grand plans, whether nationalist, fascist, or communist. The clash between Toynbee and Kedourie is also a clash between Gentile and Jew: Toynbee was a champion of Arab nationalism who sided with the Arabs in their wars with Israel, while Kedourie was an Iraqi Jew who despised Arab nationalism.
Both Toynbee and Kedourie have the high honor to be given their own sections in my Realms of Gold. I’m a fan of both, just as, in the quarrel between Freud and Jung, I side with both, I champion both.
Toynbee’s weakness is that his books cover too much ground; a comparison between the early Romans and the early Incas tells us little about either. Kedourie’s weakness is that his books cover too little ground; a book about the correspondence between an English official and a Saudi prince is of little interest to the general reader. Toynbee’s weakness is sweeping generalization and vapid moralizing, while Kedourie’s weakness is bitter sarcasm. Toynbee is too grand to be witty; Kedourie is often witty but never grand.
But while both Toynbee and Kedourie have their weaknesses, they’re both deep thinkers, they both write fine prose, they both have vast knowledge, they were both leaders in their field. One of my favorite Toynbee books is strikingly similar to one of Kedourie’s books: Toynbee edited a book called Half the World: The History and Culture of China and Japan, which resembles a book about Jewish history that Kedourie edited (The Jewish World: History and Culture of the Jewish People).
Nietzsche said that, while a philosopher prides himself on his big ideas, his grand theories, his best work is often his casual asides — his byways rather than his highways. If we apply this to Toynbee, we can say that Toynbee’s best work was his lesser-known work, his less ambitious work, and his weakness is his sprawling, ambitious Study of History. Kedourie had high praise for one of Toynbee’s early works, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilizations (1922).3 This book draws on Toynbee’s travels in the region, and it deals with the Greco-Turkish war that took place around 1920. Two of my favorite Toynbee books are Hellenism: The History of a Civilization, and Civilization On Trial.
Did Kedourie and Toynbee ever meet? Did they correspond? These are questions I can’t answer, but Kedourie tells us that his book Chatham House Version “agitated Toynbee and made him extremely angry, as may be seen from his private papers, and from a review of the book [by Toynbee] in the periodical The Round Table, which appeared in [April] 1970.” Kedourie responded to Toynbee’s review, so the two men certainly clashed in print.
Kedourie has high praise for McNeill’s biography of Toynbee, calling it “a solid and felicitously written, indeed outstanding work.” McNeill is now 96, and has been on the faculty of the University of Chicago since 1947; he earned both a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree from Chicago. He wrote a book about the University of Chicago called Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago: 1929-1950. McNeill is best known for his 1963 book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. McNeill’s son, J. R. McNeill, is an environmental historian. Father and son collaborated on The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (2003). One might describe both McNeills as writers of “big history.” (In an earlier issue, I discussed a Chinese writer of big history, Ray Huang.)
Though Toynbee is now sinking into oblivion, he had a big reputation in his day. He was a celebrity, he was on the cover of Time magazine. Perhaps only Oswald Spengler had a reputation like Toynbee’s. Certainly Kedourie had none of the celebrity that Toynbee had. As for McNeill, he was more widely known, and widely read, than Kedourie, though he wasn’t a celebrity like Toynbee. Toynbee reminds me of Leo Strauss insofar as both writers rose to fame in the wake of World War II, both writers tried to explain the catastrophe, both writers offered a glimmer of hope to a public that was shocked and confused. But while Strauss’s reputation never extended beyond the walls of academia, Toynbee seemed more popular outside academia than inside.
According to an ancient maxim, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dicendum est (nothing should be spoken of the dead except good). Writing in 1990, fifteen years after Toynbee’s death, Kedourie has nothing good to say about him; Kedourie’s maxim seems to be, De mortuis nihil nisi malum dicendum est. The last paragraph of Kedourie’s piece is a good example of his wit; Kedourie speaks of,
Kedourie does indeed make a strong case for Toynbee’s folly, and quotes McNeill in support of his case. Can one be a genius and a fool at the same time? Perhaps Toynbee was such a combination. Perhaps there’s an element of folly in every genius; human nature is nothing if not contradictory. Indeed, one could quote Kedourie himself in support of the claim that Toynbee wasn’t a summer fool or a winter fool, but rather a first-rate historian; referring to Toynbee’s Western Question in Greece and Turkey, Kedourie said,
So when Kedourie calls Toynbee a winter fool, he’s making a sally of wit, not a considered judgment. That Toynbee’s works are deeply flawed, I don’t deny. But as I’ve said before, all writers are flawed. If we judge Toynbee by his best works, not his worst, we would say he was no fool.
Toynbee had vast ambitions, and thus he exposes himself to sallies of wit, and Kedourie is a master of such sallies. Thus, Kedourie is a perfect foil for Toynbee. “Readers of [Toynbee’s] A Study of History,” Kedourie tells us, “know that it is a history not only of the past, but also of the future.”5
Toynbee had considerable sympathy with the political Left, and even with communism. When World War II was ending, Toynbee said that the U.S. might go to war with the Soviet Union, and that the Soviet Union would win, partly because “they have a more serious purpose in life.”
As the American Left often criticized the U.S. and its “imperialism,” so Toynbee and other English liberals often criticized the British Empire, apologized for it, and felt guilty about it. Kedourie says that in Toynbee’s work we find “the shrill and clamant voice of English radicalism [saying] we have conquered, we have dominated, we have exploited. Nowhere is this feeling of guilt more pronounced than in respect of the Arabs and of Britain’s dealings with them.”6
In some respects, however, Toynbee was conservative. He bemoaned the fact that the expansion of Western civilization brought with it an influx of non-Western ethnic groups; he spoke of “the blight of promiscuity.”7 In this respect, Toynbee reminds us of scholars like Kennan and Lukacs, who grew up in a mostly white world, and were uneasy about racial mixing.
Kedourie disapproves of Toynbee’s tendency to mix preaching with history. This tendency is especially evident in the later volumes of Toynbee’s Study of History, where Toynbee dons the mantle of prophet, and says that history is “a revelation of God and a hope of communion with him.” Toynbee’s fondness for Christianity is matched by his aversion for Judaism. According to Kedourie, “The epithet Judaic has thus served, throughout A Study of History, to denote all that was most evil in the modern world.”8
Kedourie’s prose is polished, forceful, and witty — a pleasure to read. The prevailing tone, however, is bitter and sarcastic; Kedourie rarely achieves simplicity, and never achieves sublimity. Occasionally his sentences are convoluted, as when he says, “Toynbee’s career posed another puzzle which concerns not so much himself as the society in which he came to occupy a central position as an opinion-maker with an influence both deep and tentacular.” Sometimes Kedourie uses words that are even stranger than “tentacular”; for example, he says that Toynbee spoke in “piacular” tones, and suffered from “presbyopia.”
Kedourie makes a strong case against Toynbee, but one is tempted to ask Kedourie, “Why spend so much ink on a winter fool? Isn’t silence the most appropriate response to such a fool? Don’t tell us what you despise, tell us what you admire.”
The local GreatBooks group, which has often inspired me to try new authors, recently inspired me to try the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.9 Marquez was born in 1927, won the Nobel Prize in 1982, and is still alive today. Marquez is a friend of Castro, and Marquez’s harsh criticism of the U.S. resulted in him being banned from the U.S. (the ban was finally lifted during Clinton’s tenure; Clinton said that Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was his favorite novel). Marquez and Castro knew each other as students in Bogota in the late 1940s. Marquez said of Castro, “Ours is an intellectual friendship. It may not be widely known that Fidel is a very cultured man. When we’re together, we talk a great deal about literature.”
Marquez is known for a literary genre called “magic realism.” This approach may have been inspired by his grandmother, who often spoke of occult things in a matter-of-fact way. Or it may have been inspired by Kafka, who mixed wild fantasy with precise realism. In 1950, Marquez wrote a piece called “Caricature of Kafka.”
Perhaps my own writings should be called “magic realism” since I have a keen interest in the magical/occult, and an equal interest in concrete realism. At any rate, I was immediately attracted to Marquez. The GreatBooks group discussed a Marquez story called “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I would describe the story as short, readable, and poetic; I recommend it without qualification.
In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the protagonist turns into an insect. This kind of wild fantasy can’t be found in Marquez’s story. Marquez describes things that you can almost believe — if you’re receptive to the occult. But Marquez goes slightly beyond the occult into the fantastic.
For example, the drowned man seems to influence the weather, there seems to be some correspondence between nature and the human sphere. This is a classic example of the occult; we’ve discussed this in connection with Macbeth, etc. If you’re receptive to the occult, then you probably believe that nature and the human sphere may indeed be connected — you may well believe that everything is connected.
However, Marquez takes this ancient theme a little further than is believable; he goes beyond the “believable occult” into “fantasy occult.” In the last sentence of the story, Marquez says that the drowned man has had a permanent effect on the weather in the village. This is hard for anyone to believe — even someone who’s receptive to the occult. I’m not suggesting that the “fantasy occult” is better or worse than the “believable occult,” I’m only trying to describe Marquez.
The story deals with another ancient occult theme: the significance of names. The villagers think that the drowned man must be named Esteban: “Most of them had only to take another look at him to see that he could not have any other name.” In 1952, Marquez wrote an article called “One Must Be Like the Name.” Marquez says that he once heard the remark, “He had the face of someone named Roberto, but his name was José.”11
A critic named Paul Hedeen has given us a good summary of the story. He says that the drowned man represents the “introduction of a new god.”
The GreatBooks group also read Epictetus’ “Enchiridion,” a 10-page distillation of his philosophy that was put together by his student, Arrian, from lecture notes. Arrian also put together Epictetus’ chief work, Discourses, which is 300 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition. The Discourses consisted of eight “books,” only four of which have survived. Clearly, Arrian was a tireless note-taker; his fingers must have flown over the keyboard — unless he used voice-recognition software. Arrian is best known for a book on the campaigns of Alexander the Great.
Epictetus lived around 100 AD. He spent his early years as a slave in Rome, where his owner let him study philosophy. Somehow he obtained his freedom, and became a philosophy teacher. In 93 AD, the emperor Domitian banished philosophers from Rome, so Epictetus went to northwest Greece, and started a philosophical school. He became a renowned teacher, and even the emperor Hadrian conversed with him. Like many philosophers, Epictetus never married.
Marcus Aurelius, who lived about 160 AD, often quotes Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are perhaps the leading exponents of Stoicism — at least among those whose writings have survived. Epictetus’ philosophy is still used as a guide for living; James Stockdale drew on it during his seven years in a North Vietnamese prison, and psychologist Albert Ellis drew on Epictetus in creating his system of psycho-therapy. Epictetus often finds his way into popular culture.
“Enchiridion” means handbook. The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a good introduction to Stoicism and even to philosophy in general. If there’s a better short essay by an ancient philosopher, I’m not aware of it. It wakes you up like a slap in the face or a cold shower. It urges you to “get your shit together,” conquer your bad habits, take charge of your life. Epictetus says, don’t concern yourself with things that you can’t control, things outside you; try to control your own thoughts, desires, fears — your own mind. He says that every desire degrades us, and renders us slaves of what we desire. We should strive for peace of mind (ataraxia) and control of emotion (apatheia).
The Enchiridion not only introduces you to Stoicism, it also gives you a glimpse of life in ancient times.
Notice the practical, down-to-earth nature of Epictetus’ advice. Don’t let people annoy you, he counsels us; stay calm and composed.
Epictetus counsels humility. Even a famous philosophy teacher, he seems to say, should be humble: “Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself.” The practical nature of his teaching, and his humility, reminds me of Zen. Epictetus’ Stoicism often intersects with Zen, but it seems somewhat heavy, even childish, compared to Zen. Here, for example, is Epictetus’ silly advice about coping with the death of a wife or child:
Epictetus takes a practical approach, and says we shouldn’t get entangled in intellectual arguments. If you become involved in interpreting a philosopher, he says, then you’re like a grammarian who interprets Homer. A real philosopher focuses on matching his actions to philosophical teachings. What matters is living, not interpreting.13
The most important part of philosophy is moral teachings such as, We ought not to lie. The next topic is, What is the origin of our obligation not to lie? The third topic is epistemology: What is a demonstration? What is a contradiction? What is truth? etc. We let ourselves get entangled in the third topic, in debates about the nature of truth: “We spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.”
Epictetus seems to believe in divination, but says that we shouldn’t let bad omens trouble us:
Belief in divination is related to a belief in fate. Stoic philosophers argued that, “It would not be possible for diviners to predict the future if the future itself was accidental.”
As Epictetus accepts divination, so he accepts sacrifice:
Epictetus urges us to be heroes in our daily lives, by curbing desires and emotions. He often invokes the memory of philosopher-heroes:
The first three leaders of the Stoic school were Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus; these three lived from about 350 BC to 200 BC — in other words, about 400 years before Epictetus. Epictetus is part of the Stoic tradition, so it’s not surprising that the Enchiridion refers to all three of these philosophers. Zeno taught in a colonnade or porch (stoa in Greek), hence the term “Stoic.” Before he began teaching, Zeno was a student of the Cynic school of philosophy; the Stoic school grew out of the Cynic school.
The Stoic school emphasized fate, hence Epictetus advises us to submit to whatever happens, submit to fate. “To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately.”14 The Enchiridion ends with a quote from Cleanthes about submitting to fate: “Conduct me, Jove, and you, O Destiny, wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”
The Stoic school also believed that everything is connected. “Chrysippus insisted on the organic unity of the universe and the correlation and mutual interdependence of all its parts.”15 Since good and evil are connected, we shouldn’t desire the elimination of evil: “Evil is good under disguise, and is ultimately conducive to the best.”16 God is good, and he has made the best world he could: “The essence of God is goodness; we have all good that could be given to us.”17 As Leibniz put it, this is the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz was doubtless influenced by Stoicism.18
The Stoics respected reason: “Reason alone is good, and the irrational is evil.... The good person should labor chiefly on their own reason; to perfect this is in our power.”19 In this respect, Stoicism is at odds with Zen, which preaches spontaneity, not obedience to reason. Stoicism is also at odds with the “natural morality” of Montaigne and others, which preaches following your natural tendencies rather than reason.
Epictetus urges us to live like a philosopher now, not tomorrow:
You know what you should do, Epictetus says. Now follow your resolutions: “Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself, abide by them as if they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them.”
The hero curbs desire and keeps his own mind steady, but he doesn’t criticize those who fail to do so:
Edward Tufte, Yale professor: “The world is much more interesting than any one discipline.”20 Is this a justification for an inter-disciplinary e-zine like Phlit?
Intrigued by this quote, I turned to Wikipedia for more information about Tufte. I learned that he’s a specialist at presenting data, at the visual presentation of data; one of his books is called Beautiful Evidence. Tufte teaches a one-day class called “Presenting Data and Information.” He’s also a sculptor, and he has his own gallery in Chelsea; on Saturdays, he gives tours of his gallery.
Tufte has criticized the way PowerPoint is typically used. He says that it’s used “to guide and reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience.” He says that PowerPoint forces the audience into a “lockstep linear progression,” while a handout would allow the audience to browse at leisure.
I was reminded of my Hotchkiss talk, and the total failure of my PowerPoint presentation.
In response to my recent essay on synchronicity, I received an e-mail from a Phlit subscriber:
|1.|| Faust, Part II, Act 2, line 922 back|
|2.|| “Arnold Toynbee and His ‘Nonsense Book’”, March, 1990, volume 8, p. 18 back|
|3.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 2 back|
|4.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 2 back|
|5.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 2 back|
|6.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 3 back|
|7.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 2 back|
|8.|| The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, Ch. 12, “The Chatham House Version,” section 2 back|
|9.|| The group is based at Weaver Library in East Providence, Rhode Island, organized by librarian Joyce May, and led by Dr. Geoff Berg. back|
|10.|| “An Introduction to the Early Journalism of Garcia Marquez: 1948-1958,” by Raymond L. Williams, Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 13, No. 25, Jan. - June 1985, pp. 117-132; web address: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20119391 back|
|11.|| Goethe was receptive to the occult, and inclined to believe in the occult significance of names. If I remember correctly, Goethe said, “When I say my name, I say everything that I am.” Wikipedia says, “Nominative determinism is the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining job, profession or even character. It was a commonly held notion in the ancient world.” According to the ancients, nomen est omen. One might compare one’s name with the time of one’s birth, which is significant in astrology. For more on names, consider The Language of Names, by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays. back|
|12.|| Paul M. Hedeen, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Dialectic of Solitude” (originally published in Southwest Review, Autumn, 1983, #68), included in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom back|
|13.|| See section 49 back|
|14.|| Wikipedia back|
|15.|| Wikipedia back|
|16.|| Wikipedia back|
|17.|| Wikipedia back|
|18.|| The idea of mutual interdependence, the harmony of the parts of the universe, also reminds us of Leibniz. back|
|19.|| Wikipedia back|
|20.||New York Times, quoted by David Brooks back|