Thursday, September 13, 2018

INEP #25 - From Werther to Faust - 67%

So a few dozen of you, if you really care, might have asked where your once faithful correspondent has been. The answer is, he's been practicing violin, he's been addicted to duolingo and is trying, in his usual overly ambitious way, to learn four different languages simultaneously, in case he gets bored with any one of them - and has so far progressed enough that he can at least say 'apple' in all four - though as he's writing this he forgets how to say it in two of them; and he's been searching his mind for a podcast format that would bring him and you the best possible results and satisfaction, only to draw the conclusion that he should keep doing this podcast exactly as it is without the slightest possible change.

But mostly, he's been reading, trying to learn the secrets of writers much better than he'll ever be, trying to figure out where his old fictional podcast, the podcast he was really passionate about making, perhaps mistakenly passionate, went off the rails, and trying to learn from the old masters how to make a coherent narrative and actually read the books he's always pretended he's finished, and occasionally never started.

So in these next few weeks, I particularly want to talk about the two books whose eponymous characters are in the title. One is the most beloved novel in the German language, the other is a Himalaya of world literature. If you're listening to this podcast in particular, I'll take it as a given that you have some experience with those literary Himalayas which can break your foot if you drop them. You know the type of writer who writes them: Joyce, Proust, Mann, Dostoevsky, Dante, Milton, Melville, Faulkner... You can be bowled over by how brilliant they are, but their writing often feels impossible to love. It can gets incredibly dry for a hundred pages at a time, and the act of willing yourself to read the book itself is part of the experience. Some artistic works are meant to feel like a struggle. Even the most worshipful Wagnerian can't possibly think that the Ring or Parsifal is filled bar line to bar line with notes that completely need to be there, and I'm sure that everyone who's ever seen 2001 without first taking substances realizes that there are any number of passages that should probably be a quarter the length. Part of what it means to understand these works is to endure them.

But Goethe is an almost unprecedented example of a writer who began his career as almost the exact opposite type of writer and then became this hermetic island of meaning as he aged. I have no doubt that for two hundred years, millions of Germans have taken Faust to their hearts like very few works in the canon. It's documented all throughout the years that Goethe's Faust is an endless source of poetic wisdom for German speakers, my German is pretty f-cking horrible, and it's said that Goethe is one of those writers who loses nearly everything in translation. When I compare translations - and, oy gevalt, I read three translations of Part I, it's fairly easy to see how some people are taken into thinking that classic from a foreign time and place is terrible when what's really terrible is the translation. The first two translations I read conveyed hardly any flavor at all and I couldn't help but come away thinking what a pompous sage this Goethe is, but the translation of John R. Williams truly comes alive with all the playfulness and nature-painting and vulgarity that Goethe must read with in German yet so seldom seems to register in English. With Part II, I read only one, the one you can find online in PDF by A.S. Kline, and it was something of a bore that only came alive intermittently. Jesus, I'm not going through that experience again so soon of trying to understand Part II properly when getting my head around the spirit Part I was so hard.

And that's not to say that even in a great translation, Faust is anything but long-winded, and it seems to take half of Part I to merely gain its momentum. A number of pieces of classical music based on Faust are more consistently enthralling than the original source, particularly Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Even in the great parts, there are any number of exhilarating scenes that run too long to sustain fascination all the way through.

But if you want to understand what we're capable of as a species, you have to read Faust. It is the irrational side of Shakespeare: the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest and The Scottish Play and The Merry Wives of Windsor, magnified to epic proportions. It is a work of art that stands right at the precipice between so many different human achievements: it stands right at the transition from the classical to romantic even as it portrays the faultline between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it embodies the tension between rationalism and romanticism, paganism and secularism, between the idea that the world is a quantifiable place to be understood and that there are more things in the heaven and the earth that can ever be dreamt of by even Goethe. If Shakespeare was a quantum leap in human thinking, bringing our consciousness out from superstition into the world of the rational, perhaps Goethe represents a second quantum leap, or at least the prelude to one: completely reversed in its nature from Shakespeare's. Shakespeare seemed as though he wanted to map human psychology with all our various thoughts and motivations, but the Bard had to begin from a still quite Medieval world which valued Man as a just an small part of God's essence that God can always reclaim at his leisure. Few people thought human beings important enough to understand, so Shakespeare had to make the Human and Real into something magical. Even in Shakespeare's most rational, human plays, intimations the supernatural are always lurking and threatening vengeance: whether in Hamlet's father's battle uniform, or in King Lear's storm, or even in comedies where you think the supernatural has no place - like the miraculous survival of both twins, Viola and Sebastien, from a shipwreck from which there seem to be no other survivors.

But in Faust, Goethe, wanted to map the irrational, rationally. Perhaps like William Blake, he wanted to  deposit this newly minted, supposedly rational man of the Enlightenment back into the world of spirits and demons, and record the findings with almost scientific precision. In Goethe's case, he wanted to portray the Devil himself, but not as Milton did, as an epic being - perhaps a supernatural Hitler - within a cinematically visual world of angels and demons at war; but rather, as a world-weary clown, a career bureaucrat who is somewhat incompetent at his job, with anthropomorphically human motivations like a minor Greek god. Perhaps a Devil exhausted by the knowledge that the world is beginning to no longer believe in him, playing bandmaster to a series of demonic parties with spirits who are clearly comic archetypes of the human unconscious rather than untamed apparitions of terror. This is probably the seminal work in which all those thoughts which once terrified the human imagination get to strut about as something cartoonish, playful, almost harmless.

At first hearing, this epic drama might still seem as boring as its reputation, but consider two things. The first is that Faust Part I was published in 1808, when hundreds of years of religious dogma, perhaps thousands, were finally overthrown and Western humanity was, for the first time ever, allowed some semblance of a truly secular life, with some people, not even necessarily the rich, free to ignore the diktats of the Church. Faust is a poetic drama, so full of characters that it's clearly not meant to be acted on the stage; but rather, either read quietly by one's self, or read in a group of friends or family. Imagine, for the first time that wasn't on a Shrove Tuesday, being able to act out Faust's explosion of demonic characters among your friends, saying all manner of crudely devilish things free from censure or approbation, and realizing that demons are not necessarily things to be feared but may well be cartoon characters of the human past. 

Once God and the Devil no longer had a stranglehold on the human imagination, we humans were much more free to look inward to indulge in our fancies and perceive how our imaginations work, and from that liberated inward gaze we got the real second quantum leap: realist fiction, non-realist painting, absolute music ... and let's not forget, industrial capitalism and liberal democracy.

 Or imagine enacting a protagonist in our minds like Faust, as we all do when we read good books, a character who gives voice to the same existential doubts that plague any thinking person about the efficacy of the supposed good we do, wondering even if good is good and evil is evil, and yet struggling mightily even so to evolve into better versions of ourselves, and willing to risk everything, even our souls, to do it. Art, maybe literature particularly, gives voice to the voices within us we didn't even realize were there, and the first time people read Faust's phenomenal doubts on a page, most readers must have realized that something like this was what they've always thought and felt without even realizing that they did.

But this rendering doesn't quite speak to why reading Faust, why reading Goethe, would still be valuable today. Depending on how the volumes are divided, Goethe wrote somewhere between 80 and 143 books, so it's not like I can give any kind of comprehensive overview of his work or define it in any truly meaningful way. But I can certainly contrast his two most famous works. One that legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - and, for those who don't already know, World Literature is a term Goethe invented. The other is Germany's most beloved novel, a book whose reputation he could never live down because everyone wanted him to write another Werther, but Goethe, like Faust, and as genius must, was always evolving, always searching for new avenues of interest and expression to add to his storehouse of knowledge and reevaluate his wisdom. More than any proper philosopher, he was perhaps the truest thinker the modern world ever had; the reason being that he was unencumbered by any system at all, and rather left his philosophical theories messy - half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, never quite making consistent sense with itself, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he continually hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must. He didn't just write novels and epic plays and philosophy, but travel writing, autobiography, and whole reams of poetry which many Germans have committed to memory. To me, this endless intellectual shapeshifting, this aimless following of wherever the mind takes you; not the creation of some quantifiable system of thought that seeks or purports to explain everything, is what it means to truly think.

And it's this Goethe which we, particularly in America, have so little knowledge of, yet require so badly. Goethe means so little to the American mind, to the 21st century mind, because everything about his ethos is so far away from our zeitgeist. Harold Bloom, not always the most insightful critic, does have a good line about Goethe, which is that the wisdom of Goethe seems to come from another solar system than ours. What seems to matter in this distant solar system is just a pleasant, calm life of contemplation in which we all strive to take as much interest in all the world's manifestations as we can, its people, its nature, its laws both jurisdictional and scientific, and even its potential metaphysical secrets; and in doing so, we cultivate an inner life rather than try to announce ourselves to the world in any outward manifestation; we never stop evolving into better and greater versions of the people we already are and the people we have yet to be, we never cling too particularly to our previous assumptions and what we assumed about ourselves and the world in one year is not necessarily what we assume the next; but this above all else - to perceive the world in all its roundness. Instead of the small, flattened, perhaps even quantified and technocratic, concepts we have of our world in which code is binary and A is only A, in which we all cling to the beliefs we already have; to, rather, always be on the lookout for the interconnections between all things rather than isolated within the same assumptions about what the world is that we live and die with. And by doing all this, the head and the heart can live in greater serenity and harmony than would ever be possible without embracing this constant metamorphosis.

This process has a word in German; everything has a word in German, but this is a particularly important word that we have no equivalent to in English - Bildung. We in America have devoted so much time and passion to the extension of freedom, even if every American seems to disagree violently on what it means to be free; yet how many Americans have ever given much thought about what all our freedoms are for? Once we've achieved all the freedom we could ever possibly want, whatever would we do with it? 

I don't think I need to give a long discourse about how the need for bildung is related to American life, most people listening to this podcast probably live an American life and know what it entails, and the non-Americans might see what's wrong with America from the outside even more acutely than we do. Whether or not one agrees that bildung is something contemporary Americans direly need more of, I think everybody understands why someone who would make podcasts about the gradual accumulation of knowledge and wisdom would see America as needing much more of exactly that.

But I will say two further things about Bildung. Bildung obviously had a huge problem. Those German speakers who devoted their life to this self-cultivation could cast huge shade of disapprobation on those who did not, or could not, be free to pursue the same cultivation as they, and in that lay the intellectual seeds of how Germany destroyed Old Europe. Obviously it generally wasn't the exquisitely well-read and refined bourgeois gentry who perpetrated Germany's worst crimes, but they did often look on Germany's crimes against humanity with indifference, and sometimes even approval.

We in Contemporary America are not Nazi Germany, and no matter what the Trump Administration may still be hiding in store for us, we will never be anything even remotely resembling Nazi Germany. We are America, and these days, that's problem enough. People, including me, who constantly fret that we're about expire from authoritarianism are probably still looking at the 21st century through the eyes of the 20th. We have more than enough existential crises right now without looking at them through the prism of existential crises of the past. At this point I really doubt this is the End of America or the Pax Americana, though it could very well be the beginning of the end, because a lot of ends are not sudden but extremely gradual. We are already failing existential tests of the 21st century with flying colors: ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, bioterror, excessive company profits and growth, often through the corporate data harvest of our personal information, and using that personal information to create fake news to keep us credulous about what they want us to believe. 

Every hard scientist and political scientist seems to have solutions to all this played out in theory, but no leader, not even an advisor to a leader, has the imagination yet to know how to enact creative solutions. Solving these problems, not just in conception but also in execution, can only be derived from vast humanistic training in which some of the interconnected metaphysical outlook of past civilizations are recaptured. Just because past societies fell does not mean their achievements have nothing to offer us, and at the moment, we in the West look like we may become a society of the past just like them, so we need all the help we can get.

We have so much quantitative knowledge that no one person can possess even a percentage point of it, but the more comparative study there is between all of these fields, the more each field can become better understood, and the more each field can yield pragmatic use. We are a society so dynamic, which grew so quickly, so noisily, so effectively, that our American dynamism may destroy the planet. Our quantitative progress, not our moral progress but our progress in technological breakthroughs, desperately needs to slow down so we can understand what we've created and implement it more wisely. 

Some thinkers literally, and mistakenly, call this dynamism 'Faustian.' When Oswald Spengler used the term 'Faustian society,' he meant European/American society, which was a nice way of saying 'white society.' Which he perceived as being in terminal decline. By 'Faustian' he meant that we live in a society that believes in the constant accumulation of progress. But this is such a horribly warped interpretation of Faust, that it would roll Goethe over in his grave for reasons both literary and moral. There is no linear progress to Faust's attainment of greater experience. The character Faust circumambulates organically as we all do, abruptly ending one segment of his experience to begin another, resuming a thread later that he had not picked up for long before - an endless process of abandonment and return that is how we all have to live our lives even if we try to will it differently.

But this process of abandonment and return is already implicit in how we relate to the technology in our houses and workplaces. Today, science and technology evolves so quickly that we seem to be unable to know what's true from year to year. A food that was always good for us is declared bad for us, and a year later it's already been declared good again and bad again. We hear that Pluto is no longer a planet but a dwarf planet, one of five in our solar system. Just yesterday, you might have read that Pluto is quite likely to regain its planetary status. So what happens to the other dwarf planets? Are they less deserving? Does this now mean that there are 13 planets that orbit our sun and not 9?

You can all make your own long list of these uncertainties, you don't need me to curate one for you, even if these examples I give are obviously not very good. The point is that in the many, many uncertainties we face in every facet of our lives, we cling to anything which gives our lives order. And since everything about the world is constantly changing, the easiest way to give order to the world is to define ourselves in the most immovable ways. It was always like this in human history, but today, when there are so much more knowledge about the world and so much less certainty about what it contains, there's much less reason for us to be so set in our ways.  

It is much easier for ourselves to think of ourselves as men or women, white or black, straight or gay, upper or middle or lower class, than it is to think of all the various ways, both beneficial and detrimental, which we have been influenced by men and women, whiteness and blackness, straightness and gayness, all manners of classes. Our commonality with each other is that we've all been influenced by all these various ideas of sex and race and class and so much else besides. But each of us is influenced by them in a completely different way. That is our uniqueness, and it's much more comfortable as though we're a part of a larger whole than it is to realize all those ways in which we're different. 

Because when we really take account of the balance sheet, wherever we lie on the political spectrum, we will discover all manner of things about ourselves that we will find deeply unpleasant, and strike at the heart of our deepest beliefs of who we are. When it comes to the interrelation between people, many of us think we want to break down barriers. But within each person is a chorus of different people, each of whom dominates ourselves at various points of every day. When it comes to the hundreds of thousands of ideas with which we're acquainted over the course of a lifetime, many of which we all find severely disturbing, we're as fixed in our ways as the earth in a geocentric universe - suppressing that which we find disturbing with denial when it comes from our own minds, and rage when it comes from the minds of others. It's a thin band-aid of secularism put on top of a gaping wound that is the religious psyche.

 I have no doubt that with the ability to be openly of an alternate sexual identity, or finally feel pride in one's racial minority status, a person can feel an enormous sense of liberation by being able to proudly express one's identity. There are no words for how necessary this development is in the spread and pursuit of human satisfaction. But the idea that a person's racial identity, or for that matter, their income identity, defined them for their entire lives, is an idea that was on the fringes of Western discourse, both left and right, just twenty years ago! But the speed at which technology passes overly simplistic ideas and solutions is breathtaking. People who never used to give politics a second moment's thought are now convinced that every political difficulty is an emergency too important to ever ignore, and to ignore them or to have anything but the most extreme opinion, is contributing to the perpetration of humanity's worst crimes. But an era when one can take enormous pride in a progressive identity is also an era when one can take pride just as enormous in a conservative, even reactionary, identity. Whatever our sexualities or racial compositions, we deserve to be accepted and loved for them. But the more we allow the lion's share of our time to be focused on the liberation of our identities rather than the liberation of our personalities, the more we risk losing the ability to liberate either. We've come too far to risk losing it all. Even if there is still so much further politically to go, by risking going further too quickly, we clearly risk losing it. The vast majority of the time most of us in 2018 use to pursue political goals is time wasted, better spent on the cultivation of the inner life - finding and spending time with those people whose company and love makes us happy, while finding those books and music and movies physical activities and contemplative states and food that give us the most pleasure, so we can evolve into our best possible lives. 

And it is because of this chaotic loss of all the pursuits of happiness which democracy aspires to guarantee for its subjects that Goethe was, in every meaningful sense, an anti-democrat, perhaps even an anti-republican. He believed in what Isaiah Berlin termed The Temple of Sarastro - taking his title for this phenomenon from Mozart's Magic Flute, an opera which was a great influence on Goethe too. Here's a pretty goddamn long quote in which Berlin describes this phenomenon in detail from his legendary essay: Two Concepts of Liberty, along with eloquently setting the intellectual milieu of how precisely thinkers like Goethe who believed in freedom came to the belief that the greatest possible liberty results from surrendering one's autonomy to an authority figure. 
..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? 
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.
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 fulfills the claims of reason.

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.

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 sucha 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. 
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 problemsresembled 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. 
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.

But I may reject such democratic optimism, and turning away from the ideologicaldeterminism 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, theyare 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 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.

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. 
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?

End quote.

Berlin is absolutely correct that the surrender of one's autonomous will to an authority figure is a ruse that can't help but eventually corrupt the prosperity of both ruled and ruler. But what if, and fortunately it's still very much an if, the same is true for liberal democracy? For two-thousand years, democracy was largely thought a mirage in which liberal rule of law was impossible. The success of America and the Pax Americana seemed to have put that notion away as one of the most self-sabotaging beliefs of human history. But the circumstances of recent world history seem so familiar. Conservatives who tighten their grip on society in a mixture of greed, fanaticism, and the fear which isolation at the top of the income pyramid brings, until their restrictions drive either the radicals under them insane, which is what caused the French Revolution, or drive the elites themselves insane, which is what brought us World War I, or some disastrous chaos intermingling the two insanities which is how Northern Europe got the chaos of the Thirty Years War and China the chaos of the transition between the Ming to Qing dynasties. 

Self-determination is inevitably a chaotic process. If self-determination is to work, there have to be an enormous series of failsafes in order to make it work, and for better or worse, the only way to make such a 'non-regime-regime' guarantee liberty for its citizens is an enormous, impersonal, intrusive government, a thousand times larger and more complex than the will of any one actor with a will to power that may corrupt it - and that's more true now than ever before. In the 20th century, the unrestricted growth of government was clearly an enormous problem. In the face of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, and a hundred other dictators, we have to forgive our parents and grandparents if they heard Ronald Reagan say that government is the problem, and immediately thought of all the mass murderers who used the apparatus of government to kill, torture, spy, and banish. But paradoxically, what prevented an American figure like Hitler from rising to power, a Huey Long, a Charles Lindbergh, a little later, a Douglas MacArthur, is not that American government was small enough to prevent an authoritarian ruler, but was large enough to prevent an authoritarian ruler. In the economic chaos of the 1930s, it was a given that government would expand everywhere in the world. Tens of millions in every major country needed jobs, they needed welfare checks, they needed shelter and security. If a fairly beneficent liberal leader like Roosevelt did not provide them, an authoritarian leader like Huey Long would have who would demand complete fealty as his price. 

But this is not the 20th century anymore. It's true that conservative Presidents like Reagan didn't manage to shrink government, they only managed to slow the rate of its growth. Meanwhile, as governments were growing arithmetically, corporations were growing geometrically. We are living in a time when defeated lawmakers go back and forth from public office into the private sector where they use their contacts to lobby the government to be friendlier to business, a time in which the most talented young staffers of legislators are expected to work a decade in the private sector to make millions of dollars before they return to public life, ready to take government appointments at the highest levels of the executive branch, where they have vested interests in keeping the door between politics and big business as open as possible so that they can continue to be remunerated and not be punished legally or humiliated in the press for the seemingly legal but clearly corrupt way they made their money, should the door between business and government ever begin to close. 

It is the tension between government and business, public sector and private, which creates a prosperous society, but even if business must be large enough to do battle the power of government, government must be large enough to win that battle the vast majority of the time. The purpose of a government is to provide for the governed, the purpose of business is to provide for the owners, and any service which businesses provide for customers and employees is only their second and third goals. It is absurdly easy to hoodwink customers. Government inspectors have to be extremely present, intrusive even, in the quest to make businesses provide the best possible services, not because businessmen aren't capable of figuring out that providing good services are to the benefit of their businesses, but because if a necessary business makes a self-destructive decision, it can affect its market much as the collapse of a branch its government. Whether it's that a whole county goes without plumbing repair for months or how the collapse of Bear Stearns begat The Great Recession. 

I have no idea if the swarming of government by business is the inevitable process by which liberal democracies die. There are nowhere near enough liberal democracies to prove that notion, let alone enough failed ones. But if a democratic government cannot prevent the encroachment of business power to the point that the failure of a business causes the failure of a society, then the only option left is to hope that an authoritarian government is large and well-run enough to stave off such a failure. 

I believe Isaiah Berlin is as great a political philosopher as the world has ever seen, but like everyone, he was a man of his time - born five years before World War I, a witness to the Russian Revolution before his family escaped to England, working for as a liaison between American and British intelligence during World War II, a doyen of Cold War Liberalism who seemed somewhere between silent and confused about the America-backed massacres of millions around Indonesia, Congo, and Vietnam even though his theories should have provided room for a kind of coexistence between less extreme versions of both Western and Communist governments. In Berlin's generation, the efficacy of authoritarians had been so trounced, and the efficacy of democrats so vindicated, that it was taken as something of a given that the worldwide promotion of democracy and erosion of authoritarianism was something which all liberals should be working towards. Berlin died in 1997, and it would be impossible to know what he would have made of something like the Iraq War that made some hash of such arguments, though plenty of liberal hawk admirers invoked his name to say that Berlin would have supported it. 

But let's just imagine that a gamble on democracy a thousand times larger than even the Iraq War happened in our lifetimes, perhaps an event as large as the French Revolution. Now you can you can begin to understand how thinkers of genius like Goethe felt completely justified in predicting that democracy would not work. When an event as colossally chaotic as the French Revolution happens, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually claims something like 10 million lives once Napoleon was stopped, even the thought that giving democracy a couple more chances to work seems incredibly irresponsible. 

This is very different kind of authoritarianism, even a very different kind of nationalism, from the patriotic fever that would grip later German intellectuals. It's pretty safe to say Goethe is as far from later German authoritarianism as one can imagine, and the nationalism which insisted upon 'Germany over all' or "Deutschland ├╝ber alles" is of an almost completely opposite spirit from what Goethe intended. Goethe, at least in his intensions, represented the best of German aspirations - a fairer, more just, more enlightened society, in which people were free to evolve into the people which their potential would have them be. This is not in any sense the same as saying that Goethe was a democrat. Like Berlin, he was a man of his time, and Goethe, like us all, had the right to be wrong and did the best he could with the information he had, which is usually better than we can do. He believed in the authoritarianism of sovereigns not because he thought some people deserved rights more than others, but because authoritarian sovereignty guaranteed accountability. When there is a single power at the top of the social heirarchy, responsible for all your provisions, you know whom to blame when things go wrong. When you have 18th century coercive means at your disposal along with 18th century medicine and technology, this can perhaps be a forgivable sentiment even if it points a direct path to Hitler 150 years later.
Many of Goethe's ideas about government originated with a thinker not much thought of today named Johann Gottfried Herder. It may be worth doing some podcasts on Herder too, because Herder is a thinker nobody talks about today, but if ideas matters more from their consequences for the world than as ends in themselves, Herder is clearly more influential than his much more famous contemporary, and his mentor, Immanuel Kant. I'm not going to give a large discourse on Herder. My philosophical knowledge is frankly pathetically shallow compared to the airs I put on in this podcast. But Herder is one of those out-of-fashion thinkers whom, thanks to Isaiah Berlin, I do feel a call to read extremely closely in the relatively near future. 
But I certainly have the competence to report that Herder was, above most things, a philosopher of language, and his ideas are, at times, shockingly close to Darwin, and closer of course to Lamarck, in how he perceives, perhaps as Montesquieu did before him, that regional characteristics are formed by geography and that humans and non-human living organisms alike tend to adapt traits based upon their general environment. From Herder, we get the basic germ of 19th century nationalism, but on the other hand, with nationalism comes the idea of self-determination. That each peoples, and eventually therefore each person, is entitled through their cultural differences to other peoples to determine their own fates, and what is true and good for one people is not necessarily true and good for another. It may not be true, but it was the key moment in morality itself that broke the idea that one single, universal truth, must be imposed on every single person, with all the Holy Wars between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Muslims, which that entails.
To understand just how progressive or liberal this nationalism of Herder's, and therefore Goethe's, was, please just consider this passage from Herder's Outlines of a Philosophy of History:
Vain therefore is the boast of so many Europeans, when they set themselves above the people of all the other quarters of the Globe, in what they call arts, sciences, and cultivation, and, as the madman by the ships in the port of Piraeus, deem all the inventions of Europe their own, for no other reason, but because they were born amid the confluence of these inventions and traditions. Poor creature! hast thou invented any of these arts? have thy own thoughts any thing to do in all these traditions thou hast sucked in? thy having to use them is the work of a machine: thy having imbibed the waters of science is the merit of a sponge, that has grown on humid soil. Steer thy frigate to Otaheite (meaning Tahiti), bid thy cannon roar along the shores of the New Hebrides, still thou art not superior in skill or ability to the inhabitant of the South-Sea islands, who guides with art the boat, which he has constructed with his own hand. Even the savages themselves have had an obscure perception of this, as soon as they became more intimately acquainted with europeans. In the preparation of their implements they appeared to them unknown superior beings, before whom they bowed themselves, and whom they saluted with reverence: but when the savage perceived, that they were vulnerable, mortal, liable to disease, and more feeble in bodily exercises than himself, he dreaded the art, but flew the man, whose art was no part of himself. This is applicable to European cultivation. If the language of a people, even in books, be delicate and modest, everyone who reads these books, and speaks this language, is not therefore to be concluded modest and delicate. How he reads, how he speaks, are the question: and even then he thinks and speaks only after others, whose thoughts and expressions he follows. The savage, who in his narrower circle thinks for himself, and expresses himself in it with more truth, precision, and force; he, who in the sphere of his activity knows how to employ his mental and corporal faculties, his practical understanding, and few implements, with art, and with preference of mind; is palpably, man for man, more cultivated than the politic or learned machine, that fits like a child on a lofty stage, erected, alas! by the hands of others, nay, perhaps by the labor of all preceding ages. The man of nature, on the contrary, more limited indeed, but a founder, abler man, stands firmly on the ground. No one will deny Europe to be the repository of art, and of the inventive understanding of man: the destiny of ages deposits its treasures there: they are augmented and employed in it. But every one, who makes use of them has not therefore the understanding of the inventors: nay, this very use tends to render understanding inactive; for I have the instrument of another for my purpose, I shall scarcely take the trouble, to invent one for myself.  

What a glorious paragraph that is! Not just because it's respect for other cultures is so ahead of its time, perhaps even so ahead of our time, but because the whole of history is present in it - the miracle of how civilizations rise seemingly out of nothing, and the mystery of how civilizations fall which seem to be invincible. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but is also therefore the mother of understanding. When the circumstances of your surroundings require the ability to master new skills to save your lives, some people will develop those skills; meanwhile others will die from the lack of them, and thereby you have the beginning of a new civilization. But when everything is provided for us and taken for granted, the seeds of destruction can develop all around us with no one seeing them for what they are until after mechanisms devour us that were supposed to keep us alive; and therein seems to be the story of American decline and the rise of China. 
Yet again, as the world evolves, the dominant nation refuses to evolve with it. The American ideals of liberal democracy refuse to evolve with it just as the once-extremely promising ideas of Bildung and Kultur refused. Democracy without liberal rule of law is no different than tyranny, and we live in an era when facts themselves can be denied for political gain and every internet crank can consider himself an expert entitled to dismiss the findings of people who study their subjects their lifelong (irony duly noted). Almost every good faith statistical finding seems to support ideas that the climate is changing at an alarming rate, and the need for vast government spending on education and public works and poverty alleviation and health care and scientific research and high tax rates to fund them all, that mental illness is omnipresent in human society and not merely a flaw of character, that there are many varieties of identity - racial, gender, and sexual, the free expression of which cannot possibly hurt any group of people who do not mean harm; that the bedroom is a place where infringements on the right to privacy lead directly to authoritarian spying and thereafter to authoritarian policing, that a government which refuses to regulate business creates a power vacuum into which step large corporate monopolies who obliterate all potential competition and innovation; that the inequalities of opportunity between men and women have been ignored and justified for the entirety of human history in spite of women never having been fairly proven to be less inherently gifted than men, that the exploitation of people of color for the economic gain of white people is a horrible that the overwhelmingly vast majority of immigrants are wonderful people who can make enormous contributions to their new countries - many of which are in low-paying demeaning jobs native-born citizens would never countenance taking, and yet the Right denies every bit of it. Almost every good faith statistical finding seems to support ideas that a large military and law enforcement is absolutely necessary, that genetically modified food can solve world hunger, that gender identity is a biologically hard-wired spectrum and not merely a performative social construct - and therefore that masculinity and femininity are inherent on people whose brain chemistry falls either on the masculine or feminine ends of the spectrum and whose more masculine behavior is not merely a toxic residue from bad socialization, that incentives to have two parents for every child can vastly improve the chances of children for success as adults, that mental illness is omnipresent in human society and not the manifestation of adverse systemic circumstances, that that cultures will always intermingle freely and that accusations of exploitative cultural appropriation in any manner but financial are a eugenic attempt to interfere in the inevitable process of human evolution, that mob censure of speaking unpopular sentiments is the tactic of animals employed in the wild - enabled by an unregulated internet so democratic that its results can be little different than tyranny, that a tightly-regulated capitalist economy is the guarantor of public welfare the world has ever seen and much better so far than even the loosest-regulated socialist state, that there must be screening processes so that the few potential immigrants who mean aggressive harm to their new country are prohibited to enter, yet the Left increasingly denies every bit of that too. I would also include the notion that deficit spending is the ultimate indicator of how close a society is on the path to collapse, but it would seem that in spite of their protestations to the contrary, today's Right believes that even less than today's Left. Democracy as we currently know it is not equipped for an era when people feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions, and statistics point to every one of these notions being facts, not opinions. To deny these notions in 2018, when there is so much evidence to the contrary, is at least a bit like denying the existence of gravity and that the earth is round. You may believe it, but if you take over a state with weapons and try to implement your beliefs against evidence, you could ruin hundreds of years of human progress. 
(also include something about imperial tyranny and anti-imperial tyranny)

There is an obvious contradiction in all this. On the one hand, one has to always be skeptical, on the other hand, one has to be credulous. When scientists whom we assume are well-informed about their subject tell us their findings, but only a very select few people have the training to test their findings, we simply have to believe that the experts are right and take the continued and/or improved functionality of society as evidence that they are. One is skeptical so that one can be credulous. I don't think this is a circle human beings are meant to square. 
The way this relates to Goethe is this: Goethe believed not in a dictatorship of Germany over all, but in enlightened authority figures for every country; each of whom would use the best research of the time to provide citizens with the best possible results. However much evidence we have as to the terror of authoritarianism in our day, in the 1800s, democracy seemed to many to guarantee civil war and slavery. By 2200, it's possible that democracy will mean something similar yet again. Far more than I believe in America itself, I believe that liberal democracy is, far and away, the best guarantor of each person's rights and opportunities as the world has ever conceived. Any even cursory reading of history makes you realize that the results speak for themselves. But liberal democracy can only function if its custodians handle it responsibly. Liberal democracy has resulted in such a flowering of progress that the progress of Americans cannot continue if Americans do not do their best to understand the forces present within their democracy that their incredible flowering of progress unleashed. If Americans do not develop the bildung to keep abreast with the findings of the vast array of research and data at their disposal, they will be exploited by any number of intelligent psychopaths who do. The irresponsibility of today's Americans, accustomed to believing that the mechanisms of their rights and opportunities take care of themselves without maintenance, is self-evidently breathtaking. There have been sufficiently few liberal democracies in human history that the break down of this incarnation of liberal democracy should discredit liberal democracy, but if liberal democracy as we currently understand it breaks down in our lifetimes, it will be up to relatively more enlightened authoritarian states to ensure that the incredibly glorious storehouse of knowledge about human improvement which liberal democracy provided does not go entirely to waste, and hope for some enlightenment among rulers who have no checks to their power, and therefore accountability to no one when they rule their subjects in bad faith.  
Whether or not these notions, of national determination and moral truths which are particular to region rather than universal, were in any sense true, it was in some ways this hope that an enlightened authority figure would work better than equality for all which ensured that the French Revolution never spread to Germany. When the dust cleared a generation later from the Napoleonic Wars, no country, not even England, was better situated than Germany, and for 100 years thereafter, the German nations were considered the same acme of progress which monarchical France was considered previously.

Not even England had a more glorious nineteenth century than the German speaking lands. No country had more dynamic scientific discoveries than Prussia, no country guaranteed greater liberties for more of its citizens than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. No doubt many Germans would have loved to have a large overseas empire like Britain and France, but there was no chance for it and therefore no chance for the same level of human rights abuses. Once romanticism gave way to realism around 1830, the literature of the age flourished in France, England, and Russia as it never did in German lands thanks to the red supergiant absorbing everything around that was Goethe's influence for a full lifetime after his death. But in music, in philosophy, in science, in all manners of purely abstract thought and many connected to abstract thought like industrial technology and jurisprudence and soldiery, no other country was even close.

The problem the French found, just the Germans found a century later, just as we may be finding now, is that if you base too much of your thoughts on one system of belief, you can't see the world outside the filter of the belief system which surrounds everything you do. Even the rebellion against the belief system becomes an affirmation of it. You can't truly understand these new theories of inherited privilege making the rounds on the progressive/socialist internet unless you realize that nobody would care about them if they didn't first buy into the idea, the American idea, that all men are created equal. It's the old Marxist idea that freedom is a form of oppression unless tied to equality of means and income, crossbred with an idea that can grow on American soil, that everyone deserves the inherent individual right to grow into their best selves, and the obvious truth that it's clearly easier for some than others, so we therefore must clear paths for more people to live freer lives. But when you make ending the hierarchy of privilege a higher priority than freedom itself, every manifestation of freedom also becomes a manifestation of oppression, and therefore no amount of commitment to the cause of equality is ever enough because by realizing your own best life, you are inevitably causing the oppression of someone else. Whether or not that's true, American society is built on the idea that it isn't, and the entire basis of American society can come undone from such thinking.

Long and terrible experience made the German societies of Goethe's time far more prudent than their French equivalents, who were accustomed to thinking themselves the best of all societies, and therefore expected that life entitled them to more. The national trauma of a country never truly leaves it, and the German people, who once thought themselves an especially peaceful medieval tribe of city-states, burghers, bunds, and guilds; became the exact center of the Protestant-Catholic Wars thanks to Martin Luther. After Luther, a hundred years of political instability, war after war after war, which only led to still larger wars. Until, finally, a hundred years after Luther's death, an explosion of fanaticism crossed with the exploitation of venal warlords erupted into what we now know as the Thirty Years War - a war as apocalyptic in its time as both World Wars. Eight million dead from violence, disease, and starvation in an era when far fewer people lived. While France expanded its national pride to the very limits, generation upon generation of Germans had to live a quiet, unglamorous, disciplined life of rebuilding.

All around, we denigrate this disciplinary, patriarchal, view of society which seems to have a mythical father figure at its head telling us that we cannot have what we want. The modern Left calls it the Patriarchy, the modern Right calls it Paternalism, and at the heart of both is resentment that a stable life can't demand too much from it. But that does not mean that in times of rebuilding, the Father figure cannot be oppressive indeed.

The spirit of the Germany which birthed Goethe could not have been more patriarchal. The laws were roman in spirit, the middle class was very small indeed, and the general zeitgeist expected Germans to live lives of extreme thrift. It was a Germany which even a hundred years after the Hundred Years War, was still a loose confederation of 300 states while England and France seemed glorious sovereignties, and whose entire spirit seemed embodied by the Prussian king, Friedrich. Not Friedrich der Grosse, or Frederick the Great, but his father, Friedrich I of Prussia, the kingdom from which Goethe hailed, whom at one point came close to having his son executed. Friedrich I of Prussia had such a mania for saving that he kept the Prussian treasury in the basement of his own castle. He raised taxes to whatever maximum he could get without open revolt and spent not a penny more than he ever could countenance, and for national defense he built a giant army whose sole use was an endless series of military drills. He was so micromanaging that he personally dictated all 297 paragraphs of the manual for Prussian state employees. He considered it his divine right to dictate his subjects' hygiene, clothing, housing, what they read and what they spoke about, whom they married and what they ate. It was a kind of maniacal prison from which there was nearly no chance for subjects to exhibit any sense of independent will at all.

In so many ways, this is a proto-totalitarian mentality. But it is, nevertheless, a very different and not as destructive a mentality as either the various theocratic dictatorships so prevalent all throughout European history, and also very different from the reformist and secular theocracy of France post-revolution. If anything, perhaps the closest parallels would be to Oliver Cromwell's England in the mid-17th century which perhaps created the circumstances for the Glorious Revolution and liberal monarchy of 1688, and, obviously more importantly for our time, perhaps even a parallel to modern China.

i think it's hard not to see the parallel with the thrift of modern China. The Chinese are still limited to one child per family, there is no freedom of association, no internet congregation except on government approved sites, no mass protests, very little freedom of speech when it comes to politics, and still very little freedom of movement. What is most amazing about modern China is how it seems to thrive not because of these policies, but in spite of them. Liberal democracy does not ensure good governance, liberal democracy ensures that a society can thrive in spite of bad governance. But with their embrace of authoritarianism, the government of China must be exemplary at all times. One imprudent move can cause the entire system of government to collapse. That collapse may come as early as next year. Xi Jinping's unwillingness to step aside after five years in the manner of the last three General Secretaries following Deng Xiaoping could send the entire Chinese system into freefall. On the other hand, if Xi ends continues to govern with a philosophy of maximum circumspection as all Central Committee members are instructed to do from their first jobs in the Chinese Communist Party, it won't matter whether he is the General Secretary or if it were a hundred other Central Committee members. The Chinese government is constituted in such a way that people of great ability are noticed, mentored, and promoted from a very young age. But they are rarely ever promoted to the Central Committee until they're at least 50, by which time they have thorough training in all the necessary branches of government. Furthermore, they are required to retire by the time they're 68. Even within those eighteen years, 62% of the members only sit on the Central Committee for one, five year, term. What this ultimately does is to ensure that there's very little point to the formation of political factions that could become rival parties. I don't know if the Chinese based this idea on the Venetian Great Council, on which forty capable members of aristocratic families were trained to govern from the earliest age and upon reaching adulthood each would take on a different ministry every year, but I can guarantee that the Chinese government has done a thorough study of previous governments through world history to ascertain which are most stable, and the Venetian Great Council lasted for six-hundred years.

But where ultimately is China headed next? So much prudence and parsimony, so much thrift and saving, so much policy whose obvious end is maximum economic growth. What, ultimately, is the purpose of all this economy? If it is merely to save to prevent a potential catastrophe that could never be a bigger than the catastrophe that was Mao, China will have yet again become its own kind of prison from which there is no escape for a billion people.

But, if the Chinese eventually cash in to yield some dividends, if they ever choose to spend more than is absolutely necessary on public works, if they really begin to allow for political dissent, if their authoritarianism becomes, at least for a time, relatively, more enlightened, the difference in the quality of Chinese life will eventually be exponential.

Just think of the difference in Prussia from Frederick the First to Frederick the Second. Directly from the stern near-totalitarian approach of the first there afterward arose an explosion of creativity and individuality that pointed the world in its modern direction ever since, because the heir to this caricature of frugality was a Renaissance man, one of the most intelligent men of his era, and from Frederick the Great arose a liberal monarchy that was the hope and envy of the entire world, and he could do so because his father bequeathed him with the largest imaginable treasury.

Thomas Carlyle defined the ideal government very succinctly: "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." Here is what the much forgotten Viennese intellectual historian Egon Friedell had to say about Frederick and that definition:

A recipe as admirable as it is simple, but, like almost all good and simple recipes, very seldom followed. Obviously it would be the most natural thing if the best were always at the head of things, the cleverest and wisest, the strongest and best-armed, the eye that sees furthest with past and present, the gleaming focus in which all the world's rays unite: if, in a word, the brain were in command as is the case with the simplest human individual. Yet this self-evidently normal case has happened at most a dozen times in the better-known sections of the history of humanity: a dozen times in three thousand years. One of these few cases was Frederick the Great.
I would put this slightly differently. To take just the European example: there existed a kind of blueprint for a better world in Europe since Renaissance Humanism, which is pretty obviously the most important ancestor to the Enlightenment. The foundations of Renaissance Humanism go back to at least to the 14th century, but it gained no mass traction until the 18th. In the meantime, the Renaissance didn't truly have any progressive impact except for those aristocrats literate enough to know about such ideals and clergy literate enough to suppress them. The reason for that is because when the world is ruled by hereditary monarchies, the idea of a king who can also be your best thinker is at the mercy of a genetic lottery, a genetic lottery preserved by a series of inbred families who may not have been particularly bright to begin with. But with Frederick the Great, a European King finally won the genetic lottery, and true progress in Europe for more than a very small aristocracy was finally able to commence. All Europe had to do was wait 400 years.

Frederick the Great was not only one of history's greatest generals who transformed Prussia from a backwater in East Germany to a world power, but also a philosopher in both war and economics, an urban planner and environmental conservationist, speaker of god knows how many languages, and in his spare time a playwright, musician, architect, and composer. I suppose it's minorly possible that some of these achievements history attributes to him are exaggerated, but what matters is not the achievement but the aspiration. Because Prussian progress made the benefits of great learning so obvious, other court societies were also inspired to become better learned and base their policies on what their most intelligent and well-informed counselors advised.

But there is also a contradiction in Frederick the Great. There were many contradictions in his character - he was a monarch who hated much about monarchy and an autocrat who tolerated most forms of dissent, but the contradiction that's important in this case is his impact on the German zeitgeist. The enlightenment which Frederick espoused was French ideals, put into practice on German land, and the differences in quality of life between the two monarchies became grist for the French revolutionaries against the Ancien Regime. Thinkers tend to identify Frederick the Great as the pillar on which the entire Enlightenment's permanence sits, perhaps because Frederick the Great created a home away from home for Voltaire and sponsored Immanuel Kant.

But except for thinkers a generation older like Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, born before Frederick the Great ascended to the throne in 1740, most of the German thinkers and artists to come out of these newly enlightened German lands in Frederick's time were not enlightenment thinkers at all. They were, in some ways at least, severely critical enlightenment, or at least stand in stark contrast Enlightenment's ideals even as they would not at all be possible without the Enlightenment. One of the great paradoxes of the Enlightenment is that one of its two most important thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, demanded a return to the natural. Perhaps Rousseau conception of nature was unrealistically extremely benevolent, but it was formulated from the confines of the tightly wound Rococo society whose chateaus let all kinds of light in from the outdoors yet hardly permitted any person of high birth to get his hands dirty. This call for a return to nature was omnipresent in the 18th century. Perhaps Rousseau gave it the first real voice, but it was an impossible plant within the strictures of late French classicism. In the end is the beginning, and in Germany, rather, this return to the natural could take root in the soil. Not just the return to outer nature, but the return to inner nature, feelings, within a society where Frederick I had until 1740 practically outlawed feelings.

Once we focus as a society on feelings, we much more readily perceive the feelings of others and we sympathize with them. The barriers of separation are torn down, and we see solidarity between people. Just as it happened in the Modern West, it happened two hundred years ago in Europe. Such an historical explosion of sentiment results in many young people who suddenly find their voice as writers to express what no one before them could. But they couldn't sustain their achievement, and as they aged, they simply couldn't summon the same magic and retreated  Just think of all those rock singer-songwriters in the late sixties/early seventies: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Levon Helm, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Lou Reed, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Eno. This explosion of a new music and poetry for a new generation with a completely different sort of ethos. But even the ones who are productive until the end, it's very difficult to say that the songs of most of these songwriters were as magic at the end of their careers as at the beginning. The energy and dynamism of rock is grounded in youth, and if the songwriters can't find a way to accommodate costs and benefits of getting older, the music will simply not be as good. But the ones among them who might be convincingly called something like genius: Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, perhaps David Bowie, and some would of course say Dylan, are geniuses not because of the brilliance of their early light, but because their gift was so indestructible that it could describe all the seasons of life with no decline in their quality. Their artistry is not just one kind of song or one artistic personality, their artistry is many faceted. They are completely different people at twenty-five to forty-five to sixty-five, but always excellent.

And this is the difference between Klopstock and Leisewitz and Klinger and Lenz on the one hand, and Goethe and Schiller on the other. One type of poet was only capable of one kind of lyric, they couldn't evolve with the times and eventually their names were only remembered for a kind of nostalgia for a time of more innocent experience that could not again be. Schiller, and Goethe even much moreso, continued to evolve just as the world did.

But right away, you can see the difference between a talented poet who taps into the zeitgeist to articulate it like Klopstock, and Goethe, who understands the zeitgeist every bit as well, but has enough foresight to see the  problems in its sentiments and express the spirit of the times with ambivalence. First, let's just read Klopstock's poem: The Rose Garland. I'm going to read it first in English, then in German, so you hear how much better it sounds in German:
In the shade of spring I found her
then with garlands of roses bound her;
she did not feel it and slumbered on. 
I looked at her: my life hung
upon her life with this glance;
I truly felt it, and knew it not. 
But speechlessly I whispered to her
and rustled with the rose garlands;
then she woke from slumber. 
She looked at me; her life hungupon my life with this one glanceand around us rose Elysium.
Im Fruehlingsschatten fand ich sie,da band ich sie mit Rosenbaendern:sie fuehlt es nicht und schlummerte. 
Ich sah sie an: mein Leben hingmit diesem Blick an ihrem Leben:ich fuehlt es wohl und wusst es nicht. 
Doch lispelt ich ihr sprachlos zuund rauschte mit den Rosenbaendern:da wachte sie vom Schlummer auf. 
Sie sah mich an, ihr Leben hingmit diesem Blick an meinem Lebenund um uns wards Elysium. 
This is not deep stuff. In English, it's not even a particularly good poem. But German has a kind of suggestiveness to its cadence you never get in English. Shade of spring is not particularly evocative, but that one word Fruehlingsschatten can evoke so many different images of spring. German has the ability to compound any two or more words into one word, and therefore can describe all kinds of poetic states of experience you can never get in English, which lends itself particularly well to both poetry and philosophy, but also perhaps makes concrete images a little more difficult. If Fruehlingsschatten means anything at all, the closest equivalent might be a one word compound: Springshadow, which perhaps can both describe the physical shade which you lie in on a perfect spring day, or a cloud that obscures the sun and briefly lowers the temperature; or perhaps it refers to the state of the air rather than a state of light, perhaps it refers to a general balm or a particularly  pleasant sudden breeze; or maybe it refers to an interior state of the soul that describes how, when someone is in love, the good cheer associated with spring enters their hearts and colors everything they perceive with more pleasant tones, or maybe it's the opposite and, as TS Eliot says, April is the cruelest month - so perhaps Klopstock is in fact describing the desperation of unrequited love during that season when everyone else seems to have a partner. Just this one poetic compound word can have this many meanings and many, many more. That is the magic of the German language, which so easily connects its speakers to the spiritual world in a manner that English, with its much more diverse vocabulary, would insist on trying to form a separate word for each, and therefore there's nowhere near so much potential meaning in any one word. English is much better for describing concrete images, but nowhere near so good at elucidating the inner relationships between things. 

But even if this is a beautiful poem in German, it's a sentimental one. You're not entirely sure if it's describing mutual love or unrequited love. That last line: und um uns wards Elysium - And between us rose Elysium; 'rose' is more poetic than the proper translation, which is simply 'was.' But the difference is that when you say 'between us was elysium', The Elysian Fields are the heaven of Greek Mythology. But that image of 'between us was elysium' has at least a triple meaning. One is that between them is mutual love. The second is that between them was mutual love, but the love was not to last. The third is that an image of perfect love stood between them and their ability to appreciate each other. Like the rest of the poem, it's gorgeously complex image, much more complex than it seems at first glance, but it's still a sentimental poem. There is nothing darker to it than unrequited love, and even unrequited love is still very much a belief in the power of love. 
So against that, let's consider this famous short poem: Heidenroslein. A lyric in extremely strict metric and rhythmic form that repeats the same refrain at the end. It practically cries out for music, and perhaps it was always meant to considering that it was based on a very short duet in Mozart's Magic Flute. By the end of Goethe's life it was transformed into one of Schubert's most beloved songs, and over the years was also set by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Franz Lehar along with dozens of composers whose music nobody's heard in over a hundred years. But the song was also :
Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Heathrose fair and tender,
All array'd in youthful pride,–
Quickly to the spot he hied,
Ravished by her splendour.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Said the boy, "I'll now pick thee,
Heathrose fair and tender!"
Said the rosebud, "I'll prick thee,
So that thou'lt remember me,
Ne'er will I surrender!"
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Now the cruel boy must pick
Heathrose fair and tender;
Rosebud did her best to prick,–
Vain 'twas 'gainst her fate to kick–
She must needs surrender.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

This poem from around 1771 is part of a movement called for a return to nature at the very moment before the industrial revolution declared war on nature. Poems like this are almost hippieish in how it immerses itself in nature in a manner that's both spiritual and sexual. The spiritual side of the poem comes from a literal reading - you so commune with nature that nature talks back to you. Perhaps it comes as much from the Spinoza idea that God is nature itself as it does from Rousseau's that nature is the ony place where man's nature can truly stay unspoiled. But is that truly what Goethe believes? The sexual component is hardly benevolent. Rosebud has always been a barely concealed metaphor in many cultures for a vagina. If you take the meaning more anthropomorphically, you could see this poem as just a light lyric about sexual teasing between the sexes. But it could also be taken as a process of sexual assault or rape, in which this anthropomorphic female rose clearly does not indicate her willingness to be picked. And then, if you transform it back into a nature poem, you see that this could be a metaphor for the process by which humanity rapes nature itself, using everything within it for its own purposes. A meaning which becomes ever more potent as the planet's ecology draws ever closer to a cataclysm. Like all the best art, this poem has many more meanings than there are words.

But at the same time that there's something quite hippieish about it, it's also quite archetypally German; extremely strict in meter and rhythm, and because it's so strict it lends itself particularly well to music. Mother nature always finds a way, and in some ways the greater the discipline, the greater the freedom. If the iron discipline of Prussian culture didn't allow for anything more than a generation's explosion of literary brilliance, the discipline allowed for perhaps the fullest expression of music the world has ever seen. Music, not literature, was Germany's greatest contribution to world culture.

Furthermore, if this were written in English rather than German, it would be pretty clear that its writer is no Keats or Wordsworth, and every German speaker will tell you that Goethe doesn't translate particularly well. 'Sah ein Knab, ein Roslein stehn/Roslein auf der Heiden' sounds a lot more interesting than 'Once a boy a rosebud spied/Heathrose fair and tender.' What's poetic in poetry is virtually untranslatable. I used the most interesting translation of the poem I could find, but fitting all the meanings into the same meter is nearly impossible. The best I can do is to translate those first two lines with all their meaning intact is to say 'saw a youthful boy, a little rose stand/little rose on heath.' But even that doesn't translate the two most important meanings.

1. When you hear the word 'Knab,' think of the British slang 'knob.' Which is a pejorative literally meaning a 'penis' but also generally to mean a person who acts like an asshole. Knab is a dated term in German, it literally means boy, but it can also mean an apprentice or a servant. In other words, when Goethe uses Knab, the association called to mind is that of an obnoxious teenage boy.

2. The word heiden - which is translated all sorts of ways: heath, heathrose, heather, field, moore, but heiden literally means 'heathen.' As with so much Shakespearean nature, there is an extremely pagan connotation in which the laws of the wild prevail and lots of things are done which offend our sense of morality. So when he says 'Roslein auf der Heiden,' there is an association of 'little rose on the heathen,' meaning perhaps a young girl, of indeterminate age but perhaps very young indeed, in an environment which would terrify any good Christian.

Make no mistake, whether or not his lyrics immediately call to you, genius does not get more powerful than Goethe's. He is right there in the top echelon with Shakespeare, Homer, Tolstoy, Dante, Cervantes, Dickens, whoever wrote Genesis and Exodus... The neglect of Goethe in our era and place is one of the great scandals of modern intellectual life, because more than any writer I can think of, Goethe is exactly what we need right now. Is Goethe as boring as his reputation? Well, the only answer I can give from personal experience that has integrity is... often. But Goethe's peaks are so high that he's entirely worth the valleys.

Talents can ride the wave of a creative explosion, but real genius can survive in much more arid climates. The greatest art exists with all kinds of meanings, it refuses to exist in just a single dimension where the meanings, however interesting or moving, are extremely clear. The greatest of these brilliant German flashes is generally acknowledged to be a poet named Novalis, a decade or two younger than the other great German romantics. who died of tuberculosis before he was thirty. Had he lived past thirty, perhaps he would have developed into a true heir to Goethe. I'd like to look at one particular Novalis poem, famous among Germans: Longing for Death. I won't quote the whole thing, just a few stanzas. 

What are we to do in this world
By loving more, by staying true?
All that is old is set aside,
What then of all that is new?
O! deeply sad and alone you’ll stay,
With your pious hot love for a bygone day. 
In a bygone day, when ancient stalks
Still shone forth replete with flowers,
And children longed for pain and death
Driven on by heaven’s power.
And when life and longing also spoke,
So many hearts for love were broke. 
In a bygone day, when in blush of youth,
God announced his own arrival.
And to early death in courageous love
He renounced his sweet survival.
And drove away not pain nor fear,
So that to us he would stay dear. 
What delays our return still?
Those we love are long at rest.
The course of our life is buried there,
And now we know only pain and stress.
We seek no more, we have no care,
Our heart is full – the world is bare. 
German or English, verse does not get more powerful than this, all the moreso for being so morbid, but there is no mistaking what is being said here. Once you realize what's being longed for, there's not much more to analyze. A little bit about Jesus, a bit about depression, some about the life cycle, but on a cerebral level, it's pretty standard stuff. You can bathe in the beauty of it as you might a song by Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, but it's difficult to see how the intellectual meaning of this poem would ever change when you return to it. The reason that verse, so simple but so powerful, retains its power is not because the poem ever appears differently, but that we are different people when we return to it. Think of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now.' She might have written it in her late 20s, but it seems to be a song precisely meant to mean something different when you're on the other side of life. As we age, death becomes a far less abstract phenomenon. Perhaps death was something we sometimes longed for as young people because our emotional pain can be too great, but as we age and the body becomes less firm, it begins to take more definite shape, you realize it's a force you can't outrun, and there are moments when the body is feeling particularly bad that you begin to think 'come on, get it over with.' A teen might understand that abstractly, but until you really know what it feels like to have your body begin its decline, you have no way of understanding that inner experience. So a powerfully morbid poem like this will mean something extremely different than it will to even the most emotionally traumatized youth.

But this, perhaps hormonal, fetishization of death by depressed youth requires the belief that life will always be the same, which therefore sparks the desire to leave it. Novalis wrote it between 1799 and 1800, perhaps right before he contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him within seven months, so perhaps some eery mixture of the two sentiments provoked him to write these verses. But that kind of longing for death seems so completely alien to the Goethe we know. The Goethe we all know is the Faustian, who was always longing to move forward. The Goethe of Werther is completely different, and yet, like Faust, he's clearly a self-portrait. Even the very name, Werther, sounds so close when pronounced properly to Goethe, that the similarity cannot be mistaken.

So in order to understand what Goethe was expressing, we must briefly tell the tale of Goethe and Charlotte Buff.

But the opposite of the Faustian outlook is Werther, and one of the things which strikes me most about Werther, and I think I might be the first person in history to ever say this, is how American Werther seems. He always believes so fanatically in whatever he believes, no qualifying thought ever occurs to him. Werther is an endless monologue from a character who has no interior thoughts except his own thoughts, which it never occurs to him to ever doubt.


That can only be done by radically altering how we approach our thoughts, and the means to do it are right in front of us if only we can see what Goethe, what Faust, saw. Every civilization eventually is brought down, but if we're flexible enough in how we think, there may be ways to come down with a softer landing.

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