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Posts Tagged ‘Rousseau’

Boswell Gets His Due

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Christianity, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Writing on August 19, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Liberty.

What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, through skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

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What Crisis? Law as the Marriage of Science and the Humanities

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy on March 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This week the Association for the Study of Law, Culture & the Humanities convened to consider this question: “How will law and humanities scholarship fare against the pressure of the science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia?”  The question implies an adversarial relationship between science and the humanities, or law-and-humanities.  The division between science and the humanities as academic disciplines, however, is not yet 150 years old; it is misguided to pit “law-and-humanities” (a signifier that did not exist a few decades ago) against the “science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia” (another quotation from the conference program).  We do not have to go back to Plato or Aristotle or Galileo or Descartes or Spinoza or Da Vinci or Locke or Hume or Rousseau or Kant or Newton or Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Thoreau to see that what we call the humanities has not, traditionally, been divorced from the sciences—that, in fact, the humanities and the sciences are mutually illuminating, not mutually exclusive.

In America, more recently, the classical pragmatists—in particular C.S. Peirce and William James—sought to make philosophy more scientific, and in this endeavor they were mimicking the logical positivists in Britain.  Some of the most famous minds of the 20th century worked at the intersection of the humanities and science: Freud, Einstein, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Jacques Lacan, F. A. Hayek, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few.  Lately we have seen scientific thinkers as wide-ranging as Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Leon Kass celebrate or draw from the humanities.

A review of the conference abstracts suggests that most presenters will be considering this question from the political left, but their concerns are shared by many on the right, such as Roger Scruton, who recently took to the pages of The New Atlantis to address this topic in his article “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities.”  Nevertheless, forcing the separation of science and the humanities does not strike me as prudent.

By encouraging the humanities to recognize its scientific heritage and to recover its scientific methodologies, the academy would be correcting decades of wandering.  Science is indispensable to the humanities, and vice versa; the two work in concert.  The findings in one influence the findings in the other.  Evidence of this reciprocity in the context of legal studies is especially striking in America during the late 19th and early 20th century, when the law often was associated with scientific disciplines rather than with the humanities.  At this time, the theories of Charles Darwin and his progeny helped to explain the common law tradition while influencing the way that law was taught in law schools and examined by judges and most notably by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The scientific paradigms in vogue among legal thinkers at the turn of that century were neither uniform nor monolithic.  For instance, Christopher Columbus Langdell’s push to make legal education more scientific was different from Holmes’s use of Darwinism to describe the common law.  Rather than teasing out the distinctions between various scientific approaches to the law during the late 19th and early 20th century America, however, I would look at these scientific approaches as part of the same general project and as a reminder of how the humanities and the sciences can participate to bring about theoretical and practical insights.  It might be that, of all disciplines, law is the most revealing of the participatory nature of science and the humanities and, therefore, provides the best justification for instrumental and scientific approaches to humane studies.

There are groups within the humanities that resent the scientific disciplines for the funding and privilege those disciplines enjoy in the academic marketplace, but at least part of this resentment is misplaced.  The fault lies partially with the scientists who mistake merit for value: it is not that the sciences enjoy more funding and privilege because they have more merit—the academy is not a meritocracy—but it is that they have more value to consumers and the public writ large.  It may well be that the humanities have more merit, but unless consumers begin to value merit, the meritorious will not necessarily prevail in the market.  

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 7, “Economic Controls and Totalitarianism”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Economics, Epistemology, Essays, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.

The following is part of a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, conducted as part of The Mendenhall’s expanding Capitalist Reader’s Guide project. Previous entries can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

In “Economic Control and Totalitarianism”, the subject of Hayek’s seventh chapter, we find him at his best, with a clarity and reason that we have not seen since chapter two, “The Great Utopia.” In chapter seven, Hayek expounds upon numerous themes within the titular subject: the inextricability of dictatorial control and economic planning, the fallacy of believing that economic controls can be separated from broader political controls, the inevitability in a planned economy of controls extending to individuals’ choice of profession, and the interrelation of economic and political freedom. What aspects of the chapter we might find to criticize arise either from a desire for him to take his line of thinking a step further than he does or already established mistakes carried over from previous chapters. Despite a few minor missteps, however, Hayek’s chapter is, overall, an exceedingly positive contribution.

He begins by stating what is, to many self-deceiving advocates of socialism, a jarring observation: that planned economies, following their natural course, ultimately always require dictatorial rule. “Most planners who have seriously considered the practical aspects of their task,” Hayek writes, “have little doubt that a directed economy must be run on more or less dictatorial lines” (66). Without fully restating the argument here, Hayek implicitly rests upon the description of this tendency that he spelled out in chapter 5, “Planning and Democracy”: power in a planned system gradually consolidates into a central committee or single dictator as a matter of organizational efficiency, with a decisive central leadership winning out over the gridlock and inefficiencies of a democratic body. The point is as valid and well made here as it was then.

Where Hayek expounds upon this is in refuting one of the false promises often made by planners as they reach for the reins of a country’s economy: “the consolation… that this authoritarian direction will apply ‘only’ to economic matters” (66). Contrary to the suggestion that controls will be limited to economic affairs, Hayek asserts that economic controls in the absence of broader political controls are not simply unlikely, but impossible. Rather than simply detailing in a typical way the interrelationship of economic and other activities, Hayek acknowledges the inseparability of the two, writing, “It is largely a consequence of the erroneous belief that there are purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life” (66). He later elaborates:

“The authority directing all economic activity would control not merely the part of our lives which is concerned with inferior things; it would control the allocation of the limited means for all our ends. And whoever controls all economic activity controls the means for all our ends, and must therefore decide which are to be satisfied and which not. This is really the crux of the matter. Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends” (68).

Hayek’s point is, in the context of modern economic education, a largely underappreciated and mishandled one. Economics instructors have, with time, lost the important skill of contextualizing economic interests within the broader scope of other human pursuits, instead treating them either as abstract ideas toyed with in a vacuum without real-world ramifications or preaching the ‘economics is everything’ doctrine to the exclusion of other analytical tools and frameworks.

Hayek, whether by virtue of writing at a time less bound by such false dichotomization of the field or simply due to his exceptional qualities as an economic thinker, successfully avoids both traps. “Strictly speaking,” he writes,

“there is no ‘economic motive’ but only economic factors conditioning our striving for other ends. What in ordinary language is misleadingly called the ‘economic motive’ means merely the desire for general opportunity, the desire for power to achieve unspecified ends. If we strive for money it is because it offers us the widest choice in enjoying the fruits of our efforts” (67).

Hayek rightly acknowledges money as a profoundly empowering economic good, calling it “one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man” that “opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man, a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy” (67).

Chapter seven goes on to briefly characterize the pervasiveness of central planning, and its propensity to spread to all areas of a society. Hayek recognizes that the much-eluded question of socialism-versus-capitalism is not simply one of which decisions individuals are to make for their lives, but whether the decision is to be theirs at all:

“The question raised by economic planning is, therefore, not merely whether we shall be able to satisfy what we regard as our more or less important needs in the way we prefer. It is whether it shall be we who decide what is more, and what is less, important for us, or whether this is to be decided by the planner” (68).

Those on both sides of the aisle in the United States today, who fail in so many matters to appreciate the distinction between individuals choosing the right thing for their lives and a government official imposing their choice (be it right or wrong) upon them, would do well to heed Hayek’s warning. Modern American political thinking, caught between an increasingly authoritarian left (taken directly from Marx and Rousseau, or updated via modern incarnations like Krugman, Sunstein, and Stiglitz) and a right that has yet to extend its limited government spirit to all areas of economics—much less censorship and social issues—has a great deal to learn from an Austrian economist’s words written some seventy years ago.

One element of central planning that utopian-minded young socialist idealists evade is that labor, being an input, must, in a controlled economy be as controlled as any other good—if not more so. This does not mean simply the control of wages or the maintenance of union. Ultimately, it means government control over the quantity of individuals in a given profession, conducted in the interest of keeping wages in a given field high and ensuring that there is an adequate supply of expertise to meet all of the economy’s needs. This means at some point dictating who can and cannot enter a given field of work.

Hayek writes,

“Most planners, it is true, promise that in the new planned world free choice of occupation will be scrupulously preserved or even increased. But there they promise more than they can possibly fulfill. If they want to plan they must control the entry into the different trades and occupations, or the terms of remuneration, or both” (71).

How many young socialists on college campuses across the country would not object to being torn from their chosen course of study and compelled to study for degrees in which they had no interest, to spend their lives in careers they did not love? That is the fate that they ask for, whether they recognize it as such or not. Would they accept it willingly? Would they “become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’” (72), bowing their heads subserviently to spend a life on a path that was chosen for them, for the good of society? Perhaps some. And perhaps others would recognize the nature of what they profess to believe in and renounce it. Either way, it is a reality that should be presented to them in those terms by those who see socialism for what it is.

Towards the end of the chapter, Hayek makes several key observations that would prove all the more true in the decades after his writing.  He notes the decline of references by advocates of socialism to the functional superiority of socialism. Gradually witnessing their system being discredited, but doubling-down on their dogma, the socialists of the mid-20th century came to look less and less like those of the early 20th century, who believed in the system as a technically superior model for society. Instead, their arguments turned egalitarian in nature,  “advocat[ing] planning no longer because of its superior productivity but because it will enable us to secure a more just and equitable distribution of wealth” (74). Little did Hayek know how far that trend would go with the rise of the New Left and its legacies, stretching up to the present and the current American administration.

Finally, in another point that has proven all the more true since the time of his writing, Hayek recognizes that the extent of planning proposed by socialism, empowered by modern modes of control, is that much greater than the control and subjugation that occurred under the days of monarchy and feudalism. In reading it, one is brought to wonder how much greater that mechanism of control is today, with NSA surveillance, a growing regulatory state, and ever more executive agencies maintaining armed units to impose their rules, than at Hayek’s writing in 1943.

Hayek’s seventh chapter is a valuable and, for the same reasons, saddening one for the way that it makes us reflect upon the applicability of his words and ideas to our current political environment. Though our current condition is far from totalitarian in nature, the same principles apply, to a lesser extent, in all areas where government intrudes to control markets, alter incentives, or provide special advantages to some at the expense of others.

Human beings are rational animals. We respond to the incentives around us. In the presence of a government that seems increasingly, explicitly willing to toy with those incentives to alter our behavior to suit models and ideals for our lives that are not our own, how much do we lose that we never knew we had? In what ways are our options limited? Need it be by a government edict that tells a young man who would study to be a doctor that doctors are no longer needed, and he should apply to be an engineer instead? No. It may be as subtle as inflating the price of his education through government loan programs, regulating the field he seeks to enter, and subjecting him to entitlement programs that tell him that his life’s work is not his own; that he works and exists in the service of society as a whole. And at that point, the difference between our condition and the ill fate that Hayek describes becomes one not of kind, but of degree.

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