Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Loong Quote. And Perhaps a Statement of Purpose

We need more historians like Egon Friedell - a Viennese actor and cabaret singer/songwriter who moonlighted as an amateur historian and happened to write one of the great historical works of the past century. Like many historians, he was greatly interested in philosophy, and like so many others was as colossally bad a philosopher as he was great a historian. His ideology, at once Christian, bigoted, and German Nationalist, endowed him an organizing principle through which he could organize the sweep of history. What he understood, and so few other historians do, is that the myths of history are invariably designed to be wrong - and always will be wrong. The great historian is the historian who can be wrong most fascinatingly. Read what's below in full. You will instantly understand why a historian like him could not exist today, and you will also understand what great benefit would be ours if there were one. For all his foibles, there is no historian more worth emulating.

Through the unfathomable depths of space there wander countless stars, luminous thoughts of God, blest instruments on which the Creator plays. They are all happy -- for God desires a happy world. A single one there is amongst them which does not share this happiness; on it, only men have arisen.

How did this come about? Did God forget that star? Or did He honour it supremely by giving it leave to soar into bliss through its own efforts? We do not know.

A tiny fraction of the history of this tiny star forms the subject of our story.

We shall do well to examine the fundamental principles of the work. They are fundamental in the most literal sense, for they lie at the base of the whole structure and, therefore, although they support it, are underground and not easily visible.

The first of these fundamental pillars is formed by our own view of the nature of history-writing. We start from the conviction that history has both an artistic side and a moral side and cannot, therefore, be scientific in character.

History-writing is the philosophy of what has happened. All things have their own philosophy -- indeed, all things are philosophy. Men and objects and events are embodiments of a definite nature-idea, a peculiar world-purpose. Human intellect has to grope for the idea that lies hidden in every fact, the thought of which it is the mere form. It often happens that things reveal their true meaning at a late stage only. How long it was before the Saviour revealted tu us the simple, elementary fact of the human soul; how long before magnetic steel yielded up the secret of its marvellous powers to the seeing eye of Gilbert, and how many mysterious natural forces are still patiently waiting for one to come and release the thought that is in them! That things happen is nothing: that they should become known, everything. Man had had his slim, well-proportioned bodily structure, his upright, noble gait, and his world-scanning eye for thousands and thousands of years; in India and Peru, in Memphis and Persepolis; but he only became beautiful in the moment when Greek art recognized his beauty and copied it. That is why plants and animals seem always to be wrapped in a peculiar melancholy: they all have beauty, they all symbolize one or another of creations profound thoughts, but they do not know it, and are sad.

As the whole world is created for the poet, created to fertilize him, so the whole world-history is similarly made up of materials for poets in deed or poets in word. That is its meaning. But who is the poet to whom it gives wings for new deeds and new dreams? All posterity -- no more, no less.

It has become usual of late to distinguish three methods of writing history: the referring or narrative method, which simply records events; the pragmatic or instructive method, which links events by supplying motives and at the same time seeks to draw useful deductions from them; and the genetic or evolutionary method, which aims at presenting events as an organic ensemble and course. This classification is, however, anything but strict, since, as a glance will show, these various ways of regarding history overlap: the reference-narrative impinges on the pragmatic or lining variety, and this again on the evolutionary, and not one of them is conceivable as wholly separate from the other two. The classification can, therefore, only be used to this vague and limited extent: in considering each variety, one of the three points of view will be in the foreground. Thus we shall arrive at the following results: in the narrative method, which is primarily concerned with presenting a clear record, the aesthetic motive is paramount; in the pragmatic method, where stress is laid above all on instructive application and the moral of the business, it is the ethical motive which plays the chief part; and in the genetic method, which strives to present history to the reason with vivid immediacy as an ordered sequence, the logical motive is paramount. It follows that the different ages have always preferred one or other of these three methods, each according to its spiritual foundations: the Classical age, in which pure contemplation was developed to the utmost, produced the Classical historian of the reference-narrative order; the eighteenth century, with its tendency to submit all problems to a moralizing test, can show the most brilliant instances of the pragmatic method; and the nineteenth century, bent on reducing everything to logic, clear concepts, and rationality, brought forth the finest fruits of the genetic kind. All three methods have their particular merits and weaknesses, but it is clear that in each the driving, creative motive is supplied by a definite interest, whether aesthetic, ethical, or logical in character: the determining though ever-changing criterion of the historian is invariably the “interesting.” Nor is this point of view quite so subjective as would appear, for it is controlled (at least within one and the same period) by larger conformities of opinion; but this does not, of course, mean that we can call it objective.

It might be supposed, now, that narrative history-writing, if limited to a dry, expert setting-forth of facts, would be the first to achieve the ideal of objective representation. Yet even the mere reference type (an intolerable form, it must be said, and one which, except at quite primitive levels, is never attempted) takes on a subjective character through the unavoidable selection and grouping of the facts. Indeed, the function of all thinking -- and, for that matter, of our whole imaginative life -- consists without exception in this elective, selective procedure, which, in the mere course of its operation, arranges its extracts from reality in a definite order. And this process, performed unconciously by our sense-organs, is repeated consciously in the natural sciences. There is nevertheless one cardinal difference. The selection made by our sense-organs and by the natural sciences, which are built up on what those organs communicate, is finally determined by the human genus, according to strict and unequivocal laws which control the thought and imagination of every normal person. The choice of historical material, on the other hand, is determined by the free opinion of individuals, of particular groups of individuals, or (in the most favourable conditions) by the public opinion of a whole age. Some years ago, Professor Erich Becher of Munich made an attempt in his Geisteswissenschaften und Naturwissenschaften to produce a sort of comparative anatomy of the sciences, a technology of individual disciplines, standing in relation to these much as dramaturgy stands to the art of the theatre. We find in his work the following sentence: “Science simplifies the incomprehensible complexity of reality through abstraction . . . . The historian, in sketching a portrait of Freiherr vom Stein, separates it out from innumerable details of his life and work, and the geographer, working out a mountain tract, separates out his picture from the mole hills and furrows.” But from this very juxtaposition it becomes evident that geography and history cannot be co-ordinated as sciences on a common level. For while there is a quite unmistakable sign for mole-hill and furrow -- namely, the simple optical one of size and extension -- no such generally applicable formula can be established fro the corresponding “negligible quantities” in Stein’s biography. The poetic intuition, the historical rhythm, and the psychological flair of the biographer, alone decide which details he is to omit, which to touch upon, and which to paint in with a broad brush. Geographer and historian are in the same relation as map and portrait. It is quite definitely one geometrical vision, common to all and, in addition, mechanically adjustable, which tells us which furrows to include in a geographical map; but it is our artistic vision, varying in the degree of its fineness and acuteness from man to man and incapable of exact check, which tells us which wrinkles to put into a biographical portrait.

The geographical map would not even correspond to the historical table that simply notes down the facts in chronological order. For, in the first place, it is evident that such a table cannot fairly be called a small-scale repetition of the original with the same justification as a map can be so described. Secondly, an amorphous piling-up of dates would not have the character of a science at all. According to Becher’s definition, which may be considered more or less unassailable, a science is “an objectively arranged ensemble of questions and of probable and proved judgements together with the relevant experiments and preliminary data which link them together.” None of these qualifications is fulfilled by a bare table, which contains neither questions or judgments, neither experiments nor proofs. As well might we call an address-book, a school note-book, or a racing result a scientific product.

Thus we reach the conclusion that as soon as reference-history attempts to be a science it ceases to be objective, and as soon as it attempts to be objective it ceases to be a science.

As regards the pragmatic method of writing history, it is hardly necessary to prove that this is the exact opposite of scientific objectivity. From its very essence it is tendencious, even deliberately and consciously so. It is, therefore, about as remote from pure science, which seeks merely to establish, as didactic poetry is removed from pure art, which seeks merely to represent. It regards the world’s occurrences in the aggregate as a collection of vouchers and examples for certain doctrines which it desires to corroborate and to spread; it has definitely and emphatically the text-book quality; it is bent on demonstrating something all the time. But although it thus stands condemned as a science, it does not thereby lose its right to exist, any more than didactic poetry does so because it is not pure art. The highest literary product known to us, the Bible, belongs to didactic poetry; and some of the most powerful writers of history -- Tacitus, Machiavelli, Bossuet, Schiller, Carlyle -- have been pragmatic in tendency.

As a reaction against pragmatism there has recently been a vogue for the genetic method. This aims at tracing the organic development of events with strict impartiality, purely in the light of historical causality -- as, say, a geologist studies the history of the earth’s crust or a botanist the history of plants. But it was a mistake to suppose that this coould be done. First, because once the conception of evolution had been admitted, the new system entered the province of reflection, and became at the worst an empty and arbitarary construction of history, at the best a profound and imaginative historical philosophy; but in no case a science. For, in fact, to treat it as comparable with natural sciences is completely misleading. The earth’s history lies before us in unambiguous documents: anyone who can read these documents can write that history. The historian has no such simple, plain, reliable documents available. Man has in all ages been an extremely complex, polychrome, contradictory creature who refuses to yield up his ultimate secret. The whole of subhuman nature has a very uniform character; but humanity consists of nothing but non-recurring individuals. A lily seed will always produce a lily, and the history of this seed can be determined in advance with almost mathematical precision; but a human embryo always produces something that has never before existed and will never be repeated. The history of nature perpetually repeats itself, working with a few refrains which it is never tired of repeating; the history of humanity never repeats itself, for it has at its disposal an inexhaustible store of ideas from which new melodies constantly detach themselves.

In the second place, if the genetic method sets out to prove cause and effect with the same scientific accuracy as nature research, it is equally doomed to failure. Historical causality is simply incapable of being unravelled. It is made up of so many elements that for us the character of causality is completely lost. Then, again, physical movements and their laws can be established by direct observation, while historical movements and their laws can only be recalled in imagination; in the one case movements can be re-examined at will, in the other they must be re-created. In shor, the only way of penetrating into historic causality is the artist’s way, that of creative experience.

Thirdly and lastly, the demand for impartiality proves to be impossible of fulfilment. Historical research, in contrast to nature-research, appraises its objects. This in itself should not prevent it from being scientific in character; for its scale of values might well be of an objective order, if, for example, it were based on some quantitative theory like mathematics or on some energetic theory liek physics. But in fact -- and here the sharp dividing line appears -- there is in history no absolutely valid standard by which quantity and force may be measured. I know, for example, that the number 17 is bigger than the number 3, or that a circle is greater than a segment of the same radius; but I am not able to deliver judgment upon historical persons and events with the same certainty and documented assurance. If I say: Caesar was greater than Brutus or Pompey, my statement cannot be proved any more than the contrary -- which, in fact, absurd as it seems to us, was the opinion held for centuries. We think it perfectly natural to call Shakspere the greatest dramatist who ever lived, yet this verdict only became general about the turn of the eighteenth century -- the time when most people considered Vulpius, the author of Rinaldo Rinaldini, to be a greater poet than his brother-in-law Goethe. Raphael Mengs, in the judgment of posterity an insipid and idealless eclectic, ranked in his day as one fo the world’s greatest painters, and El Greco, whom we worship today as the most grandiose genius of the Baroque, was even half a century ago so little appreciated that his name did not appear in the old edition of Meyer’s Konversations-Lexikon. Charles the Bold imposed himself on his century as the most brilliant of heroes and rulers, whereas we see him as nothing but a knightly freak. In the same century lived Joan of Arc; yet Chastellain (most conscientious and witty chronicler of his age) included in his Mystere, written on the death of Charles VII, all the army commanders who fought against the King of England without ever mentioning the Maid of Orleans. To us, on the other hand, her memory is practically all that remains of that time. Greatness is in fact, as Jakob Burckhardt says, a mystery: “The attribute is bestowed or withheld far more through some vague instinct than upon a considered judgment based on evidences.”

Recognizing this difficulty, historians have looked about them for another standard of values, saying: let us call everything historical which is effective; let a person or an event be rated highly or otherwise according to the range and permanence of of the influence. But here again it is the same as with the conception of historical greatness. IN dealing with gravitation or electricity we can say exactly in each individual case whether, where, and to what extent it is effective; but in dealing with the forces and figures of history, this is not so, in the first place because the angle from which we are supposed to take its measurement is not unambiguously defined. For the economist the introduction of Alexandrines will play a very inferior role, and the invention of the opthalmoscope will leave the theologian cold. All the same it is just conceivable that a genuinely universal researcher and observer might do justice equally to all the forces which have left their pmark in history, although his undertaking would meet with almost insurmountable obstacles. A far greater difficulty is presented by the fact that much of the working of history takes place underground, and only becomes visible after a great lapse of time, if then. We do not know the real forces whch mysteriously propel our development; we can only sense a deep-lying connexion, never obtain a continuous record of it. Suetonius writes in his biography of the Emperor Claudius: “At that time the Jews, incited by a certain Chrestus, stirred up strife and discontent in Rome and had, therefore, to be expelled.” It is true that Suetonius was no such shining light in history as, for instance, Thucydides; he was merely an excellent compiler and writer-up of the world’s small-talk, a mediocrity with taste and diligence; but on that very account his remark shows us fairly accurately the estimation in which Christianity was officially held by the average educated man of the day. It was regarded as an obscure Jewish nuisance. And yet Christianity was even then a world-power. It had long been felt at work and its effects were increasing day by day, but they were not tangible or visible.

Many research historians have, therefore, set their standard still lower, demanding no more of a historian than that he should reflect in a purely objective manner the knowledge of events available at any particular time, making use (inevitably) of normal historical standards of value, but refraining from all personal judgments. But even this modest demand cannot be satisfied. For unfortunately man proves to be an incurably critical creature. Not only is he obliged to use certain “general” standards, which, like inferior yard-sticks, expand or contract with each change of the public temperature, but he feels within him the impulse to interpret or embellish or abuse everything that comes within his range of vision -- in short to falsify and distort it, justifying himself all the time by the fact of being driven by irresistible forces -- for indeed it is only by such purely personal and one-sided judgments that he can feel his way in the moral world that is the world of history. Nothing but his purely subjective standpoint enables him to stand firmly in the present and from there to send his glance, at once comprehensive and analytical, into the infinity of past and future. To this day no single historical work has achieved objectivity in the sense postulated. Should any mortal prove capable of such a triumph of impartiality, it would be extremely difficult to establish the fact; for that would entail finding a second mortal equal to the exertion of reading anything so dull.

Ranke’s avowed intention to tell the story “as it really happened’” sounded modest enough, but was really a very bold undertaking -- in which, in fact, he failed. His importance as a historian he owed entirely to being a great thinker. He did not discover new “facts,” but only new associations which his own creative genius impelled him to project, construe, and mould by the aid of an inner vision that no knowledge of sources, however vast, and no critical attitude towards them, however keen and incorruptible, could have given him.

For however numerous the new sources one opens up, there is never a living one among them. Once a man dies he is removed once and for all from the view of our senses. All that is left is the lifeless impression of his general outline, and the process of incrustation, fossilization, and petrifaction immediately sets in, even in the consciousness of those who actually lived with him. He becomes stone, becomes legend. Bismarck already is a legend, and even Ibsen is on the way to becoming one. In due time we shall all be legends. Certain features stand out with undue prominence because, for some often quite arbitrary reason, they have impressed themselves on our memory. Sections and pieces alone remain. The whole has ceased to exist, has sunk irrevocably into the darkness of the has-been. The past draws not so much a curtain as a veil over things that have happened, making them misty and unclear, but at the same time mysterious and suggestive: so that all that is passed is wrapped for us in the shimmer and fragrance of a magical happening. And this it is which constitutes the main charm of all our dealings with history.

Every age has its own peculiar picture of the various pasts that are accessible to its own consciousness. Legend is not merely one of the forms, but the only form in which we are able to think or imagine history, or live it over again. All history is saga, myth, and as such is the product of the particular state of our spiritual potentials, or imaginative power, or formative power, and our view of the world. Take for instance the imagination-complex “Greek antiquity.” It existed at first as the present, as the condition of those who lived and suffered in it. At that time it was an extremely turbid, suspect, unguaranteed, precarious something that one had to guard against, although it was so hard to grasp, and at bottom not worth the infinite pains one took over it; yet it was indispensable -- for it was life. But even for the men of Imperial Rome the earlier Greece stood for something incomparably high, bright and strong, full of import and securely poised, an unattainable paradigm of blessed purity, simplicity, and thoroughness; a desitderatum of the highest kind. Then, in the Middle Ages, it became a dull, grey, leaden past; a dismal patch from which God’s eye was averted, a sort of earthly hell full of greed and sin, a gloomy theatre for human passions. In the eyes of the German Enlightenment, again, Classical Greece was a kind of natural museum, a practical course of art-hsitory and archaeology, the temples museums of antiques, the market-places galleries of sculpture. Athens itself was a permanent open-air exhibition; all Greeks were either sculptors or sculptors’ walking models, all noble and graceful in their pose, all with wise and resounding speeches on their lips; the philosophers were professors of aesthetics, their women heroic figures of public fountain statuary, the people’s assemblies living pictures. For this society, with its boring perfections, the fin de siecle substituted the problematical or indeed hysterical type of Greek who was not in the least a well-balanced, peaceful, and harmoniuos creature, but on the contrary a highly coloured, opaline mixture, tortured by a profound and hopeless pessimism and dogged by a pathological lack of restraint which betrayed his Asiatic origin. Between these two utterly different conceptions there were numerous transitions, sub-classes, and fine shades, and it will be one of our tasks in the present work to examine somewhat more closely this interesting play of colour in the conception of the “Classical.”

Every age, practically every generation, has naturally a different ideal, and with the change of ideal comes a change in the glance that is sent to explore the great individual sections of the past. It will be, according to circumstances, a transfiguring, gilding, hypostasizing glance, or one that poisons and blackens, an evil eye.

The intellectual history of mankind consists in a continuous reinterpretation of the past. Men like Cicero or Wallenstein can be evidenced from a thousand original sources and have left definite, powerful traces of their influence on innumerable items of fact; yet no one knows to this day whether Cicero was a shallow opportunist or an important character, Wallenstein a low traitor or a brilliant exponent of Realpolitik. None of the men who have made world-history have escaped being called adventurers, charlatans, and even criminals rom time to time -- for instance, Mohammed, Luther, Cromwell; Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and a hundred others. There is only a single one of whom no one has dared to say these things, and on that very account we see in him not a man, but the Son of God.

The best in a man, says Goethe, has no form. And if it be almost impossible to gain access to the ultimate secret essence of a single individual and discover “the law whereby. . .” how vastly more absurd still is it to make the attempt in the case of mass movements, the deeds of the collective human soul in which the lines of force of numerous individualities cross each other. Even biology, which, after all, deals with clearly defined types, is no longer an exact natural science, but feeds on a variety of hypotheses that are subject to the philosophy of the moment. Where life begins, science ends; where science begins, life ends.

The historian’s position would, therefore, be entirely hopeless did not a way out suggest itself in a further saying of Goethe’s: “The material can be seen by all, the meaning only by him who has something to put to it.” Or -- to replace two of Goethe’s apercus by two of Goethes figures -- the historian who builds up history “scientifically” simply from the material is teh Wagner, who in his retort brings forth the bloodless Homunculus, incapable of life; while the historian who forms history by adding something of his own is Faust himself, who by his marriage with Helena, the Spirit of the Past, produces the healthy Euphorion. True, he is as short-lived as Homunculus, but it is for the opposite reason -- he has too much life in him.

“The attempt to treat history scientifically,” says Spengler, “always at bottom involves contradictions . . . . It is Nature that is to be treated scientifically. History is the business of a poet. All other solutions are impure.” The difference between historian and poet is in fact only one of degree. The frontier at which imagination has to call a halt is, for the historian, the state of istorical knowledge in expert circles; for the poet, the state of historical knowledge among the public. Neither is poetry entirely free in forming historical figures and events: there is a line which it may not cross with impunity. A drama, for instance, which represented Alexander the Great as a coward, his teacher Aristotle as an ignoramus, and allowed the Persians to defeat the Macedonians in battle, would lose its aesthetic effect by so doing. There is always indeed a very intimate connexion between the great dramatic poets and the ruling historical sources of their day. Shakspere dramatized the Caesar of Plutarch; Shaw the Caesar of Mommsen; Shakspere’s king-dramas reflect the historical knowledge of the English public in the sixteenth century with precisely the same accuracy as Strindberg’s stories the historical knowledge of the Swedish reader in the nineteenth. Today Goethe’s Gotz von Berlichingen and Hauptmann’s Florian Geyer appear to us fantastic as pictures of the Reformation; but when they were new they were not regarded as such, for both of them were rooted in the scientific research and opinion of their time. In short, the historian is nothing but a poet who has aopted the stricted naturalism as his unwavering principle.

Professional historians are apt to dismiss contemptuously all historical works which are not merely impersonal, laborious collections of material. But after one or two generations at most their own works turn out to be novels, the sole difference being that theirs are empty, boring, uninspired, and liable to be killed by a single “find”; whereas a truly worthy history-novel can never become a “back number” as regards its deeper significance. Herodotus is not a back number, although he recorded for the most part things which every elementary schoolmaster can refute; Montesquieu is not a back number, although his writings are full of palpable errors; Herder is not a back number, although he put forward historical opinions which today are considered amateursh; Winckelmann is not a back number, although his interpretation of Classical Greece was one great misconception; Burckhardt is not a back number, although Wilamowitz-Mollendorff, the present-day pope of Classical philology, has said that his cultural history of Greece “so far as science is concerned has no existence.” The point is that even if everything which these men taught should prove erroneous, one truth would always remain and could never become antiquated: the truth as regards the artistic personality behind the work, the important person who experienced these wrong impressions, reflected, and gave form to them. When Schiller writes ten pages of vivid German prose on an episode in the Thirty Years’ War which bears no resemblance to what really happened, he does more for historical knowledge than a hundred pages of “reflections based on the latest documents,” written without a philosophical outlook and in barbarous German. When Carlyle works up the story of the French Revolution into the drama of a whole people, forced onward by powerful forces and counter-forces to fulfil its bloody destiny, he may be said to have written a novel -- even a “thriller” -- but the mysterious atmosphere of infinite significance in which this poetical work is bathed acts as a magic insulating sheath to preserve it intact from age to age. Then, again, is not Dante’s unreal vision of Hell the most competent historical picture of the Middle Ages which we possess to this day? Homer, too, what was he but a historian “with insufficient knowledge of the sources”? All the same, he is and always will be right, even though one day it should transpire that no Troy ever existed.

All our utterances about the past refer equally to ourselves. We can never speak of and never know anything except ourselves. But by sinking ourselves into the past we discover new possibilities of our own ego, enlarge the frontiers of our consciousness, and undergo new if wholly subjective experiences. Therein lies the value and the aim of all historical study.

To put all this in a sentence: What this book attempts to tell is no more and no less than today’s legend of modern history.

We often find in the preface to a learned work some such remark as this: “Completeness, as far as possible, has naturally been my aim throughout; it is for my respected colleagues to decide whether I have left any gaps.” Now my own standpoint is the exact opposite. Quite apart from the fact that I should not dream of letting my respected colleagues decide anything whatever, I am inclined to say that incompleteness, as far as possible, has been my aim throughout. It will perhaps be said that I need not trouble myself, that the incompleteness would be there without any effort of mine. But, even so, a definite will towards fragment and section, nude and torso, scraps and odd pieces, lends a certain character to any production. We can never see the world other than incompletely; deliberately to see it incomplete is to create an artistic aspect. Art is the subjective, preferential treatment of certain elements of reality; it selects and resets,distributes light and shade, omits and underlines, softens and emphasizes. My consistent attempt is to render only a single segment or arc, profile or bust, a modest veduta of certain very big ensembles and developments. Pars pro toto: this figure is by no means the least effective and clear. A single movement of the hand will often characterize for us a whole person, a single detail a whole event, more acutely, impressively, and essentially than the most elaborate description. In short, the anecdote in all its implications appears to me as the only art-form that one may justifiably use in writing cultural history. The “father of history” knew that. Emerson places him among those who “cannot be spared”: “Herodotus, whose history contains innumerable anecdotes, which brought it with the learned into a sort of disesteem; but in these das -- when it is found that what is most memorable in history is a few anecdotes, and that we need not be alarmed though we should not find it dull -- it is regaining credit.” Nietzsche appears to have held the same view. “Three anecdotes and you have a picture of a man.” Montaigne, too, tells us that proofs obtained from anecdotes were, provided they did not exceed the bounds of possibility, as welcome to him in his organized investigations into the customs and natural passions of his fellow men as proofs taken from the world of reality. Whether an incident really happened or did not happen, in Rome or in Paris, to Tom, Dick, or Harry, he found that the story always contained some feature of human history from which he could take warning or instruction. He noted down such and used them, picking out from the varying interpretations that an anecdote might bear the one which seemed to him the most unusual and striking.

This brings us to a second peculiarity of all successful history: exaggeration. Macaulay was of opinion that the best portraits were possibly those which had a touch of caricature, and the best historical works were those which contained a discreet admixture of literary exaggeration. The slight loss in accuracy was, he considered, compensated by the increase in effect; and although the weaker lines might be obliterated, the characteristic features stood out the more boldly and left an ineffaceable impression. Exaggeration is the implement of every artist, and, therefore, of the historian. History is a great convex mirror in which the features of the past stand out all the more expressively and distinctly for being enlarged and distorted. Our aim is to produce, not a statistical, but an anecdotal version of the new age; not an official record of the modern society of nations, but their family chronicle or -- why not? -- their chronique scandaleuse.  If, then, cultural history is inevitably fragmentary and even one-sided in its content, its intention as regards scope should be the very reverse. For its domain of research and delineation includes or should include literally everything -- any and every manifestation of humanity’s life.

- Egon Friedell - pp. 3-17 - A Cultural History of the Modern Age - Volume I

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Influence of Karl Marx - Part 6

“Just as Darwin has discovered the law of organic development, so Marx has discovered the law of human development in history, that is to say the simple fact, hitherto masked by the rubbish of ideologies, that before he is able to concern himself with politics, science, art, and religion, man must first eat, drink, house, and clothe himself.”

- Unnamed Scholar - Karl Marx, a Symposium

“Premium vivere Diende philosophari” (first eat, then philosophize)

- Ancient Latin Maxim

Marx fancied himself the ‘Darwin of Sociology,’ and this moniker was used by Engels when he spoke at Marx’s graveside. There is some merit to the comparison. Just as Darwin saw an evolutionary process through a succession of increasing biological and geological complexity, Marx saw history progressing in stages toward a world of greater tolerance and balance. Before them, the world was widely viewed as something stationary. Once upon a time, the Earth was without form and void, but a Creator made it and everything upon it, and created the world precisely as people saw it. But after Darwin and Marx, the world was no longer a stationary place; it was constantly moving. Not only did the Earth itself move around the Sun, but everything which dwelt upon the earth moved and changed. But even if the world was moving, Darwin and Marx both presented immutable, static laws, which would never change even as these laws changed the world unrecognizably over time, and the laws of both were monolithically unconcerned with mere morality. Both presented history as a seething cauldron which forms its processes through horrifically violent struggle - Darwin through fitness by means of reproduction, Marx through value through the expenditure of labor. Indeed, there is an enormous corrolation between Darwin’s conception of ‘fitness’ and Marx’s conception of ‘value.’ 

Neither were truly original thinkers, but they were brilliant readers who synthesized an enormous trove of thought from previous thinkers into a workable system, and neither was particularly willing to acknowledge the enormity of their debt to those pioneers. The Great Jacques Barzun, one of the twentieth century’s most profound historians - even when he was spectacularly wrong, and without whose book “Darwin, Marx, and Wagner” these posts are particularly impossible, went so far as to call them ‘intellectual imperialists’ who pilfered the work of others into their own possession, much like I have with his book and others in this modest series. Perhaps his interpretation goes much too far, but even if neither’s thought was particularly original, they both had great genius for synthesizing, and therein lies the reason they saw further than those who came before.

Marx was born in 1818, and therefore a little too young to experience the Romantic notions of the Lord Byron generation. Metternich’s Concert of Europe in 1815, which maintained the peace after the Napoleonic Wars, made for an stable but cold truce on European soil, the terms of which all of Europe bristled against. By the time of the 1848 revolution, Marx was thirty years old, and all chances of a new, less conservative age were eliminated completely. Notions of a truly free society were snuffed out, and the world was searching for facts rather than ideals. At the same time that Marx wrote, the intellectual world carried out full-throated debates on atheism and evolution. Intellectual property laws were extremely lax compared to todays, so few writers had much difficulty finding wide dissemination. Marx, with his resentful temperament and frustrating youthful experience of a divided, dysfunctional Germany post-Napoleon, was the man for his time - synthesizing the work of Hegel, Feuerbach, Adam Smith, Malthus, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and hundreds of less well known thinkers into a violent, anti-humanist theory of class struggle as no one else could. The result was more than a philosophical theory or tome, it was a worldwide religion.

The longer the cold European peace lasted, the less the European powers trusted each other, and the more susceptible they were to theories of force. By the 1890’s, one hundred years after the mostly peaceful proscriptions of the philosophes and encyclopediaires held Europe in thrall, the world became enthralled by Marx and Nietzsche, one of whom died only a few years before reaching worldwide fame, the other of whom went insane on the cusp of it. Their assumption of eminence at that historical moment is no coincidence. The 1890’s were perhaps the very climax and zenith of all European intellectual life since the Renaissance, when every artform was thriving maximally - new talent exposed, old masters rediscovered. Every ‘ism’ of a philosophical, cultural, and political bent had a niche following, and never in human history had so many people been so fervently interested in so many ideas - ideas which these posts will hopefully one day cover. But as TS Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” Just as the seeds of rebirth are in every destruction, the seeds of destruction are in every birth. The intellectual energy generated in the quarter-century before World War I was so intense that people who resented so much diversity had to latch onto philosophies which preached destruction and uniformity to make their voices heard.  

Whether or not Marx and Nietzsche bear ultimate responsibility for what was done in their names, what cannot be denied is that which was done in their names. From the philosophy of Marx, lesser thinkers created the doctrines of the Soviet Union, from the philosophy of Nietzsche, lesser thinkers created the doctrines of Central European fascism. Neither thinker should be in any way held responsible for the crimes other people committed with the half-understood thoughts of Marx and Nietzsche in their murderous brains, but it’s also difficult to imagine that either would have looked on with much disapproval. Whether Marx and Nietzsche provided intellectual exhortations to violence or were simply describing the unavoidability of violence is open to debate, and has been debated heatedly for more than a century. But it is an incontrovertible fact that both assured humanity of mankind’s violent nature, the inevitability that men will eventually succumb to it, and that men would do better to embrace their inner violence than to repress it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Influence of Karl Marx - Part 5

Perhaps it’s too late for this series of posts not to give the impression of a simple hatchet job, but nevertheless, it is important to consider a creation from the creator’s point of view. In the words of Jacques Barzun, “...though it is possible and necessary to show how Marx was wrong, it is even more instructive to see why he felt he was right.”

Like all popular movements - be they religious, political, or cultural - there is an element of truth to everything he alleges. Without the truthful element, his thoughts could never have inspired so many hundreds of millions. And when viewed without a third dimension, there is very little in his thought that is objectionable. So in order to understand Marx’s thoughts, we must see the world through his prism.

Marx wanted a definitive, scientific, systematic explanation of world events. He referred to this goal as ‘the solution to the riddle of the sphinx.’ Philosophers before him referred to the existence of a true, ‘noumenal’ world beyond the world we see and sense, but Marx was the Columbus who set sail for its discovery - and Marx set sail for his new world far more deliberately than Columbus did. Marx saw many partial glimpses of this new world in the work of previous thinkers, but none who displayed anything like the full landscape. To him, all modern thinkers were hampered by bourgeois ideology, and had no glimpse of the true ‘value’ of things.

Value is, perhaps, the most important word in the Marxist lexicon. Of course, Marx is not dissimilar from many economists in that regard. But when most economists, or most of us laymen, refer to ‘value’, we refer to things which fill our needs. And because of that definition, we call the things which possess value ‘goods’ or ‘commodities,’ because they have good and commodious use to us. The worth of these goods and commodities to us is therefore called ‘value-in-use.’ But what does it mean to attach value to a commodity for its ‘use’ when every person values a commodity differently? How can any good have a fixed value-in-use when no person uses any good in the same way for the same amount of time? And, still more importantly, how do we compare the value of different goods by different people. Who can say whether my violin is of any more or less use to me than your use of a computer? Nevertheless, because we buy and sell these things in the same currency, we can sell these goods with prices that are set in relation to their perceived value to customers.

But when money is not used, the goods can be bartered rather than bought, and this process is called ‘value-in-exchange.’ As Marx didn’t think people’s individual needs needed much accounting for, Marx sought a fixed value for all goods, and when seeking a fixed value for all goods, what is most important is the ‘value-in-exchange.’ To use one argument of his, if a pound of cheese has the same value in exchange as a dozen eggs, there must be some third quality which both goods possess, otherwise an exchange would be impossible. In his words: “Each of them, insofar as it is exchange value, must be reducible to the third.”

When we speak of Marx the scientist, it is to ideas like this of which we speak. Eggs and cheese would appear to have little in common except for being food, but between them lies a common denominator. A person may hate cheese or eggs, but because other people value them, they nevertheless have value in exchange. And therefore must have some quality in common between them, and that quality is value. Value is as important to Marxist economics as matter to physics and carbon to biology. It is the basic building block. Leibniz has his monads, Kant his thing-in-itself, Marx has his value.

But there is no way of ridding these items of the external qualities which differ between them. How then do you come up with a correct value for any given item?  The answer is in value-in-exchange, and the quality which is common to all those goods - the labor it takes to make them.

Measuring labor is difficult, especially in relation to other labors when the skills are so different. How is the skill it took to make my violin remotely comparable to the skill it took to make a computer, or the skill to make cheese and feed chickens? Furthermore, when viewed with specificity, labor does not create value, labor creates the goods which possess value. Therefore, Marx supposes the existence of what he terms “abstract labor… (an) unsubstantial entity, a mere jelly of undifferentiated human labor.” The value of all goods derives from the abstract labor made by them, and that abstract labor can be measured in the time it takes to create said object.

But that leads us to another problem, which necessitates another abstraction. The amount of time it takes a competent laborer to make an object is far less time than it takes for an incompetent laborer, or a laborer lacking the correct materials, or a laborer working in adverse conditions. Furthermore, a machine will create the same object in still far less time than even the most skilled laborer. To solve this problem, Marx creates the concept of “socially necessary labor time,” which averages out the amount of time which it takes to create the object. And by doing so, Marx created what he (and many others), perceived as a completely uniform system of value for the entire world. As Marx wrote in the first volume of Das Kapital:

"The riddle of the expression of value is solved when we know that all labor, insofar as it is generalized human labor, is of like kind and equal worth; but this riddle can only be unriddled when the notion of human equality has acquired the fixity of popular conviction."

In his own mind, Marx was not an economist or a philosopher, he was a scientist, and a great one. Marx believed that he had defined economics forever as a quantifiable science, and made as much difference to the field as Newton and Gallileo did in changing astrology into astronomy.

But Marx went even further. Let’s remember that Marx believes we humans are fundamentally shaped by our goods and their technical knowhow:

The social relations connecting the labor of one private individual (or group) with the labor of another, seem to the producers, not direct social relations between individuals at work, but what they really are: material relations between persons and social relations between things…
Morals, religion, metaphysics and other ideologies, and the forms of consciousness corresponding to them, here no longer retain a look of independence. They have no history, they have no development, but men in developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter along with this reality of theirs their thoughts and the product of their thoughts.”

Upon connecting these readings of economics and history, Marx believed that he arrived at the true view of humanity that quantified the humanities and social sciences as a hard science: “Phrases about consciousness cease, and real knowledge must take their place.”

Because of this ‘real knowledge’, Marx believes we can now perceive how capitalism has taken mankind horribly awry. The capital which an owner takes from his laborer is the ‘surplus value’, of which the owner only allows the laborer enough to keep him working productively and never enough to free him from his dependence. And from this theft of surplus value comes the class struggle itself, the isolation and unskilled unfitness of the Ruling Class, and the means for the workers to rise up against their employers to establish the Communist State.

It is worth noting at this moment how striking are the similarities between the jargon of capitalism and the jargon of communism. There’s an old Russian joke that explains the difference between capitalism and communism by saying that ‘Capitalism is when a man exploits a man. Communism is the other way around.”

Who can hear about a ‘culture of dependence,’ and not think of how Ayn Rand harps on the same thing, only to say that the laborers are spongily dependent on their owners. Eric Hoffer, a great though no longer much read American philosopher, speculated an almost Oedipal connection between the two. Much like how Christianity began as Jewish heresy, communism began as a heresy against capitalism which then grew to the point that it threatened to overtake it altogether. And as Communism may have begun as a capitalist heresy, perhaps Objectivism began as a Communist heresy - one that has more to do with Communism than with the original conception of Capitalism.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Influence of Karl Marx - Part 4

Realism, not Romanticism, is at the heart of Marx’s philosophy. Utopian his aspirations may be, but his desire is to see the world as it is, not as it could be. To Marx, each of us is trapped within the warped limitations of a limited consciousness - a consciousness formed both by technology and by how much control we have over that technology. Each of us, by the epoch in which we live, and by the social class to which we belong, is nothing more than a cog in the wheel of historical perception - a process which he calls the economic superstructure.

To Marx, our lives are but two things - base and superstructure. The base is all those indisputable material facts of our lives: our work conditions, the power dynamics between us and our employers or fellow employees, how labor is divided between us, and our relation to the property on which we live. The superstructure consists of all those humanitarian parts of our lives which are too nebulous to be defined so basically - culture, institutions, political power structures, rituals, the State.

It’s a misnomer to believe that Marx’s materialism unified our conception of a divided reality, Marx simply changed the way in which the world was divided. Like in the older German philosophy of Kant and Hegel, we see the division of two worlds - the world of appearances, and the real world. But whereas Kant and Hegel see the ‘real’ world as an invisible place which we cannot perceive, Marx sees the ‘real’ world as the world of phenomena so easily perceptible that we take them for granted.

To Marx, all those institutions which illuminate human society are, at bottom, appearances. Everything we are, from our conception of our places in the universe to the very ways we think and talk, is determined by our relation to our workplace. This ‘base’ of our lives determines the ‘superstructure’ that determines everything of which we think our lives consist. Here is how Marx puts it:

“The method of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life . . . . It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. In the first view, one proceeds from the consciousness as the living individual; in the second, which conforms to real life, one proceeds from the really living individuals themselves and regards consciousness only as ‘their’ consciousness….
When one studies these (revolutionary) cataclysms, one must always distinguish between the material disturbances which upset the economic conditions of production and which can be measured with scientific exactness, and the revoution which upsets the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic forms - which serve man to become conscious of the conflict and to explain it. If it is impossible to judge a man from the idea he has of himself, one cannot judge such an epoch of revolution from the idea it has of itself.”

Leave aside the jargon for a moment and consider that, just as in religion, there is something so simple about this explanation of the world that it can be extremely comforting. Every human situation, no matter how labyrinthine seeming, can be explained under this rubric with pellucid clarity. It furthermore encourages us to see the world as nothing more than a conglomeration of facts, and anything too ineffable like an ‘idea’ that has no factual or empirical basis can be summarily dismissed. it assures all its believers that deep examination of whether this notion is always true would inevitably end in folly. Yet again, like all lasting religions, meaningful critical thought has every impediment placed in its way. How many good ideas through history were dismissed because they could not immediately be proven?

For these nebulous ‘illusions’, Marx dismisses them with two words. The first is ‘phantasmagoria,’ a word much forgotten in our time but one that still holds enormous influence on us. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Phantasmagoria was a form of theater which used a special lantern (called a ‘magic lantern’) to project colorful images onto walls, screens, or smoke. In other words, it’s a direct ancestor to the Cinema, and carries with it the same relation to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - in which the ignorant have stared into the Cave’s darkness for so long that they perceive the shadows on the walls and call it ‘reality,’ with all of its implications of pre-modern sorcery and superstition.

And it is to this sorcery, this eternally vanishing phenomenon of the State, to which Marx famously and unforgettably alludes in his most famous piece of journalism - The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

“The Constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, the entire literature, the political names and intellectual reputations, the civil law and penal code, the Liberty, Equalty, and Fraternity and the Second Sunday in May, 1852 (a mid-term election which Louis-Napoleon’s sycophants lost) - all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a sorcerer.”

If Louis-Napoleon, widely regarded as a venal incompetent, can make all the progress of post-Napoleon Bonaparte France disappear, then how can there be any other explanation than that history willed it to be so?

To any European in the 1850’s, one can easily understand how all culture might seem an illusion. In the Germany of his origins, the land was divided into nearly three-hundred principalities, all of whose territories were constantly shifting.  In France, nine separate governments were established between 1789 and 1852. In England, King George III was generally acknowledged to be insane for the last thirty years of his rule. The Holy Roman Empire had collapsed in 1806, and much of the territory within it changed hands from one year to the next - sometimes by means quite bloody. And each of these countries had vivid memories of the chaos brought on by Napoleon’s invasions. When Marx was alive, the State itself was ephemeral, and so were the nations who craved Statehood. So what hope was there for the permanence of the culture which such would-be nations produced? It was all ‘phantasmagoria’, a set of impermanent values for its particular time and place, dependent almost entirely upon the technologies and capital in their possession.

The first term, ‘phantasmagoria’ describes the ‘What?’ of these illusions. The second term, ‘ideology.’, describes ‘Why’ they appear. The use of the word ‘ideology’ in our time is so widespread that it almost defies further comment. But it’s important to note how Marx defines the word. The ‘ideology’ is the glue that holds the superstructure together. The Ruling Class has a self-serving ideology which justifies their rule of law, and passes their ideology off to the lower classes as incontrovertible truth. In a feudal society, a religious ideology is prevalent. A god whose word is law ordains that certain men must have power over other men. In a capitalist system, a liberal ideology is prevalent - each man must be sufficiently free or ‘liberated’ to pursue his profit margins to the maximum extent so that progress’s engine keeps running. This is the force which Marxists call, historical determinism. And it is best summed up by Marx himself, addressing the bourgeoisie in the Communist Manifesto, suddenly turning from an obfuscating failed academic to the kind of stinging oratory that recalls the prophet Isaiah singing to his vineyard.

“Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class.”

Here, suddenly, is Marx the oratorical prophet, coming with a sword, laying out a vision for all with no jargon.
There is a kind of historical pessimism to this approach which you see in an enormous amount of German philosophy - the idea that we can never transcend the conditions of our life to arrive at any true perception is something you can find in many variations - from the tempered optimism of Hegel to the near-absolute pessimism of Spengler - to this day, it’s a huge influence on much critical theory, and just as large many, many works of art, from Wagner’s Ring right up to The Wire. Is it true?

Certainly Marx thought he was issuing a scientific truth on the same level as Newton and Darwin, and while The Critique of Political Economy was published ten months before On the Origin of Species, there is at least one passage similar enough to make one wonder if someone in London hadn’t told Marx about Darwin’s theories in advance of publication:

“A social state never dies before there has been fully developed within it the sum of all the productive forces that it contains. New relations in production, superior to the former ones, never come into being before their material reason for existence has developed in the womb of the old society. Humanity puts to itself only the riddles that it can solve, for on looking closely at the matter, one will find that the riddle is put only when the material conditions of its solution already exist, or are at least on the way to being born. As a general thesis one can consider the Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production as the progressive steps of the economic formation of society. And the relations of bourgeois production constitute the last form of the productive process to be based on antagonism. . . . This antagonism will be resolved by the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society, so that with this society ends the prehistoric period of all human society.”

What we read here seems uncannily like an economic vision of evolution through natural selection. ‘New relations in production, superior to the former ones, never come into being before their material reason for existence has developed...’  Even if this sentence puts Darwin’s theory ass-backwards, it is still the same theory. According to Marx, necessity is the mother of invention, but according to Darwin - surely the deeper thinker - invention is the mother of necessity, a capricious mother who lets most of her offspring die.  Many, many economic techniques come into being, and yet the modes of production which survive are the ones most well-fit to their particular environment.

Economics, called the ‘dismal science’ since the Victorian Age, has always existed in an uncomfortable halfway house between hard science and social science. The statistics of past economies are exact, but the prediction of future economic behavior is anything but, and so tied to human mood and motivation that there is no way to give economics the rigor of other mathematical studies. Yet as with all social sciences, its unpredictability motivates its practitioners to make its study all the more scientific. And to Marx, trying as so many 19th century thinkers did to create a systematic ‘key to all mythologies,’ what was important was to boil down all the various human motivations to all-encompassing terms which are easy to explain - like Capital, Interest, Rent, and Value.