June 6, 2016
Let’s assume that mankind survives, and let’s assume that civilization survives. But let’s also assume that man isn’t able to migrate to a different planet. Eventually the sun burns up most of its fuel, and does the expanding and contracting that aging stars do. Life on earth becomes impossible — too hot or too cold. How would man react? How would man deal with the end of life?
Perhaps many people would choose suicide over a slow death. Doctors who assist with suicide would do a brisk business, and their incomes would rise. True, they wouldn’t have anything to do with their money, but the habit of making money is so embedded in us that we’d probably enjoy making it even when the world was coming to an end.
Animals generally don’t commit suicide, so many of them would probably die slowly, and the last sound heard on the earth would be a scream of pain. Perhaps this is fitting since the earth has been the scene of a great deal of pain; we enter the world with a scream of pain, and often leave it in pain. And some philosophers might argue that the extinction of life is a good thing because to live is to suffer. A universe without life is a universe at peace, a universe free from suffering.
But I think the wisest philosophers would say that the glass of life is half full, not half empty, and that existence, with all its problems and pains, is better than non-existence, and that this breathing world is, on the whole, a wonderful thing.
A. Is philosophy (phil + sophos) the love of wisdom? Or the love of knowledge? Perhaps both. Philosophers are knowledge-junkies, but they’re also the toughest critics of knowledge, they question the value of knowledge. Nietzsche, for example, in his early essay “The Use and Abuse of History,” questioned the value of historical knowledge. Philosophers often ask, “If knowledge doesn’t relate to life, if it doesn’t make your life better, what good is it?”
B. The philosopher believes in pursuing wisdom, but he often pursues knowledge instead, like a person who believes in eating vegetables, but often eats carbs and sweets instead.
I came across an excellent essay on Hawthorne. It was published in The Atlantic in 1901. The author, Paul Elmer More, was a prominent writer of the time, a literary critic and a defender of Christianity.
More begins by saying that one theme runs through all of Hawthorne’s work: “the penalty of solitude laid upon the human soul.” This theme is also apparent in Hawthorne’s life; his life is the basis of his work, his work reflects his experience. “Never lived a man,” More writes, “to whom ordinary contact with his fellows was more impossible, and the mysterious solitude in which his fictitious characters move is a mere shadow of his own imperial loneliness of soul.” I’ve often argued that imaginative writers tend to express one idea, one theme, in all their work, so I was prepared to believe More’s view that one theme runs through all of Hawthorne’s works.1 Hopefully a discussion of Hawthorne’s theme will give us an introduction to his work, and inspire us to read his work, without giving away his plots.
The source of Hawthorne’s idiosyncrasies can be found in his early childhood. His father was a sea captain who died in 1808, when Hawthorne was just four; his father was probably away from home during much of Hawthorne’s first four years. His mother rarely left her room. Of his relationship to his mother, Hawthorne said, “a sort of coldness of intercourse existed between us.”2 One psychologist, C. P. Oberndorf, spoke of Hawthorne’s “withdrawal from life, so like his mother’s.”3
Hawthorne experienced “almost continuous depression and feelings of guilt. He was given to punitive self-denials for minor self-indulgences, such as refusing to drink tea because he liked it, a characteristic so typical of neurotic patients.”4 Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, “an invalid who like his mother had been confined to her room for years.” Hawthorne and Sophia seem to have been well matched; she was a fan of his writings, and they had three children.
Hawthorne spent his early years in Salem, Massachusetts and Raymond, Maine. Raymond is on Lake Sebago. “Those were delightful days,” Hawthorne later said of Maine, “for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods.” But Hawthorne’s memories of Maine weren’t entirely positive; he later said that he developed there his “cursed habit of solitude.”
When Hawthorne was nine, he was hit on the leg while playing and spent a year in bed, though doctors could find nothing wrong with him; perhaps we should describe this as a childhood neurosis. Perhaps Hawthorne’s neuroses, idiosyncrasies, and inner conflicts fueled his creativity; genius is often eccentric, often on the border of sanity and insanity.
Hawthorne was especially depressed at age 32, and “thought seriously of suicide.”5 He had another bout of depression at 42. His final bout of depression began in 1860, when he was 56, and lasted until his death in 1864. During this final phase, his wife described him as “so apathetic, so indifferent, so hopeless, so unstrung.” As with his childhood “illness,” no physical ailment could be identified as the cause of his final “illness.” “No organic disease has been established as the cause of his lingering final illness which had all the characteristics of his previous depressions.”6 One infers that Hawthorne died of depression; he had no will to live. Emerson said of Hawthorne’s death, “I thought there was a tragic element in the event — in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could not longer be endured and he died of it.” (Emerson was a neighbor of Hawthorne’s during the periods when Hawthorne lived in Concord, and Emerson was on friendly terms with Hawthorne.)
During his early-adult years in Salem, Hawthorne “lived as a hermit.... choosing to walk abroad at night, when no one could observe him.”7 When he lived in Concord, he would hide in the woods to avoid meeting a passer-by. Hawthorne once said, “Destiny itself has often been worsted in the attempt to get me out to dinner.”8 “I have not lived,” Hawthorne said, “but only dreamed about living.”9
Hawthorne seemed to regard his solitude as the cruelest of fates. “I have made a captive of myself,” Hawthorne wrote to Longfellow, “and put me into a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out; and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out. You tell me that you have met with troubles and changes. I know not what these may have been, but I can assure you that trouble is the next best thing to enjoyment, and that there is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in its joys or sorrows.”
When he was 46, Hawthorne moved with his family to the Berkshires, but he left after 18 months. “I am sick to death of Berkshire,” he said, “I have felt languid and dispirited, during almost my whole residence.” One of his Berkshire neighbors was Melville, and the two writers became friends.
Hawthorne left the Berkshires in 1851, and moved back to Concord, where he bought a house that he dubbed The Wayside. Perhaps he bought The Wayside with money from The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables (The Scarlet Letter sold 2,500 copies in ten days). He wrote a biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce, and when Pierce was elected President in 1852, he appointed Hawthorne to the lucrative post of consul in Liverpool. After four years in England, Hawthorne and his family toured France and Italy, then returned to Concord in 1860.
[Spoiler Warning: The rest of this section discusses Hawthorne’s works, and may “spoil” the fun of reading them.]
Hawthorne’s first novel was Fanshawe, published when he was just 24. Fanshawe is about a man who spends his life in solitary study, cut off from society. The protagonist wins the love of the heroine, Ellen, but then surrenders her to a more worldly man, and “returns to his studies and his death.”10 One is reminded of how Kierkegaard won the love of Regina, then immediately gave her up. The mature Hawthorne took a dim view of Fanshawe, and most critics also take a dim view of it, but the psychologist Oberndorf thinks that it reveals much about Hawthorne:
Fanshawe established the theme of Hawthorne’s later work:
After publishing Fanshawe in 1828, Hawthorne concentrated on writing short stories. He didn’t publish his second novel, The Scarlet Letter, until 1850, when he was 46. “The whole plot of [The Scarlet Letter],” writes Paul More, “moves about this one conception of our human isolation as the penalty of transgression.... By his sin Dimmesdale is more than ever cut off from communion with the world, and is driven to an asceticism and aloofness so complete that it becomes impossible for him to look any man in the eye.”
Another male character, Chillingworth, is also isolated. More describes Chillingworth as, “The incommunicative student, misshapen from his birth hour, who has buried his life in books and starved his emotions to feed his brain. [Chillingworth’s hatred] severs him more absolutely from the common weal, blotting out his life ‘as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean.’”
As for the female protagonist, Hester Prynne,
More describes The Scarlet Letter as a story of “intertangled love and hatred... love and hatred so woven together that in the end the author asks whether the two passions be not, after all, the same, since each renders one individual dependent upon another for his spiritual food, and each is in a way an attempt to break through the boundary that separates soul from soul.” I made a similar point in an earlier issue:
Hawthorne deserves credit for a profound insight — the kinship of hate and love, the way that both hate and love undermine the individual and make him dependent on someone else, attach him to someone else and prevent him from achieving detachment and maturity. Healthy love and friendship require two mature individuals, individuals who aren’t emotionally entangled, emotionally dependent.12
Hawthorne published his third novel, The House of the Seven Gables, in 1851, just one year after The Scarlet Letter. He wrote Seven Gables during the productive 18 months that he spent in The Berkshires. Again we find the main characters leading solitary lives:
Another fruit of Hawthorne’s Berkshire residence was his third novel, The Blithedale Romance, which was published in 1852. This novel takes place in the utopian/socialist community of Blithedale, which is based on Brook Farm, where Hawthorne lived for several months in 1841. Henry James called Blithedale Romance “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest” of Hawthorne’s novels, but Paul More dismissed it as “in every way the slightest and most colorless of the novels.” Perhaps it’s an exception to the rule that all of Hawthorne’s works depict solitary characters.
I mentioned Blithedale Romance in an earlier issue, and quoted a critic named Sidney Lind:
During his years in Europe, Hawthorne didn’t publish any novels. In 1860, shortly after he returned to the U.S., Hawthorne published The Marble Faun, which is set in Rome. One of the characters, Miriam, moves “with the dusky veil of secrecy about her, among the crumbling ruins and living realities of Rome.... wrapped in the shadows of impenetrable isolation.” Paul More suspects that Miriam “suffers for the same cause as Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci” — that is, sexual abuse.
More cites several of Hawthorne’s short stories as examples of the theme of isolation. More says that the protagonist of “The Gentle Boy” is “severed by religious fanaticism from the fellowship of the world.” The protagonist of “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” says, “The curse of Heaven hath stricken me, because I would not call man my brother, nor woman sister. I wrapped myself in pride as in a mantle, and scorned the sympathies of nature.” The protagonist of “The Minister’s Black Veil” says, “Why do you tremble at me alone? Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil?.... I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” The protagonist of “Ethan Brand” “regarded the men about him as so many problems to be studied. [He] denied the brotherhood of man... in the end he must call on the deadly element of fire as his only friend, and so, with blasphemy on his lips, flings himself into the flaming oven.... The tragic power of the scene lies in the picture of utter loneliness in the guilty breast.”13
If you’re looking for a biography of Hawthorne, consider the biography by Edwin Haviland Miller. Hawthorne’s son, Julian, wrote two books about his famous father. If you’re interested in Hawthorne criticism, Henry James devoted a volume to Hawthorne, and D. H. Lawrence discussed Hawthorne in his book on American literature. Melville and Poe wrote essays on Hawthorne. The Library of America published a book called True Crime: An American Anthology; it contains a piece by Hawthorne called “A Collection of Wax Figures.”
I saw a 90-minute interview with Harvey Mansfield, part of the interview series “Conversations With Bill Kristol.” The topic of the interview was Leo Strauss and his disciples. Now 84, Mansfield is still teaching, and still in command of his faculties.
Mansfield was converted to Strauss by Harry Jaffa, who was then a young professor at Ohio State, where Mansfield’s father was chairman of the PoliticalScience department. Later Mansfield taught at Berkeley while Strauss was in California. Strauss organized a reading group, which met from 8 pm until midnight; snacks and small-talk lasted until perhaps 1:30. So Mansfield spent a considerable amount of time with Strauss. Mansfield says that Strauss had a strong “presence,” that his interaction with Strauss was one of the highlights of his life, and that he never met someone with Strauss’s intellectual power.
Strauss certainly made a deep impression on many talented students — Allan Bloom, Paul Cantor, Ed Banfield, etc. And Strauss was certainly devoted to teaching philosophy; Strauss’s reading group was doubtless something that Strauss wasn’t obligated to do, and wasn’t paid for doing. Mansfield’s own dedication resembles Strauss’s, and Mansfield organized a reading group similar to Strauss’s.
Mansfield says that Strauss’s two enemies were science and history. Strauss was an enemy of science because it claims to be the only real knowledge, and it claims that the empirical, value-free approach is the best approach. And Strauss was an enemy of history because the historical approach, championed by Hegel, said that there are no eternal questions and no eternal answers; philosophy speaks only for its own time. In Mansfield’s view, Hegel’s approach was “very destructive” of philosophy. Mansfield thinks that Strauss saved philosophy from the assaults of science and history. Mansfield says that Strauss was a “classical rationalist,” as were Plato and Aristotle.
In my view, Strauss doesn’t understand that science deals with intuitions and ideas, as philosophy does; science doesn’t deal only with facts. And science deals with the mysterious and non-rational (quantum physics), as philosophy does. Hence a leading scientist, and pioneer of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg, wrote about the kinship between science and philosophy, especially Eastern philosophy (one of Heisenberg’s books was called Physics and Philosophy). Science and philosophy aren’t enemies, they’re friends.
Strauss and his school completely ignore quantum physics, as they ignore Eastern philosophy, the unconscious, the occult, etc. The Straussian approach emphasizes books and ignores nature, emphasizes the library rather than the natural world. The Straussian approach emphasizes reading, it’s a method of studying philosophy. It pays little attention to life itself. The layman, who seeks help in living, has no use for Strauss, and turns to Eastern wisdom, or turns to Western philosophers who stay close to life, like Thoreau.
I mentioned above that Strauss was critical of Hegel. According to Strauss, Hegel thought that the philosopher was the child of his time, the spokesman of his time, and therefore the philosopher could express his thoughts openly, he didn’t need to speak obliquely. In my view, Strauss misunderstands Hegel. Hegel taught that only the great man represents the Spirit of the Age, the Zeitgeist. The average person doesn’t represent the Zeitgeist, public opinion doesn’t represent the Zeitgeist. The philosopher represents the Zeitgeist, and clashes with prevailing opinion.14
For example, when Nietzsche says “God is dead,” he expresses the Zeitgeist, but he clashes with prevailing opinion (most people in Nietzsche’s time believed in God). The philosopher is ahead of his time, public opinion is behind the philosopher, behind the Zeitgeist. The philosopher represents the deep currents of the time, which will come to the surface later.
The philosopher also represents the past in opposition to current opinion. Thus, Nietzsche condemns modernity and champions the Greeks and Romans, Confucius focuses on the old classics, the Hebrew prophets castigate their contemporaries for straying from the old teachings. So the philosopher clashes with his time because he’s ahead of his time, and because he’s dedicated to the old wisdom. (As an epigraph for my book of aphorisms, I used a quote from Confucius: “A teacher should teach what is new by resurrecting what is old.”)
So Strauss taught, ‘Hegel believed that the philosopher is in harmony with his time, is the spokesman of his time, and therefore the philosopher can speak to his contemporaries openly.’ Strauss argued that Hegel was wrong, that the philosopher clashes with his contemporaries, and therefore must conceal his views. Strauss taught that philosophy has a surface meaning, an exoteric meaning, intended for the contemporary crowd, and also a hidden meaning, an esoteric meaning, intended for posterity and for future philosophers.
I believe that the philosopher does indeed clash with his contemporaries, but I don’t think the philosopher conceals his meaning, and I don’t think we should read philosophy “between the lines.” When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” he meant it. If we read philosophy between the lines, we’ll probably lose the true meaning, and replace it with wild speculation.
There’s no reliable way to tell when the philosopher means what he says, and when he doesn’t, so the safest course is to assume that the philosopher is sincere. Strauss thought that when a philosopher contradicts himself, that’s a clue that he’s hiding something, but actually philosophers can’t help contradicting themselves, as I explained in an earlier issue. Likewise, when physicists say, “Light is a particle, and also a wave,” they’re contradicting themselves, but they can’t help it — truth is contradictory, reality is contradictory. But it’s difficult for a rational thinker like Strauss to accept contradiction — it sticks in his throat, he can’t swallow it.
“But if the philosopher is at odds with his contemporaries, and if he speaks his mind openly, won’t he be persecuted, perhaps even killed?” Some philosophers are persecuted, some are killed, many are ignored during their lifetimes. Nietzsche’s publisher told him, “Your books aren’t selling, I’m losing money on them,” so Nietzsche paid part of the publishing cost. Some philosophers, like Emerson, are popular during their lifetimes, but their message isn’t controversial, so they aren’t persecuted. When a philosopher speaks his mind, he isn’t always persecuted. And even writers who are persecuted (Solzhenitsyn, for example) may continue to speak their mind, they don’t necessarily conceal their meaning. Strauss over-emphasizes concealment, as if it were the norm, but it’s actually the exception.
In his interview with Kristol, Mansfield says that Strauss revolutionized scholarship, in many fields, by arguing that writers don’t always mean what they say, writers are often ironic. Here, I believe, Mansfield errs: the whole postmodern/deconstruction movement says that writers don’t always mean what they say, and this movement arose independently of Strauss. Modern literary critics see irony everywhere. (I attacked one such critic in my Forster essay.) Strauss wasn’t a revolutionary, he was moving with the tide of modern scholarship.
Strauss views philosophy as a puzzle to be solved, I view philosophy as something to live by. My first foray into philosophy, at age 16, was to read Marcus Aurelius and try to live by his Stoic teachings. When we sever philosophy from life, as Strauss does, we turn it into something that could only interest professional scholars — and indeed, Strauss only interests professional scholars.
Strauss seemed to have a special interest in medieval philosophy, especially Jewish and Arabic medieval philosophy. According to Mansfield, Strauss was a highly-regarded Arabic scholar.15
In my view, Strauss wasn’t a philosopher, and his school isn’t a school of philosophy. Strauss himself would probably agree with this view, he didn’t claim to be a philosopher. (As Banfield put it, “Strauss presented himself not as a philosopher but as a scholar, an historian of political philosophy.”)
The Straussian school is another example (along with analytic philosophy, etc.) of how academia distorts philosophy. Real philosophy doesn’t fit into an institutional framework. Putting philosophy into academia is like putting animals into a zoo.
|1.|| I discussed the central themes of imaginative writers here and here. back|
|2.|| “Psychoanalysis in Literature and Its Therapeutic Value,” by C. Oberndorf (in Psychoanalysis and Literature, edited by H. Ruitenbeek) back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| ibid back|
|5.|| ibid back|
|6.|| ibid back|
|7.|| “The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” by Paul Elmer More back|
|8.|| ibid back|
|9.|| Wikipedia back|
|10.|| “The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” by Paul Elmer More back|
|11.|| Ibid. Apparently The Dolliver Romance was published in 1863, a year before Hawthorne died. Yet Wikipedia describes it as “unfinished.” Why would a living writer publish an unfinished novel? back|
|12.|| An attachment to another person can also be termed transference. back|
|13.|| “The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” by Paul Elmer More. According to More, “Ethan Brand” is “in many ways the most important of [Hawthorne’s] shorter works.” back|
|14.|| As Hegel put it, “Great historical men... have derived their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm, regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order; but from a concealed fount — one which has not attained to phenomenal, present existence — from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface, which, impinging on the outer world as on a shell, bursts it in pieces.”(The Philosophy of History, Introduction, II, p. 30, Dover Publications)
“That Spirit which had taken this fresh step in history is the inmost soul of all individuals; but in a state of unconsciousness which the great men in question aroused.”(Ibid)
“The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is.... What he does is the heart and the essence of his age.”(The Philosophy of Right, Additions, 186) back
|15.|| How did Strauss develop his theory of esoteric philosophy, between-the-lines philosophy? Strauss was reading the Islamic scholar Avicenna, who was discussing Plato’s Laws. Apparently Avicenna said that Plato doesn’t justify his laws on philosophical grounds, but rather pretends that they come from God. In other words, Plato uses a religious “cover” for his political theories.
After reading this passage in Avicenna, Strauss began constructing a theory of esoteric philosophy, a theory that said philosophers often conceal their real views, and their appeals to religion are often part of this concealment. One of Strauss’s disciples, Ernest Fortin, tried to “decode” Dante; Fortin argued that Dante wasn’t as religious as he pretended to be, just as Strauss argued that Maimonides wasn’t as religious as he pretended to be. (Straussians also argue that Locke wasn’t as religious as he pretended to be.) back