February 4, 2021

1. Pareto

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist/sociologist, active around 1900. Before he was born, his family had fled Italy and settled in Paris (his father was an Italian aristocrat, his mother was French). When Pareto was 10, his family returned to Italy, and when he was 21, he earned an engineering degree from a Turin university. For some 25 years, he worked as an engineer and factory manager.

When Pareto was about 45, he became a professor of Political Economy in Switzerland, and remained there until his death in 1923. Like most leading thinkers, Pareto held conservative political views; he was critical of socialism and labor unions.

He’s known for the “Pareto Principle,” which says that 20% of the population owns 80% of property. He stressed the importance of elites, and argued that even democracies aren’t really the rule of the people, it’s always the elite that rules. Elites gradually lose power, but they aren’t replaced by the people, they’re replaced by a new elite. This theory is called “circulation of elites,” it’s considered “the first social cycle theory in sociology.”1 Pareto summarized this theory by saying “history is a graveyard of aristocracies.”

Pareto’s importance was recognized in his own time, his lectures in Switzerland attracted a wide audience. The young Mussolini listened to Pareto, and Pareto may have steered Mussolini away from socialism. Pareto’s connection to Mussolini, however distant, may have tarnished Pareto’s reputation, as Nietzsche’s reputation was tarnished by a distant connection to German fascism.

Another person who listened to Pareto’s lectures was Lewis Namier, who became the most respected British historian of his generation. Namier wrote about the British elite at the time of the American Revolution. Namier influenced younger historians, like Ronald Syme, who wrote about the Roman elite in The Roman Revolution. The influence of Pareto and Namier probably reached the U.S.; Charles Beard wrote about the American elite, the Founding Fathers. As I wrote in an earlier issue, “The study of a ruling class might be called ‘group biography’ or prosopography.” So Pareto started something — he started a new view of society, and a new school of historical writing. Pareto was influential in economics as well as sociology; he made economics more scientific, more mathematical.

What would Pareto say about the U.S.? Perhaps he would say that the U.S. was governed by a WASP elite for its first 175 years; Kennedy was the first non-WASP President. Now the WASP elite has gone to “the graveyard of aristocracies.” Has a new elite replaced the WASP elite? Or has the U.S. become a nation of competing individuals and competing factions, like the Roman Empire in its later period?

Since about 1960, when Kennedy was elected, we no longer have a ruling elite that’s familiar with Western civilization, familiar with Pericles and Cicero. We’ve lost the idea of civilization, we lack an idea that can unite and inspire. The same thing happened to the Romans: when they lost their elite, they lost their culture. Kennedy himself valued literature and civilization, so he might represent what was lost, rather than the new situation.

2. Fitzcarraldo and Frevel

In an earlier issue, I discussed Werner Herzog’s movie, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). I recently watched Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). Like Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo takes place on an Amazon tributary. While Aguirre is set in the time of the conquistadors, Fitzcarraldo is set in the time of the rubber barons (late 1800s). Both movies start from historical fact, but don’t remain within the boundaries of history.

Herzog’s protagonist is obsessed with opera, he wants to make a fortune in rubber so he can build an opera house, and bring in Enrico Caruso to perform on opening night. Opera forms a kind of frame for the movie, but much of the movie deals with the attempt to move a steamboat over a hill, from one river to another, in order to exploit a new rubber source. So the making of the movie became an engineering feat (there’s even a documentary about the making of the movie). One might question whether all this engineering has aesthetic value.

Herzog’s protagonist, Fitzcarraldo, is based on a rubber baron named Carlos Fitzcarrald, also known as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald. Fitzcarrald was the son of an Irish-American father and a Peruvian mother. He probably didn’t have the obsession with opera that we find in Herzog’s protagonist. But other people at that time were big fans of opera, built opera houses in remote towns, and imported famous singers from Europe. And other people used music to pacify hostile natives. So Herzog’s protagonist is a composite of various real people, just as Herzog’s Aguirre mixes various historical episodes into one story.

In an earlier issue, I discussed Teddy Roosevelt’s journey on a SouthAmerican river. Roosevelt’s guide was the well-known Brazilian explorer Rondon. Rondon was of mixed heritage — part European, part native. Rondon had the fondness for opera that Herzog gives his protagonist. “Rondon was averse to killing natives,” I wrote, “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.”

Aguirre attains the sublime, Fitzcarraldo is tasteful but not quite sublime. The power of Aguirre is enhanced by its brevity (94 minutes), Fitzcarraldo loses power by its length (157 minutes). Not surprisingly, most critics prefer Aguirre.

But if Fitzcarraldo isn’t as good as Aguirre, it’s still a good movie. Roger Ebert gave Fitzcarraldo his highest rating, and marveled at Herzog’s determination in the making of the movie. The star, Jason Robards, became ill, so Herzog had to hire Klaus Kinski, and start over again.

At the darkest hour in Fitzcarraldo [Ebert writes], when Robards fell sick and he had to abandon four months of shooting, Herzog returned to get more backing from investors. They had heard he was finding it impossible to get the ship up the mountain, and asked if it would not be wiser to take his losses and quit. His reply: “How can you ask this question? If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

In Burden of Dreams, the film about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog says, “I don’t want to live in a world without lions, and without people who are lions.” Many of Herzog’s films deal with “people who are lions.”

In earlier issues, I’ve discussed frevel, which might be described as impiety, impudence, a lack of respect for the powers of nature. One who is pious and respectful is inclined to be silent amidst the mountains, amidst the ocean. We find this idea in Fitzcarraldo: when a little boat approaches dangerous rapids, the native pilot tells the passengers to be quiet or the spirits of the rapids will get them. Later there are more references to river spirits.

The concept of frevel seems to be found in many cultures, and many epochs. Herzog’s native pilot would understand Hemingway’s Cuban fisherman. “When he and the boy fished together,” Hemingway wrote, “they usually spoke only when it was necessary.... It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it.”2

3. Chesterton and Dickens

In a recent issue, I discussed Joseph Conrad. I focused on an essay that Conrad wrote in 1905, an essay called “Autocracy and War.” I wrote, “Conrad could sense that the atmosphere in Europe was darkening.”

When World War I broke out in 1914, it seemed at first that this would dispel the oppressive atmosphere; people were thrilled at the prospect of a big war, young men were walking on air in anticipation of military glory. But once the war settled into a muddy and bloody mess, the excitement faded, the dark atmosphere returned and intensified, the prospects for European civilization seemed bleaker than ever.

Conrad doesn’t try to explain why the atmosphere, in 1905, was darkening, though he speaks of, “the general effect of the fears and hopes of the time.” Perhaps the atmosphere was darkening as a result of developments in the realm of thought — the breakdown of religious belief, the so-called “death of God,” the tendency of modern science to reduce everything to physical causes, the struggle for survival depicted by Darwin, etc. In the last issue, I mentioned how, in 1901, Jacques Maritain and his wife

became disenchanted with scientism, which could not, in their view, address the larger existential issues of life.... In light of this disillusionment, they made a pact to commit suicide together if they could not discover some deeper meaning to life within a year.

Now I’m reading one of G. K. Chesterton’s most highly-regarded works, his study of Dickens. Chesterton’s book was published in 1906, one year after Conrad’s essay. Chesterton noticed the same darkening atmosphere that Conrad noticed, and Chesterton ascribes this darkening to modern science.

Chesterton says that Dickens and his generation were more optimistic, more hopeful; the early 1800s were more hopeful than the late 1800s. The early 1800s were influenced by the French Revolution, which aimed to build a new world, which gave the average person confidence that he could advance, he could do anything. As Wordsworth put it,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Dickens’ own life seemed to justify these high hopes. Hadn’t he risen from modest origins to dizzy heights of fame and fortune by his own hard work and talent?

In Chesterton’s time, however, people didn’t feel what Dickens felt, they didn’t have the high hopes that Dickens had, hence they couldn’t relate to Dickens’ novels, and Dickens’ popularity was on the wane. The high hopes of the Revolution and liberalism, the high hopes of democracy and universal education, were withering, the atmosphere was darkening. Chesterton says that “a pessimistic science” is one of the chief factors in the crumbling of Dickensian optimism.

I believe that a new philosophy, and a new approach to evolution, can put pessimism to rout, and perhaps restore our taste for Dickens. Zen can help us to achieve what Chesterton calls “an ecstasy of the ordinary,” and Zen doesn’t require belief in God.

A receptive attitude toward the occult will restore what Chesterton calls “a faith in the infinity of human souls.” Every human being has mind-boggling capacities, including a capacity to transcend space and time. As Jung put it, “Nobody can say where man ends. That is the beauty of it, you know; it’s very interesting. The unconscious of man can reach God knows where. There we are going to make discoveries.”3

Chesterton is a deep thinker and a superb stylist. It’s easy to understand why he has a high reputation, and why his study of Dickens has a particularly high reputation. Chesterton grasps that a great artist like Dickens doesn’t use reason, doesn’t use conscious thinking, he uses “passionate unconsciousness.... No man by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature; but a man may add many cubits to his stature by not taking thought.” This passage shows how Chesterton is fond of taking a proverbial saying and giving it a twist, reversing it.

Chesterton advocates a retreat to Christianity, he’s one of the great champions of Christianity. I believe we can overcome pessimism, not by retreating to Christianity or Judaism or Islam, but by going forward, by extending the boundaries of knowledge, and by founding spiritual life on a solid intellectual basis.

* * * * *

When I discussed Conrad, I mentioned that he had various illnesses as a child, illnesses that were regarded as psycho-somatic. Chesterton says that Dickens, too, was sickly as a child; he speaks of, “the touch of ill-health.... The streak of sickness was sufficient to take him out of the common unconscious life of the community of boys.... He was thrown back perpetually upon the pleasures of the intelligence.” The young Dickens enjoyed comic novelists like Smollett and Fielding. When he became an adult and started writing fiction, he wrote in the comic tradition.

Shakespeare, especially the comedies of Shakespeare, also influenced Dickens. Chesterton says that Falstaff “might well have been the spiritual father of all Dickens’s adorable knaves, Falstaff the great mountain of English laughter and English sentimentalism.”

After enjoying a happy childhood until age 12, Dickens was suddenly thrown into the hell of a shoe-polish factory. His father had been imprisoned for debt, his mother and younger siblings lived with his father in the debtors prison, and Charles was on his own, working long hours at a factory, and living at a boarding house. The experience was so painful, so traumatic, that Dickens could scarcely speak of it in later years. It was a soul-crushing experience; Chesterton compares it to torture.

One might suppose that talented people become successful, and un-talented people are unsuccessful, but Chesterton (sometimes called The Prince of Paradox) argues that talented and interesting people are often found among the poor, among the unsuccessful. Chesterton argues that Dickens takes his liveliest characters from the lower classes.

These great, grotesque characters are almost entirely to be found where Dickens found them — among the poorer classes.... Our public life consists almost exclusively of small men. Our public men are small because they have to prove that they are in the commonplace interpretation clever, because they have to pass examinations, to learn codes of manners, to imitate a fixed type. It is in private life that we find the great characters. They are too great to get into the public world.3B

The unsuccessful have lots of corners, which make them more interesting, but prevent them from rising in the world.

* * * * *

Chesterton admires the novelist and critic George Gissing. Chesterton calls Gissing “a man of genius” and “the soundest of the Dickens critics.” Gissing said that Dickens’ poor characters are never intellectual. Chesterton goes further and argues that none of Dickens’ characters are intellectual. Dickens’ characters have personality, a large personality, perhaps an exaggerated personality, and they express themselves fully, express themselves without reserve.

The present that each man brings in hand [Chesterton writes] is his own incredible personality. In the most sacred sense, and in the most literal sense of the phrase, he “gives himself away.” Now, the man who gives himself away does the last act of generosity; he is like a martyr, a lover, or a monk.

So Dickens’ novels are full of life because they feature lively characters, marked individualities, who express themselves fully, hold nothing back, give themselves away.

Chesterton applies the idea of “giving oneself away” to martyrs, lovers, and monks. Does it also apply to writers? Is literature a “giving oneself away”? On Nietzsche’s highest flight of inspiration, he speaks of giving oneself away:

I love him whose soul is lavish, who neither wants nor returns thanks, for he always gives and will not preserve himself.... I love him whose soul is overfull, so that he forgets himself and all things are in him: thus all things become his downfall.4

Those who spent time with Nietzsche noticed that he wasn’t polished or controlled or reserved. One acquaintance said,

The emotivity in his temperament struck me as strange. Especially his monologues on Wagner, which began calmly with rationally founded judgments, but soon accelerated into an avalanche of words that stirred up psychic depths and ended in tears.5

Nietzsche gives himself away, holds nothing back, and like many Dickens characters, ends in tears. Nietzsche lacked the reserve that makes for worldly success.

The contemporary poet Galway Kinnell said that poetry is about giving oneself away, revealing oneself: “Poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” Kinnell and Dickens and Nietzsche wrote with “as little concealment as possible.”

Proust contrasted the courteous aristocrat (Saint-Loup) with the artist who gives himself (Elstir):

[Elstir] lavished on me a friendliness which was as far above that of Saint-Loup as that was above the affability of a mere tradesman. Compared with that of a great artist, the friendliness of a great gentleman, charming as it may be, has the effect of an actor’s playing a part, of being feigned. Saint-Loup sought to please; Elstir loved to give, to give himself. Everything that he possessed, ideas, work, and the rest which he counted far less, he would have given gladly to anyone who could understand him.

In David Copperfield, Dickens writes about his own life. David Copperfield is often called his most autobiographical novel, and his best novel. Tolstoy said, “Sift the literature of the world and you get Dickens. Sift the works of Dickens and you get David Copperfield.”6

If people have a high opinion of themselves, one might expect them to conceal it. But Dickens doesn’t conceal, he reveals, he “gives himself away,” he tells us that he had a higher opinion of his work than anyone else had. In David Copperfield, Dickens writes about the beginning of his literary career, his fame, the many letters he receives, etc. He writes, “I was not stunned by the praise which sounded in my ears, notwithstanding that I was keenly alive to it, and thought better of my own performance, I have little doubt, than anybody else did.”

Chesterton noticed that Dickens thought highly of his own work: “A definite school regarded Dickens as a great man from the first days of his fame: Dickens certainly belonged to this school.” Here, too, there’s a parallel with Nietzsche, who expresses a high opinion of his own work in Ecce Homo and elsewhere.

One of the impressive things about Dickens’ novels is how many he wrote. As Chesterton put it, “One of the godlike things about Dickens is his quantity, his quantity as such, the enormous output, the incredible fecundity of his invention.” In my chapter on genius, I noted that genius has “exceptional passion and energy.” In David Copperfield, Dickens speaks of his “patient and continuous energy.” He describes how he developed the habit of hard work, and how “my success had steadily increased with my steady application.” Perhaps he worked too hard, perhaps he wore himself out; his public readings were especially tiring. He died at 58.

As for Chesterton, he seems to be a genius of a lower grade than Dickens, exemplifying my theory that “there are various grades of genius.”

* * * * *

Chesterton says that many Dickens characters are exaggerated, even unrealistic, but he doesn’t see this as a fault in Dickens. “Exaggeration is the definition of art,” Chesterton says.

Exaggeration also plays a role in non-fiction writing. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “To think out a problem is not unlike drawing a caricature. You have to exaggerate the salient point and leave out that which is not typical.”7 Hoffer quotes Bagehot: “To illustrate a principle, you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.”

Dickens’ popularity is waning, Chesterton says, not because he exaggerates, but because he exaggerates the wrong things, he exaggerates feelings that are foreign to modern readers. “The truth he exaggerates,” Chesterton says, “is exactly this old Revolution sense of infinite opportunity and boisterous brotherhood.” The modern writer also exaggerates, but he exaggerates the perverse and morbid. I’ve often complained that contemporary movies exaggerate the perverse and morbid.8

4. My Competition

Plato and Aristotle went further in the field of philosophy than I’ve gone, if you look at the rules of thinking, the method of reasoning. But method doesn’t matter, only results matter. In basketball, it doesn’t matter how you shoot, it only matters if the ball goes in. Rick Barry shot fouls under-handed, Don Nelson shot fouls one-handed. What counts in philosophy is whether one has answered the big questions — the existence of God, the nature of man, the origin of man, the origin of life, the pattern of history, the reality of the occult, the nature of the universe, etc. Plato and Aristotle did a mediocre job of answering these questions. But they did the best that could be done in their time. They achieved what could be achieved in their time, I achieved what could be achieved in our time.

If we look at a different field, the art of prose, again we find that rules and methods don’t matter. You don’t need to learn grammatical rules to write well. If we made a list of ten outstanding stylists in English literature, we might find that five knew grammar, and five didn’t, and those who didn’t know grammar wrote as well as those who did.

One who studies the history of science may find that successful scientists, like good shooters in basketball, use various techniques, technique doesn’t matter. Three years ago, I wrote,

Paul Feyerabend argued that we can’t rely on scientific method to lead us to truth. “Anything goes,” Feyerabend said; he called himself an “epistemological anarchist.” One of Feyerabend’s best-known books is Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (1975). Feyerabend’s approach reminds me of a remark by Thomas Edison: “Hell, we ain’t got no rules around here, we’re trying to accomplish something.”

Ambrose Burnside studied military techniques for four years at West Point, but he was a failure as a commander in the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest had no military training, but he had an instinctive grasp of war, and he was a successful general.

Plato and Aristotle have many merits, but we shouldn’t praise them for their grasp of the rules of thinking, the rules of logic. In philosophy, as in many other fields, method doesn’t matter as much as results.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Wikipedia back
2. One who engages in frevel doesn’t respect the powers of nature, and doesn’t treat nature with courtesy. This type of courtesy means following the rules of hunting, such as
  • don’t kill pregnant animals
  • don’t hunt out-of-season
  • don’t wound an animal, then walk away
One who violates the hunting code commits jagdfrevel. In an earlier issue, I discussed a documentary by Herzog called Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. I wrote, “Happy People focuses on a trapper who says he despises those who trap pregnant animals, and trap out-of-season.... The trapper in Happy People follows the hunting code, and despises frevelers.”

As Herzog deals with frevel in two films (Fitzcarraldo and Happy People), so Hemingway deals with frevel in two stories, “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” We mentioned above that the fisherman in “Old Man and the Sea” respected the powers of the ocean. In “Macomber,” the guide pursues a wounded lion into the undergrowth, in obedience to the hunting code (the code that says, “don’t walk away from a wounded animal,” because “it isn’t done”). Hemingway’s guide has the same respect for the hunting code as Herzog’s trapper.

One who is receptive to the occult, and takes an organic view of the world, is more likely to respect the powers of nature, while the rationalist-atheist is more likely to be impious, and commit frevel. back

3. Chesterton says, “The note of the last few decades in art and ethics has been that a man is stamped with an irrevocable psychology, and is cramped for perpetuity in the prison of his skull.” But Zen says that man is free; each of us is free to awaken to the present moment, to appreciate the sights and sounds of Now. And if we’re receptive to Jung’s teachings, then we aren’t imprisoned in our own skull, we can “reach God knows where.” back
3B. Perhaps my earlier remarks on Thomas Wolfe throw light on Dickens. I said that Wolfe believed that the common man loves life. I quoted a Wolfe critic: “It seems to [Wolfe’s protagonist] that most men have known the wisdom of loving life and their fellow men and have hated the death-in-life.... Although man can be base, obscene, cruel, and treacherous, he remains noble through his love of life. This power binds men together.... Man’s spirit wills to live in spite of everything. Seldom do men deliberately ally themselves with death.” One thinks of Micawber, who experiences various setbacks, but seems to preserve a love of life. Doubtless we should also ascribe this love of life to Dickens himself. back
4. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, #4. See also Beyond Good and Evil, #206, where Nietzsche contrasts the reserved scholar with the genius. back
5. This is a quote from Resa von Schirnhofer. It can be found in Conversations With Nietzsche, #62, edited by Sander L. Gilman.

According to Chesterton, Dickens was “a man who might at any moment cry like a child.” Dickens was “dangerously close to tears.” back

6. Chesterton also felt that David Copperfield was Dickens’ best novel. See Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911), link here.

George Gissing said, “Dickens held [David Copperfield] to be his best book, and the world has agreed with him. In no other does the narrative move on with such full sail from first to last. He wrote from his heart; picturing completely all he had suffered as a child, and even touching upon the domestic trouble of his later life.”

Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were both big fans of Dickens. They were roughly contemporary with Dickens. On the other hand, Chesterton was from a later generation, a gloomier generation, a generation that couldn’t relate to Dickens. Dickens was born in 1812, Dostoyevsky in 1821, Tolstoy in 1828, Chesterton in 1874. back

7. The True Believer, #43

“To those who would class Dickens’ creations as caricatures, Poe asserted that ‘a certain amount of exaggeration is essential in the proper depicting of truth itself.’” Footnote back

8. In my Conversations With Great Thinkers, I wrote, “Evil has become as fashionable in art as good was formerly. Twentieth-century art, including film, has become obsessed with the morbid and the immoral. Many modern artists seem to think that profundity consists in concentrating on the evil, irrational, morbid side of human nature. The morbidity of modern art is as one-sided, as exaggerated, as fraudulent, as was the sentimentality of early-nineteenth-century art. The moral anarchy of modern art, especially that of popular music and film, contributes to the moral anarchy of modern society.” See also my remarks on the movie Sophie’s Choice. back