Friday, January 30, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Hawthorne I

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Hawthorne, edited by William C. Spengemann.


Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown”

What a contrast Hawthorne is to Emerson and Thoreau, so-called Transcendentalists! Sin is a primary source of meditation for Hawthorne, it would seem, and it is nowhere in evidence in Emerson, agonistic wrester of the Christian tradition. Whereas Emerson seems more intent on setting the ideals of America, Hawthorne would take the culture as he finds it to complicate and enrich the laden tensions.

The swift, penultimate paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown” sums up the wisdom found in Hawthorne’s allegory: “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream, of a witch-meeting?” (64) The point of the tale is that it doesn’t matter. Brown has been changed by the experience, and lost to the forces of sin. The shape-shifting devil says that the knowledge he would bestow those who’ve traveled is “to know their secret deeds,” (62) of all your neighbors, “to penetrate … the deep mystery of sin….” (63)

What knowledge is this? seems to be the question. At the outset of Brown’s journey, Hawthorne sets in contradistinction the lonely solitude of the traveler with the possibility of “passing through an unseen multitude.” (52) This “unseen multitude” eventually takes the shape of all his neighbors: “And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her [Faith] onward.” (58) Even if we can commonsensically distinguish between saints and sinners, Hawthorne blurs them all together in Brown’s nightmare.

The figure of Faith completes the allegory, for the significance is the setting of faith against doubt, and the triumph of doubt. Previous convictions of purity are shattered as he hears their whispers in the dark gloom of the wilderness. We should take the wilderness to be simply the living of life: we walk through life without truly knowing the hearts of our fellow-travelers, but—and this is key—only our own. “But, where is Faith?” (61) says Brown, and it is the loss that sinks us. The trick of the devil is his “reasoning as we go,” (53) “discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor….” (56) The reasoning that the devil teaches, which seems so natural in the “uncertain light,” (53) is that, if we harbor any sins in our own hearts, even living as if we did not, then could not any other, including those pure saints we esteem as being beyond sin entirely?
“Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward.” (62, italics mine)
It is because Brown treats the possibility of goodness as coextensive with the existence of pure cases of purity from sin that, having finally lost faith in this easily doubted notion, he becomes a storm of gloom, “a distrustful, if not a desperate man,” (64) treating everyone as a secret horrid sinner, lustful for the worst depravities. Forever after, Brown “shrank from the bosom of Faith….” (ibid.)

Hawthorne: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

“My Kinsman” seems a step down from “Young Goodman Brown,” a mere fable compared to the latter’s complex allegory. “My Kinsman” seems to be not much more than a running joke capped with a good, old-fashioned piece of potted American wisdom: we rise and fall on our own merits; no hereditary hand for us. Hawthorne lets the story unfold, but we get it early on and the references to “dreaming” at the end are in no way narratively central, and are no doubt a first attempt to use a good idea, which he was able to capitalize on in “Young,” though not earlier.

Like every good poet, Hawthorne chooses his words carefully and there are three repetitions that call for attention, the first two responsible for the humor. The joke is that every time Robin opens his mouth to seek the Major, he says, “my kinsman, Major Molineux,” a phrase chosen with great calculation by Robin (with the attendant pomp), but for which backfires every time. The exact phrase, barring the title, appears nine times (11, 14, 15, 16, 18, twice on 19, 22, and 27). On 23, when we would expect the phrase, Robin says “one Major Molineux,” which allows him brief headway in finding his kinsman. And, of course, the tale ends with the converse, “your kinsman, Major Molineux,” thus capping the joke and the bit of Emersonian Americanism.

The joke is aided by a second repetition, that of “shrewd” and its cognates. This aids the joke, it being repeated over and over how intelligent, cunning, and perceptive Robin thinks he is, yet the reader already knows exactly why he keeps getting the treatment he is, totally misreading the situation he is in by, as Hawthorne puts it, a pompous “assumption of consequence.” (14) The use of “shrewd,” however, also allies itself with a major thematic of Hawthorne’s, here and in “Young.” Whereas Hawthorne hasn’t figured out yet how to use dreaming in his narrative yet, the two tales have in common what lies at its root, a preoccupation with “appearances,” the appearance of reality, or people, or streets.

Shrewdness, intelligence, doesn’t help Robin read his situation. We may question how shrewd Robin really is, and it certainly is a mistaken assumption that guides Robin’s actions, but the third repetition, of “countenance” and its cognates, pleads us to think deeper into the subject: the “long favored countenance” (11) of the first man he accosts, the “strange hostility in every countenance” (14) at the inn, the final stranger’s “altogether prepossessing countenance” (23). I’m not sure Hawthorne was able to successfully harness the thematic to open up a dialogic space, but it is raised in two coded places. The first is the vanity of “the philosopher seeking an honest man.” (15) I’m unsure whether this is an old saw or not, or whether it is a reference to some specific philosopher, but Socrates’ quest for someone who knew something, always ironically disarmed by his own profession of ignorance, certainly rings with it (because when faced with Socratic irony, the honest thing to do is admit, no, I don’t know anything) no less with the second code, “physiognomy.” (19) Socrates became a meditative source for Montaigne on just this score, with such a beautiful soul but ugly face. The question of the relationship between the appearance of something, and its reality, floats around the tale, though is never quite put centrally into place.

Friday, January 23, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Thoreau

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode.


Thoreau: “Civil Disobedience,” Walden

Not to unduly continue my ritualistic invocation of Bloom, but writing in 2003 (in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?), he said that Americans are haunted by “the paradox of Emerson’s influence: Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.” (198) This epileptic seizure of a rhetorical riverbed bears strong witness in Thoreau, overinfluenced as he was. “Civil Disobedience” is a cavalcade of conflicting contemporary resonances: the Iraqi Wars, as many have pointed out, are their Mexican War, but the neoconservative takes great respite in his “the government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.” (110)

What I think we can see clearly in the essay are the political ramifications of Emerson’s call for a return to “moral intuition,” for people to listen to their inner, true, authentic selves, rather than others. This informs Thoreau's use of “conscience” (111) and becomes all the stronger, speaking of the Abolitionists, in “it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one [in a first-past-the-post election’s 50% plus one].” (120) The key modifier for Thoreau, in his model of life with governments, remains in the beginning: “‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” (109, italics mine) Everything hinges on “when men are prepared for it,” for without it we are stuck with needing a neutral arbiter between fractured views of right and wrong—a government. I’m not sure Thoreau is entirely cognizant of the problems attendant the Emersonian conception of “inner guidance” for, quoting the famous line from Jesus on “rendering unto Caesar,” he says, “leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.” (124) I think the trouble is exactly not that we do not wish to know, but that the struggle of life is not being entirely sure which is which, but still having to act. The political life was created because we are not perfectly wise, like Plato’s philosopher-kings, but instead need to expediently balance the exigencies of life (let alone the proclamations of those who think themselves wise).

Walden takes an oblique route through politics, and its first long chapter would more properly be called “Economy of the Soul.” Thoreau meditates long and hard on the notion of work in our lives and the give and take, the sacrifice we make (or rather, think we have to make) to survive in life. Thoreau echoes a long, hallowed tradition of social discontent that A. O. Lovejoy called “primitivism,” stretching from the Stoics to its modern font, Rousseau. Recalling the First Discourse, Thoreau says, “Most of the luxuries … are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (269) “Elevation” is Thoreau’s chief concern, and, like in Emerson, it is a solitary, writerly concern. Emerson was after “tropes,” and for Thoreau the thinker, the play of life is “a kind of fiction.” (386) Thoreau, as he said in opening, lives “by the labor of my hands.” (258)

Friday, January 16, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Emerson

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Emerson, edited by Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley.


Emerson: “Nature,” “The American Scholar,” “The Divinity School Address”

I wasn’t exactly shocked to hear that Emerson holds a recessed position in our contemporary minds, but it was odd, having read a handful of his essays previously, to hear that people have a hard time figuring how so many found their voice in him (like people in the 60s in Dylan). All I hear in myself, since reading him, is my own voice, and in others besides. Perhaps I’m overdetermined by Harold Bloom, on Emerson no less than most of what I read.

The former Unitarian minister wreaks fantastic revenge on the profession in “The Divinity School Address” (DSA). In a stance that should be called an aggressive anti-clericalism, Emerson takes the form of the Protestant Revolution radicalized. Luther and Calvin wished to replace one orthodoxy with another, but the centuries-long transplantment of religious minorities in America produced a cultural space that was consistently at odds with orthodoxy in general. Railing against all priest classes, he says that religion in American “suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest….” (DSA, 77) Prophesizing our contemporary desire to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” Emerson says, “The idioms of [Jesus’] language and the figures of his rhetoric have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes.” (78)

This last is a dark saying, particularly for the writer. Emerson struggled with this impetus, that we are all, at last, only with ourselves, his long life and this produced his strong (and easily appropriated) sense of individuality. The moral, religious sentiment, for Emerson, “is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation….” (76) Emerson’s style, consequently, is one of exhortation, and not argument. Emerson wishes to provoke us into an “original relation to the universe,” one that through “revelation to us” will help us produce “our own works and laws and worship.” (“Nature,” 7, italics mine) Without mediation by tradition we shall make ourselves by ourselves.

What Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence” produces in Emerson one of the strongest, most provocative versions of reading. What Emerson preaches is a refashioning, the taking of contingent materials in order (only in order?) to make something authentically “you,” where this at the same time means “new.” “It came into him life; it went out from him truth.” (“American Scholar,” 55) Emerson essentially shucks off concern with “authorial intention,” something an ordinary literary critic cannot do without. But for Emerson, the first pragmatist, “the sacredness which attaches to the act of creation … is transferred to the record,” and this is a “grave mischief.” (ibid.) “Genius,” for Emerson, “is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence.” (57) The suggestion is that “One must be an inventor to read well,” that the only good reading is a selective, “creative reading,” a misreading in Bloom’s terms—“the discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects….” (58)

Emerson: “Circles,” “The Poet,” “Experience”

Harold Bloom once remarked that, despite his preternatural verbal memory, he had a tough time recalling the placement of prominent passages in Emerson, thinking it in one essay and instead finding it in another. The experience must be a common one, and I’ve already encountered it many times. It no doubt has much to do with Emerson’s solid foot in oral tradition, with its reliance on interchangeable formula, but also with his obsession with the transumption of the past, which he often identified with power and the promise of America.

Emerson is America’s theorist of self-creation and this comes out well in “Circles.” The trope of the circle contains the core of Emerson’s vision of an agonistic relation to the past. We are born into life and find ourselves amongst circles already drawn, but Emerson’s Law of Compensation says that “every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn….” (“Circles,” 228) Emerson analogizes thinking and acting to the activity of drawing circles, as summing up a situation as this or that. As always, though, Emerson wants us to focus on the activity of drawing as the important bit, not the circle itself: “a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built.” (229)

Emerson’s conception of the poet goes back to its Greek roots: poiesis, or “making.” The poet is the self-maker, involved in “the transcendency of their own nature….” (“The Poet,” 255) Emerson twice calls poets “liberating gods” (257, 258) and one has to think that, in America’s lionization of freedom, that Emerson has Shelley’s maxim at heart when he says, “They [poets] are free, and they make free.” (258) This comes to a head (a little later on then our reading) when Emerson laments that he looks “in vain for the poet whom I describe.” (261) Emerson slyly bids to be that poet for America, but in the wide sense in which the Greeks first used it before the coming domination of prose in Plato’s Athenian 5th century. Presaging Whitman, America’s poet in the narrower sense, Emerson declares that “America is a poem in our eyes….” (262)

Emerson takes a much darker form in “Experience.” Waxing to the philosophical milieu current in the Old World, Emerson echoes to the gulf between the subject (person) and object. For Emerson, though, this isn’t simply a distinction between us and rocks, but between us and our desires, us and other people. This creates a great pathos, one summed up by the cliché “The grass is always greener…,” but in Emerson, “Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel and hangs on every other sail in the horizon.” (267) Emerson grieves for the time we once had originary participation with the world, called Eden, which we were fated to be ejected with “the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (284) Emerson’s darkest passage, however, is the knowledge that all we hold dear is held together simply “by love on one part and by forbearance to press objection on the other part….” (285) All life is a continual negotiation, fragile and always open for option.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Constant’s Speech of 1819

I have spent more time studying Benjamin Constant and Gotthold Lessing, both veritably unknown today, than any other intellectuals of the past (barring Plato). It was a matter of happenstance, those having been the current objects of study of the professor that influenced me the most, but both Constant and Lessing have turned out to be more important to me than the canonized figures we read in philosophy classes. It isn't surprising then that I encountered them in intellectual history classes.

Constant's importance to me at the time was that he seemed to take the same position that Rorty took in his political philosophy 200 years later. And considering that my professor continually tried to talk me out of my love-affair with Rorty, I thought it was pretty convenient to just point to Constant: Rorty doesn't slide into relativism any more than Constant does, and for the same reasons (the talk about moral education towards the end).

Looking back now, however, I find most interesting the bits about historical consciousness. The shorthand I use in discussing Constant makes it sound like the Greeks didn't have enough wars to be tired of fighting, unlike 18th-century Europeans. This can't exactly be true, though--whatever history they did have, it was about war. What I wrote I think is still largely right, but I've come to see better why. The exact point is "whatever history they did have." The principle shift that occurred during the Greek Enlightenment was the permanent assertion of literate culture over oral culture. The only sense of the past the Greeks did have was through their stories.

These stories, as we all know, glamorize war and its warriors. One of the major reasons for this, I've come to see, is because of the practical constraints of oral transmission of knowledge--for wisdom to be remembered (for there was, need I mention, no way to write it down for later) it must be memorable. There were many techniques available to Greek rhapsodes and one of them was the creation of heroes. Greek warrior culture kept reproducing itself partly because of the constraints of the available means of cultural reproduction. The creation of writing began to change all that.

More than that, though, is the even more contentious issue about the creation of history writing. Herodotus is often cited as the grandfather of history and Thucydides the real father. Thucydides was a contemporary of Socrates and, similar to Plato, heaped scorn on the practices of those around him, for instance on what counts as good evidence for an event having actually happened. There has often been bafflement as to how Thucydides suddenly, and almost alone, felt this way, about how and why the transition between mythos and logos actually occurred.

The puzzle becomes much easier to understand once one realizes that in oral cultures "accurate representation" of the past didn't make much sense--what would it be accurate with? Ephemerality contains much more of a hold when words pass out of existence as soon as they attain existence, when they are spoken unlike when they are written down. How would a rhapsode even reliably know whether they'd repeated the story exactly the same way? The gist is that rhapsodes repeated the wisdom of the past in their songs to present audiences with present purposes in mind--that was the point in repeating them. Our "clichés," potted, formulaic wisdom like "don't put all your chickens in one basket" or "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," are remnant practices of oral culture (including the misprision). The Homeric stories aren't history, but they are an oral culture's preserved past.

It is often, and correctly, said that the Greeks had no historical consciousness. It wasn't a strange anomaly, and neither was the creation of history. However, Constant was definitely taking advantage of a culture internalizing literacy and the multitude of practices it enabled.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” Benjamin Constant develops a distinction between two kinds of liberty. In the course of this speech, though, Constant enters in a discourse developed by two seemingly separate parties: liberal theorists and republican theorists. While developing the example of modern liberty, Constant plays upon themes developed David Hume and Bernard Mandeville: attacks on ancient regimes, particularly Sparta, and the doux-commerce thesis, a composite discourse developed by Albert Hirschman. At the same time he sounds chords similar to Hume and Mandeville, he sounds chords similar to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a republican who held Sparta in the highest regard. Like Rousseau, Constant feared the de-politicization of the public sphere and desired a moral re-entry. In the course of this essay, I hope to draw out the applicable similarities and differences between these thinkers, how Constant navigates the possible pitfalls of synthesizing ancient and modern liberty, and how, in the end, Constant runs headlong into a tension in philosophical presuppositions that he inherits from the Enlightenment.

The explicit purpose of Constant’s essay is to draw a distinction between two types of liberty that are floating around in the intellectual air. That they are both called “liberty” causes confusion and Constant wishes to clarify the difference between them and argue that one is more desirable than the other. What Constant calls “modern liberty” is synonymous with “individual liberty” and “individual independence” and what he calls “ancient liberty” is synonymous with “political liberty” and “political rights.”[fn.1] What develops is a modern liberty designed for the private sphere and an ancient liberty designed for the public sphere.

The novel thing about Constant’s argument, though, is that it is an historical argument. Rather than making a transcendental argument, sketching the contours of an ahistorical, inviolable human essence like Kant, Constant seems to remain purely socio-historical.[fn.2] Beginning with his identification of the two types of liberty with historical epochs, and continuing with his sketch of the changing conditions between ancient society and modern society, Constant makes pragmatic arguments about what best fits the needs of modern society. He identifies the aims of modern society as “the enjoyment of security in private pleasures” and liberty as “the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures.”[fn.3] These institutions, though, are modern institutions, for “none of the numerous and too highly praised institutions which in the ancient republics hindered individual liberty is any longer admissible in the modern times.”[fn.4] Constant typically refrains from arguing that modern liberty is the true liberty of mankind, and limits himself to arguing that, though ancient liberty was possibly the most fitting freedom at one time, its day in the sun has now past and modern liberty, a liberty centered around the protection of a private sphere of free action, is now the most fitting liberty.

What these historicist arguments show is Constant’s unwillingness to be nostalgic. He is an anti-primitivist in this sense, refusing to gloss the great civilizations of the past, even Athens, as idyllic. Constant warns us of what happens when we become nostalgic:
“One could not read the beautiful pages of antiquity, one could not recall the actions of its great men, without feeling an indefinable and special emotion, which nothing modern can possibly arouse. The old elements of a nature, one could almost say, earlier than our own, seem to awaken in us in the face of these memories. It is difficult not to regret the time when the faculties of man developed along an already trodden path, but in so wide a career, so strong in their own powers, with such a feeling of energy and dignity. Once we abandon ourselves to this regret, it is impossible not to wish to imitate what we regret.”[fn.5]
The end result of this imitation, for Constant, is the Terror following the French Revolution. For Constant, the viciousness, arbitrariness, and wretchedness of Robespierre and his cronies provides the greatest reason to abandon ancient liberty to a bygone era.

Constant’s refusal to be nostalgic does not stop at saying that our changed context demands new tools. Constant not only says that society has changed and our conception of liberty must change with it, but also that this change is for the better.[fn.6] By modern lights, the evolution from the ancient polis to the modern state can be considered progress, not simply a lateral shift in means and ends. Constant says that when the ancients sacrificed “that independence to their political rights, [they] sacrificed less to obtain more; while in making the same sacrifice, we would give more to obtain less.”[fn.7] The applicable “we,” of course, is “we moderns.” Constant is saying that by our lights we have made progress. This progress comes out particularly in his sounding of the doux-commerce chord.

Doux-commerce is a multi-layered discourse that many eighteenth century intellectuals (notably excluding Rousseau) took part in. The central claim of doux-commerce is that commerce is a “powerful moralizing agent which brings many nonmaterial improvements to society.”[fn.8] “A society where the market assumes a central position for the satisfaction of human wants will not only produce considerable new wealth because of the division of labor and consequent technical progress, but generate as a by-product, or external economy, a more ‘polished’ human type.”[fn.9] Hirschman cites Montesquieu as a paradigmatic example, as when Montesquieu says, “it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores.”[fn.10] Hume enters this discourse when he says, “men become acquainted with the pleasures of luxury and the profits of commerce; and their delicacy and industry, being once awakened, carry them on to farther improvements….”[fn.11] Hume’s invocation of “delicacy” announces his participation in doux-commerce. Additionally, Hume’s “more ‘polished’ human type” includes other “virtues” such as industriousness. Industriousness isn’t always thought of as being a virtue, but doux-commerce theorists typically redescribe traditional (read: ancient) virtues in a manner more fitting for modern times, best exemplified, though in extreme form, by Mandeville’s slogan, “private vices, public benefits.”[fn.12]

Constant begins this line of argument by sketching the differences between ancient republics and modern states. The ancient republics were small and bellicose; modern states, large and peaceful. Ancient republics, being constantly on their guard from attack, had to rely on slave labor for the production of goods. Modern states were “essentially homogeneous in their nature” and were “sufficiently civilized to find war a burden. Its uniform tendency is towards peace.”[fn.13] This is Constant’s primary doux-commerce formulation. Unlike Hume’s historical argument, which makes pretensions about mankind’s “nature,”[fn.14] Constant’s argument remains unburdened by this essentialism. Constant says simply, “War and commerce are only two different means of achieving the same end, that of getting what one wants.”[fn.15] However, this doesn’t lead him down the relativist cul-de-sac of saying, “War and commerce are simply two different means, therefore one is just as good as the other.” Constant argues that history has given us moderns the
“experience, by proving to him that war, that is the use of his strength against the strength of others, exposes him to a variety of obstacles and defeats, that leads him to resort to commerce, that is to a milder and surer means of engaging the interest of others to agree to what suits his own.”[fn.16]
Constant does not argue that the ancients were denying their essential humanity; he argues that the ancients simply did not have the historical wisdom that we moderns have. The ancients did not have their own bloody wars to look back on and reflect. Constant argues that, because we moderns can look back on the mistakes of the ancients, “an age must come in which commerce replaces war. We have reached this age.”[fn.17] And because in the modern period commerce “is the normal state of things,” modern states can now see that “every day war becomes a more ineffective means of satisfying their wishes.”[fn.18]

Constant’s refusal to be nostalgic, then, is rooted in an historical analysis of the rise of commerce. This leads him to enter the chorus of disparagement surrounding ancient republics, particularly Sparta. Hume presages Constant’s description of the ancient republics as militant when he says, “the labour of the HELOTES could not have maintained so great a number of SPARTANS, had these latter lived in ease and delicacy,” like moderns do. Mandeville finishes the redescription and joins Constant in refusing to be nostalgic when he says,
“I have heard People speak of the mighty Figure the Spartans made above all the Commonwealths of Greece, notwithstanding their uncommon Frugality and other exemplary Virtues. But certainly there never was a Nation whose Greatness was more empty than theirs….”[fn.19]
For Mandeville and Hume, the modern period should no longer count frugality as a virtue. “Grave moralists,”[fn.20] those “men of severe morals,”[fn.21] are those who enter into “voluntary frugality.”[fn.22] For Constant, the attack on Sparta isn’t limited to lamentations on the Spartans’ outdated economic sensibilities. Constant says, “It would be easier today to make Spartans of an enslaved people than to turn free men into Spartans.”[fn.23] This unpacks partially to mean that modern people would no longer be able to tolerate the tough conditions that a militant lifestyle would demand.

Rousseau picks up on this same theme, though for Rousseau it should be lamented that modern man is no longer durable and robust. While Constant praises the ability to enjoy private pleasures and pursue private interests, Rousseau condemns these same pleasures. As private pleasures and interests increase, “true courage is enervated, the military virtues vanish.”[fn.24] Rousseau is a primitivist in this sense: he is nostalgic for the past, holding them up as a paradigm of moral virtue.[fn.25] Martial prowess is held to be a moral virtue and Rousseau takes Sparta as a rhetorical rallying point. In an animated homage, Rousseau writes,
“Can I forget that it was in the very lap of Greece that was seen to arise the City equally famed for its happy ignorance and for the wisdom of its Laws, that Republic of demi-Gods rather than men, so much superior to humanity did their virtues appear? O Sparta! Eternal shame to a vain teaching!”[fn.26]
Rousseau here juxtaposes “happy ignorance” with “wisdom.” The full meaning of Constant’s statement about the Spartans then comes out as “we moderns are too knowledgeable to go back.” While Rousseau is nostalgic for the “happy ignorance” of the now long gone Spartans, Constant remains skeptical as to whether, even if we wanted to, we would be able to return to the ignorance of Sparta and “the wisdom of its Laws.”

While Constant does not join Rousseau in being nostalgic, he does join him in being critical of modern institutions. Like Rousseau, Constant worries about the de-politicization of the people. Rousseau laments the loss of citizens (and attacks those professions born in the lap of luxury) when he says, “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters; we no longer have citizens.”[fn.27] Both men were against Mandeville’s collapsing of the public sphere into the private, his “sociology of excess,” the “petticoat thesis” that “presented commercial society as the product of the uninhibited, and often whimsical, pursuit of human passions and needs.”[fn.28] Mandeville thought that this was all that was needed for a nation to be successful. Constant warns, though, that “the danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily.”[fn.29] Hume helps in this middle position by de-moralizing luxury, the consequence of private independence and particular interests that Rousseau lambastes in the First Discourse. Hume speaks also for Constant when he says against Mandeville the “libertine” and Rousseau the “severe moralist,” “men of libertine principles bestow praises even on vicious luxury, and represent it as highly advantageous to society; and on the other hand, men of severe morals blame even the most innocent of luxury, and represent it as the source of all the corruptions, disorders, and factions, incident to civil government.”[fn.30] Like Hume, Constant considers “innocent luxury” to be harmless, even beneficial such as when it opens up space for scientists, mathematicians, artists, etc. But, like Rousseau, Constant still worries that overindulgence in our private pursuits will lead us to too easily “surrender our right to share in political power.” For Constant, political liberty is a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) condition for the existence of private independence. Without political power there is no guarantee for our idiosyncratic interests. As Constant says,
“Could we be made happy by diversions, if these diversions were without guarantees? And where should we find guarantees, without political liberty? To renounce it, Gentleman, would be a folly like that of a man who, because he only lives on the first floor, does not care if the house itself is built on sand.”[fn.31]
Constant is worried about how to protect the individual. Rousseau’s solution is the exact opposite of Mandeville’s: he collapses the private sphere into the public. Rousseau submerges the individual into the general will. In the ultimate modern expression of ancient liberty, Rousseau says, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[fn.32] Constant refuses this course of action. As we have seen, for Constant, such an act would be a reversion into a past form of liberty, a form that our historical consciousness has evolved out of. Constant says, “Let us mistrust … this admiration for certain ancient memories. Since we live in modern times, I want a liberty suited to modern times.”[fn.33] William W. Holdheim plays on how history informs Constant’s thinking when he says, “The French Revolution has shown that in practice the general will to which we submit may be far from representing our ideal selves: we simply submit to those men who wield the power. Instead of attaining to a superior form of freedom, the individual is crushed under the onslaught of state and society.”[fn.34] Constant recognizes that we moderns need a different solution. As Philippe Raynaud says,
“If, by renouncing the Rousseauistic reconciliation of the individual and the body politic, Constant predicts a retreat of individuals into the private sphere, he also shows that this relative ‘privatization’ of social life can only be preserved if individuals remain citizens.”[fn.35]
Constant’s solution is to merge ancient and modern liberty, private independence with political duty. The difficulty is attempting to convince people, preoccupied with their own pleasure, that to continue in pleasuring themselves they must exercise their political rights. Constant’s solution, his point of moral re-entry, is with a fitting education.

Holmes points out that “the final section of ‘Ancient and Modern Liberty’ comes as a surprise,”[fn.36] almost seeming to contradict the first part. The practical problem of the liberal dilemma is: “how to motivate individuals to participate, how to galvanize them into civic activism, given the scant rewards each individual might expect from time expended on political affairs.”[fn.37] Constant solves this dilemma by using the idea of a moral education: “The work of the legislator is not complete when he has simply brought peace to the people. Even when the people are satisfied, there is much to do. Institutions must achieve the moral education of the citizens.”[fn.38] This statement should remind us of Rousseau’s Great Legislator.[fn.39] And again: “Political liberty, by submitting to all the citizens, without exception, the care and assessment of their most sacred interests, enlarges their spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people.”[fn.40] This seems to be unmistakably Rousseauian with political liberty seeming to be a mere placeholder for the general will. So, the question should be asked, “How is Constant’s solution different from Rousseau’s?”

Rousseau says,
“it must also be agreed that although men cannot be taught to love nothing, it is not impossible to teach them to love one object rather than another…. If … they are trained early enough never to consider their persons except as related to the body of the State, and not to perceive their own existence, so to speak, except as part of the state’s, they will eventually come to identify themselves in some way with this larger whole…. Not only does Philosophy demonstrate the possibility of these new directions, but History provides a thousand stunning examples.”[fn.41]
Constant parallels this thought when he says, “the progress of civilization, the changes brought by the centuries require from the authorities greater respect for customs, for affections, for the independence of individuals.”[fn.42] Reaching back to his historicism, Constant can say that the objects of education are different now and we should not feel hypocritical when we shape a moral education surrounding our new understanding of what it is to be a modern. Constant says, “since the liberty we need is different from that of the ancients, it needs a different organization from the one which would suit ancient liberty.”[fn.43] Constant’s moral education is a rehabilitated one, one that does not make pretensions towards innate humanity, the humanity that Rousseau wished to free with his moral education. The liberty that Constant envisions being taught is not a straight modern one. It goes beyond a simple liberty for the private sphere, simple private independence. Constant argues that we must synthesize the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns, thus ushering in a form of liberty that is different from both. Constant, “far from renouncing either of the two sorts of freedom,” shows that in order to keep the gains moderns have made over the ancients we must “learn to combine the two together.”[fn.44]

The one loose end in this reading of Constant’s speech of 1819 is his use of eternal rights rhetoric. Constant says right before discussing the progress of civilization, “We still possess today the rights we have always had, those eternal rights to assent to the laws, to deliberate on our interests, to be an integral part of the social body of which we are members.”[fn.45] I view this as a tension in Constant’s position that results from the common parlance of his time. Like Hume’s contrast between natural and unnatural, Constant’s dependence on eternal rights is not necessary for his theoretical position. The crux of Constant’s argument in his speech of 1819 is on historical analysis. Both Hume and Constant fall prey to Enlightenment philosophy, that philosophy which searched for the eternal. But his outdated mode of discourse can be ignored in favor of the practical suggestions Constant made about how to negotiate the modern world.

In the course of this essay I’ve attempted to pull apart the argument Constant makes in his 1819 speech, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.” I have tried to situate it in the discourse of its time by noting the similarities of Constant’s argument with those arguments forwarded by Hume, Mandeville, and Rousseau. Like Hume and Mandeville, Constant argues that commerce has a soothing effect on any warlike tendencies. But like Rousseau, Constant fears that commerce’s ascent to prominence may have unfortunate side effects, such as seen with the rise of Napoleon. That Constant’s position falls in between Hume and Mandeville’s on one side and Rousseau’s on the other adds to the difficulty of interpreting the end of his speech, but hopefully the suggested reading, that Constant’s argument hinges not on eternal pretensions, but on historical analyses, smoothes out some of the difficulties putting the first three-fourths of his speech together with the last fourth.


[1] These turns of phrase are peppered throughout Constant’s essay, for instance, pages 315, 317, 321, 316, respectively for each. (Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” in Political Writings, ed. B. Fontana)

[2] As Biancamaria Fontana says, “[Constant’s] views on the limits of public authority, individual liberty, sovereignty and representation were not offered as universal principles but were embedded in a preliminary understanding of the type of historical society to which they applied to the exclusion of others.” (Biancamaria Fontana, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 29.)

[3] Constant, 317

[4] ibid., 321

[5] ibid., 317

[6] Pierre Manent stops short of this conclusion when he says, “It is clear that Constant is in no way asserting the superiority of modern principles over those of the ancients. He is simply saying that in the ancient city-state, the social and political conditions of human happiness were radically different from what they are in modern times. By refusing to make a value judgment regarding these two versions of human happiness, he necessarily condemns attempts to impose on a given social and moral state any political institutions modeled on a radically different state. Constant is not asserting, as Montesquieu had clearly suggested, that modern liberty is friendlier to man’s nature than was ancient liberty, or that ancient liberty is ‘inhuman,’ or brutalizes his nature.” (Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 89.) While I agree that Constant does say that “the social and political conditions of human happiness were radically different” and that he does not say, with Montesquieu and Hume, that “modern liberty is friendlier to man’s nature,” under my analysis, I think it is quite clear that when he strikes the doux-commerce chord (to be discussed shortly), as when he says, “thanks to commerce, to religion, to the moral and intellectual progress of the human race, there are no longer slaves among the European nations” (Constant, 314, emphasis mine), he is saying that moderns have made improvements over their ancient counterparts. So I agree with Guy Dodge who says, “It was Constant first and then Henri de Saint-Simon who reversed Rousseau … by pointing out the superior virtues of modern commercial over ancient military society.” (Guy Dodge, Benjamin Constant’s Philosophy of Liberalism, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 30.) I do not think that “moral and intellectual progress” is simply a rhetorical flourish set out to grab his European audience. I think it is central to his repudiating the title of relativist that he strike this limited ethnocentric chord. By doing this he limits his context to “Europeans,” and thereby to history, rather than an extravagant, universal and ahistorical context like “humanity,” which allows him to retain the ability to condemn “attempts to impose on a given social and moral state any political institutions modeled on a radically different state.”

[7] Constant, 317

[8] Albert O. Hirschman, “The Doux-Commerce Thesis,” in Rival Views of Market Society, 109.

[9] ibid.

[10] Charles de Secondat de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 338.

[11] David Hume, “Of Commerce,” in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller, rev. ed., (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 264.

[12] This is the subtitle for Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees.

[13] Constant, 313

[14] Hume says, “the less natural any set of principles are, which support a particular society, the more difficulty will a legislator meet with in raising and cultivating them. It is his best policy to comply with the common bent of mankind, and give it all the improvements of which it is susceptible. Now, according to the most natural course of things, industry and arts and trade encrease the power of the sovereign as well as the happiness of the subjects….” (Hume, “Of Commerce,” 260) Hume’s argument in “Of Commerce,” though historical, is of the kind that moves from the unnaturalness of the ancients, to the naturalness of the moderns, thus holding “nature” as an ahistorical bar of judgment.

[15] Constant, 313

[16] ibid. Fontana says, “Constant’s attempt to bring or restore to political theory a sociological understanding of the nature of modern European nations went beyond the aspiration of adding some historical background to the activity of constitutional engineering. His political theory was the theory of a particular historical reality: large nation states with a developed commercial economy within the European cultural tradition.” (Fontana, 45)

[17] Constant, 313

[18] ibid., 314

[19] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, ed. F. B. Kaye, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 245.

[20] ibid., 150

[21] Hume, “Of Refinement in the Arts,” 269

[22] Mandeville, 157

[23] Constant, 319

[24] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First Discourse, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 20.

[25] Arthur O. Lovejoy says that primitivism “has … been rather the expression … of an emotional nostalgia or an idyllic day-dream … one may in principle distinguish ‘sentimental’ from ‘practical’ primitivism…. But the one naturally shades off into the other; a mood of intense dissatisfaction with some or all the characteristics of the civilized life of one’s own time will obviously produce in some minds a hope and an endeavor to put an end to them.” (Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935), 16.) Bernard Yack calls the modern variant of this hope “the longing for total revolution.” (see Bernard Yack, The Longing for Total Revolution, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 3-10.) For more on Rousseau and primitivism, see my "Primitivism in Rousseau."

[26] Rousseau, First Discourse, 11

[27] ibid., 24

[28] Dario Castiglione, Readings of Mandeville on Commercial Society, 167

[29] Constant, 326

[30] Hume, “Of Refinement in the Arts,” 269

[31] Constant, 326. Stephen Holmes partly attributes Constant’s worries about political liberty to the historical experience he and France endured when Napoleon rose to power. He says, “the postrevolutionary urge to escape from politics and delimit the political sphere had nourished an invasive dictatorship. Constant experienced the pang of enforced depoliticalization in his own person when he was ejected from the Tribunat in 1802. It is inconceivable that, having suffered this humiliation, he would have afterward viewed privatization as simply and exclusively a public good.” (Stephen Holmes, Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 41.)

[32] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. E. D. H. Cole, (Vermont: Everyman, 1973, 1993), 192.

[33] Constant, 323
[34] William W. Holdheim, Benjamin Constant, (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1961), 85.

[35] Philippe Raynaud, “Constant,” in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, ed. Mark Lilla, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 87.

[36] Holmes, 39

[37] ibid., 42

[38] Constant, 328

[39] Rousseau, Social Contract, 213-7

[40] Constant, 327

[41] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on Political Economy,” in Collected Writings of Rousseau vol. 3, trans. Judith R. Bush, Roger D. Masters, Christopher Kelly, and Terence Marshall, ed. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly, (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992), 155.

[42] Constant, 324

[43] ibid., 325

[44] ibid., 327

[45] ibid., 324

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Quote of the Day

I can't concentrate long enough to write anything, nor have I long enough spaces of time to work a good groove, so instead I find myself reading old junk. And like a flash, what I should do dropped from the heavens: quotes of the day, changed as often as I remember. Quotes of who?

Me. Instead New Me (like freshly minted scripts like "What Pragmatism Is") or Old Me (like papers from yore like "Rhetoric and Dialectic in Plato"), there shall be Repeated Me:

"Sometimes I think those who are attracted to metaphilosophy are those who never want to lose an argument. Always wanting to win, or at the least never lose, will drive one to being familiar with arguments of all kinds and the various levels of arugments so that one is never caught off guard. This kind of pathology, of which I am no doubt susceptible, leads you to always try and stay one step ahead. Eventually, though, I think you figure out that there are no winners in philosophy qua argument, and so you become an expert at stalemate."

--Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?