Thursday 24 April 2008

Whig Pedigree

“[T]he first Whig was the Devil.”

Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell, 28th April 1778, Life of Johnson, ed., R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.973.

An Etymological Note

gynocrat e.g., “I am not only a feminist — I am a gynocrat.” — q.v. Martin Amis [1]; etymology doubtful, poss. from Gk. gyno- comb. form of gynē “woman” + Fr. -crate, back-formation from -cratie, from Gk. -kratia “power, rule”; or poss. from Tw. gy- intensive prefix, sense of “abject” or “grovelling” + Tw. -nocrat “retard”.
[1] Martin Amis: You Ask The Questions, The Independent, 15th January 2007.

Fewtril no.238

Though it is true that I am an anti-democrat, I would never go so far as not to have criminals strung up by their ankles in parks and town-squares such that local democracy would be deprived of the opportunity to express itself.

Fewtril no.237

Whilst we acknowledge that wisdom is eternal, and bears repetition, foolishness is showing unmistakable signs of persistence.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Professor Grayling's Enlightenment Club

It is not often that a philosopher plays the role of fish in a barrel, and still rarer that one who does has a name that is most appropriate to the sport; so it is with the keenest sense of opportunity that I aim a few shots at the esteemed Professor A.C. Grayling as he disports himself in the clear waters of simplicity. Now, be it said that when philosophers are wrong, they are usually — as a matter of professional pride — wrong in the most complicated manner imaginable, but since we are speaking of roles, we might note, as a possible excuse for his simple wrongness, that Professor Grayling is not merely a philosopher: he is also a public intellectual, a man of the press, a book-flogger, a political communicator, even a terrible little simplifier — the sum of which, though embulgent to wallet and influence, can be most dangerous to a philosopher’s speech, not to say to his intellect, and which, in the case of the clever Professor Grayling, might account for his piscine disportment.
     The simple wrongness of which I speak concerns a view of the Enlightenment, and — if we are to get straight to the heart of the matter — it concerns Professor Grayling’s professed claim that men of his kind, that is to say, modern liberal-leftists, are its rightful heirs at the exclusion of other claimants. This view is as follows:
As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. [1]
The principal error here is not so much the belief that totalitarianism is quintessentially a project of counter-Enlightenment — although that is a belief which oddly fails to acknowledge the essential role that the Enlightenment played in its development — as much as the belief that the projects of Enlightenment were solely, uniquely, or even mainly devoted to the idea of pluralism, that is, to the idea that there is a diversity of goals and ways of life, the validity of which ought to be acknowledged, and the existence of which ought to be tolerated and even preserved, an idea which in fact stands in stark contrast to the rationalistic universalism and monistic systemisation of some currents of the Enlightenment. [2]
     Professor Grayling’s identification of pluralism as a necessary criterion for projects of Enlightenment has an interesting consequence: for, if projects which reject the idea of pluralism are thereby projects of counter-Enlightenment, and if the universal projects of the Enlightenment rejected the idea of pluralism to the degree and in the nature by which they were universal, then the universal projects of the Enlightenment were projects of the counter-Enlightenment to the degree and in the nature by which they were universal.
     But, in leaning over to take a few preliminary shots at Professor Grayling, we ourselves had better not be seduced by simplicities, lest we too become the sport of others. First, then, let us make a few admissions and disclaimers.
     We must first of all admit that the Enlightenment was a process of emancipation from traditional authorities and strictures, but that it was a complex and dialectical process between a large number of critical and conservative ideas, in currents that were rationalistic and anti-rationalistic, radical and moderate.
In disregarding the variety of the currents we risk projecting our own aspirations and aversions upon a self-made image of the past. [3]
It is not to be doubted that liberty of thought and deed was one of the demands of the Enlightenment, but, before we get carried away with words, let us recall Lord Acton’s saying: “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare.” [4] And let us recall that equality was a demand of the Enlightenment too — and who can calculate the cost to liberty and plurality that the ideal of equality has incurred? From Spinoza and Van den Enden, through Radicati and Rousseau, down to Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the Jacobins, the radical current of the Enlightenment conceived of liberty on the basis of equality and in reference to the general will. [5]
     The idea of the general will, a term first coined by Diderot but tracing back to Spinoza, found in Rousseau its most influential expression, at least for the later revolutionaries:
In order . . . that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free. [6]
In Rousseau’s scheme, the general will is the sovereign power, whereby individual particularities and paths are obstacles and deviations from the fulfilment of the potential of that will as embodied in the people, nation, or society, and wherefrom there is to be no freedom. It is also therein that we see the traces of modern nationalism that first come to constitutional form in the moderate phase of the French Revolution. Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen stated:
The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation; no group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating expressly therefrom. [7]
Later, on the eve of the radical phase of the Revolution, the National Convention unanimously approved Jean-Paul Rabaut de Saint-Etienne’s Project of National Education, which sought to give “the same, uniform ideas” to all Frenchmen. [8]
     We see in Rousseau’s scheme, not only a rejection of pluralism, not only the promotion of collectivism and the beginnings of modern nationalism, but also the idea of social utility, whereby the criterion of what is good is determined by fitness to the general will. Only that which serves society as a whole deserves to be called good — and only that deserves to be preserved.
If the State is a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole. [9]
A scheme for the movement and disposal of individuals by a universally compelling State at the behest and advantage of the whole is the essential definition and conditio sine qua non of totalitarianism, which is not mere absolutism or despotism, but rather an ideal, a practice, or its approximation that seeks to absorb the individual without differentiation into the whole, whether that whole be called people, nation, or society, and whether it be defined by the prejudices of democracy, nationalism, or socialism.
     Other figures of the radical Enlightenment had similar conceptions, whether of communism or proto-socialism, general-will absolutism or inchoate modern nationalism, though few were so central or influential as Rousseau. [10] Now, if Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not a figure of the Enlightenment, then I’m a national-socialist Dutchman. [11] It is therefore neither an exaggeration nor a weary old canard to say that some projects of the Enlightenment were themselves totalitarian in character or that they were an inspiration to subsequent regimes. Indeed to the degree that the very idea of a social project of mass-mobilisation towards a collective goal was, in modern times, not found until it was expressed in the ideals and projects of the Enlightenment, we can take as a clue to the origin of totalitarianism in these times.
     There is plenty more to say about Rousseau himself; but there is really no better argument against him — or rather, against Professor Grayling’s beliefs about the Enlightenment — than simply to read his books. [12]

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, several philosopher-enlighteners in Germany, most notably Immanuel Kant, were prompted to ask: what is enlightenment? Our question, however, is significantly different; for whilst theirs was primarily a question of the definition of an ideal and the means by which it might be realised, a question which, though it elicited a retrospection of the process of enlightenment thitherto, remained nevertheless wedded to the hopes and intentions for its effects, ours here is primarily a question of the Enlightenment as an historical process: from ideals through means to effects. So, though the two questions are not fully independent of one another, we see that the answers might tend towards two different poles: — on the one side: well-paved roads of intentions, good and bad; and on the other: heaven, hell, and other destinations.
     “Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected,” [13] said the great Kant, thereby giving voice to one of the moving spirits of the Enlightenment that found one of its principle forms in rationalism — to be understood in the loose sense of making reason the primary basis or determinant of authority in all areas of human life.
[Enlightenment] is nothing more than the effort of the human spirit to bring to light, according to principle of a pure doctrine of reason and for the promotion of utility, all the objects of the world of ideas, all human opinions and their consequences, and everything that has influence on humanity. [14]
So said Andreas Riem, who well expressed the optimism amongst some of the enlighteners, the desire amongst them to see utility extended to all areas of human life, and above all the belief that human reason is so powerful, or the world so simple, that the enlighteners would be able unfailingly to determine the consequences of their ideas before they were put into action. In that happy fancy, there is no law of unintended consequences, the understanding of which is itself the consequence of the bitter lesson that ideas and deeds have countless and unforeseeable consequences extending to the nth degree; no, for these enlighteners, one need only bring an idea under the light of reason to determine all its consequences.
     Immanuel Kant’s more famous definition of enlightenment — “mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity” [15] — looks fine at first sight, so long as we do not take it to refer to an actual and general process in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. But, as Johann Georg Hamann, friend of Kant but foe of Enlightenment, was quick to point out: one need not wonder for long who would be the guardians of the so-called immature ones until they reached their maturity — the enlighteners themselves, perhaps even with the help of a well-disposed monarch with a “well-disciplined army” [16] to back them up. “My transfiguration of the Kantian definition” said Hamann, “comes to this: true enlightenment consists in an emergence of the immature person from a supremely self-incurred guardianship.” [17]
The enlightenment of our century is . . . a mere northern light, from which can be prophesied no cosmopolitical chiliasm except in a nightcap & by the stove. All prattle and reasoning of the emancipated immature ones, who set themselves up as guardians of those who are themselves immature, but guardians equipped with couteaux de chasse and daggers—all this is a cold, unfruitful moonlight without enlightenment for the lazy understanding and without warmth for the cowardly will—and the entire response to the question which has been posed is a blind illumination for every immature one who walks at noon. [18]
Another critic of the Enlightenment, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, one of the first classical liberals in Germany, deplored the enlightened despotism to which so many of the enlighteners prescribed.
The great mass of our thinkers . . . want to see the essentially true and the essentially good spread by power, and want to see every error suppressed by power. They would like to help promote an enlightenment — elsewhere than in the understanding, because that takes too long [—] . . . toward the greatest good on earth; forward, on the path of violence and subjugation! [19]
As such critics pointed out, the self-incurred guardians of the Enlightenment took themselves to be the sole judges of enlightenment, the determiners of the true and of the good.
We see incontrovertibly that men who are not themselves in the position to know what is good for them and to strive for it are even less able to owe their well-being to the virtue of a guardian who is without a judge and who will never allow them to achieve maturity. [20]
Herr Jacobi’s words are an epitaph to private freedom that should be inscribed over every door to every parliament in the world; for this self-incurred guardianship has not gone away, but, on the contrary, has grown stronger by the year, as a matter of political freedom; and if you are looking for the roots of that freedom and that seemingly indefatigable confidence of bureaucrats and social reformers by which they presume to meddle in every aspect of your life, you will find it here in self-incurred yet immature guardianship — which has as its ostensible aim your welfare and that of all your fellows.
In all governments there may be odious tyranny, monopolies, exactions, and abominable abuses of nearly all kinds; but the idea of a bureaucracy is not fulfilled till we add the pedantic element of a pretence to direct life, to know what is best for us, to measure out our labour, to superintend our studies, to prescribe our opinions, to make itself answerable for us, to put us to bed, tuck us up, put on our nightcap, and administer our gruel. This element does not seem possible without a persuasion on the part of the governing power that it is in possession of the secret of life, that it has a true knowledge of the all-embracing political science, which should direct the conduct of all men, or at least of all citizens. Hence any government that avowedly sets before its eyes the summum bonum of humanity, defines it, and directs all its efforts to this end, tends to become a bureaucracy. [21]
It is perhaps not necessary here to make explicit the connection between bureaucracy and totalitarian government, except to say that humanity, as both find it, is ever too wayward and imponderable in its behaviour to be the perfect material for an efficient order, but that both of them must ever work, so far as their scopes allow, to reduce all differences for the sake of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of control.
The Enlightenment was a complex process, having many, diverse, and sometimes opposing currents; and if it is odd to say that it has brought us no benefits, so too is it odd to say that it has brought us no detriments. By no means were all enlighteners themselves sanguine about its future, especially after the French Revolution. For members of the Mittwochgesellschaft, a secret society in Berlin composed of “Friends of the Enlightenment”, who were broadly of the moderate current, the question as to the nature of the Enlightenment was a burning one, and several worried about the deleterious effects it might have on society, of how it could undermine morality and authority. Even Moses Mendelssohn, one of the bolder members of the society, was displeased with the radicalism of some of his contemporaries, and was even willing to concede that the Enlightenment might have to be checked lest it wreck public order. [22]
     Friedrich Karl von Moser, an advocate of enlightened absolutism, was even more doubtful of some of its trends:
My short and candid avowal is this: all enlightenment that is not grounded in and supported by religion . . . is not only the way to destruction, immorality, and depravity but also to the dissolution and ruin of all civil society, and to a war of the human race within itself, that begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism. [23]
One must doubt that this accords with Professor Grayling’s idea of enlightenment; for if anyone is looking for a lively impression of an eighteenth-century anti-religious firebrand, A.C. Grayling is the man:
There is no greater social evil than religion. . . . For whenever and wherever religion manifests itself in the public arena as an organised phenomenon, it is the most Satanic of all things. [24]
Professor Grayling, authentic to his imposture, speaks as if the last two centuries had never happened, as if he could truthfully say that “the philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers”. [25] Worse still, however, is his imposture as exclusive heir-claimant to the Enlightenment, an imposture whereby he constructs a fake view of the Enlightenment in which its projects were only those which had pluralism as their aim or indeed as their effect. Yet, principally, the idea of pluralism, as we now know it, arose as a reaction to those rationalistic and universalistic schemes of the Enlightenment which had as their goal the total movement of society towards some monolithic ideal, a reaction led by men who are with some justification said — following Isaiah Berlin’s terminology — to belong to the Counter-Enlightenment, men such as Johann Georg Hamann, advocate of the particular over the universal; Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, one of the first classical liberals in Germany; and Johann Gottfried Herder, instigator of the idea of Volksgeist, inadvertent father of romantic nationalism, and defender of cultural diversity.
Because we tend to assume a natural affinity between the Enlightenment and liberal politics, we forget that many Aufklärers were not liberals, [and] that some of the more ardent liberals were by no means well disposed toward the Enlightenment. [26]
The modern liberalism to which Professor Grayling subscribes draws much from the radical current of the Enlightenment, and bears only some relation to classical liberalism or to the liberality as professed by some of the moderate enlighteners. Voltaire, for instance, one of the most celebrated liberals of the Enlightenment was not a modern liberal, that is to say, he did not believe in liberal democracy, but rather in enlightened despotism. Indeed, if, at a dinner-party hosted by some nice modern liberals, you were to utter the various opinions of Voltaire as if they were your own, you would likely cause your hosts to choke on their terrines de canard.
At the door of Professor Grayling’s Enlightenment Club, there is a sign which reads:
~Modern Liberal Pluralists Only~
Gentlemen-Enlighteners from the Age of Enlightenment
Demonstrate their Credentials to the Doorman.
Any Gentleman Thereof
Found in Possession of Universal or Rationalistic Schemes
for Social Systemisation or Enlightened Despotism
Will Be Asked to Leave.
Claims of Historical Legitimacy to the Name of Enlightenment
Will Not Be Accepted
The Decision of the Management is Final

We can imagine Voltaire and Rousseau, standing outside, sharing a Gauloises, having been thrown out by the doorman:

VOLTAIRE: Bloody liberals.
ROUSSEAU: Oh, I don’t know. I’m beginning to warm to ’em.
* * *
[1] A.C. Grayling, “Through the looking glass”, The New Humanist, Vol.122:4, July-August 2007. (It seems that, according to some usages, a weary old canard is a truth that just won’t go away, no matter how many times one calls it a weary old canard.)
[2] As Isaiah Berlin succinctly put it: “The Enlightenment supposed that . . . [t]here was some particular form of life and of art, and of feeling and of thought, which was correct, which was right, which was true and objective and could be taught to people if only we knew enough.” The Roots of Romanticism, ed., H. Hardy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.105.
[3] Louis Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.xiii.
[4] J.E.E Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton), “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” (1877), reprinted in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol.1: Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J.R. Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classsics, 1985), p.5. [Note added 25/09/14: Having given it a little thought, I now understand these words from Lord Acton to be drivel.] As a mere matter of consequences, let us also acknowledge that from the fact of a plurality of views, derived from the call for the equal right of every man to express his own, it does not follow that any one of those views itself will have as its object, let alone its effect, a plurality of views, that is to say, that any view will itself be in favour of pluralism.
[5] For a history of this radical current, see Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract; or Principles of Political Right, (1762), tr. G. D. H. Cole, Book I, Section 7, online at The Constitution Society.
[7] Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, approved by the National Assembly of France, 26th August 1789, online at The Online Sourcebook.
[8] Quoted by David. A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2003), caption to Fig.1, p.4.
[9] J-J Rousseau, op. cit., Book II, Section 4.
[10] Alberto Radicati, one of the most radical of radicals, was of the opinion that “no man should be distinguished from another” and that “in a government really democratical, men ought to have things in common, and be all equal”. (Twelve Discourses concerning Religion and Government, inscribed to all Lovers of Truth and Liberty (London, 1734), p.46, quoted by Jonathan I. Israel, op. cit., p.273. Rousseau had an interesting mix of both radical and moderate elements.
[11] That Rousseau was also an inspiration to romanticism is no counter-claim; for romanticism was born of the Enlightenment.
[12] Let us for now be satisfied with Samuel Johnson’s opinion: “Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years.” (As quoted by James Boswell, 15th February 1766, Life of Johnson, ed., R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.359.)
[13] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, footnote to the Preface to the First Edition, tr.J.M.D. Meiklejohn, ed., V. Politis (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.4-5. (I wonder whether Kant felt that the proposition that everything must be subjected to criticism ought to include itself.)
[14] Andreas Riem, “On Enlightenment: Is It and Could It be Dangerous to the State, to Religion, or Dangerous in General? A Word to be Heeded by Princes, Statesmen, and Clergy” (1788), tr. J. Kneller and reproduced in What is Enlightenement? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed., J. Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p.169.
[15] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), tr. J. Schmidt, in What is Enlightenement?, op.cit, p.58; original emphasis omitted.
[16] Immanuel Kant, ibid., p.63. The monarch in question is Frederick the Great.
[17] Johann Georg Hamann, Letter to Christian Jacob Kraus, 18th December 1784, tr. in What is Enlightenement?, op.cit, pp.147-8; original emphasis.
[18] J. G. Hamann, ibid., p.147. (Couteaux de chasse = hunting-knives.)
[19] Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, “Something Lessing Said: A Commentary on Journeys of the Popes”, (1782), tr. D.E. Snow, in What is Enlightenement?, op.cit., p.192.
[20] F. H. Jacobi, ibid., p.199.
[21] Richard Simpson, “Bureaucracy”, in The Rambler, 11th February 1859, reprinted in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, op. cit., p. 519.
[22] James Schmidt, “Introduction: What is Enlightenment? A Question, its Context, and some Consequences”, in What is Enlightenment?, op.cit., pp.4-6.
[23] Friedrich Karl von Moser, “True and False Political Enlightenment”, (1792), tr. J.C. Laursen, in What is Enlightenment?, op.cit., pp.214-5. (It is well to remind oneself that von Moser died in 1798, and so never lived to see Kolyma in the 1930s, Bergen-Belsen in the 1940s, or Ashton-under-Lyne last Friday night.)
[24] A. C. Grayling, Life, Sex, and Ideas: The Good Life Without God, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.34-35, quoted by William F. Vallicella, “Is Religious Instruction Child Abuse? Is Religion the Greatest Social Evil?”, The Maverick Philosopher (weblog), 8th November 2007. Regarding his political orientation, A.C. Grayling says he has a “permanent list to port”. (“On Becoming A Philosopher”, I’d say he was unseaworthy — or, to revert to our piscine metaphor: floating on his side in a barrel.
[25] Attributed to Denis Diderot.
[26] James Schmidt, op.cit., p.13.

Monday 21 April 2008


The Right Honourable John Prescott MP has admitted to suffering from bulimia, revealing that “the stress of political life led him to seek comfort in food and then force himself to throw up.” [1] Plainly, judging by the size of the man, one can say that he was not a very successful bulimic, or rather, that he was more successful at one part of the process than the other. Still, one must respect the man’s bravery in admitting that there is yet another thing at which he is no good.
[1] Sam Jones, “John Prescott admits bulimia”, The Guardian, 21st April 2008.

Friday 4 April 2008

A Degraded Symbol

Susanne Winter, a politician for the Freedom Party of Austria, has been charged with incitement and degradation of religious symbols. She profaned a crucifix and called Jesus some horrible names. I’m only joking, of course: in Europe, such deeds might win you a prize, if they are done with sufficient effect. No, Ms Winter offended against the religion to which the secular authorities of Europe pay deference, the one whose founder Ms Winter called “a warlord” and “a child molester”. [1] It is because of these words that she may get up to two years in prison, not a harsh sentence for sure, for this is still Liberal Europe after all: a place where a transgression of one of its many laws is met with leniency, indeed a place where one can torture and murder a man and reasonably expect only four years in prison [2], and a place where, against the degradation of European civilisation as a symbol and as a reality, there is little will and certainly no law.

[1] As reported by Thomas Landen, “Dispatch from the Eurabian Front: Austria, European Parliament, the Netherlands, Belgium”, The Brussels Journal, 1st April 2008. (H/T: Malcolm Pollack, “Silence!”, Waka Waka Waka (weblog), 2nd April 2008.)
[2] For example, see the recent case of Ryan Palin and Craig Dodd: “Jail term cut for ‘feral’ killers”, BBC News Online, 8th November 2007.