January 17, 2018

1. Organics vs. Mechanics

I’ve argued that the most fundamental property of the universe is connectedness, that the world is an organic whole, and that many of the “threads” connecting the universe are invisible, mysterious, occult. This view will doubtless be opposed by those who respect “hard science,” who believe only in what they can see, touch, and count. We can expect to see clashes between Organics and Mechanics.

The clash between Organics and Mechanics has a long history. Around 1625, the organic view was championed by Robert Fludd, who admired the Hermetic Tradition and the Rosicrucian School. Fludd clashed with Mechanics like Mersenne and Kepler. “The controversy was watched,” wrote Frances Yates, “with interest and excitement by all Europe.... Mersenne’s and Fludd’s numerous contributions to the dispute were swelled by those of others.”

In ancient times, the Stoic School championed the organic view. We think of Stoicism as a system of ethics that despised pleasure. But Stoicism was more than a system of ethics, it was a system of the universe. One representative of Stoicism was Posidonius, whose “grand vision was that the universe [is] inter-connected, as if an organism, through cosmic ‘sympathy.’” Posidonius believed in divination, “whether through astrology or prophetic dreams.” He believed that everything is connected, even things that are “temporally and spatially separate.”

Stoics often clashed with Epicureans. Like Stoicism, Epicureanism was a system of the universe, not just a system of ethics. Epicureans were atomists — that is, they believed that the universe was made up of tiny, uncuttable bits of matter. They were materialists.

The dispute between Organics and Mechanics, between spiritualists and materialists, has raged for thousands of years. Far from diminishing, this dispute seems to be intensifying today.

2. Rupert Sheldrake

In our time, one of the champions of the Organic view is Rupert Sheldrake. In 2013, Sheldrake gave a TED Talk that aroused such fierce opposition that the TED administrators removed it from their website. Sheldrake responded,

This discussion is taking place because the militant atheist bloggers Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers denounced me, and attacked TED for giving my talk a platform. I was invited to give my talk as part of a TEDx event in Whitechapel, London, called “Challenging Existing Paradigms.” That’s where the problem lies: my talk explicitly challenges the materialist belief system. It summarized some of the main themes of my recent book Science Set Free (in the UK called The Science Delusion). Unfortunately, the TED administrators have publicly aligned themselves with the old paradigm of materialism, which has dominated science since the late nineteenth century.

In his book Science Set Free, Sheldrake questions the ten basic assumptions of modern science. He calls these assumptions “the default worldview of most educated people all over the world.” Here are some of the assumptions that Sheldrake questions:

Sheldrake says that constants, like the speed of light, aren’t actually constant. Scientific “laws” aren’t really laws, they’re just habits, changing habits, as the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce realized. In an earlier issue, I argued that “facts are squishy things.” Sheldrake argues that constants are squishy, changing, inconstant.

3. Grant’s Memoirs

Grant’s Memoirs are often praised for their clear, vivid style. Grant said, “I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly.” Even before he became an author, Grant was known for clarity of expression. A Union officer said,

There is one striking feature of Grant’s orders: no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time to understand them.

When Grant was a young and unknown officer, his skill with language helped catapult him to fame. When the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson offered to negotiate surrender terms, Grant responded, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works.”

In an earlier issue, I mentioned Robert E. Lee’s “deft use of language.” I said that Lee’s use of language was one reason to think that Lee was a genius, and I compared Lee’s language skill to Caesar’s.

At the time of the Civil War, the concept of genius was “in the air,” and successful generals like Jackson and Lee were often described as geniuses. Grant, however, was known for dogged persistence rather than brilliant strategy, so he rarely received the accolade “genius.” Grant seemed to be envious of those who received this accolade. Grant depreciated genius, even suggesting that it was common. Here’s how he described his MexicanWar commander, Zachary Taylor: “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage.”

Even Grant’s admirers said he wasn’t a genius. Before Grant acquired a reputation, Confederate General Richard Ewell said,

There is one West Pointer, I think in Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him well at the Academy and in Mexico. I should fear him more than any of their officers I have yet heard of. He is not a man of genius, but he is clear-headed, quick and daring.1

One of Grant’s most salient traits was his willpower, his determination. A Union officer said,

He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.... His face had three expressions: deep thought; extreme determination; and great simplicity and calmness.

Willpower seems to be related to genius, if not indicative of it. In my chapter on genius, I said, “Genius is found in a family... in which the father is strong-willed, the mother intelligent.” Geniuses often pride themselves on their willpower. As I wrote in an earlier issue,

Kierkegaard said that his father was a man of iron will, a trait that he passed on to his son. Few people in history have had more will power, more inwardness than Kierkegaard. If the young Kierkegaard encountered a difficulty in his studies, “if after an hour he was tired of the effort, he used to employ a very simple method. He shut himself up in his room, made everything as festive as possible and said then in a voice loud and clear, I will it.”

Dostoyevsky had a similar pride in his willpower. “There are many degrees of power in the world,” Dostoyevsky said, “and nowhere is the difference in degree greater than in the case of human will and human desire, just as water boils at one temperature and molten iron at another.”2

Like Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, Grant seemed to take pride in his willpower, and to enjoy exercising it.

One of my superstitions [Grant wrote] had always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished. I have frequently started to go to places where I had never been and to which I did not know the way, depending upon making inquiries on the road, and if I got past the place without knowing it, instead of turning back, I would go on until a road was found turning in the right direction, take that, and come in by the other side.

Another of Grant’s idiosyncrasies was to work at the post he was assigned to, and never to petition authorities for a different post. Early in the Civil War, Grant longed to see action in the East. Chatting with fellow officers,

I said that I would give anything if I were commanding a brigade of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac and I believed I could do some good. Captain Hillyer spoke up and suggested that I make application to be transferred there to command the cavalry. I then told him that I would cut my right arm off first, and mentioned this superstition.

One suspects that Grant really would have cut off his arm, as van Gogh cut off his ear. Van Gogh is another example of strong-willed genius. When he visited the woman he loved and she refused to see him, van Gogh put his hand in the flame of a lamp, and said to her father, “Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame.” “No wonder,” van Gogh wrote to his brother, “that Tersteeg noticed my hand afterwards.”

Grant says that, in the ante-bellum South, poor whites were dominated by the slave-owning class, and needed emancipation as much as slaves did. “I am aware,” Grant writes, “that this last statement may be disputed... but in the face of any such contradiction I reassert the statement.” So Grant is doggedly persistent in argument, as in traveling and military matters. Grant’s willpower, language skill, and military success suggest that he may have had genius, or something very like it.

In a recent issue, I discussed the sublime, and said, “When I read history, I often find the sublime — especially in primary sources.” A good example of the sublime is Grant’s description of the Union fleet trying to race past the Vicksburg battery, under cover of darkness:

The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires on the east side and by firing houses on the point of land opposite the city on the Louisiana side. The sight was magnificent, but terrible.

“Magnificent, but terrible” — a good definition of sublime.

In an earlier issue, I discussed the Gallic Wars, and the Gallic chief Vercingetorix: “Vercingetorix withdrew into the fortress (oppidum) of Alesia; our authors call this a ‘fatal mistake.’” Likewise, it was a fatal mistake for the Confederates to confine more than 30,000 of their troops at Vicksburg. A strong fortress is difficult for attackers to enter, but equally difficult for defenders to exit; a strong fortress can be a strong prison. Napoleon said, “The army that stays within its fortifications is beaten.”2B

Grant’s victory at Vicksburg was a turning-point in the war. Grant describes how bleak the situation was before this victory:

At this time the North had become very much discouraged. Many strong Union men believed that the war must prove a failure. The elections of 1862 had gone against the party which was for the prosecution of the war.... Voluntary enlistments had ceased throughout the greater part of the North, and the draft had been resorted to fill up our ranks.

I can’t recommend Grant’s Memoirs without qualification. Too often Grant describes troop movements that are difficult to follow, and of no interest to the general reader. Here’s an example:

McPherson, after crossing the Big Black, came into the Jackson and Vicksburg road which Sherman was on, but to his rear. He arrived at night near the lines of the enemy, and went into camp. McClernand moved by the direct road near the railroad to Mount Albans, and then turned to the left and put his troops on the road from Baldwin’s Ferry to Vicksburg. This brought him south of McPherson.

One needs a map on every page — better yet, an animated map. “But you can skip those passages, can’t you?” It isn’t the reader’s job to skip dull passages, it’s the writer’s job not to include them.

One of the themes of Grant’s Memoirs is constant quarrels with superiors (Halleck, McClellan, Stanton, etc.), and with subordinates (McClernand, Buell, Thomas, etc.). Grant gets along well with Lincoln, Porter, Sherman, and Sheridan.

Grant describes how, during the Chattanooga campaign, “The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies.” When Grant rode past the Confederate pickets, they didn’t shoot at him, they saluted him!

Grant argues that the South had much to gain by losing the war:

[The South] was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class.... The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.3

Before the war, Grant suffered some setbacks in business, but his wife anticipated a change in the family’s fortunes:

Julia was visiting with relatives, telling them of Grant’s difficulties and the financial hardships their family was undergoing. Suddenly she said, “We will not always be in this condition. Wait until Dudie (her pet name for Grant) becomes president. I dreamed last night that he will be elected president.”4

After leaving the White House, Grant suffered more business reverses, and became destitute. He also contracted cancer of the mouth as a result of smoking countless cigars. With death closing in, he exercised his willpower one last time, staying alive long enough to complete his Memoirs.

4. Into the Amazon

Into the Amazon is an excellent 2-hour documentary about the 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition on the River of Doubt (now called the Rio Roosevelt). Food supplies ran low, and the travelers couldn’t catch game in the jungle, or fish in the river. Teddy Roosevelt was injured, thought he was dying, and told the others to go on without him (they insisted on bringing him with them). The expedition was delayed because the Americans brought too much baggage, because Rondon was determined to map the river, and because the river had many rapids, which forced the travelers to hack trails through the jungle.

Rondon was a fearless explorer, and is a national hero in Brazil. He was a friend of native peoples, and a believer in Positivism. Positivism was popular in Brazil at that time; Brazil’s flag still has a Positivist motto, “Order and Progress,” taken from the Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte.5

Rondon was averse to killing natives, even if they attacked him; he thought it was better to let yourself be killed than to kill. He tried to charm the natives with music, brought a record-player into the jungle, and played records of European opera.

Though Roosevelt survived the journey, it may have shortened his life. He died in 1919 at age 60.

© L. James Hammond 2018
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1. libguides.css.edu/usgrant/home/quotes

I read the PenguinClassics edition of Grant’s Memoirs, edited by James McPherson. Now there’s a new, 800-page edition with notes by John Marszalek.

Click here for an interview with Grant biographer Ron Chernow. back

2. The Adolescent, I, 5, i back
2B. During the Burma campaign in World War II, British forces tried to stay on the offensive. When they were surrounded by larger Japanese forces, they tried to “retain the initiative by using a very small number of troops for static defence and sending out columns in all directions to strike at Japanese communications and enemy forces.” (Quartered Safe Out Here, G. M. Fraser) back
3. Turgenev argued that it would have been to Russia’s advantage to lose the war with Napoleon. Napoleon would probably have abolished serfdom, and instituted other reforms. back
4. libguides.css.edu/usgrant/home/quotes
See also this site. back
5. Comte said, “L’amour pour principe et l’ordre pour base; le progrès pour but” (Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.” back