Friday, July 29, 2016

Till We Have Tolerant Faces

Several times in these posts, I’ve shared my frustration concerning the rarity of people who understand what seems so obvious to me about religious toleration. To illustrate, let me say that I am not a Hindu. I believe many claims of the Hindu faith are incorrect. I wish Hindus could be Christian. Nevertheless I have enormous respect for the Hindu religion. I find some of their sacred writings stunningly beautiful. I admire the piety of millions of faithful Hindus who honor their gods according to their traditions and learn from their religion to walk upright lives on the Earth. And I believe that by and large (not in absolutely all cases, for one can find a bad apple in any barrel) Hindu Americans strengthen our country.

I see my philosophy of toleration as having two balanced ends: I respect the belief enough to declare it wrong, and I respect the person enough to want to be his neighbor. It seems to me, though, that most people hold only one end or the other of my balance pole. I know of, unfortunately, millions of Americans who wish to offer no welcome to anyone holding to some given religion with which they disagree. And I know of vast swaths of the American public who believe any religion is fine since none, they maintain, is especially true. But a high-wire artist who holds out her pole only to one side will fall off the wire.

Over my decades of reading his works, C. S. Lewis has both confirmed and shaped my view of religious toleration. One of the core themes of this beloved Christian author is that, while Christ alone is the Truth with a capital T, other religions are not wholly wrong and in fact reflect “splintered fragments of the true light.” Never is this policy clearer than in what I have long held as my favorite Lewis book, Till We Have Faces.

Till We Have Faces is correctly advertised as a retelling of a story from a religion other than Christianity: the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. When I first read the book, I had heard somewhere that it was Lewis’s least Christian book (among his nonacademic efforts), and it indeed seemed to me then that if the author had Christian ideas in mind, he had hidden them under many heavy layers of allegory and cultural translation. In later life, though, after learning more about Lewis (and more about Christianity), I see the apologist’s faith lying just under a surface of gossamer. Still the book works only if the reader is willing to agree that the answer to Orual’s problems lies in her accepting the worship of Aphrodite and her son. Lewis doesn’t even choose someone from the Greek pantheon that I can sympathize with like Athena or Apollo. I have to see the good in the worst parts of Greek religion in order to enjoy and understand the book and, in turn, see more good in the Christian religion.

One last note on toleration. My high-school English classes drilled into me that the shortened form of until was ‘til, not till. So Lewis’s title grates on me. But since he knew thing or two about the English language, I keep telling myself that the problem more probably lies with my high-school English program.

Friday, July 22, 2016

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

Fifteen years ago or so, I read about a fourth of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The point that stuck with me most was the observation that American democracy begins at the local level, that Americans have passion for the politics of their town and take part in running it rather than letting a bureaucrat from the central government take charge of parochial affairs. Interesting as far as it goes, but in that first sample, I didn’t see what might have given the book its lofty reputation and continued popularity. This month I started where I had left off and read up to about the 75% mark. And now I understand.

First, Tocqueville makes many penetrating observations that still seem true today.
  • The press is the greatest protector of freedom in a democracy, but the abundance of newspapers in the United States weakens its power.
  • In a democracy, the goals of the magistrates are usually those of the majority, so even bad leaders do good for society.
  • Americans want success fast, and American entrepreneurs succeed most when they find the best way of doing a thing less expensively than anyone else.
  • The public prefers books that they can read quickly and easily.
  • Poetry has little appeal to the public, and a politician desiring to elevate speaking style tends toward bombast rather than poetic eloquence.
Tocqueville even predicts the state of the world a century and a half after his time when he says that the United States will one day be the premiere naval power on the planet and that it and Russia will between them rule half of the world's population. We should listen to a man who got so many things right.

The heart of the book, the part that I had heard about, comes in volume I, part 2, chapter 9. Here Tocqueville lays out what he sees as the three main reasons for the continued success of American democracy: (1) geographical isolation and the riches of the land, (2) the federal system of laws, giving citizens a part even in local government, and (3) American morality. The geographical situation doesn’t essentially change, and he doesn’t see much chance of the federal distribution of government going away. So the biggest threat comes from a breakdown in morality, which in America would happen with a dwindling of the power of religion. Tocqueville calls for religious toleration. The state not having an afterlife, as Tocqueville the devout Christian reasons, any religion is good for society so long as it teaches morality. Recursively, this morality includes respect and civil treatment toward those who believe differently.

Interestingly, Tocqueville sees no contradiction in respecting a person devoted to a false religion and, despite his otherwise mostly accurate view of the future, has no inkling that such a contradiction would ever occur to anyone. But our weakened democracy can’t reconcile respect with thinking someone is wrong; all assertions are taken as insults, and all truths are seen as relative. In this atmosphere, religion becomes a matter of feeling good about a vague idea, so respect for other religions shrinks to insipid good will towards others’ casually happy thoughts about fuzzy cosmicness. In the words of MAD magazine, blecchh. A pat on the head and a condescending “That’s nice” isn’t respect; it’s what you give your neighbor's kid when he shows you the house he made out of paste and popsicle sticks. It’s what Shirley says to Annie and Abed, and, rightfully, nobody takes her seriously. Respect for someone I disagree with, someone who’s thoughts rise to the level of me believing them wrong, is so much stronger than that, so much healthier – so much more respectful. I would much rather have a nonbeliever tell me I’m wrong than wish me well for believing in something that “works for me.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

Who Put the “Skew” in Montesquieu?

During my first ten-year reading plan, the plan that came with the Britannica Great Books set, Mortimer Adler had me read the first twelve books of The Spirit of Laws by Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. My notes tell me that Montesquieu spends a long time explaining the differences between a republic, a monarchy, and despotism – somewhat obvious material that’s been covered by others before – and then gets to the good stuff very rapidly over the course of just a couple of pages: Liberty is freedom from fear under a system of laws, and this is best achieved where the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government are separated. Ah! Now I see why Adler had me read this portion.

This year I set out to read another large chunk of The Spirit of Laws, without worrying about finishing the longish treatise. I started at book 13, the point at which I had stopped reading with the first ten-year plan, and at first, I thought Adler had perhaps included the only good part in his plan. Montesquieu tries to explain how characters of nations differ according to climate: those who live in colder climates and terrain that's tough to farm become industrious and ambitious, those in the opposite conditions, lazy. And he says that laws should suit the differing characters nurtured by the variant geography. OK, slightly interesting, but mostly simplistic, reductive, and racist. Then he gets really racist in what appears to be a justification of slavery of Africans. But he ends this passage by saying that it must be true that blacks ought to be slaves, else Europeans couldn't be Christians. Did he actually intend the passage as an ironic attack on Europeans acting decidedly un-Christianly toward Africans? The cultural distance between the author and I make it too difficult for me to tell.

So it was rough going for me for several days. But then, just as the first reading assignment had years ago, this year’s segment of Montesquieu suddenly got good, in books 18 and 19. That laws should be suited to the land, he says, indicates that different laws might be right in different situations. Laws whose rigorous observance by locals preserves liberty might in some larger context be arbitrary? Very interesting. As a good, believing Catholic, he says that even the inspired Mosaic Law is not absolute. How else, he reasons, could God say through Ezekiel that he had given statutes that were not good?

Going on, Montesquieu introduces another important idea by making a distinction between laws and mores, each having power to shape certain aspects of society. But legislators have to understand the difference in their respective spheres. No aspect of mores should be legislated; if the leader wants to change these, he needs to set an example, not punish. And in this section I came across one of the coincidences that occur so frequently in my reading adventures. In an argument that I didn’t completely follow, Montesquieu says that China, by making laws and customs exactly the same, never changes. So its conquerors have always had to adapt to the Chinese rather than the other way around – exactly the point about the Chinese that I read last month in Henry Kissinger’s World Order.

At the end of book 19, Montesquieu, in describing the prototypical free nation, seems to predict the United States with amazing accuracy. The citizens of a free nation, he says, operate from passion and act against their own interest at times. (How have we nominated two people for President that, according to the polls, we find unfavorable?) The free nation must have a system of credit to borrow from itself and from its subjects by taxation. It is on an island and not fond of conquering. It trades. Its people retire in countries of slavery with low taxes. It preserves the style of the aristocracy it comes from. It is tolerant of and has many religions. Its citizens are esteemed only for riches and personal merit. They are not extremely polite, and they love satire. If some of these characteristics raise in me the desire to see Americans become more virtuous and educated, at least I have the comfort of seeing them as symptoms of a land of liberty.

Reading The Spirit of Laws has gone downhill for me since that point. Maybe I’m acting against my own interest by forcing myself to continue reading. But in a couple of days, I’ll have finished the part I assigned myself, and on Monday, I’ll start declining the Roman Empire with Gibbon again. If by some weird chance some reader of these posts decides to read portions of The Spirit of Laws, I recommend you read books 11, 18, and 19, and leave the rest to historians.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Begining and End of Romanticism

There’s a danger in travel accounts. Somewhere, perhaps in Little Dorrit, Dickens criticizes people who travel the world in order to live the experiences they’ve already read about in travelogues and read the travelogues in order to know how to relive other people's feelings when they get to their destinations. I agree. But without travel accounts, one might not know where to go at all and might miss out on an authentic experience for want of background information.

Reading books has a lot in common with traveling, and commentaries and critical essays serve as the travelogues of literature. I try to read enough about a book or author to get a sense of context but not so much that it tells me what to think or ruins the fun of my finding out for myself what surprise waits around the corner. But I couldn't find much about Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I know that many nineteenth-century artists, writers, and musicians considered it a favorite, but other than its providing a great poem (in the mouth of the character Mignon) set several times by Schubert and others, I didn’t know why it was so influential. Without the words of experts to tell me what to think about it, I may hit wide of the mark. But it appears to me that Goethe’s 1796 novel simultaneously ushers in and critiques the Romantic movement.

I associate Romanticism with the early-nineteenth-century interest in and respect for emotions, nature (especially its awesome, sublime power), death, the mysterious, the individual, the arts as guides to life, and the genius. And Goethe’s light certainly gleams off all of these facets in this book. Wilhelm wanders aimlessly through the woods of Germany, trying to figure out life and love, unsure whether chance, fate, or God is behind the seemingly significant chaos of life, but sure that his feelings bring him as close to the meaning of the universe as anything does. He falls in with a troupe of actors and expatiates often on the abilities of drama and song to teach people how to feel, the resultant feelings, in turn, revealing the meaning of the universe to the audience. Eerie things happen to him, but it doesn’t matter much to Wilhelm whether his friends are putting on show or he is encountering actual ghosts: the experiences reveal the mysteries of life one way or another. It all seems about as Romantic as it gets.

At the same time, though, this Romanticism doesn’t work for Wilhelm and his associates, and alternate worldviews are suggested. Wilhelm doesn’t seem to notice that every woman he meets merits some special place in his heart; every woman enjoys supremacy just as long as he’s near her or thinks of her. When he actually gets around to acting on these intense attachments, the women almost invariably disappoint him. So much for feelings revealing truth. One character, following his esteemed feelings, mates with his sister. Goethe’s narration seems definitely not to approve of this result of an extreme Romantic view. Wilhelm also struggles with audiences who don’t appreciate the divine favors he bestows on them through his art. In fact, he can’t even always find fellow actors who understand the meaning of the stageworks he puts on. If the lonely genius is completely alone, then what good is it being a genius?

So what other options does an intelligent, sensitive person of the time have? Wilhelm’s father and one of Wilhelm’s acquaintances represent a material, epicurean manner of life, which Goethe associates with cold reason. Goethe and his protagonist seem to agree that Romanticism outshines such a selfishly calculating life. A couple of characters present Christianity as something of an alternative, although it is a Romantic Christianity, based on the notion that the Christian religion, like others presumably, can raise the emotions necessary to guide one to the good life.

I read Faust during my first ten-year reading plan, and I have to say it was all very confusing with its digressions and constant shifting of poetic meters. I feel like I understand Goethe much better having read this novel and understand why nineteenth-century artists, writers, and composers revered him so highly. One such composer, Ambroise Thomas, wrote an opera about Mignon, one of the most interesting characters in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I’ve only heard one aria (a beautiful one!) from that opera. I think I’ll listen to some more of it today.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

An Anglophile in Exile

England is definitely the place for an anglophile to read Henry V. I love knowing that I had no idea ten years ago I would go to England in June of year 10 of my Reading Plan just in time to read that most patriotic of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet that’s where I put the play when I drew up my schedule back in 2006. Henry V disappointed me the first time I read it. The Archbishop convinces Henry to attack France. Henry makes a stirring speech and then attacks France. Henry wins the battle and gets to marry the French princess. Pretty straightforward. I saw much more in it, though, when I read it a second time several years ago; I loved especially the scene in which the king goes in disguise through the camp the night before the battle to hear what the soldiers say. It seemed simpler again this time, and yet it also picked up a new layer of effect as I read what is also the most imperialistic of the plays during the Brexit referendum.

I read four Shakespeare dramas while in England and Ireland this past month. I got to see Macbeth (I’m not superstitious: I feel perfectly fine typing and even saying the name) from the yard in the Globe Theatre. The thrill I experienced made up for the disturbing fact that I couldn’t follow as much of the dialogue as I usually can. My problem may have had something to do with my standing behind a dismembered mannequin that hid a speaker blaring wind sounds and other spooky noises, as well as two incidents of other standing patrons fainting within ten feet of my position. But I read the play the next day just to reassure myself.

I also read Timon of Athens, finishing my project of reading all Will’s plays for at least a second time. This tedious tale of a self-made misanthrope joins some other creations of the Bard that I don’t care to read a third time. In devising my third ten-year reading plan, I discovered that Shakespeare’s works for the stage don’t just arrange themselves on a scale for me: they neatly divide themselves into plays I like reading and ones I do not. So I’ll skip the latter list and enjoy each of these at least twice over the next ten years:
  • Richard II
  • 1 Henry IV
  • 2 Henry IV
  • Henry V
  • 2 Henry VI
  • Richard III
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • All's Well that Ends Well
  • Twelfth Night
  • Comedy of Errors
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • As You Like It
  • Measure for Measure
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Cymbeline
  • The Tempest
  • Pericles
As You Like It sits well above my threshold. The exploits of Orlando and Rosalind in Arden Forest went with me on the plane leaving the islands. Like them, I felt like an exile.