I read an essay called “Napoleon and Hitler,” by a Harvard professor named Crane Brinton. One of Brinton’s specialties was French history, especially the French Revolution. He also wrote about the history of ideas; one of his books is called A History of Western Morals. Brinton taught at Harvard from about 1945 to 1965.
Perhaps Brinton’s best-known book is The Anatomy of Revolution, which examines the stages of a revolution, and compares the advance of a revolution to the advance of a fever. It would be interesting to view China’s Cultural Revolution through the lens of Brinton’s theory. One could also apply Brinton’s theory to today’s revolution, which might be called the PoliticalCorrectness Revolution or the BlackLivesMatter Revolution. Today’s revolutionaries are fond of pulling down statues, which was doubtless a favorite pastime of yesterday’s revolutionaries. Nowadays people feel pressure to put up a BlackLivesMatter sign in their storefront, as people in China, during the Cultural Revolution, felt pressure to put up a portrait of Chairman Mao, lest they incur the wrath of the mob.
Brinton’s “Napoleon and Hitler” is a clear, concise description of Napoleon’s regime. Brinton’s essay was written in January, 1942, when Hitler ruled most of Europe but had suffered setbacks in Russia. Brinton asks, Does Napoleon’s rise and fall offer clues about the future of Hitler’s regime?
Some people argued that, while Napoleon struggled to put down insurrections in Spain and elsewhere, Hitler’s regime was secure. These people said that “the airplane, the tank, the machine gun and other inventions have so changed conditions that a tiny group of Germans in possession of these weapons can hold down a conquered country indefinitely.”
But Brinton argues that Hitler’s regime is less appealing philosophically than Napoleon’s was. The French slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was, Brinton says, “singularly attractive to other European peoples.” On the other hand, Hitler’s “dogmas of Nordic superiority” alienate many conquered peoples. So if Napoleon had difficulty stabilizing conquered regions, Hitler will have even more difficulty. As Talleyrand quipped, “You can do anything you like with bayonets except sit on them.”
Both Napoleon and Hitler struggle, Brinton argues, to create a “super-national” state, and erase existing nation-states. Europe’s nation-states are persistent. “It is extremely hard,” Brinton writes, “to obliterate one of these units. Even Ireland, which the English absorbed to the point of practically destroying the Irish language, has in our own day reappeared as a self-governing and virtually independent unit for the first time since the twelfth century.” In our own time, we’ve seen a move toward European integration checked by the persistence of nation-states.
Brinton concludes by speaking of a “serious problem of morale,” namely, “the existence of a belief among citizens in the democracies that Hitler’s victory is inevitable, that irreversible historical tendencies are working for a German dominion over Europe, if not over the world. Such a belief has no more foundation now than had, in 1810, a very similar and perhaps as widespread belief that Napoleon was invincible.”
Eighteen months before the outbreak of World War I, the Italian writer Ferrero wrote an essay called “The Dangers of War in Europe.” Largely forgotten today, Ferrero was a remarkable writer — at home with fiction as well as history, a specialist in Roman history as well as the Napoleonic period, and a prominent commentator on the events of his time.
Ferrero begins by saying that the revolutions of 1848 aimed to unseat monarchs, and the revolutionaries of that time believed that the world would be more peaceful if the people ruled. In the second half of the 1800s, the people began to rule.
|It is now about fifty years [Ferrero writes] since all the European states, Russia excepted, came of age and acquired the right to express their will and criticize the policy of their governments. For better or worse, representative institutions, in one form or another, have taken root in nearly all the countries of Europe.1|
But once the people attained power, they clamored for war; kings and governments struggled to restrain the people’s eagerness for bloodshed. As I wrote in 2013, when I was discussing the start of World War I, “It isn’t the government that’s dragging the people into war, it’s the people that are dragging government into war.” In 1911, Ferrero says, the Italian people clamored for war against the Ottomans in Libya; “the war in Tripoli was made by the people and those newspapers which were the people’s organs.”
This war, known as the Italo-Turkish War, exposed the weakness of the Ottoman Turks, and prompted Balkan nations to rise up against the Ottomans. “The Italo-Turkish War in Tripoli has brought about a great Balkan war. Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro are engaged in a concerted attack upon Turkey.” This Balkan conflict was a cause of World War I.
And it started with war fever among the Italian people. In the summer of 1911, the Italian people “suddenly burst forth into such a blaze of militant excitement” that the government had to give in or step down. Likewise, in the summer of 1914, the Russian people clamored for war in support of Serbia (war against Austria-Hungary), and here again the government felt it had to give in or step down. Even in Germany, the people are more eager for war than the Kaiser, and the Kaiser is criticized for his reluctance to take up arms.
The masses are drawn to war, they’ve been fighting since time immemorial.
|In the history of the world, war is as old as man himself; and peace, a lasting peace, as the normal condition of the life of a people, is the painful and recent acquisition of our modern civilization. War, therefore, exercises a morbid fascination on the imagination of the masses, especially when they have not had to undergo its hardships, and have no conception of the fearful suffering it entails.|
Ferrero speaks of, “this elemental and romantic love of war.” When World War I broke out, eighteen months after Ferrero wrote this essay, war fever spread even to North Carolina, and Thomas Wolfe wrote of his classmates, “The war brought them no sorrow: it was a pageant which might, they felt, pluck them instantly into glory.... War is not death to young men; war is life.... The age of myth and miracle had come upon the world again. All things were possible.”
It’s remarkable that Ferrero grasped the attraction of war before the two world wars occurred. His essay is prescient and profound. But does the situation he describes still exist today? Do the people today still clamor for war? It seems that World War I was the last war that aroused popular passion; since World War I, most wars have been the result of government action rather than popular eagerness. It seems that World War I quenched the people’s thirst for blood.
Fifty years ago, Ferrero says, the aristocracy controlled press, parliament, and public opinion; now they’ve lost that control, and the people possess it. The people have become the most potent force in the nation, and the aristocracy must bow to the people’s will.
|The government, the press, and a large portion of the cultured world [try] to level themselves down in order to satisfy the aspirations, prejudices, and desires of the people. This is a wholly natural tendency because, in proportion as the lower classes and the populace crowd into cities and acquire education and organization, they become the predominant political force.2|
So instead of the aristocracy molding the people, the people mold the aristocracy. Instead of “educating up,” there’s “leveling down.” In order to retain any power at all, the aristocracy must stir up “patriotic enthusiasm, the fighting spirit, [and] hatred of a national enemy.” Far from resisting the people’s desire for war, the upper classes and the intelligentsia try to “meet it halfway” and even stimulate it.
Modern civilization, Ferrero says, is proud of being democratic, and the essence of democracy is the individual’s feeling that he’s part of the state, he’s not just the passive recipient of government policies. Ferrero calls this “the awakening of the political conscience.... Each man feels himself to be a tiny but active atom in the great body politic.”
As the individual is awakened and politicized, the government is weakened; the government can’t dominate the individual, let alone a group of individuals. Ferrero sees a decline of government power, authority, discipline, and a rise of the average person’s initiative and responsibility.
|The feeling for passive obedience and silent respect is vanishing.... All forms of liberal government give rise to a certain disorder which is compensated for by increased initiative, energy, and dignity in the individuals who live under it, and by the keener, deeper sense of personal responsibility which it generates among men.|
Conservatives champion authority, Ferrero says, and liberals champion freedom. (We see the same split today, with conservatives supporting police, and liberals supporting criminals; extreme liberals want to do away with the police altogether, so criminals are unimpeded.)
In 1913, many Europeans believed that, if war is coming, authority is necessary, and disorder is dangerous. “A people may face the trial of war,” Ferrero writes, “with greater assurance in direct proportion as the masses are content to follow the ruling class without criticism or murmur of discontent.” Perhaps Hitler and other Germans felt that Germany lost World War I because it didn’t have enough authority/discipline, so they were attracted to the idea of a powerful government, a government that brooked no dissent. Likewise, Italians may have been attracted to Mussolini because they felt that freedom/disorder had gone too far, and authority/discipline needed to be strengthened.
Ferrero concludes by saying that all the European nations are “bewildered,” with war on one side, and anarchy on the other. Meanwhile, those who once governed are abandoning politics; “thinking men are giving up politics for business.”
If someone decides to write an essay about my philosophy — summarizing my philosophy, and introducing people to it — he may not know where to begin, so I offer the following outline.
My most original theory is my theory of history, my theory of renaissance and decadence. My theory says that we’re in the middle of a renaissance now, the first renaissance since Shakespeare’s time. One might compare my theory of history to Spengler’s theory of history. Spengler realized that the philosophy of history was the philosophy of our time; our time was destined to discover the pattern of history, the cycle of history. For more on this topic, click here.
The idea that I call “Connections” is less original than my philosophy of history, but it’s a larger idea. It deals with the connectedness of the universe — everything from particles to people to civilizations. This connectedness is often mysterious, occult. This connectedness was at the heart of primitive man’s worldview, the Chinese worldview, Shakespeare’s worldview, Quantum Physics, and Jungian psychology. I’m a fan of Jung, and I share his receptive attitude toward the occult. For more on “Connections,” click here.
What’s the fundamental drive in human nature? Is there a basic instinct in all organic life? When philosophy deals with questions like these, one might say that philosophy is dealing with biology. Schopenhauer said that there’s a “will” in everything; like Freud, Schopenhauer emphasized the unconscious and the sex drive. Nietzsche spoke of a “will to power.” Freud spoke of the “life- and death-instincts” of all organisms. I’ve argued that, if all organisms have life- and death-instincts, and if society is a kind of organism, then society has life- and death-instincts; the life-instinct in society causes a renaissance, while the death-instinct in society causes decadence. I’ve also argued that evolution is driven by will or instinct, and that Darwinians are wrong to say that evolution is driven by random mutation.
For more on the biological side of philosophy, click here. For more on evolution, click here.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, and I never became religious. So I readily adopted the atheism of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud. Now, however, I would hesitate to call myself an “atheist” because atheism is usually associated with materialism. I believe that the fundamental reality is not matter but spirit/will. I don’t rule out the possibility of life after death. So there are numerous “overlaps” between my worldview and the worldview of a religious person. I believe that the old monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have done much good, and have guided many people through life. But our civilization needs a new “operating system,” a new approach to the ultimate questions, a new guide for the suffering soul. For more on this topic, click here.
Zen doesn’t try to answer ultimate questions, such as, How did the world originate? and, How did man originate? It focuses on the suffering soul, and it has broad appeal today. Zen doesn’t advocate repressive ethics or Stoic ethics or rational ethics; Zen ethics are spontaneous, natural. Hence Zen is compatible with Nietzsche and with my philosophy of history. I’m a fan, not only of Zen, but of Eastern culture in general. My philosophy combines East and West, as the American philosopher Joseph Campbell combined East and West. My writings have found a more receptive audience in the East than in the West. For more on my view of Zen, click here.
My writing has a literary tone, I view philosophy as literature. I’m fond of literary philosophers like Montaigne, Emerson, and Nietzsche. I believe that philosophy is closer to poetry than to algebra. I have no interest in Analytic Philosophy, which believes that philosophy is closer to algebra than to poetry. Analytic philosophers think that philosophy is a subject, whereas I think that philosophy is all subjects, hence I write about everything. I write literature, and I also write about literature; many of my essays could be called literary criticism. I find much philosophical wisdom in imaginative writers like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Proust. I see philosophy as literary, and I see literature as philosophical. For more on this topic, click here.
I view the scientist and the philosopher as brothers. They both begin with an idea, an idea that comes through intuition, that comes when the scientist/philosopher is 18 or 20 years old. A philosopher is 60% Einstein and 40% Shakespeare. The scientist and the philosopher both try to capture reality in the net of theory. I don’t believe that philosophy is about the process of thinking, the process of reasoning; philosophy is about capturing reality, discovering new truths about the world. The truths that the philosopher discovers are more important than those that the scientist discovers — more important because closer to human life, more relevant to human life. For more on this topic, click here.
Like Nietzsche, I view philosophy as closely related to psychology. I’m a fan of both Freud and Jung; one might say that I synthesize Freud and Jung. My philosophy of history draws on Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts; I argue that a life-instinct in society causes a renaissance. I agree with Jung that the unconscious has much wisdom, the unconscious is a more reliable guide than reason. So for me, “rational” is a pejorative term, and “mystical” is a compliment. I’m interested in imaginative literature because it’s often psychological, it often throws light on human nature. I believe that, in our time, philosophy can reach heights that it never reached before because it can draw on psychology, and draw on Eastern wisdom. For more on my view of psychology, click here.
Compared to most philosophers, I have little formal education. I didn’t go to an elite private school, as Nietzsche did; I’m a product of the Connecticut public schools. I can’t write Latin, as Nietzsche could. I can barely read Latin, and I can’t read French or German. Though I graduated from Harvard, I never attended graduate school. As an undergrad, I didn’t major in philosophy. I’m largely self-educated. So I believe that one of the philosopher’s tasks is education — or rather, helping the reader to educate himself. So I wrote a book called Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature; perhaps this book can help a future philosopher to educate himself. I often write summaries of books and events, for the sake of my own education as well as the reader’s. I try to organize and simplify the vast world of knowledge; one might compare this project to the project of Confucius or Maimonides. In our time, knowledge has become too specialized; we need to simplify and combine, we need to make knowledge an organic whole, we need a new conception of education. For more on this topic, click here.
Actions and policies often follow beliefs. If a philosopher changes beliefs, he impacts the actions of the individual, and the policies of the statesman. So philosophy is relevant to politics. The actions of Osama bin Laden were an outgrowth of his beliefs — his beliefs about religion, morality, etc. The philosopher hopes to change such a person’s beliefs before they’re translated into actions. The best antidote to an unhealthy philosophy is another philosophy. Philosophy is relevant to politics, not when it discusses politics directly, but when it changes people’s beliefs about religion, about ethics, about the world in general. For more on this topic, click here.
Essays on my philosophy have appeared in leading Chinese magazines, but never in a Western magazine. Western scholars expect today’s philosophers to write like yesterday’s philosophers, but we cross this expectation. So if a scholar looks at my work, he’ll probably say, “What is this? Is this philosophy? It’s not like any philosophy I’ve ever read.”
A. Shoplifters (2018) is a Japanese movie about lower-class people scrambling to make a living. It has been compared to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It might also be compared to the Korean movie Parasite. Shoplifters has a moral center: the poor people are sometimes virtuous, and their love for each other leads to at least occasional happiness. But I can’t call Shoplifters a great movie, there’s something dreary about it.
B. Camila (1984) is an Argentine movie set around 1840, when Argentina was ruled by the warlord Rosas. Rosas was the original caudillo; Rosas amassed personal power after Argentina became independent of Spain. Darwin, who makes astute observations about politics in his Voyage of the Beagle, had some dealings with Rosas.3
I recommend Camila, which might be described as a love story set in a time of tyranny. Camila is based on real events.
C. Casa Grande (2015) is a Brazilian movie about a teenage boy’s romantic affairs, and his parents’ financial troubles. Shows the various classes and races in Brazil.
D. Araby (2017) is a brutally realistic Brazilian movie about a young working man who tries various jobs, and lives hand-to-mouth. One isn’t sure whether to call it a documentary or not, and one isn’t sure if these are actors or real people.
E. Eagle Huntress (2016) is a documentary about a teenage girl in Mongolia who becomes a champion in a male-dominated sport, eagle hunting. The eagle is captured from its nest before it matures, and trained to hunt foxes and other animals. I’m not a big fan of the film, but it has some nice scenes.
It appears that Democrats are going to have a resounding victory in the 2020 elections, as Republicans had in 2016. Democrats are planning to use their power to abolish the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court, and create two new states (Puerto Rico and Washington DC). Creating states, reliably Democratic states, would effectively pack Congress, and pack the Electoral College. The Democratic scheme would ensure one-party rule for the foreseeable future. One might compare it to digging a deep hole, and burying the country’s conservatives. But will conservatives go quietly?
I recall when my late wife was in a quarrel with a colleague, a quarrel that dragged on for years. We devised a way to strike this colleague, we thought we had won a crushing victory. But my father, who was older and wiser, said “You can’t put someone in a box, they’ll always find a way out.” And they did, our “victory” became a defeat. If Democrats try to seize the government, conservatives may find a way to strike back. Confederates enjoyed firing on Fort Sumter, but eventually they regretted it.
Biden has moderate tendencies, he may oppose burying conservatives. But how long can he hold back the tide, how long can he restrain the radicals?
|1.||“The Dangers of War in Europe,” Atlantic Monthly, January, 1913. I haven’t been able to find this essay on the Atlantic website, but it is available elsewhere on the Internet. back|
|2.||Ortega, who wrote The Revolt of the Masses, must have admired Ferrero, and probably met him.
“For so many centuries,” Ferrero writes, the middle class was “content to serve and worship small and powerful oligarchies.” back
|3.||Darwin was impressed with Rosas, but after he returned to England, Darwin was horrified by reports of Rosas’ tyranny. Darwin writes, “General Rosas intimated a wish to see me.... He is a man of an extraordinary character, and has a most predominant influence in the country.... He is said to be the owner of seventy-four square leagues of land, and to have about three hundred thousand head of cattle. His estates are admirably managed, and are far more productive of corn than those of others. He first gained his celebrity by his laws for his own estancias, and by disciplining several hundred men, so as to resist with success the attacks of the Indians.... In conversation he is enthusiastic, sensible, and very grave.... My interview passed away without a smile, and I obtained a passport and order for the government post-horses, and this he gave me in the most obliging and ready manner.” back|