26 October, 2008


One of the great neglected essays of antiquity is the Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus, written in 102 AD. Why, he asks, has the fire and eloquence of the old orators deserted us? We have lawyers and speech-makers, but no genuine oratory. As Marcus Aper points out from the start, rhetoric is a sword and buckler in argumentative battle, and moreover a pleasure to every ear. Vipstanius Messala and Curiatius Maternus debate the causes of oratory's decline since the golden days of Cicero. (Plutarch, around the same time, was debating the causes of the oracle's decline since the golden days of Pericles.) Messala attributes the decline to the debased wisdom and abilities of modern Romans: a standard narrative of degeneration. Maternus' explanation, on the other hand, is far more interesting; he argues that 'the discourse of men always conforms to the temper of the times'—a position we now associate with the historicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and that firebrand oratory is suited to an age of war and dissent, an age like Cicero's Republic, but not at all like Trajan's placid Empire:
Eloquence, it is certain, flourishes most under a bold and turbulent democracy, where the ambitious citizen, who best can mould to his purposes a fierce and contentious multitude, is sure to be the idol of the people. In the conflict of parties, that kept our ancestors in agitation, laws were multiplied; the leading chiefs were the favourite demagogues; the magistrates were often engaged in midnight debate; eminent citizens were brought to a public trial; families were set at variance; the nobles were split into factions, and the senate waged incessant war against the people. Hence that flame of eloquence which blazed out under the republican government, and hence that constant fuel that kept the flame alive.

The state, it is true, was often thrown into convulsions: but talents were exercised, and genius opened the way to public honours. He who possessed the powers of persuasion, rose to eminence, and by the arts which gave him popularity, he was sure to eclipse his colleagues. He strengthened his interest with the leading men, and gained weight and influence not only in the senate, but in all assemblies of the people. Foreign nations courted his friendship. The magistrates, setting out for their provinces, made it their business to ingratiate themselves with the popular speaker, and, at their return, took care to renew their homage.
Back when we first started this enterprise, my colleague and friend Gawain and I agreed that politics would be off the agenda. For one thing, we have so little of merit to contribute. There are so many blogs and punditries swimming in this stuff, or rather drowning; and clearly the temperature, at least in America, is now unbearable. I try to explain to some why, despite my continuing lack of interest in politics, I have developed, like so many, an enthusiasm for the current fight. To some I say it is like an absorbing soap—but I do not watch television—to others, like a brilliant game of chess; but nor do I play or follow that sport of brains.

If you mention that you are gripped by the elections, the first question asked, invariably, is 'Whom do you support?' This question does not interest me. In my last two posts I examined microcosms of philosophical conflict—Lockeans vs. Cartesians, and Catholics vs. Protestants. In neither case was resolution possible, as common ground was missing. As Carl Becker argued with such wit, real dispute is intelligible only when there is a substratum of agreement, and none exists in these examples; nor in modern politics. There is no possibility of reasoned choice between red and blue, for the choice is a priori. Partisan accounts of one of the debates, for instance, will provide glittering testimony to how contrarily a word or gesture can be interpreted; what you already believe determines your judgement of its value.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to succumb consciously to surfaces, to admit that one will judge a candidate not on his policies or character, but merely on aesthetics. This entails denying the very possibility of post-partisanship, and embracing tribalism instead. It is at least, I think, the more honest path. Of course I like the way he speaks, and fairly loathe the way she does. But that is simply because, were I American, I would be Noveboracensian. I like fancy-talk, and I like eloquence. I liked it when the New Yorker gushed:
Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one—something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Not because I think it is true, but because I think it is a handsome idea, and handsomeness is a neglected virtue, in today's politics as in its art. In a bold and turbulent democracy, let us see eloquence flourish, at the risk of idol-making.

This contest for office is remarkably similar to the contest for Wimbledon that we enjoyed three months ago: it is a struggle between an artist (in this case perhaps a con-artist) and a fighter, between grace and toughness. Back then I favoured Federer for the beauty of his game, but also because I wanted to see him make history; because I wanted to witness, even to participate in, a historic moment. It is so much the greater with Obama: whether or not his presidency turns out a success, November 5 will be a genuinely historic day. The entire world, like it or not, will rejoice, just as it mourned and mocked when the towers fell. To experience the making of history, even terrible history, is one of the profoundest aesthetic pleasures of civilised man, and to that, politics and substance must be deemed, at the last count, palpably irrelevant.

15 October, 2008

Goal and Guides: How Christians Think

1. How Catholics Think.

A few months ago my wife, returning from the States, offered me a family heirloom. It is a 1945 catechism textbook from a Catholic high-school: Our Goal and Our Guides: Our Quest for Happiness. Most people who learn about the history of a subject will read the most significant, revolutionary or influential works on that subject: they will read Anselm and Aquinas, John Newman and Karl Barth. But if you want to understand a subject properly, it is important also to read the standard works, those that regurgitate material in simple and accessible form for the masses, so as to know the baseline against which the great works innovate. Our Goal is just such a work.

The book is full of marvelous diagrams in a vaguely moderne style, three of which I reproduce here. Catholic thought is essentially a diagrammatic thought: it is ordered in analogies and hierarchies, which lend themselves well to spatial representation. Before woodcuts and printing, which made actual diagrams easy to reproduce, Christian texts were full of verbal diagrams: elaborate correspondences between real and metaphysical objects, architecturally-structured theological summae, even the meditation-wheels of a Ramon Llull.

And with modern technology, these guys are unstoppable. Just look at that, above: that, truly, is wonderful. I don't think it bears much analysis. A few elements are doubtful. I can't identify the man and woman either side of Christ: I had thought of Mary and Joseph, since his attribute is a carpenter's square, but they are wearing monastic robes. I do not know the symbol at Christ's feet; nor the martyr-bishop with the book beside Agnes and Peter at the top right, if indeed he is anyone in particular. You have to admire that classic Catholic horror vacui: every spare cranny is crammed with symbol and ornament. The Church, like its late mentor Aristotle, has always occupied a plenum.

Here, on the tree of sin or death, superstition is on the second tier up, on the left, next to indifference. Superstition fascinates me, as nobody can agree on what it is. Our Goal never defines it; the closest it comes is to say, 'Other sins against religion are those which pay homage to a false god or which give false worship to the true God. Idolatry, divination, magic, and superstition are such sins.' On witchcraft, Our Goal has the audacity to suggest: 'Perhaps someone remembers the trouble this superstition caused in American history.' The book is not referring to the superstition that witches exist: it is referring to witchcraft itself (which 'endeavors to inflict harm with the aid of the devil') as a superstition.

On the next branch up, we find irreligion and presumption. At the top, apostasy, and despair. At the bottom are the rhizomatic deadly sins, symbolised by cute critters. It is all so charming!

Faith, says the Church, is necessary to salvation: it is one of the three Catholic virtues, along with Hope and Charity. The text of Our Goal distinguishes only between unconscious or 'habitual faith', infused into the soul at Baptism, and 'actual faith', consciously practiced by those with the power of reason: 'they are obliged to make acts of faith by which the infused capacity to believe is actually developed and strengthened'. The other divisions represented above are explained in Wilhelm's 1906 Manual of Catholic Theology:
A distinction is sometimes drawn between Explicit and Implicit Faith, founded upon the degree of distinctness with which the act of Faith apprehends its subject-matter; also between Formal Faith, which supposes an explicit knowledge of the motive and an express act of the will, and Virtual Faith, which is a habit infused or resulting from repeated acts of Formal Faith, and produces acts of Faith as it were instinctively without distinct consciousness of Formal Faith.
These three dichotomies (habitual / actual, formal / virtual, explicit / implicit) delineate much the same territories: but Our Goal is so committed to its rigorous hierarchies that it must order them sequentially. Theology is all the richer for it.

Cleverly, the Church stipulates that you must believe all articles of faith, even those you do not know. As an example, Our Goal offers Vatican I, 'man can come to a knowledge of the existence of God through the use of reason alone'. (The actual phrasing is: 'The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, / can be known / by the natural power of human reason.') In other words, we are to accept on faith the idea that faith is not necessary for the knowledge of God. A few pages later, Our Goal offers the reader a list of the catastrophic results that follow from faithlessness: the second is 'rationalism':
Many persons reject faith as a guide in religion and accept only what they can understand. This sin is called rationalism, a term which implies excessive reliance on reason. A person who believes only what he can understand is called a rationalist.
Compare Vatican I on the Reformation:
Thereupon there came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism. . . Thus they would establish what they call the rule of simple reason or nature. The abandonment and rejection of the Christian religion, and the denial of God and his Christ, has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism, and the consequence is that they strive to destroy rational nature itself, to deny any criterion of what is right and just, and to overthrow the very foundations of human society.
This sort of nonsense was being refuted—or 'schooled', as I believe one has it on the interweb—back in the eighteenth century by Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal, both chums of John Trenchard. But what interests me is the line that rationalists 'strive to destroy rational nature', presumably because it is irrational to be unfaithful towards Church tradition. You have to admire how Catholics could once get tangled up in these knots with a straight face.

2. How Protestants Think.

What I didn't tell you is that Mrs. Roth's granddaddy, the Reverend Bailey, who owned Our Goal and Our Guides, was no Catholic but a Southern Baptist, and a minister at that. Unshockingly, he weren't too keen on the book, and back in his day, if you weren't keen on a book, you didn't tell Amazon, you told the book. Which suits me. His views are manifest from the title-page onward:

Here the hands writing and the hand annotating are so at odds with each other that they cannot even agree on the grounds of theological dispute. And so the volume comes to serve as a scintillary document of religious worlds refusing to meet and interact. When Our Goal reaches the subject of Protestantism—the last of the heresies—Bailey is content to underline, whether amused or outraged:

Catholics should pray for the poor old Protestants? We should prove the truth of the Catholic faith 'by our lives as well as by our words'? The epistemological difficulties are great, as they are throughout the book. How are lives and words to demonstrate any proof to another? They can only demonstrate to those who believe already, those already primed to interpret those lives and those words as they must be interpreted. I would love to ask the authors of Our Goal what it would have taken to persuade them of the truth of Protestantism. Elsewhere, Luther gets lumped in with a Roman pagan and a Deist: a sorry lot!

Of course, at the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants is the value accorded to institutional tradition. It was already the same with the Sadducees and Pharisees; and philosophical epigones still contest the significance of oral, esoteric or unpublished teachings, from Plato to Nietzsche. The Protestant Bailey is always asking: Who says? How do you know that? Does Scripture—the sole criterion of truth and falsehood—contain that doctrine? The Catholic, in turn, observes that it is no simple matter to read the Bible: the text is corrupt, the languages alien and idiomatic, and the sense frequently allegorical, obscure or ambiguous. And so we need to rely on a consensus, a tradition, as a guide to interpreting it. But Bailey will ask: Why your tradition? Why your guide? What criterion is to check and ground your assertions? The one wants liberty; the other assurance from without.

Of course neither side can convince the other; the two voices are locked in eternal battle, stilled and captured on the page, the one in printed Roman serifs and elegant diagrams, the other in oblique, exclamatory manuscript, the commentary pointed up by rough lines of the pen. Bailey is not fond of diagrams, of hierarchies, of systems—'This is a wicked system'. He attacks that distance in his very decision to annotate, uncowed by the serifs. It is a dangerous aggression, destined to pervert the young mind at the very moment it needs strength and discipline. Faith is a fragile shoot. So, too, is reason. It is a noble aggression, destined to liberate the young mind at the very moment it is in danger of submitting forever to a corrupt authority.

10 October, 2008

Constitutions and Distempers

In 1681, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet—tutor to the Dauphin and unofficial head of the French Catholic Church, stuck with playing advocatus diaboli to theological hotshots like Jean Claude and Leibniz—published his Discourse on Universal History, a triumphalist account of ancient and mediaeval Christian history, largely forgotten in the eighteenth century, but resurrected in the nineteenth as a masterpiece of literature for French collégiens to copy out and learn by heart. In Discourse 2.11, Bossuet deals with idolatry:
God knew man's mind and knew that it was not through reason that one could destroy an error which reason had not established. There are errors into which we fall when we reason, for man often gets tangled up because of his reasoning: but idolatry had come in by the opposite extreme, by stifling all reasoning, and by granting predominance to the senses, which sought to clothe everything with the qualities that strike the senses. Thus the Deity had become visible and vulgar.
Religious errors, says Bossuet, occur when we no longer listen to Reason, and devote ourselves instead to sensory experience, which is full of confusion. The true Christian distinguishes what he sees from what he knows: he realises that God cannot be grasped by the senses, but only by thought.


Bossuet was on the losing end of history; he and his ilk would soon concede Ohio and spend the next century on the back foot. This concession is popularly known as the 'Enlightenment'. One faction who stood to make big gains in Ohio were the Deists, and among them the English Whig, John Trenchard, whose Natural History of Superstition appeared in 1709, lambasting popery and enthusiasms. Having offered a litany of superstitions, Trenchard proposes his own account of religious error:
It must necessarily happen when the Organs of Sence (which are the Avenues and Doors to let in external Objects) are shut and locked up by Sleep, Distempers, or strong Prejudices, that the imaginations produced from inward Causes must reign without any Rival, for the Images within us striking strongly upon, and affecting the Brain, Spirits, or Organ, where the imaginative Faculty resides, and all Objects from without, being wholly, or in a great measure shut out and excluded, so as to give no information or assistance, we must unavoidably submit to an evidence which meets with no contradiction, and take things to be as they appear.
The problem for Trenchard is not sense experience but our own minds: where Bossuet saw corruption seeping in from outside, Trenchard sees the outside world as a necessary check to our fantasies.

Bossuet lived in the France of Descartes—Trenchard in the England of Locke. Descartes's Discourse on Method had spoken of man's lumière naturelle, given us by God to follow reason and distinguish truth from error. For Trenchard this is merely an 'Ignis Fatuus of the Mind, which the Visionaries in all Ages have called the Inward Light, and leads all that have followed it into Pools and Ditches'. Descartes is really no better than a mystic: his daimonion or 'voice of God' has become a secular lumière, but it is still claimed to be a divine gift. Of course it can provide no criterion of truth and falsehood, for it has no ground in experience, and thus is subject to the humoral imbalances of the body—'Complexions, Constitutions and Distempers'.

05 October, 2008

Wer band dich in Schlummer so bang?

Today I went along to a little film-screening, courtesy of Owen Hatherley and his cinematophile chums, as part of an ongoing art exhibition called the Wharf Road Project. The walk from Angel took me through the back streets of Islington, under a precipitate artillery—the ideal landscape of a miserabilist London. I almost walked right past the front door. Inside I was greeted first by a uniformed security guard, then, beamingly, by one of the artists, who invited me to explore the four floors of art. And the four floors were full of the usual rubbish that passes for art today—abstract paintings, video-screens, the distended head of a cat with black gunk oozing from its eyes—the sort one sees shortlisted for the Turner Prize every year. It made no impression on me.

On the second floor two pretty girls were wiping walls and rails. They seemed to be cleaning, but the motions of their hands were so spectral and disembodied, or mechanical, they might have been droids, or apparitions. They evinced no desire to exercise any control upon their surroundings. This did make an impression on me. Perhaps it was a performance piece.

Hand-dryers were located in the corridors outside the toilet cubicles.

In one of the rooms on the third floor I found the films being set up. Another young woman in an attractive brown dress handed me a little pamphlet, bearing essays on the event's theme of apocalypse, clamouring with references to T. S. Eliot and Heidegger, Dasein and diegesis. One of them quotes an article by the Marxist economist Harry Cleaver:
Crises are not to be feared or "solved"; they should rather be embraced and their opportunities explored. We should always be ready to take advantage of any crack or rupture in the structures of power which confine us. Only those who benefit from these structures should fear such cracks.
Naomi Klein, clearly, disagrees. (Affidavit: this is the first and last reference to Klein that will ever appear on this site.) We sat in the dark silence, some of us, not me, slurping Red Stripe, others munching on chocolate bites. Owen sat in the middle, communicating little to the assembled crowd. We watched a Herzog documentary on a volcano that never erupted, ending rather inappropriately to Siegfried's Trauermusik, and then an odd made-for-TV drama about nuclear apocalypse in Sheffield. The beards and scarves slurped and munched in passive silence; the DVD broke, and they couldn't find a remote; the rain spat a bit outside; the conspirators were quiet but really very pleasant.


There is now so much emphasis on the revolutionary. I suppose the contribution of modernism, on which Hatherley has written a book, was to make revolution—aesthetic, and then political—the aim of art. The problem is that revolution runs itself into the ground very quickly. Revolutions in taste happened every year until Duchamp put urinals on display, and then there could be no more. Revolutions in literary technique happened every year until Finnegans Wake, and then writers could only go backwards. The same happened with atonalism, photorealism, brutalism. We are still in the abyss of modernism. Its finest results are all in the past: we cannot best them, and we refuse to be conventional—or rather, to accept the conventional, for there is really nothing more conventional than today's art. By refusing to accept convention we have become hollow, straining for empty revolution, which in artistic terms no longer has any meaning. This was brutally and hilariously clear in the Hirst pre-auction show I attended last month out of pure idle curiosity, a fadged-up array of sheikhly gewgaws entirely lacking in talent, ideas, beauty, originality, even shock for Christ's sake—but whose contents went on to fetch £111m.

Up the road from the gallery, on the south side of Noel Road, the interwar Hanover Primary School is heavy and powerful in the drizzle. An architecture that lumbers and speaks, grey and dark. The sky, too, is grey and dark, and the canal. I walk the mile to the Barbican. London can be so flat, so unremitting, lacking in love and romance, so unrevolutionary—and it is magnificent.