Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Discontents of Intellectuals

I just read a book over the Fourth of July weekend that was appropriate to the holiday, Crane Brinton's The Anatomy of Revolution. The American Revolution is one of his four cases, along with the 17th-century "Glorious Revolution" in England and the French and Russian revolutions. Brinton's initial thesis is that the financial/economic inefficiency of the government hinders the economic activity of citizens (high taxes and other onerous financial impositions) in societies that are themselves growing economically. As he writes, the four cases do not reveal a picture of "the old regime as an unregenerate tyranny, sweeping to its end in a climax of despotic indifference to the clamor of its abused subjects." In all cases, the bankrupt governments were actually working to "modernize," but the attempts at reform were part of the process that issued in revolution.

What interested me was the role of intellectuals, who, in the modern world, are a particularly disaffected lot, but whose disaffection (think Victorian England) does not always rise to the level of demands for a total transformation of society. In 18th-century France, however, the "roll" of intellectuals convinced that the world, and especially France, needed making over, "from the tiniest and more insignificant details to the most general moral and legal principles," was quite long. As Brinton writes, "Literature in late 18th-century France is overwhelmingly sociological." But, as he adds, throughout "Enlightenment Europe" there are few "active literary conservatives like Samuel Johnson or Sir Walter Scott, or even literary neutrals, men pursuing in letters a beauty or an understanding quite outside politics."

This is the case even with Joseph Addison and Johann Jacob Bodmer, on whom I have posted much lately. Both men used "letters" in the cause of social transformation. Addison's Spectator essays and Bodmer and Breitinger's Discourses of the Painters had the aim of improving people's conduct by being "entertaining." I think that after the 1720s Bodmer became more "actively literary," if one considers the critical treatises of the early 1740s, but certainly his later dramas and epics were explicitly in the service of social and moral transformation.

Where does Goethe fit in? Certainly in the Sturm und Drang period there is much criticism of existing social arrangements. The Sorrows of Young Werther, aside from its literary charms, makes the case that bright young men of merit have little chance of social ascent because they are excluded by the hidebound aristocratic class. Moreover, the institution of government itself, as portrayed in Werther, seems equally sclerotic. Of course, one might say that Werther finds pushing papers beneath him, that he is a pathological case unwilling to adapt himself to the demands of reality, for instance, working and thereby having an income to marry and raise a family. "Pathology," however, is exactly what Brinton is describing in the case of pre-revolutionary France. The hatred of government and of the ruling class was intense.

There is another characteristic of the such intellectuals that Brinton mentions, namely, "the deliberate espousal of the cause of discontented or repressed classes -- upperdogs voluntarily siding with underdogs. ... Such upper-class mavericks must be relatively numerous as well as conspicuous in a society in disequilibrium." Again, one sees signs of this "decadence" in the Sturm und Drang writings, for instance, in the dramas of Lenz and Klinger. Goethe, of course, introduces the "repressed" classes, most notably in the figure of Gretchen. (Drawing above by Peter Cornelius.)

Germany (insofar as one can speak of "Germany" in this period) was of course different from France. One thing that distinguishes Goethe from the French intellectuals is that he actually went to work in government. He was also pretty dedicated. At close hand, however, dealing with the governed, he must have recognized the limits of what government is able to do. His literary work after his move to Weimar certainly becomes less "sociological," even more so after Rome. Schiller, it must be said, did want to transform society, and his literary works and writings on aesthetics were in that service. (But even Schiller became skeptical of the French Revolution.) Goethe, in his relationship with Schiller in the 1790s, was coopted in this effort, but after Schiller's death Goethe seems to have become even more a man "pursuing in letters a beauty or an understanding quite outside politics." Think The East-West Divan. Which is not to assert that political conditions are not reflected in his later writings. Even the Divan is an attempt to escape the pervasive demands of contemporary politics. This pervasiveness is a curse of modern intellectuals.

Picture credits: Cardillowiki; Goethezeitportal


Anonymous said...

President Obama seems now finally, finally somewhat willing to renounce his inner intellectual in favor of the pragmatism that so many independents felt, in 2008, would characterize his leadership style. SEEMS. We'll see. When the Simpson/Bowles Commission first came out with its plan, the president put his head in the sand either out of cowardice or for political reasons or both. But Simpson/Bowles had THE PLAN. IMHO. Obama, the intellectual, truly dropped the ball soon after he was elected. I think he is a one-termer. If it turns out otherwise, we will have gotten what we deserve--an intellectual in the worst sense of the word. One of my Straussian teachers, the rigid one, frequently voiced his contempt for "intellectuals." Indeed, this was the very contempt almost that other bright people, like Plato and Aristotle, had for "intellectuals," known at the time as sophists or men of "theory." These geniuses wanted to apply their brilliant theories to the body politic. (Cf. indeed the French Revolution.) When I told the Straussian that I had recently left junior college, where we had studied Margaret Mead ("Sex and Temperament") and B.F. Skinner ("Beyond Freedom and Dignity"), he aptly pointed out--and I agreed with him and still do--that these are some of our revered "intelllectuals" (this was in 1974 and community college was still fresh in my mind). Auguste Comte, one of the founders of sociology, comes to mind. Also, in recent times the author of the 70's best-seller, "Entropy." I forget his name, but in moments of weakness I can still be seduced by such "great minds." President Obama and Al Gore are two peas in a pod. P.S. Not everything the Administration has done has been bad, especially in our relations with the nations. We claim to be exceptional, a Shining City on a Hill a la Mr. Winthrop in 1630 or so. (This is where this intellectual stuff, THIS PENCHANT FOR REFORM, for us, arguably begins.) So be it, says Obama and the DOJ: WE WILL SHOW THE WORLD HOW THE RULE OF LAW WORKS! For the long term, I think I agree with Obama here--let's try some of the terrorists right here in this country. We can handle it. And the whole world might benefit by our good, if "risky," example.

Goethe Girl said...

I like the comparison of contemporary intellectuals with Plato's sophists.