Archive for June, 2012

The genealogist

June 26, 2012

The Genealogy of Morals
Friedrich Nietzsche
(Modern Library, 1927) [1887]
192 p.

In this book Nietzsche develops and expands several of the ideas earlier presented in Beyond Good and Evil. The book consists of three essays, somewhat disjoint in subject matter, but united by a common concern with conscience and moral life, and more specifically with contextualizing, and then assaulting, the moral heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

Nietzsche takes it for granted that moral judgments are wholly subjective; his central question, as stated in the book’s preface, is this: “Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves?” [emphasis his] The seeds of the book lay, he says, in his doubts about the moral value of “pity, self-denial, and self-sacrifice”, his suspicion that the elevation of these values represented “the exhaustion that gazes backwards, the will turning against Life, the last illness announcing itself with its own mincing melancholy”. And his doubts about these values led to doubts about all values.

In the first and shortest essay, entitled “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’”, he sets forth a basic view of the moral life that will be familiar to those who have spent time with him: he favours ‘aristocratic’ values — strength, courage, pitilessness, nobility — over ‘slave’ values — mercy, meekness, forgiveness, compassion. The former he identifies especially with Roman civilization, and the latter with Jewish and Christian traditions. He argues that the political superiority of the strong is itself a mark of psychological superiority, and only the disguised cunning of the Jews, further deepened and intensified by Jesus, has been able to upset and undermine the natural order. In the waning influence of Christianity upon society, he sees hope for a resurgence of the old aristocratic values.

In the second essay, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like”, he sets forth a theory of the origins of conscience and penal practices in society. The argument is theoretical, and largely devoid of historical referents.

The essay begins, curiously, with a discussion about the making of promises, for in man’s ability to promise Nietzsche finds the seeds of the whole moral order. By promising one asserts one’s power over the world and over one’s own actions; one declares oneself to be sovereign and autonomous, and one achieves thereby an honourable status, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others. Likewise one recognizes this same honourable status in others when it is present — and in this pride, he argues, is rooted the first intimations of moral judgment: contempt for those who lie. The capacity to make promises gives one, furthermore, a consciousness of “the proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility”, and this knowledge he calls “conscience”. (This definition of “conscience” is peculiar. Socrates famously said that his daemon told him what not to do, but not what to do. Nietzsche’s conscience would seem to be doing the opposite. What does your conscience tell you?)

For Nietzsche conscience finds expression through, and is in turn shaped by, penal practices and laws. In the Western tradition the principal purpose of just punishment has usually been said to be retribution. Nietzsche asks why. Why does punishment seem to be an adequate — or at least a pertinent — response to wrongdoing? Guilt implies debt, but why is suffering (endured by way of punishment) a way of paying that debt? Nietzsche, true to his dark vision of things, argues that the infliction of suffering is itself pleasurable, for it bestows a sense of power on the wronged party, and it is for this reason that suffering can serve as compensation.

As a civilization becomes stronger and more stable, however, it can afford to be more lenient. Man’s natural inclination to punish is thwarted and turns against him, producing what Nietzsche calls a “bad conscience”. (He does not say, so far as I can see, why the desire to be lenient arises. If punishment is all about pleasure, why should social stability work against it?) His idea seems to be that the instinct for punishment — “enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in surprises, change, destruction” — when prevented from acting outwardly turns inward, against the possessor. Each person begins to think himself guilty, at odds with the natural order of things, and he develops a desire for self-inflicted punishment. Here Nietzsche locates the origin of the notion that altruism is a good. He sees it, apparently, as a manifestation of self-loathing.

The “bad conscience” is a dynamic psychological force, and it cannot rest quietly. It provokes the thought that one somehow owes a non-specific, pervasive debt, and this is intolerable. In our own culture, this debt has been conceived as owed to God, and part of the (in Nietzsche’s mind, perverted) genius of Christianity has been to propose that God himself pays the debt on our behalf. Thus, the appeal of Christianity is rooted in a psychological and spiritual inclination for self-torture.

Naturally, this account of things is subject to doubt at nearly every step of the argument. It is a nice example, though, of Nietzsche’s method of depth psychology in the service of philosophical inquiry. The idea that retributive justice is ultimately grounded in sadism is one of those lurid Nietzschean notions that make him such an entertaining, if not quite convincing, figure. One often hears it said that God is the source of a sense of guilt — St. Paul himself argues that the law was given to teach us about sin — but Nietzsche puts it the other way around: a guilty conscience (a “bad conscience”) is itself the price of civilization, and the Christian God serves as a remedy for this psychic disease. That is at least an interesting idea that bears some reflection.

The third and final essay is titled “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”, and it is by a fair margin the most interesting of the bunch. Certainly it is written with a savage rhetorical beauty that is at times overwhelming. (Some examples appended below.) The quality of its arguments is less impressive.

In the beginning, says Nietzsche, man found himself encircled by the void, living a life that lacked any intrinsic meaning or purpose. Unable to endure this condition, and especially unable to bear the thought that his suffering had no meaning, he willed a meaning for himself by adopting an ascetic attitude toward life. Asceticism gives him a goal, an orientation to the world; in limiting him it gives his life shape and structure. By way of asceticism, the wounded creature finds a way to affirm life. Asceticism is thus, at ground, a kind of self-hypnotism by which man protects himself from nihilism.

When we think of asceticism, I expect that most of us think first of religious traditions, most of which have integrated ascetic practices into their religious devotions and duties. Nietzsche doesn’t overlook this manifestation of the ascetic ideal — the priest, he says, is “hostile to life”, and his prescriptions are all intended to stifle vitality and secure power for the priest himself — but he casts his net much wider, finding commonalities between ways of life generally thought to be quite different from one another. Philosophers, for instance, starting with Plato (“the great defamer of life”), have in Nietzsche’s view championed asceticism for their own selfish purposes. The life of study and reflection cannot exist without renunciation. Nietzsche sees the dominant philosophical ideals of our entire tradition — tentativeness, making of careful distinctions, consistency, even rationality — as manifestations of asceticism, for they place limits that must not be transgressed. Thus the claim he made in Beyond Good and Evil about the autobiographical nature of philosophical ideas finds a particularly pervasive instance.

Scientific inquiry, too, is a modern manifestation of the ascetic ideal, a “self-anaesthetic” that prevents one “coming to consciousness”. Science, insofar as it demands discipline, prefers reason to instinct — or, in a word, is serious — encircles and fetters the human spirit. The scientific mindset has also begun to pride itself on its “contempt for man”, and this will to belittle and undermine man’s spiritual grandeur is another sickly manifestation of asceticism.

Even atheism does not escape. Nietzsche calls it “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a two-thousand-year training in truth, which finally forbids itself the lie of the belief in God.” When atheism, in other words, is grounded in a devotion to truth, it earns Nietzsche’s contempt.

It seems, then, that Nietzsche sees ascetic ideals everywhere. Even so fundamental a thing as respect for truth is, for him, a souring of the golden, “Homeric” nature that rightly belongs to man at his best. “For some time past there have been no free spirits; for they still believe in truth.” We come face to face, therefore, in a particularly unvarnished and radical form, with Nietzsche’s admiration for animal nature, instinctive and amoral. There is an irony at work here, for the injunction to honour truth is grounded in a belief in God, yet this same injunction eventually undermines (says Nietzsche) this belief. But the deeper irony is that of a philosopher who believes that both truth and reason are cramping his style. Frankly, one wonders what to do with him.


To review: what we have in this book is, first, an argument that our basic moral framework is a weak-souled inversion of the values that ought truly to govern our conduct, values exemplified best by an eagle attacking its prey, noble and remorseless; second, an argument that our sense of justice is based on a sadistic lust to see others suffer, and that our psychological and spiritual disorders result from our reluctance to indulge that lust; and third, an argument that efforts to discipline our minds and our hearts are covert evasions of our true existential situation, which is that nothing — the nothing — is the ultimate horizon against which our lives play out.

I know that Nietzsche is a lion, and that I should quiver at his roar. The truth, however, is that I am finding him just a little too strident, a shade too vicious, to be taken quite seriously. After finishing this book I let it sit a full year before writing up these notes, trying to muster some sort of manly resolve to confront Nietzsche in the way that I fondly wish he deserved, but, in the end, I have been unable to do it. Blame me, perhaps, but perhaps not. As I have been writing these notes, some lines from Chesterton have been running through my mind:

And all these things are less than dust to me
For my name is Lazarus, and I live.

For better or worse, I am simply not ready to be impressed by Nietzsche’s radicalism. I hear a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal, full of sound and fury, granted, but signifying next to nothing.


Ah, but the man could write:

What is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In artists, nothing, or too much; in philosophers and scholars, a kind of “flair” and instinct for the conditions most favourable to advanced intellectualism; in women, at best an additional seductive fascination, a little morbidezza on a fine piece of flesh, the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal; in physiological failures and whiners (in the majority of mortals), an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery, their chief weapon in the battle with lingering pain and ennui; in priests, the actual priestly faith, their best engine of power, and also the supreme authority for power; in saints, finally a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their peace in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness.

But in the very fact that the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man, lies expressed the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror vacui: he needs a goal — and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.

[Artists and their work]
It is certainly best to separate an artist from his work so completely that he cannot be taken as seriously as his work. He is after all merely the presupposition of his work, the womb, the soil, in certain cases the dung and manure, on which and out of which it grows—and consequently, in most cases, something that must be forgotten if the work itself is to be enjoyed. The insight into the origin of a work is a matter for psychologists and vivisectors, but never either in the present or the future for the aesthetes, the artists.

[Modern hubris]
Even judged by the standard of the ancient Greeks, our whole modern life, in so far as it is not weakness, but power and the consciousness of power, appears pure “Hybris” and godlessness: for the things which are the very reverse of those which we honour to-day, have had for a long time conscience on their side, and God as their guardian. “Hybris” is our whole attitude to nature nowadays, our violation of nature with the help of machinery, and all the unscrupulous ingenuity of our scientists and engineers. “Hybris” is our attitude to God, that is, to some alleged teleological and ethical spider behind the meshes of the great trap of the causal web. Like Charles the Bold in his war with Louis the Eleventh, we may say, “je combats l’universelle araignée“; “Hybris” is our attitude to ourselves—for we experiment with ourselves in a way that we would not allow with any animal, and with pleasure and curiosity open our soul in our living body: what matters now to us the “salvation” of the soul? We heal ourselves afterwards: being ill is instructive, we doubt it not, even more instructive than being well—inoculators of disease seem to us to-day even more necessary than any medicine-men and “saviours.” There is no doubt we do violence to ourselves nowadays, we crackers of the soul’s kernel, we incarnate riddles, who are ever asking riddles, as though life were naught else than the cracking of a nut; and even thereby must we necessarily become day by day more and more worthy to be asked questions and worthy to ask them, even thereby do we perchance also become worthier to—live?

[The Old and New Testaments]
I have the courage of my bad taste. The Old Testament—yes, that is something quite different, all honour to the Old Testament! I find therein great men, an heroic landscape, and one of the rarest phenomena in the world, the incomparable naivete of the strong heart; further still, I find a people. In the New, on the contrary, just a hostel of petty sects, pure rococo of the soul, twisting angles and fancy touches, nothing but conventicle air, not to forget an occasional whiff of bucolic sweetness which appertains to the epoch (and the Roman province) and is less Jewish than Hellenistic. Meekness and braggadocio cheek by jowl; an emotional garrulousness that almost deafens; passionate hysteria, but no passion; painful pantomime; here manifestly every one lacked good breeding. How dare any one make so much fuss about their little failings as do these pious little fellows! No one cares a straw about it—let alone God.

Goncharov: Oblomov

June 18, 2012

Ivan Goncharov
(Penguin Classics, 2005) [1859]
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack
499 p.

Oblomov is a man afflicted. His ambitions have soured, his friendships faded. He no longer engages with life in such a way as to find either pleasure or sorrow in it. He spends his days (and roughly the first 100 pages of this novel) in bed, sometimes sitting up to toy with his slippers, or to summon his servant, but mostly lounging, idle. To the extent that he dreams of or hopes for anything, it is for an untroubled life, a life of peace and rest (“Isn’t that what everyone is working hard to attain?” he asks.), each day like the one that preceded it, with no unforeseen contingencies and no surprises. The world is passing him by.

His affliction has a name: Oblomovitis!

What happened to him? Did he fail to understand the task life set before him, or did he, perhaps, understand it too well? He makes his case, and it has a certain persuasiveness. Speaking of his former friends and colleagues, he says:

They argue, they discuss everything from every possible point of view, but they are bored, they are not really interested in the whole thing: you can see they are fast asleep in spite of their shouts! The whole thing does not concern them; it is as if they walked about with borrowed hats. They have nothing to do, so they squander their energies all over the place without trying to aim at anything in particular. The universality of their interests merely conceals emptiness and a complete absence of sympathy with everything!

Oblomov too is bored, but he knows it. There is an echo of Ecclesiastes here: he sees lives preoccupied with vanity and searching after the wind, given to distractions and ephemeral concerns, and he rejects such a life. Surely there is wisdom in this. His disengagement from life is not obviously rooted in cynicism or a rejection of goodness. Perhaps he is merely guilty of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But the story is more complicated. Whatever limited value his moral case for his own manner of life may have, his Oblomovitis did not arise from an intentional decision, not entirely. It emerged from inside him, overtaking and consuming him. He explains:

My life began by flickering out. It may sound strange but it is so. From the very first moment I became conscious of myself, I felt that I was already flickering out. I began to flicker out over the writing of official papers at the office; I went on flickering out when I read truths in books which I did not know how to apply in life, when I sat with friends listening to rumours, gossip, jeering, spiteful, cold, and empty chatter, and watching friendships kept up by meetings that were without aim or affection; I was flickering out and wasting my energies with Minna on whom I spent more than half of my income, imagining that I loved her; I was flickering out when I walked idly and dejectedly along Nevsky Avenue among people in raccoon coats and beaver collars […] Either I have not understood this sort of life or it is utterly worthless; but I did not know a better one.

This adds a dash of poignancy to the mix. Yet life does not allow Oblomov to flicker out so easily. His comfortable world is disrupted by a great power: love. Olga is young and beautiful, and it gives her pleasure to see herself as the means by which Oblomov is resurrected and returned to the land of the living. He loves her from his heart, without vanity, and he rejoices. He does return to life, at least for a time: his world is flooded with light and beauty, and he feels a sense of purpose once again.

They plan to marry, but as the plans progress his old affliction begins to reassert itself. It is, at first, a sense that his love’s rose has lost its bloom:

He felt that the bright and cloudless festival of love had gone, that love was truly becoming a duty, that it was becoming intermingled with his whole life, forming an integral part of its ordinary functions and beginning to lose its rainbow colours. That morning, perhaps, he had caught sight of its last roseate ray, and in future it would no longer shine brightly, but warm his life invisibly; life would swallow it up, and it would be its powerful but hidden mainspring. And henceforth its manifestations would be so simple, so ordinary.

Again, there is wisdom in this, for every romance, if it is to endure, has to make a successful re-entry into ordinary life. But for Oblomov there is always the fear that life will simply swallow his love, and him with it, leaving nothing behind. And there is reason to fear: he is to make arrangements on his estate, for instance, for his bride’s arrival, but he puts them off, feeling overwhelmed by the details. He begins avoiding her to avoid being questioned. He feels himself falling back into old habits. Olga, for her part, sees it too, and her pleasure in her own powers of revivification fades. You can imagine the rest.

This book, it seems to me, is a fable in the form of a novel: a man suffers a peculiar, unsettlingly comic, affliction; he is rescued from it by love; but in the very effort to translate that love into practice, to make it endure, his sickness regains its power over him, and he is lost. It is like something out of The Brothers Grimm. Oblomovitis!

There is much to be said in favour of the book. Even when I thought it was overlong — and its modest 500 page length disguises the fact that the typeface is small and dense (those Russians!) — it gave me much to think about. I sympathized with Oblomov more than I thought I really ought to. Goncharov put his finger on a very particular temptation that can bring a life down to ruin, a temptation that I don’t remember having encountered in a serious literary work before. I will admit that while reading I was sometimes exhausted and impatient, but since I finished it — since I saw the overall shape — I’ve been thinking about it often. There is something emblematic or archetypal about Oblomov, something worth remembering.

He makes for an intriguing, if vexing, character study. His problem is not laziness, not ingratitude, not anger. His sin would seem to be acedia, spiritual sloth, which our tradition identifies as a kind of sadness in the face of the goodness of the world and an unwillingness to accept and engage it. But maybe not. Oblomov’s closest — and really only — friend gives this encomium:

He possesses something that is worth more than any amount of intelligence — an honest and faithful heart! It is the matchless treasure that he has carried through his life unharmed. People knocked him down, he grew indifferent and, at last, dropped asleep, crushed, disappointed, having lost the strength to live; but he has not lost his honesty and his faithfulness. His heart has never struck a single false note; there is no stain on his character. No well-dressed up lie has ever deceived him and nothing will lure him from the true path. […] His soul is translucent, clear as crystal. Such people are rare; there aren’t many of them; they are like pearls in a crowd!

True, this is but one man’s opinion, but he is the finest man in the novel, and I believe we are meant to take his words seriously. Is it possible that Oblomov is really too good for this world? Is he a kind of angel, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, whose purity of heart has rendered him unfit for affairs of the world? It is an intriguing idea. But too good for which world? It is one thing to float free of “raccoon coats and beaver collars”, and another to entirely divest oneself of love and responsibility. He sees through the things that are unworthy of him, but apparently he fails to see the things that should command his attention and devotion.

As years passed, he was less and less disturbed by remorse and agitation, and settled quietly and gradually into the plain and spacious coffin he had made for his remaining span of life, like old hermits who, turning away from life, dig their own graves in the desert.

The reference to desert hermits is arresting, for of course we have a tradition wherein hermits are not turning away from life at all, but rather rejecting one form of life — the trivial, ephemeral, and worldly — in order to embrace a higher. They are like Oblomov in some respects, but not in others. They withdraw in order to face life more directly, to wrestle with it and win a prize. Our religious tradition is full of such figures. I think of Augustine, for example, who wrote in Book VI of his Confessions:

I desired status, wealth, and marriage but you laughed at me. I suffered from the most bitter frustration of my ambitions but it was your kindness that let me find no sweetness in anything that was not you. Look into my heart, Lord, you who wanted me to recall this and confess to you. May my soul cling to you now, for you have pulled it away from the birdlime of death in which it was stuck fast. How unhappy was my soul! You probed my wound to the quick to make my soul abandon all ambition and turn to you — who are above all things and without whom all things would be nothing — so that, by turning to you, my wound should be healed.

A soul stuck fast, without ambition, finding no sweetness in worldly things: this is much like Oblomov. But what a difference! Perhaps what Goncharov has given us is a tale about what happens to a good and perceptive man in a world in which the world of spiritual possibility has been closed off. I do believe it could be read that way. If so, it is a tale for our times.

Getting to know Chesterton

June 14, 2012

Today, the anniversary of Chesterton’s death, marks the end of my Chesterton mini-festival. Clicking here will bring up a list of the festival posts.

I trust that everyone has had a terrific time. There are other things I would like to have written, but time was not on my side. To close things out, I will point to a few resources which someone interested in learning more about Chesterton could profitably consult.

One indispensable source for learning about Chesterton is the American Chesterton Society. They have done more than anyone to make Chesterton accessible to contemporary audiences, and they have, generally speaking, done it very well. On their site one can find, for instance:

and much else besides.

One could spend a lifetime reading all of Chesterton’s writings. Ignatius Press’ Collected Works is a monumental (and still growing) publication effort. Not for beginners, obviously, but superb. If one prefers reading on a computer, look no further than Martin Ward’s collection of G. K. Chesterton’s Works on the Web.

Naturally, few web resources could surpass The Hebdomadal Chesterton for reliable wit and timely wisdom. The blogroll at that site also provides links to many other resources.

There is more that could, and should, be said, but regrettably I haven’t time. Thanks to everyone who took an interest in this mini-festival. Perhaps we’ll do it again sometime.

Humble Chesterton

June 13, 2012

The single best talk I have heard on Chesterton was given in 2010 by David Fagerberg at a Notre Dame conference devoted to the themes of humility, wonder, and joy. Chesterton was a man richly endowed with all three virtues, and it was fitting that a talk was devoted to him.

Our Chesterton mini-festival (which ends tomorrow!) was launched by disappointment with Christopher Hitchens’ essay on Chesterton. Hitchens, in my view, simply didn’t get what Chesterton was about; Fagerberg gets it, and this talk makes a nice counterweight.

The talk lasts about 50 minutes, and is followed by a Q&A session.

Chesterton on England

June 13, 2012

The English had missed many other things that men of the same origins had achieved or retained. Not to them was given, like the French, to establish eternal communes and clear codes of equality; not to them, like the South Germans, to keep the popular culture of their songs; not to them, like the Irish, was it given to die daily for a great religion. But a spirit had been with them from the first which fenced, with a hundred quaint customs and legal fictions, the way of a man who wished to walk nameless and alone. It was not for nothing that they forgot all their laws to remember the name of an outlaw, and filled the green heart of England with the figure of Robin Hood. It was not for nothing that even their princes of art and letters had about them something of kings incognito, undiscovered by formal or academic fame; so that no eye can follow the young Shakespeare as he came up the green lanes from Stratford, or the young Dickens when he first lost himself among the lights of London. It is not for nothing that the very roads are crooked and capricious, so that a man looking down on a map like a snaky labyrinth, could tell that he was looking on the home of a wandering people. A spirit at once wild and familiar rested upon its woodlands like a wind at rest.

If that spirit be indeed departed, it matters little that it has been driven out by perversions it had itself permitted, by monsters it had idly let loose. Industrialism and Capitalism and the rage for physical science were English experiments in the sense that the English lent themselves to their encouragement; but there was something else behind them and within them that was not they — its name was liberty, and it was our life. It may be that this delicate and tenacious spirit has at last evaporated. If so, it matters little what becomes of the external experiments of our nation in later time. That at which we look will be a dead thing alive with its own parasites. The English will have destroyed England.

— Eugenics and Other Evils  (1922).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

Chesterton, master of rejuvenation

June 12, 2012

For some time I have been meaning to link to a good essay on Chesterton that appeared last year in The New Criterion.  Roger Kimball has an impressive grasp of the shape and scope of Chesterton’s life and work, and the essay serves as a sound, mostly admiring introduction to the man. Given that our Chesterton mini-festival is quickly drawing to a close, there is no time like the present:

With billowing cape and wide-brimmed hat, brandishing a sword stick and often sporting a pistol from his pocket as he strode up and down his beloved Fleet Street, Chesterton cut a figure as imposing as one of his famous epigrams.

Read the whole thing.

Chesterton: Eugenics and Other Evils

June 12, 2012

Eugenics and Other Evils
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1987) [1922]
123 p.

This short book was written at a time when eugenics was a fashionable idea in progressive circles. It is one of Chesterton’s command performances as a moralist: passionate, probing, and courageous. Knowing, as we now do, where the eugenics movement was headed, we cannot but admire his foresight. The book is a big, beautiful feather in his cap. Yet I am surprised to discover that the force of its arguments, when applied to our contemporary debates, is rather blunted.

At the time, the eugenics programs being proposed, and later practiced, were public, centralized, coercive, and directed (ostensibly) to the common good. They were government programs, intended to improve the health and well-being of the human race — or, at least, that part of it falling within a particular state’s jurisdiction — through selective breeding and sterilization. Today such proposals are rightly viewed with horror.

Horror, yes, but of a complicated sort, for we carry on a rather similar campaign ourselves, quietly eliminating from society certain traits deemed undesirable, not by “improving the gene pool”, exactly, but rather by deploying technologies to identify unborn children with undesirable traits and ending their lives before they see the light of day. One might quibble over whether this is rightly called eugenics; personally I think that the designation is defensible. We practice, to borrow a formulation from Ross Douthat, “the elimination or pre-emption, through careful reproductive planning, of the weaker members of the human species”, which seems to me an apt definition of eugenics.

Yet it must be admitted that the two cases, Chesterton’s and ours, are different in significant respects. Our methods are private, distributed, optional, and individualist. When we consider Chesterton’s specific arguments and their applicability today, these are differences enough to make a difference.

One of the points, for instance, that Chesterton stresses is that a state-run eugenics program strips men and women of the right to manage their own affairs. A successful eugenics program will assert control over who may marry and whom they may marry. It will specify who is and is not permitted to have children. In so doing, government vastly oversteps its proper limits. “Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing,” he says. Likewise he questions who will exercise the authority to oversee the eugenics project, and foresees that it will tend toward tyranny, putting immense political power into the hands of an elite few.

In our case, on the other hand, there is no overseeing authority. Parents themselves implement the “program”. Far from wresting decision-making power away from parents, our governments cede them a wide latitude, to the point that even if they, discovering some defect or other, however slight, in their unborn child, wish to end his or her young life, the state will not interfere. I do not know if Chesterton ever foresaw such a state of affairs; if he did, he did not write about it here.

He also argued that ignorance of the nature of heredity precluded a eugenics program from being implemented in a responsible way. He accused advocates of eugenics of, in effect, wishing to experiment on the public. Obviously our understanding of genetics and heredity has increased vastly in the meantime, to the point where one could begin to plausibly argue that, contra Chesterton, the thing might be done with reason and a fair degree of efficiency.

Or, again, he argues that eugenics overturns our moral traditions by making us principally responsible for how our actions affect future generations, rather than how they affect those immediately around us. “What can we do for posterity, except deal fairly with our contemporaries?” he asks. But today nobody pretends that we especially care about future generations; our motives are selfish: we do as we do for convenience and on the basis of our personal desires.

Yet there are some respects in which Chesterton’s arguments do bear on the present. For one, he forthrightly denounces eugenics as a war upon the weak and the unwanted. We can certainly do the same, particularly considering the means that we use. He also makes a keen point about the haziness of the guiding idea for eugenics: if we are aiming at “health”, what is health? It is, he says, not really anything in particular at all, but rather a balance of interdependent factors. So too, we do well to ask ourselves whether we are quite sure what we want.

In the end, Chesterton attributed a mean motive to those most involved in promoting the eugenics programs that he knew: to gain control over the family lives of the poor in order to better fit them for the economic and political aims of the elite. He saw it, essentially, as a social engineering program. We have had plenty of that medicine in the meantime, but nothing, I think, quite so bold and monstrous.


A sidelight: Chesterton outlined a taxonomy of those who lent their support to the eugenics movement of his day, and it is too good to pass over in silence. It could be applied with equal aptness to a great many contemporary movements.

First, there are the Euphemists. “Short words startle them, while long words soothe them”. If one says to them, says Chesterton, “It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet”, they may nod placidly, but say to them, “Let’s eat a man!” and they are shocked. I dare say that euphemists are rather thick on the ground today.

Next are the Casuists, the finders of specious analogies. “Suppose I say “I dislike this spread of Cannibalism in the West End restaurants.” Somebody is sure to say “Well, after all, Queen Eleanor when she sucked blood from her husband’s arm was a cannibal.” What is one to say to such people?” The question is rhetorical, but today we would probably say that they should spend less time debating on the internet.

The Autocrats follow. These are the people who suppose that they can control the consequences of the principles they promote and the laws they enact. It is a beguiling fantasy.

Precedenters are those who fail to see radicalism when it presents itself simply because it shares some element in common with past practice. Again, contemporary examples spring readily to mind.

Finally there are those whom Chesterton christens Endeavourers, those souls who believe that good intentions will be enough to ensure a good outcome. It is a lovely thought, is it not?

[How to think about eugenics]
I know that it means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called “The Gracious Ones.” I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin. Of these who are deceived I shall speak of course as we all do of such instruments; judging them by the good they think they are doing, and not by the evil which they really do. But Eugenics itself does exist for those who have sense enough to see that ideas exist; and Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or coming slowly, urged from good motives or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.

Chesterton on blogging

June 11, 2012

The tendency of all that is printed and much that is spoken to-day is to be, in the only true sense, behind the times. It is because it is always in a hurry that it is always too late.

Give an ordinary man a day to write an article, and he will remember the things he has really heard latest; and may even, in the last glory of the sunset, begin to think of what he thinks himself. Give him an hour to write it, and he will think of the nearest text-book on the topic, and make the best mosaic he may out of classical quotations and old authorities. Give him ten minutes to write it and he will run screaming for refuge to the old nursery where he learnt his stalest proverbs, or the old school where he learnt his stalest politics.

The quicker goes the journalist the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which, every day, is less worth delivering at all.

— Eugenics and Other Evils  (1922).

Chesterton: The Superstition of Divorce

June 10, 2012

The Superstition of Divorce
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius Press, 1987) [1920]
60 p.

Chesterton wrote at a time when marriage laws in England were under pressure to permit easier divorce. A little digging turns up reforms in 1912 and 1918, with further changes in the 1930s and later. Chesterton’s concern was that such changes would serve to weaken both families and society, and he wrote this short book to explain why. My purpose here is to attempt to summarize and clarify the central line of argument, which — as usual with Chesterton — is interwoven with a variety of tangents and digressions that, though a delight to the reader, do obscure the trail.

He begins with an obvious point: we cannot appraise the desirability of a given change to marriage law without an understanding of marriage itself: what is it, and what is it for? We have lately had cause to reconsider these questions from an angle that Chesterton did not anticipate; in his case, with the focus on the breakdown or breakup of marriages, his central concern was the ideal of permanence.

Naturally he looked to the foundation of that permanence, and he made a simple but pertinent observation: marriage is founded on a vow. Vows are rather less central to our culture than they once were — in the Middle Ages there were vows to the priesthood, knighthood, guilds, and marriage, so that nearly everyone lived under at least one — and the fact that vows are less pervasive perhaps accounts for our poor understanding of what they mean. Perhaps we “miss the type for the lack of parallels”, as he puts it. A vow has a somewhat paradoxical nature, for by it one voluntarily binds oneself. A vow “combines the fixity that goes with finality with the self-respect that only goes with freedom.” This is equally true of the vow of marriage:

The vow is a voluntary loyalty; and the marriage vow is marked among ordinary oaths of allegiance by the fact that the allegiance is also a choice. The man is not only a citizen of the city, but also the founder and builder of the city.

In the marriage vow, a man and a woman freely make promises of commitment and fidelity to one another, and the fact that the vow is freely given lays a special obligation upon both parties to be faithful to it. Faithfulness to such promises is, one might argue, a matter of self-respect, of ensuring that one’s word is good, but it is also more. It is, for instance, a guarantee that the trust one’s spouse places in one’s promise is properly honoured. Marriage laws which discourage divorce appear, then, in a rather positive light, for they help men and women to be true to their word. The law is a buttress to stabilize and strengthen families, especially those which need it most.

We might ask a basic question: why is marriage based on a vow in the first place? Or, putting the same question in another way, why are we concerned about the stability of families? We have today ample social scientific evidence which bears on that question, but Chesterton gets at the main point: it is because marriage is intrinsically oriented toward the bearing and rearing of children. Marriage is the social institution on which family life is founded. Its permanence is directly related to this fact:

It is not hard to see why the vow made most freely is the vow kept most firmly. There are attached to it, by the nature of things, consequences so tremendous that no contract can offer any comparison. There is no contract, unless it be what said to be signed in blood, that can call spirits from the vastly deep, or bring cherubs (or goblins) to inhabit a small modern villa. There is no stroke of the pen which creates real bodies and souls, or makes the characters in a novel come to life. The institution that puzzles intellectuals so much can be explained by the mere material fact (perceptible even to intellectuals) that children are, generally speaking, younger than their parents. “Till death do us part” is not an irrational formula, for those will almost certainly die before they see more than half of the amazing (or alarming) thing they have done.

With this thought in mind, Chesterton might have paused to note as corollary that the availability of effective contraceptives strikes directly at the heart of marriage and family life.

Instead, he makes a political argument: by making it easier to break up marriages, liberal divorce law weakens the loyalty within families and thereby weakens the family itself as a social fact or presence. This mattered to Chesterton because he saw the family as the essential counterweight to the dominating ambition of political and economic powers. Quoting with approval a passage from Balzac — “With the solidarity of the family society has lost that elemental force which Montesquieu defined and called ‘honour.’ Society has isolated its members the better to govern them, and has divided in order to weaken.” — he argues that a robust family life, supported by a stable social institution, is essential to personal liberty within the state:

The civic idea of liberty is to give the citizen a province of liberty; a limitation within which a citizen is a king. This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution, and the good man survive the bad government. But the good man by himself is no match for the city. There must be balanced against it another ideal institution, and in that sense an immortal institution. So long as the state is the only ideal institution the state will call on the citizen to sacrifice himself, and therefore will not have the smallest scruple in sacrificing the citizen. The state consists of coercion; and must always be justified from its own point of view in extending the bounds of coercion; as, for instance, in the case of conscription. The only thing that can be set up to check or challenge this authority is a voluntary law and a voluntary loyalty. That loyalty is the protection of liberty, in the only sphere where liberty can fully dwell.

If that positive argument in favour of marriage as defending domestic liberty is not enough, there is another to consider. Chesterton recognized that the state is, seemingly by nature, hostile to rival powers. Observers of modern liberal democratic politics have often remarked on the tendency of governments to attempt to circumvent or undermine social institutions not under state control, absorbing their functions into the state itself: charity, education, and medicine are examples of spheres which were once largely separate from the state but are no longer. Without such mediating institutions, however — and the family is one of them — there is nothing to act as buffer between the state and the individual, and this erodes the liberty of the individual, for he cannot on his own hope to effectively counter that great power. For this reason Chesterton looked to the family as a bulwark against tyranny:

The tyrant must find not one family but many families defying his power; he must find mankind not a dust of atoms, but fixed in solid blocks of fidelity. And those human groups must support not only themselves but each other. In this sense what some call individualism is as corporate as communism. It is a thing of volunteers; but volunteers must be soldiers. It is a defence of private persons; but we might say that the private persons must be private soldiers.

With that rousing image of resistance, we come to the end of the main line of his argument. There are a few related points which merit attention, however, and I’d like to make brief note of them.

First, a natural question arises: if strong marriages make for strong families, and strong families make for personal liberty in the face of ambitious and coercive power, why would anyone advocate for easier divorce? Chesterton considers two main reasons. The first is obvious: out of sympathy for those in unhappy marriages. This is understandable, but Chesterton points out that the proposed cure — more liberal divorce — is arguably just as bad as the disease, for it trades unhappy marriages for unhappy divorces:

The doctors of divorce, with an air of the frank and friendly realism of men of the world, are always recommending and rejoicing in a sensible separation by mutual consent. But if we are really to dismiss our dreams of dignity and honour, if we are really to fall back on the frank realism of our experience as men of the world, then the very first thing that our experience will tell us is that it very seldom is a separation by mutual consent; that is, that the consent very seldom is sincerely and spontaneously mutual. By far the commonest problem in such cases is that in which one party wishes to end the partnership and the other does not. And of that emotional situation you can make nothing but a tragedy, whichever way you turn it. With or without marriage, with or without divorce, with or without any arrangements that anybody can suggest or imagine, it remains a tragedy. The only difference is that by the doctrine of marriage it remains both a noble and a fruitful tragedy; like that of a man who falls fighting for his country, or dies testifying to the truth.

That is worth considering (as, of course, are the detrimental effects of divorce on children, which Chesterton does not directly discuss but which have been thoroughly documented in the meantime). But the second motive Chesterton identifies is more subtle than the first: the advocates of divorce typically view divorce as a “progressive” cause because, while its social effects may well be to erode certain types of personal liberty, it promotes another — namely, sexual liberty:

They may be called the friends of temperance or even of happiness; but even their friends would not call them the friends of freedom. There is only one form of freedom which they tolerate; and that is the sort of sexual freedom which is covered by the legal fiction of divorce. If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties are lost, we shall find … [that] they recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status, the alternative and therefore the antagonist. Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such regimentation. That bond breaks all other bonds; that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws. They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope. In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.

From our vantage point, nearly a century later, it has become all too obvious that sexual liberty has indeed been a central preoccupation of the self-styled progressives; it is the common thread behind the advocacy of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. But in Chesterton’s time this was not, I believe, quite so evident, and this observation of his strikes me as being particularly prescient. That people advocate sexual liberty and all that comes with it because they dislike “home rule”, as Chesterton contends in the above passage, however, strikes me as odd; I would sooner reverse the direction of implication.

As has been evident in our own more recent debates about the meaning and purpose of marriage, and as was apparently also the case in Chesterton’s time, the churches and religious traditions have had a central role in the defence of the traditional understanding of marriage. To some this suggests that the opposition is specifically religious in nature, but a moment’s reflection will show that this does not in fact follow. Chesterton points out that people will often turn to religion to strengthen even a perfectly natural (as opposed to supernatural) good that is under threat:

Those of us who have seen all the normal rules and relations of humanity uprooted by random speculators, as if they were abnormal abuses and almost accidents, will understand why men have sought for something divine if they wished to preserve anything human. They will know why common sense, cast out from some academy of fads and fashions conducted on the lines of a luxurious madhouse, has age after age sought refuge in the high sanity of a sacrament.

In his book Eugenics and Other Evils Chesterton made a similar point, writing that “a religion is the practical protection of any moral idea which has to be popular and which has to be pugnacious. And our ideal, if it is to survive, will have to be both.”

The relevance of religion is illuminated from another angle too. In the case of divorce, for instance, we now have several decades’ worth of evidence from the social sciences to show that “no-fault divorce” has been bad for families, and especially bad for children. Chesterton observes that the accumulation of this evidence is surely a vindication of those who opposed divorce in the first place, religious traditions included. That evidence was not available to Chesterton, but he anticipated it:

If it could be shown, as I think it can, that a long historical view and a patient political experience can at last accumulate solid scientific evidence of the vital need of such a vow, then I can conceive no more tremendous tribute than this, to any faith, which made a flaming affirmation from the darkest beginnings, of what the latest enlightenment can only slowly discover in the end.

The case of Christianity is especially relevant, not only because it is the dominant religion in our culture, but also because, in a unique way, it has put a family — the Holy Family — very near the center of its thought and devotion, and has consistently had a special concern to guard and protect that natural, but also, in the light of faith, sacred institution from assault:

From its first days in the forest this human group [the family] had to fight against wild monsters; and so it is now fighting against these wild machines. It only managed to survive then, and it will only manage to survive now, by a strong internal sanctity; a tacit oath or dedication deeper than that of the city or the tribe. But though this silent promise was always present, it took at a certain turning point of our history a special form . . . That turning point was the creation of Christendom by the religion which created it. Nothing will destroy the sacred triangle; and even the Christian faith, the most amazing revolution that ever took place in the mind, served only in a sense to turn that triangle upside down. It held up a mystical mirror in which the order of the three things was reversed; and added a holy family of child, mother and father to the human family of father, mother and child.

That is a very nice, and suitably Chestertonian, note upon which to finish.


But perhaps not quite: let me add one final word about the title of this book, for it might strike some as peculiar. The superstition of divorce? It seems an odd choice of word. Chesterton sees in those who seek legal sanction for divorce and re-marriage a kind of superstitious belief in the power of civil law to effect substantive change. He explains himself better than I can:

While free love seems to me a heresy, divorce does really seem to me a superstition. It is not only more of a superstition than free love, but much more of a superstition than strict sacramental marriage; and this point can hardly be made too plain. It is the partisans of divorce, not the defenders of marriage, who attach a stiff and senseless sanctity to a mere ceremony, apart from the meaning of the ceremony. It is our opponents, and not we, who hope to be saved by the letter of ritual, instead of the spirit of reality. It is they who hold that vow or violation, loyalty or disloyalty, can all be disposed of by a mysterious and magic rite, performed first in a law-court and then in a church or a registry office. There is little difference between the two parts of the ritual; except that the law court is much more ritualistic. But the plainest parallels will show anybody that all this is sheer barbarous credulity. It may or may not be superstition for a man to believe he must kiss the Bible to show he is telling the truth. It is certainly the most grovelling superstition for him to believe that, if he kisses the Bible, anything he says will come true. It would surely be the blackest and most benighted Bible-worship to suggest that the mere kiss on the mere book alters the moral quality of perjury. Yet this is precisely what is implied in saying that formal re-marriage alters the moral quality of conjugal infidelity.

I can’t decide if he has a point or not. In any case, this passage arises as an aside, and does not contribute to the main line of the book’s argument.

Corpus Christi, 2012

June 10, 2012

A very happy Feast of Corpus Christi to all those who are celebrating it today.

The Mass of St. Giles (detail), by the Master of St. Giles.

(William Byrd, Ave verum corpus; Winchester Cathedral Choir / David Hill) [cd]