David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: diderot (page 2 of 3)

From Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

One of the centerpiece speeches of Diderot’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew, from the tragic, pathetic, hilarious, vexing, vexed nephew, who presents a brilliant facade at social occasions in order to be the perfect social parasite:

For my part, I find in writers a digest of everything one ought to do, and everything one ought not to say. Thus, when I read L’Avare, I tell myself: be miserly, if you wish, but take care not to talk like the miser. When I read Tartuffe, I tell myself: be a hypocrite, if you wish, but don’t talk like a hypocrite. Keep those vices which serve you well, but beware of the tone and the air that go with them, and would make you appear ridiculous. To be sure of avoiding that tone and air, one must know what they are; now, those authors have portrayed them superbly.

I am myself, and that is what I shall remain; but I behave and talk in a socially acceptable manner. I’m not one of those men who despise the moralists. One can profit greatly from them, particularly from those who depict morals in action. Vice itself is only intermittently shocking. The appearance of vice is shocking at all times.

Perhaps it would be better to be an arrogant fellow than to look like one; the man with the arrogant character offends only from time to time; the man with the arrogant face offends all the time.

And by the way, you shouldn’t suppose that I’m the only reader of this kind. The sole merit I claim here is having accomplished systematically, through clear thinking and rational, accurate observation, what the majority of others do by instinct. That’s why their reading doesn’t make them better than me, but instead, they go on being ridiculous, whereas I am so only when I mean to be, and then I leave them far behind me; for the same art that shows me how to avoid ridicule in certain situations, shows me also, in other situations, how to achieve it at a superior level.

Then I bring to mind everything others have said, everything I’ve read, and I add everything of my own invention, which in this domain is surprisingly abundant.


Portrait of Denis Diderot

I have a great affection for Diderot and see him embodying most of the Enlightenment’s virtues (tolerance, curiosity, skepticism, logical thought, creative intuition) and few of its vices (overreaching, overgeneralization, arrogance, optimism, cynicism). This little portrait of him by the French Radical-Socialist Prime Minister Edouard Herriot (a flawed but still sympathetic figure in his own right), written in 1953, captures a great deal of his charm, though I think it’s on display in nearly everything he wrote.

I remember how in 1913 the French Senate wished to celebrate the second centenary of Diderot’s birth. I was then a member, the youngest, of that assembly. I said a few words which met with very little response. The Chamber did not support the suggestion that his remains should be moved to the Panthéon, and Maurice Barrès expressed his satisfaction at this in a careful essay which appeared in his book Les Maîtres. He did not consider Diderot to be a national figure; he saw him merely as a remarkable revolutionary genius, able as no one else to place charges of dynamite under all the principles and pillars on which society rests; a professor, as it were, of anarchy and an enemy of tradition.

Diderot considered a humanist education to be essential. ‘For several years running,’ he writes in his Project for a University, ‘I would read a passage of Homer every night before going to bed as regularly as a good priest says his office. I began early to suck the milk of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Anacreon, Plato, and Euripides, mixed with that of Moses and the Prophets.’

As a matter of fact he wanted to study everything and to know everything. As soon as he left college his true nature became apparent. Unable to settle down in an attorney’s office, refusing to choose a definite profession, flitting from literature to science and from Italian to English, mixing with company of every description both good and bad, but more often the latter, composing sermons, if necessary, for a Portuguese missionary, tutoring the children of Randon d’Haunecourt, the financier, but throwing up his job in order to be free again, sometimes reduced even to hunger, he managed to gain through his very independence a wide experience and culture which made him a singularly intelligent and well-informed Bohemian. At one moment we see him dressed in a grey plush coat taking a summer stroll along the Allée des Soupirs in the Luxembourg Gardens, and, at the next, wandering through the streets of Paris with torn cuffs and black woollen stockings sewn together at the back with white thread.

His originality lies primarily in his vast culture and in his scientific knowledge, so far in advance of that of his contemporaries. He had already reached an idea of transformism, the doctrine of evolution. A materialist, in favour of morality for sentimental and practical reasons, not from philosophic conviction, laudably hard-working, curious about everything, often confused, even incoherent but generous, cordial, with a shade of coarseness, becoming intoxicated with ideas, as others do with wine, vulgar at times and disordered as he was said to be, outstanding quality was life.

Louis de Jaucourt: Encyclopedia MVP

Jaucourt wrote about 18,000 articles (a quarter of the total) for Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in the 1750s and 1760s, at the rate of 7 or 8 a day.

The Chevalier de Jaucourt (1704-1779), as his title shows, was the younger son of a noble house. He studied at Geneva, Cambridge, and Leyden, and published in 1734 a useful account of the life and writings of Leibnitz. When the Encyclopædia was projected, his services were at once secured, and he became its slave from the beginning of A to the end of Z. He wrote articles in his own special subjects of natural history and physical science, but he was always ready to lend his help in other departments, in writing, rewriting, reading, correcting, and all those other humbler necessities of editorship of which the inconsiderate reader knows little and thinks less. Jaucourt revelled in this drudgery. God made him for grinding articles, said Diderot. For six or seven years, he wrote one day, Jaucourt has been in the middle of half a dozen secretaries, reading, dictating, slaving, for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, and he is not tired of it even now. When he was told that the work must positively be brought to an end, his countenance fell, and the prospect of release from such happy bondage filled his heart with desolation. “If,” says Diderot in the preface to the eighth volume (1765), “we have raised a shout of joy like the sailor when he espies land after a sombre night that has kept him midway between sky and flood, it is to M. de Jaucourt that we are indebted for it. What has he not done for us, especially in these latter times? With what constancy has he not refused all the solicitations, whether of friendship or of authority, that sought to take him away from us? Never has sacrifice of repose, of health, of interest been more absolute and more entire.” These modest and unwearying helpers in good works ought not to be wholly forgotten, in a commemoration of more far-shining names.

John Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopedists

Though he was financially independent, Jaucourt did all the work gratis to the point that he sold one of his houses in order to pay for the secretaries. I doubt it bothered him too much, since there doesn’t seem to be much record of him doing anything with his life other than reading and researching.

Hans Blumenberg: Former Reflections Enduring Doubt

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age covers a lot of ground, but one of the central theses, and the one that bears little resemblance to most prior theories of history, is this one:

The modern age is the second overcoming of Gnosticism. A presupposition of this thesis is that the first overcoming of Gnosticism, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, was unsuccessful. A further implication is that the medieval period, as a meaningful structure spanning centuries, had its beginning in the conflict with late-antique and early-Christian Gnosticism and that the unity of its systematic intention can be understood as deriving from the task of subduing its Gnostic opponent.

Legitimacy, p. 126

The first issue is what exactly Gnosticism is. It’s a term that’s been held up over a lot of heterogeneous (and usually heterodox) doctrines, and the closest Blumenberg comes to defining it concisely in the Christian context (for that is his major concern here) is that it is the thesis that knowledge is salvation. But in the larger scope of the book, the conflict between Gnosticism and its enemies–first through Augustinian-derived Scholasticism, and then through secular, scientific modernity–is best summarized as a conflict between hermeticism and worldliness.

That is to say, Gnosticism challenges the ability of a person to make meaning out of anything on earth, arguing that God’s sheer unknowability and the ultimate contingency and unreality of this life make meaningful action in this life not just difficult, but impossible. As with other hermetic doctrines of the past, and here Blumenberg not only invokes stoicism, but also skepticism and Epicurism (all of which, he maintains, preach a turning away from worldly curiosity because such things will never provide happiness for humans), knowledge of the world such as that provided by science is not real knowledge. The real knowledge is gained through turning inward and seeing through the illusions of our reality.

In turn, Augustine and the ensuing Scholastics say no, our actions do matter: we are given free will to sin or not sin, and those actions are of a consequence beyond anything in this world. This is a limited form of re-engagement with the world, as it does not provide a mandate for full engagement with the world, but only for behaving according to specified rules. The fissure left between virtuous behavior and the rest of reality is where the problems with the medieval “solution” arise. The problems of theodicy–those of justifying God’s ways in this world, including the presence and purpose of humanity–have not been solved, and so the seemingly arbitrary ways of the world cause a retreat to Gnosticism.

Gnosticism returns within Scholasticism in the form of nominalism, that is, the idea that God is beyond all explanation and law. As Aquinas, Ockham, and Nicholas of Cusa try to make their cases for Catholic doctrine, the ultimate lack of explanation reasserts itself. No law is sufficient to capture anything that God may or may not dictate, and so the guarantee of salvation is put into question.

Now, modernity, and specifically a secular scientific curiosity, begins to emerge to fill in the gap. In the absence of a justifiable mandate or explanation from God as to humanity’s presence in the world, the idea of secular self-assertion originates, carefully using the space created by shunting God far, far away from this world to justify an incremental, trial-and-error ideology and methodology for gaining mastery over the world for their own benefit. The problem that Gnosticism posed that the Scholastics could not satisfactorily answer–what is the meaning of the suffering and evil in this world?–gets a new answer: it is for humanity to master and overcome.

[I am being a little loose with the terms “world” and “earth” here, for Blumenberg makes the Copernican abandonment of geocentrism and the ensuing shift in the conception of the “heavens” the fulcrum point that tips the Middle Ages into modernity. But leave that aside for now.]

Here is Odo Marquard’s summary of this basic sequence:

Marcion believed that the only way for humans to be saved from the evil world was by an entirely different, unworldly redeemer god, a god who, battling with the world’s evil creator, destroys it in a redeeming eschatology. As a world-conserving age, the modern age opposes this: It is (as Hans Blumenberg says) an “overcoming” of Gnosticism, the “second” overcoming, in fact, because the first one–the Middle Ages–proved unsuccessful. The first, medieval refutataion of Marcion was the discovery of human freedom by Origen and Augustine, by which (as God’s alibi) all the world’s evils are imputed, morally, to man, as his sin, so that the principle that “omne ens est bonum” [all being is good] can continue to hold in respect of God. This first refutation of Marcion is finally retracted by nominalism’s intensification of the theology of omnipotence and by Luther’s doctrine of the servum arbitrium [subject will]. In this way, the creator god is again burdened with the world’s evils. He evades this burden…so that human beings have to dispute–ultimately in a bloody manner–about questions of salvation…The schatology of redemption has to be neutralized. This neutralization of the eschatology of redemption is the modern age. For if the modern age is to be possible, the urgency of redemption must be removed by an attempted demonstration that this world is endurable, even in the absence of the saving end, thanks to many a “rose in the cross of the present”; in other words, its creator was not a wicked god, and the world is not an evil world.

Odo Marquard, “Unburdenings”

This is ultimately a rather Whiggish argument, and there’s no question over the course of the book that Blumenberg believes that on balance such self-assertion is a good thing. He opposes it to conservative polemics that things used to be so much better when religion was around, implicitly arguing that things were so inexplicably awful during such superstitious times that modernity at least offers the will to overcome that wretchedness. And consequently, if theodicy had been so successful at countering angst over the world, why has it never provided an adequate answer? (To these inadequate answers, he adds those of Heidegger, Schmitt, and others like Levinas.)

The hermetic impulse persists today in the myriad new age trends that pledge distance from worldly affairs, assorted Pyrrhonist and stoic philosophies, and the general fear that the paths of self-assertion have not quite worked out as their early proponents (Bacon, Diderot, etc.) had promised. One particularly bizarre variant is transhumanism, which promises an entire new world achieved through technology. (Is this perhaps an echo of Eduard von Hartmann, who urged the elimination of the evil Schopenhauerian Will through technological advancement?) It’s an understandable impulse. Blumenberg repeatedly cites the failings and failures of what he terms modernity, but beyond legitimate, worldly modernity reluctantly seems to be preferable to the alternatives.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

It must not be imagined that Iudushka was a hypocrite in the same sense as Tartuffe or any modern French bourgeois who goes off into flights of eloquence on the subject of social morality. No, he was a hypocrite of a purely Russian sort, that is, simply a man devoid of all moral standards, knowing no truth other than the copy-book precepts. He was pettifogging, deceitful, loquacious, boundlessly ignorant, and afraid of the devil. All these qualities are merely negative and can supply no stable material for real hypocrisy.

In France hypocrisy is the outcome of a man’s upbringing; it forms part of “good manners” so to speak, and almost always has a distinct political or social coloring…If this kind of hypocrisy cannot be described as a conviction, it is in any case a banner around which men who find it profitable to be hypocritical in this rather than in some other way can gather. They are conscious hypocrites, that is, they know it themselves and are aware that other people know it too. For a French bourgeois the universe is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on and one hypocrite gives his cue to another.

We Russians have no strongly biased systems of education. We are not drilled, we are not trained to be champions and propagandists of this or that set of moral principles but are simply allowed to grow as nettles grow by a fence. This is why there are very few hypocrites among us and very many liars, bigots, and babblers. We have no need to be hypocritical for the sake of any fundamental social principles, for we have no such principles and do not take shelter under any one of them. We exist quite freely, i.e. we vegetate, babble, and lie spontaneously, without any principles.

Whether this is a matter for grieving or rejoicing is not for me to say. I think, however, that while hypocrisy may arouse fear and indignation, objectless lying makes one feel bored and disgusted. And so the best thing is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the conscious as compared with the unconscious hypocrisy, but to keep away both from hypocrites and from liars.

And so Iudushka was a sneak, a liar, and a babbling fool rather than a hypocrite….

The Golovlyov Family (1876)

And so, like a sober, humorless Gogol, Shchedrin sets about proving his point, not just by portraying these characters in unrelentingly brutal detail, but by killing them off rather arbitrarily. In Dostoevsky and in Tolstoy, characters do tend to stick around so they can meet a fate, deserved or undeserved, that serves some dramatic or moral purpose. Shchedrin kills off characters prematurely to foreclose any possibility of redemption, though it quickly becomes clear there was never a chance anyway. What begins as a character sketch ends with that same character dying. Even by Russian standards, this is a miserable book.

I don’t know if Shchedrin had read Burke or Diderot, to whom he seems to be responding here, but his point that hypocrisy implies a bourgeois sort of moral self-awareness is well-taken, and I would say I see Shchedrin’s sort of hypocrite a lot more often than Rameau’s Nephew.

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