Saturday, September 6, 2014

Class 5 - Part 1: Modern America and the Temple of Sarastro

I’d like to begin this class with a poem and a bit of music. First, let’s read the poem, which is really just a small part of a much larger poem by William Wordsworth.

OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
         For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
         Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
         Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
         But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
         In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
         Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
         The attraction of a country in romance!
         When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
         When most intent on making of herself                       
         A prime Enchantress--to assist the work,
         Which then was going forward in her name!
         Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
         The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
         (As at some moment might not be unfelt
         Among the bowers of paradise itself)
         The budding rose above the rose full blown.
         What temper at the prospect did not wake
         To happiness unthought of? The inert
         Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!                  
         They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
         The playfellows of fancy, who had made
         All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
         Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred
         Among the grandest objects of the sense,
         And dealt with whatsoever they found there
         As if they had within some lurking right
         To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,
         Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
         Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild,         
         And in the region of their peaceful selves;--
         Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
         Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,
         And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
         Were called upon to exercise their skill,
         Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
         Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
         But in the very world, which is the world
         Of all of us,--the place where in the end
         We find our happiness, or not at all!  

William Wordsworth composed these extraordinary, beloved, and immortal lines from his long Prelude while recalling The French Revolution at its moment of greatest triumph - that brief period after the overthrowing of France’s ancien regime when every liberty for humanity, every happiness, every hope, seemed possible. Just three years later came the Revolutionary Commune, when Robespierre and Danton sent 20,000 Frenchmen to the guillotine over a two-year period, and the liberals of their era came face to face with the realization that they’d overthrown a despotic regime only to install one no better, perhaps even worse.

Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, and when a powerful government is displaced, the only alternative is a government that rules with just as iron a hand, if only more wisely. America re-learned this lesson quite recently when they dislodged the Taliban in Afghanistan, they settled for a quasi-authoritarian, extremely corrupt replacement in Hamid Karzai. But in Iraq, America tried to replace Saddam Hussein with a democratic government in its own image, and we now see that the result is an attempted Islamic Caliphate which perhaps will make even Saddam look benevolent.

I would ask you if there was any moment that seemed similar for liberals of our generation to how the French Revolution seemed for Wordsworth, but the illusions of 2008 and the Arab Spring are still so close to our experience that I think we know precisely how Wordsworth felt, even if the events were far more dramatic in the Middle East than they ever were here. But the idealists of every generation have a similar moment when its illusions go up in smoke. For our parents, it was that brief moment in 67 and 68 when governments around the world were falling and it seemed as though the governments of America, the Soviet Union, France, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, might be turned upside down - that moment right before Martin and Bobby were assassinated, the Soviet Union issued the Brezhnev doctrine and his their tanks went into Prague, before every country turned the police on their protestors, and before Tricky Dick was elected twice.

How does this happen?

I don't know for sure, but I'd venture that it has something to do with the fact that, occasionally, the best and the brightest do become our world leaders. And when they do, the effect on the quality of our lives is so easily measurable that we begin to convince ourselves that since our lives have become so much better so quickly, so much more is possible. Rather than become satisfied with our new lots, entirely new vistas open their possibilities to us. It’s precisely what’s happened in the last few years. No matter how unsatisfied many liberals have become with Obama, how many of us pleaded with whatever God we might sometimes believe in for a president with Obama’s flaws during the heydey of the Bush administration? I hate to break it to you, but the liberal revolution most of us have been longing is happening right now, and it was never going to be all it’s cracked up to be. It will take an entire generation to affect the change which many people in this room want to see, and at the end, our revolution will in all likelihood have created as many problems as we solved. Perhaps we’re the generation that breaks history’s cycle, but every generation thinks they are, only to find their illusions mercilessly crushed. This is the way history has always seemed to work.

And this was, in all probability, how the 18th century enlightenment happened too. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Find in any country the ablest man that exists there, raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him, you have a perfect government for that country.” Thomas Carlyle will come up a number of times in this course as one of history’s great idiots, but yet again, his idiocy comes from the fact that what he says is not completely untrue.  

Name, if you can, an instance when a ruler truly was the ablest man in the country.  

The ideas of Renaissance Humanism, pretty obviously the Enlighteniment’s most important ancestor, existed at least in the 14th century, but it didn’t gain any true kind of mass traction until the 18th. In the meantime, it didn’t truly impact historical progress except for the aristocrats literate enough to have heard about such ideals and clergy literate enough to suppress them. The reason is because when the European world is ruled by hereditary monarchies, the idea of a king who can also be your greatest philosopher is at mercy of the lottery of genetics, lottery preserved by a series of inbred families that may not have been particularly bright to begin with.

But in Frederick the Great of Prussia, there was, finally, a true genius on the European throne for nearly fifty years who, through a series of wars and treaties we’ll talk about briefly in the class’s second half, transformed a stale East German backwater into the preeminent European power. As a youth, he was supposed to have a purely religious and military education, but behind his Father’s back, he accumulated a secret library of over 3,000 books. Frederick, artistic and quite clearly gay, bristled at the militarism of his kingdom and when he was still crown prince planned to run away to England. His father caught him and nearly sentenced him to death. Over time, he revealed himself as a philosopher of war and economics, an urban planner and environmental conservationist, a speaker of ten languages, one of the history's greatest generals, a reasonably gifted playwright, musician, architect, and wit. More than any monarch in modern European history, he valued education, learning, and tolerance. Thanks to Frederick, Immanuel Kant never had to leave his native Konigsburg to find fame and fortune, and Bach was finally recognized by a monarch, at least briefly, for the genius he was shortly before his death. Even Voltaire was convinced for a time to settle in Prussia rather than France or England. Practitioners of all religions could worship freely and with royal protection and without tax. A thousand new villages were built, and 300,000 people were welcomed as immigrants.

Eventually, an enlightened despot arrived to give the world everything it needed for a more progressive society. It only took 400 years, and gave the world a taste of freedom that made it crave much, much more freedom. Three years after Frederick died came the French Revolution.

Or think about the 1950’s for a moment; that moment when America reached the zenith of its productivity and economic prosperity. Just ten or fifteen years before, the world seemed on the eve of its destruction, and the Cold War omnipresently kept the threat of it going. But rather than instilling greater happiness in the population, the prosperity of the 1950’s instilled a hunger for still more prosperity. John Kennedy was elected, if he was in fact elected, to bring about a New Frontier in which all was possible.

Let’s read a quote from Kennedy’s inauguaral address:

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge—and more.”

John F. Kennedy - Inaugural Address 1961

These are stirring, stirring words, potentially as rousing today as they were fifty years ago. But was this vision Kennedy laid out ever attainable? And if it wasn’t, why did people believe it was? Did Kennedy believe it, and if he didn’t why did he say it?

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.
Your imagination and your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
Lyndon B. Johnson - Great Society Speech, 1964
Johnson was nowhere near as inspiring a speaker or leader as Kennedy, but he was a much more adept politician. And he came at least much closer, if quite far, from making his vision of America a reality. Was this vision Johnson laid out ever attainable? And if it wasn’t, why did people believe it was? Did Johnson believe it, and if he didn’t why did he say it?

We Millennials came of age in a world where conservatives were filled with utopian visions of reforming the world in its image. Our parents came of age in an era when it was liberals filled with such visions. On Kennedy and Johnson rested the twin pillars of a new liberal world order. From Lyndon Johnson came the vision of ending poverty, from John F. Kennedy came the vision of ending tyranny.

Five Questions
1. Is either goal possible?
2. What, ultimately, is the legacy of the Kennedy/Johnson years?
3. Given that everybody generally agrees that Kennedy and Johnson failed in their goals, were they wrong to try?
4. Would they have been more successful if they had taken a more gradual approach that would not have awakened the dragon of conservative reprisal?
5. Is this what Barack Obama is now trying to do?

The legacies of every president since Kennedy are still being fought over. In many ways, we still live in the uncertain world created by the bullet that broke Kennedy's head. But the seed of every American event that happened since then was already planted. Very soon afterward, we saw the postwar liberal consensus unravel from both the Right into the neoconservatism of the American heartland and from the Left into the socialism of the student generation of 1968. The utopian liberal hopes of our grandparents hardened into a utopian socialist vision in many of our parents when they were our age, and a utopian conservative vision in many of our great uncles.

And even if, for the sake of argument, the hopes of our grandparents were feasible for spreading democracy around the world, assuring financial welfare for all, and civil equality at home; they should have realized that there was so much opposition to what they proposed from racist bigots, from fanatical small government conservatives, from Communist fellow travelers, from people around the world who are reflexively anti-America, that all these opponents would do everything within their considerable power to turn these idealistic projects against themselves. The worst part of governing is that even if the policy is correct, if it is imposed on an unwilling public that cannot be convinced, the result will be as bad as if the policy were incorrect. I’d like us to engage and examine the meaning of this long, slightly difficult passage from perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin. (trim down…)

...Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles may be - the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others. Nature I can, at least in principle, always mould by technical means, and shape to my will. But how am I to treat recalcitrant human beings? I must, if I can, impose my will on them too, 'mould' them to my pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are slaves?...

Well… will it?

They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allow for the full development of their 'true' natures, the realisation of their capacities for rational decisions, for 'making the best of themselves' - as a part of the realisation of my own 'true' self...

Is that possible?

All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious. Each man has his specific character, abilities, aspirations, ends. If I grasp both what these ends and natures are, and how they all relate to one another, I can, at least in principle, if I have the knowledge and the strength, satisfy them all, so long as the nature and the purposes in question are rational. Rationality is knowing things and people for what they are: I must not use stones to make violins, nor try to make born violin-players play flutes. If the universe is governed by reason, then there will be no need for coercion; a correctly planned life for all will coincide with full freedom - the freedom of rational self-direction - for all. This will be so if, and only if, the plan is the true plan - the one unique pattern which alone fulfils the claims of reason…

Is a one true plan capable of being found?

Its laws will be the rules which reason prescribes: they will only seem irksome to those whose reason is dormant, who do not understand the true 'needs' of their own 'real' selves. So long as each player recognises and plays the part set him by reason - the faculty that understands his true nature and discerns his true ends -there can be no conflict. Each man will be a liberated, self-directed actor in the cosmic drama…

(keep going)

The common assumption of these thinkers (and of many a schoolman before them and
Jacobin and Communist after them) is that the rational ends of our 'true' natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation. Rousseau tells me that if I freely surrender all the parts of my life to society, I create an entity which, because it has been built by an equality of sacrifice of all its members, cannot wish to hurt any one of them; in such
a society, we are informed, it can be in nobody's interest to damage anyone else. 'In giving myself to all, I give myself to none',and get back as much as I lose, with enough new force to preserve my new gains.

Rousseau’s statement seems very rational. What can go wrong with this formulation?

Kant tells us that when 'the individual has entirely abandoned his wild, lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law', that alone is true freedom, 'for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver'.Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the eighteenth century, and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being. Bentham, almost alone, doggedly went on repeating that the business of laws was not to liberate but to restrain: every law is an infraction of liberty - even if such infraction leads to an increase of the sum of liberty.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct - if the method of solving social problems
resembled the way in which solutions to the problems of the natural sciences are found, and if reason were what rationalists said that it was - all this would perhaps follow. In the ideal case, liberty coincides with law: autonomy with authority. A law which forbids me to do what I could not, as a sane being, conceivably wish to do is not a restraint of my freedom. In the ideal society, composed of wholly responsible beings, rules, because I should scarcely be conscious of them, would gradually wither away. Only one social movement was bold enough to render this assumption quite explicit and accept its consequences -that of the Anarchists. But all forms of liberalism founded on a rationalist metaphysics are less or more watered-down versions of this creed.

Is Anarchism possible? If the answer is no, why do people persist in believing that it is?

In due course, the thinkers who bent their energies to the solution of the problem on these lines came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way. Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be coerced, if only to make life tolerable for the rational if they are to live in the same society and not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. But the uneducated cannot be expected to understand or co-operate with the purposes of their educators. Education, says Fichte, must inevitably work in such a way that 'you will later recognise the reasons for what I am doing now'. Children cannot be expected to understand why they are compelled to go to school, nor the ignorant - that is, for the moment, the majority of mankind - why they are made to obey the laws that will presently make them rational. 'Compulsion is also a kind of education.’ You learn the great virtue of obedience to superior persons. If you cannot understand your own interests as a rational being, I cannot be expected to consult you, or abide by your wishes, in the course of making you rational. I must, in the end, force you to be protected against smallpox, even though you may not wish it. Even Mill is prepared to say that I may forcibly prevent a man from crossing a bridge if there is not time to warn him that it is about to collapse, for I know, or am justified in assuming, that
he cannot wish to fall into the water. Fichte knows what the uneducated German of his time wishes to be or do better than he can possibly know this for himself. The sage knows you better than you know yourself, for you are the victim of your passions, a slave living a heteronomous life, purblind, unable to understand your true goals. You want to be a human being. It is the aim of the State to satisfy your wish. 'Compulsion is justified by education for future insight.’ The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individual to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who
'possess the highest insight of their time and people’ - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society. For - so Hegel, Bradley, Bosanquet have often assured us - by obeying the rational man we obey ourselves: not indeed as we are, sunk in our | ignorance and our passions, weak creatures afflicted by diseases that need a healer, wards who require a guardian, but as we could be if we were rational; as we could be even now, if only we would listen to the rational element which is, ex hypothesi, within every human being who deserves the name.

What then, would happen to people who are inevitably incapable of being properly educated? Are they automatically no better than criminals who should always be coerced?

But I may reject such democratic optimism, and turning away from the ideological
determinism of the Hegelians towards some more voluntanst philosophy, conceive the idea of imposing on my society - for its own betterment - a plan of my own, which in my rational wisdom I have elaborated; and which, unless I act on my own, perhaps against the permanent wishes of the vast majority of my fellow citizens, may never come to fruition at all. Or, abandoning the concept of reason altogether, I may conceive myself as an inspired artist, who moulds men into patterns in the light of his unique vision, as painters combine colours or composers sounds; humanity is the raw material upon which I impose my creative will; even though men suffer and die in the process, they
are lifted by it to a height to which they could never have risen without my coercive - but creative - violation of their lives. This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to know what is best for them; indeed, what they will permit and accept may mean a life of contemptible mediocrity, or perhaps even their ruin and suicide.

What are the limits which we are willing to accept on our freedom? How much are we willing to accept limits on freedom of movement and privacy for security’s sake? How much are we willing to accept limits on our freedom of finance for the sake of social welfare? How much limitation is there before such limitations become tyranny?

What can have led to so strange a reversal - the transformation of Kant's severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine on the part of thinkers some of whom claimed to be his disciples? This question is not of merely historical interest, for not a few contemporary liberals have gone through the same peculiar evolution. It is true that Kant insisted, following Rousseau, that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men; that there could be no experts in moral matters, since morality was a matter not of specialised knowledge (as the Utilitarians and philosophes had maintained), but of the correct use of a universal human faculty; and consequently that what made men free was not acting in certain self-improving ways, which they could be coerced to do, but knowing why they ought to do so, which nobody could do for, or on
behalf of, anyone else. But even Kant, when he came to deal with political issues, conceded that no law, provided that it was such that I should, if I were asked, approve it as a rational being, could possibly deprive me of any portion of my rational freedom.

Is that true? If you approve of a law with rational consent, can it in any sense still deprive you of your freedom?

With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. I cannot consult all men about all enactments all the time. The government cannot be a continuous plebiscite. Moreover, some men are not as well attuned to the voice of their own reason as others: some seem singularly deaf. If I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason) it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason. My task would be easier if you repressed it in yourself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational. Kant may protest that the essence of the subject's freedom is that he, and he alone, has given himself the order to obey.
But this is a counsel of perfection. If you fail to discipline yourself, I must do so for you; and you cannot complain of lack of freedom, for the fact that Kant's rational judge has sent you to prison is evidence that you have not listened to your own inner reason, that, like a child, a savage, an idiot, you are not ripe for self-direction, or permanently incapable of it.

In that case, would anyone pass Kant’s test for rationality?

...If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest - to Sarastro's temple in The Magic Flute - but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premises of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational - the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal - and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Socrates and the creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virtue is not knowledge, nor freedom identical with either? That despite the fact that it rules the lives of more men than ever before in its long history, not one of the basic assumptions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even true?

Isaiah Berlin - Two Concepts of Liberty

We are all compelled to try as best we can to be rational. But to a certain extent, we will all fail in that regard. But in the 18th century, when the utopian idea of a perfect kingdom in the sky was still so omnipresent, it still seemed as though we could perfect ourselves. And this was why the 18th century had an ‘epidemic’ of enlightened despots: Peter and Catherine the Great in Russia, Charles XII in Sweden, Joseph II in Austria, Cardinal Fleury in France. Each of them had their programs to enlighten the masses, all of which had many obvious benefits and just as many drawbacks. Two-hundred years later, we have the same problem. Some of us at least are wise enough to realize that the ideal society, whether in ideals set by the state, or in ideals set by free private enterprise, can never exist in reality. But it's never enough of us to stop the true idealists from trying to make their utopias exist on earth.

What we see here, as the good Professor Berlin briefly alluded to, is the flawed connundrum at the heart of The Magic Flute, which, in its own odd way, clearly contains Mozart’s reflections on The French Revolution. Mozart composed it shortly before he died in 1791, during that period about which Wordsworth wrote “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Of course, it’s one of Mozart greatest operas, and therefore one of the greatest ever. But it is both the greatest and the worst, the most perfect and the least perfect of Mozart’s five greatest operas. Its perfection lies in the perfect beauty of its music, twenty-four numbers in which not a note seems out of place - cut just one from them and the music would bleed. But its greatness also comes from the mysticism of its setting, which posits nothing less than a new religion and spirituality for humanity based upon the worship of reason and wisdom - the world which every good liberal longs for in his or her dreams, in which humanity can guide itself to a perfect world of mutual understanding. I’ve been reduced to tears by this opera, only to turn to my side and see that my father was in a similar state, and that half the people sitting in our row were as well. And yet, it is simultaneously perhaps the worst and least perfect of Mozart’s five greatest operas. For all the awe and beauty and humor which the story’s given to millions of music lovers, the plot is almost completely incomprehensible, the characters are mostly boring archetypes, and the story has all the cruelly fascist overtones to which Berlin alluded in the above quote.

In the scene we’re about to listen to, the Princess Pamina is being sung to by her captor, Sarastro. She is, and we are, supposed to learn to love her captor as a father and realize that her grieving mother, The Queen of the Night whom we meet many times, is in fact a tyrant and harpie. Shortly before this scene, the Queen of the Night sings her immortal aria, so why don’t we play a very brief snippet from it…. In what we’ve just heard (albeit sans the goat…), the Queen of Night appears to Pamina, rotting in captivity, and rather than rescue Pamina, the Queen gives her daughter a knife, and simply orders her to kill her captor. The captor then appears, and the captor is clearly as kind and benevolent as her mother is vengeful and shrewish.

On one hand, what we’re about to watch is a brilliantly, wonderfully adult subversion of everything we’re brought up to believe in fairy tales - as though Mozart is telling us not to believe what we’re indoctrinated in as children. On the other hand, the logic of this new world is just as perverted. In the world of The Magic Flute, all cruelties are justified, so long as they are perpetrated by a man who seems to have reason in his brain and kindness in his heart.

...Now wasn’t that creepy?...

What we’ve experienced in Mozart is also the core problem of implementing democratic solutions in modern America, and was also the intellectual problem at the heart of the Enlightenment. A problem which, as we learned last week, Voltaire had no answer to. How do you impose more liberal and democratic solutions on people who have no concept of or desire for more liberal democracy? The only 18th century figure who had an answer to this paramount question is Montesquieu, and we will see exactly how he answered it after the break.

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