What are we fighting for?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.

I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.

Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1

What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.

Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.

Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.

Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.

Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.

Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5

If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.

I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.

If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.

Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.

[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27.
  2. Id.
  3. Id. at 39.
  4. Id. at 91.
  5. Goethe, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Promise of Politics (2005), at 41.


On Tom Jones, Moderate. I loved it when I found Fielding and his editor, Martin Battestin, linking Calvin and Hobbes. Now I discover Walter Lippmann in his 1955 book The Public Philosophy linking Calvin and Rousseau. More strange bedfellows! (A philosophical ménage à trois?)

To Rousseau, as to John Calvin who lived in Geneva before him, men were fallen and depraved, deformed with their lusts and their aggressions. The force of the new doctrine [“Rousseau’s dogma of the natural goodness of man”] lay in its being a gospel of redemption and regeneration. Men who were evil were to be made good. Jacobinism is, in fact, a Christian heresy — perhaps the most influential since the Arian. (71 – 71)

Calvin’s person falls before he’s born, but Rousseau’s falls when he’s educated. (Wordworth stakes out a middle ground, I think: his person begins to fall when she’s born, “trailing clouds of glory.”) Calvin’s theology led his English followers to argue for a theocracy; Rousseau’s philosophy led his French followers to tear down classes and institutions. Idealism works well only when it works slowly. We Christians cannot point vaguely to secularism as the source of governmental ills. Lippmann is right: Jacobinism, still alive and well in concepts such as Robert Bork’s majority morality, is a Christian heresy.

Calvin and Hobbes

Crime and Punishment / All the King’s Men

What’s a political novel? A novel with a political setting, or a novel that examines political theory? All the King’s Men is a political novel only in the first sense. Tom Jones is a political novel only in the second sense. Because this second sense of the term “political novel” goes more to an essence, for my money Tom Jones is more of a political novel than All the King’s Men.

People say All the King’s Men is about the rise and fall of Willie Starks, a state governor modeled after Louisiana’s Huey Long. There’s something to that: Starks’s turns away from his idealistic political start towards a cynical and corrupted governorship. But the novel doesn’t spend more than an episode or two fleshing out the change; it contrasts the change by flashback more than it examines it. Instead, the novel uses Starks and his change to examine human nature.


Philosophy in fiction

Tolstoy or DostoevskyIt occurs to me, rereading Tom Jones, that a novel can get across the life of an idea better than a treatise or a tract.

It’s not just that a novelist can sell a reader on her idea better than a nonfiction writer can his.  It’s that the idea can come across more fully, more like what it is: an idea enjoyed, feared, implemented, resisted, expanded upon, corrupted, corrupting.  The idea as obsession, as communication, as liberator, as oppressor.

When I think about expressing ideas in fiction, though, I face facts. I’m not attracted to stories as much as I am to language and to ideas, to abstractions.  Here’s how I know.  I never read fiction for plot.  I wore out two Bibles by the time I was thirty, and in them, the law, the histories, and the gospels — basically, the narratives — show some modest wear.  The epistles, those redoubts of instruction and abstraction, are in tatters.

I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve never watched a minute of television drama made since 1970.  (That’s about the last year I watched a local news broadcast, too: local news has most of the news stories.)  I also don’t remember jokes, anecdotes, names, or faces.  I often tune out, and sometimes interrupt for the gist, when people start telling me stories.

One last piece of evidence.  We had to recite cases in law school.  I never got the facts straight.  My contracts professor once asked me, pointedly, in front of a hundred of my peers, “Have you read this case?”  I had — I really had — but it didn’t take.

Nevertheless, I’ve read a dozen books by novelists on how to write novels.  My friend Michael, who also never writes fiction but at least is an excellent raconteur, reads them and passes them on to me.

Get the idea?  I don’t do stories.  But I’m enamored of them, crazy about the idea of stories.

Here’s another obstacle.  Writing fiction about ideas is out of vogue.  It’s fine to have a theme and all, people feel, but any greater role for an idea makes the fiction seem enthusiastic or polemical.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think an aversion to overcrowding fiction with ham-handed, ideological agendas is a matter of the age we’re living in.  I find a universal truth in the notion that good fiction, even a good parable or fable, can’t be first and foremost a vehicle for its message. But we’ve taken that truth to an extreme, I think because we have so few universally held myths stout enough to hang our ideas from.  (Myths I can handle.  Tell me a story a thousand times, set it to liturgy and holidays and commentary, and I can remember it.  Hell, I’ll serve at its altar.)

The most recent book Michael gave me was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  (A dozen books on writing fiction, and I’m only now reading Dillard’s classic?)  She says:

People love pretty much the same things best.  A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree. . . .

Why do you never find anything about the idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Dillard asks.  Because (she answers) it is up to you. (67)

But does Dillard confuse wood for spark, or purpose for fillip?  As a college writer-in-residence, Faulkner tells that story about Caddy’s underwear, but I don’t think it’s why he took up writing fiction.  The vision of Caddy climbing a tree just got him going, to hear him talk about it.

But what if it’s an idea I want to burn?  I could find a spark anywhere for writing about it, but do ideas legitimately burn in fiction anymore?  And the kind of fiction I’m thinking of doesn’t have ideas as mere theme or adornment.  These ideas are the work’s backdrop and its reason for being.  (You probably have clicked around this site enough to get some idea of my ideas.  It doesn’t take many clicks to do so.)

George Steiner thinks Dostoevsky’s characters burn ideas:

Dostoevsky’s heroes are intoxicated with ideas and consumed by the fires of language.  This does not man that they are allegoric types or personifications.  No one, with the exception of Shakespeare, has more fully represented the complex energies of life.  It means simply that characters such as Raskolnikov, Muishkin, Kirillov, Versilov, and Ivan Karamazov feed on thought as other human beings feed on love or hatred.  Where other men burn oxygen, they burn ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism 289)

Intoxicated with ideas and consumed with language?  Maybe I’ll give up the thought of writing and become a Dostoevskian character.

But Dostoevsky, and not just his characters, burned ideas, particularly one:

Writing to Maikov in 1870, with reference to the projected Life of a Great Sinner, the novelist confessed: “The fundamental idea, which will run through each of the parts, is one that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long: it is the question of the existence of God.”  This torment was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s genius; his secular instincts – the power of the story-teller, the inborn sense of drama, his fascination with politics – were profoundly conditioned by the religious cast of his mind and by the essentially religious quality of his imagination. . . . Around “the question of the existence of God,” Dostoevsky’s novels elaborate their special vision and their dialectic.  They raise it now by affirmation and now by denial.  The problem of God was the constant impulse behind Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and ultra-nationalist theories of history; it made moral discriminations of the utmost insight a necessary art; it gave the activities of intellect their pivot and tradition. (287 – 288)

Even if I had a fraction of Dostoevsky’s talent, are we in an age where our novelists or their characters can burn ideas like oxygen?  Here’s where the idea of the idea-as-backdrop comes in.  Steiner feels like Dostoevsky’s generation of Russians had a rendezvous with destiny:

The contemporaneity of religious fervor and poetic imagination in nineteenth-century Russia, the dialectical relationship between prayer and poetry, was a specific historical circumstance.  It was no less rooted in a moment of time than was that coalescence of occasion and genius which made possible Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. (321)

Our mythologies, which Steiner believes “can be of diverse orders: political, philosophic, psychological, economic, historical, or religious” (232), aren’t as deeply rooted as those in nineteenth century Russia (319).

That may be why some English and American writers are skittish about ideas in literature.  We’re diverse and disconnected, and while we’ll scream about politics, we rarely talk about it in the context of great ideas.  There’s little mythological (in Steiner’s broad sense of the word) bottom in our literature, so our literature can’t hold ideas. It’s like variations on a musical theme when the theme’s gone.  The variations clash, and everyone sounds insensitive to how the others are playing.

Rebecca West considered “a failure to recognize the dynamism of ideas” as the chief flaw in English literature.  Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to John Berger’s Selected Essays, takes issue with Craig Raine’s notion, which Dyer feels is prevalent in England today, that “We need ideas, but not in our art.”  “This belief,” Dyer responds, “is a serous blot on the English literary landscape” (xii).

Steiner feels a need to reorient us to the notion of ideas in novels before he examines Dostoevsky’s:

In suggesting that a novel may be a façade or a mask for a philosophic doctrine, we involve ourselves in error.  The relationship between thought and expression is at all times reciprocal and dynamic. (232)

Tom Jones and The Brothers Karamazov have been the chief pillars of my novel reading from high school on.  Tom Jones is a comedy set over a wide period of time with a friendly narrator; Karamazov is a tragedy in compressed time with a hidden narrator, a kind of stage director.  The books are so different.

But Tom Jones and Karamazov are both about ideas.  They’re both political and religious novels, though not in the sense of All the King’s Men (political setting) or the Left Behind series (religious indoctrination).  They both examine political theory and religious doctrine without falling into tract or allegory (despite Tom Jones’s “Allworthy” and “Thwackum”).  They extend beyond their ideas to touch something universal, something that readers who aren’t enamored with their ideas – indeed, readers who reject them – may still draw life from. In other words, while the novel serves the idea, the idea serves the novel more.

Tom Jones, moderate

Calvin and HobbesA number of my friends remember various critical childhood summers or winters during which they discovered a private library belonging to family or a friend.  In my version of this common tale, the setting was my ninth grade winter, and the protagonist was Tom Jones.  Fielding’s experimental novel stood out as one of the few works of fiction among the dark-mustard, hardbound Great Books my mother subscribed to.

I loved the book’s language. The plot was easy enough to follow (I’ve read that it’s considered predictable), and the characters were amusing, but the style and structure carried me on.  I loved the tone of the clever essays that amounted to the first chapter in each of the novel’s books.  I don’t think I understood a lot of what the narrator was saying in them, though.  I was a child yet, still listening to and lulled by merely the patter and pattern of adult conversation my parents brought into our home.

So Fielding’s omniscient narrator was my favorite character – a friend, a comfort, a father figure and a worldview: hopeful and forgiving, not too serious and not too frivolous, either.  Moderate, essentially.  I stowed the narrator’s viewpoint away somewhere for safe keeping during my subsequent years of religious and political idealism.

This time through Tom Jones, I was almost immediately struck by Fielding’s religious and political moderation.  I just discovered that the philosophical content I missed during my teenage reading – the content of that adult conversation – matches the moderate tone I perceived back then.

Calvin and Hobbes

For the first third of the novel, Tom Jones, an active fellow, can’t do much of anything good or bad without his actions being debated and dismissed by Thwackum and Square, rhetorical combatants who freeload on Allworthy’s estate.  At first appearance, Thwackum and Square have little in common: the former is a Christian enthusiast and member of the Church of England while the latter is a Deist philosopher.  They are each correct about the failings of the other’s belief system, however.

The failings had little to do with high-church Christianity or Deism per se, however, and more to do with the narrow viewpoints Thwackum and Square draw from those traditions.  Fielding himself was a Christian and an Augustinian, and his stated purpose in writing Tom Jones was to encourage readers in the pursuit of virtue (7).  Thwackum’s and Square’s actions don’t live up to their words, and upon closer scrutiny, their words are partly to blame.  Thwackum is essentially a Calvinist, and Square is essentially a Hobbesian philosopher.   Fielding had the same objection to Calvin and to Hobbes: neither philosopher attributed enough goodness in human nature to consider a person responsible enough to govern himself.

While the narrator in Book VI’s introductory essay addresses what he perceives as the shortcomings of Hobbesian philosophy, the latter half of his statement is one he applies to Calvinism as well:

Whether these Philosophers be the same with that surprizing Sect, who are honourably mentioned by the late Dr. Swift; as having, by the mere Force of Genius alone, without the least Assistance of any Kind of Learning, or even Reading, discovered that profound and invaluable Secret, That there is no G–: or since, very much alarmed the World, by shewing that there were no such things as Virtue or Goodness really existing in Human Nature, and who deducted our best Actions from Pride, I will not here presume to determine. (268 – 269)

Last summer, I thought I was the first to link Calvin and Hobbes (though the longstanding comic strip by that name should have given me pause).  I put together the gist of three books, one on John Locke’s liberalism and his struggle to assert human nature’s frail but essential goodness as a basis for his claim to self-government, the second on Richard Hooker’s struggle to reestablish a theological and philosophical foundation for a limited monarchy against Calvinist claims to a theocracy, and the third Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. I concluded:

The sixteenth century argument for a Calvinist theocracy and the seventeenth century argument for an absolute monarchy were opposite extremes that rejected at least three medieval notions: the existence of a natural law by which a community may judge positive law and the rulers who propagate or enforce them, the existence of a civil society that predates a political one, and the proposition that all men are created equal.

But Fielding, and possibly the entire eighteenth-century portion of the Augustan Age, was ahead of me in linking Calvin and Hobbes.  Martin C. Battestin’s introduction to Tom Jones’s Modern Library edition points out Fielding’s Latitudinarianism: “Stressing the importance of works over faith, the Latitudinarians in effect revived the old quarrel between Pelagius and Augustine: man, they maintained against Hobbes and Calvin, was by nature capable of much goodness, and was free to choose between virtue and vice” (xx).

Tom Jones’s plot is chiefly concerned with examining this struggle on an individual basis, but Fielding, heavily involved in Whig politics, was also concerned with it on a national basis.  He interrupted writing Tom Jones to write political tracts against the Jacobite uprising that threatened to undo the gains England had made in self-government.  He wanted to see England continue to move toward an understanding of itself – a self-identity – consistent with self-government.

The philosophical arguments explicitly advanced by Tom Jones’s narrator and characters have societal as well as individual applications within the novel.  This is evident not so much from the plot but from the characters’ and narrator’s explicit application of the issues and arguments to society in general.  (One of the reasons I like the novel is that it sometimes reads like a series of polemics held together by a thin string of a plot.)

Identity and self-government

Tom Jones himself was a perfect test case for the arguments surrounding this debate since he “is possessed of every private and social virtue but one: he is honest, brave, and generous, but he is imprudent, and therefore imperfect as a moral agent” (xxviii).  The frequent exhibitions of Jones’s imprudence are enough for the agents of Calvin and Hobbes to express their beliefs in human nature’s lack of virtue, but Jones’s latent goodness belies their categorical statements in the reader’s eyes.

Jones, however, lacks the one virtue that prevents him from governing himself: prudence.  In Tom Jones, a struggle for prudence is also a struggle for one’s true identity.  Tom Jones is an ontological work – emphatically so, since its title indicates its main character’s lack of self-identity: The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.  Only at the end, only after reaching rock bottom does Jones acquire prudence and discover his true identity.

Such is the struggle for self-government, both at an individual level and at a community or national level: it’s a God-given right, but it’s the most difficult struggle a person or a generation can undertake.  And along the way, those who, from a religious or philosophical viewpoint, doubt a person’s or a nation’s eventual ability to self-govern will, Square- and Thwackum-like, be finding lots of evidence to support those viewpoints.

Comedy and hope

Despite his weaknesses, Jones has charity, which, as Fielding and the Bible would agree, covers a multitude of sins.  Allworthy thought charity “an indispensable Duty, enjoined both by the Christina Law, and by the Law of Nature itself; so was it withal so pleasant, that if any Duty could be said to be its own Reward, or to pay us while we are discharging it, it was this” (95).

Allworthy and Jones’s charity permits the novel’s comic tone, a smile in the heavens reflecting back the goodness of the protagonists’ hearts.  Battestin points out that the narrator is “a kind of surrogate Providence” who looks over Jones’s character development:

The happy accidents and surprising reversals in Fielding’s noel remind us of the manipulating intelligence of the author who conducts the story, as those in real life are signs of the Deity’s providential care. (xxiv)

The novel’s form complements the providential narrator:

The form of Tom Jones – its omniscient narrator and symmetrical design, its progression through probabilities and improbabilities to a fortunate conclusion – is the embodiment of its author’s Christian vision: the vision of a world ordered and benign, and therefore “comic” in the profoundest sense. (xxv)

Tom Jones’s political moderation, then, rejects the religious and putatively atheistic extremism of Calvin and Hobbes.  Its moderation is founded on man’s fragile but innate goodness essential to his capacity for self-government, and on an ultimately comic (i.e., purposeful and forgiving), even ironic and absurd, universe.  Despite the rejection of Calvinist and Hobbesian viewpoints, this moderation welcomes both the religious man and the agnostic, the Christian God and Nature’s God.  This brand of moderation would reach beyond eighteenth century Great Britain to sects outside the Christian community and to atheism as well.  It was essential to our nation’s founding and would be essential to any genuine project of reclaiming something of the Founders’ values.

I’ve heard people question how William Faulkner, whose characters and communities seem so depraved and judgmental, respectively, could state in his Nobel acceptance speech, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”  Faulkner wrote in a tragicomic tradition similar to Fielding’s comic enterprise: it examines a person’s spirit in the crucible of life.  Faulkner’s characters often don’t make it.  But they’re tragic enough to demonstrate that they can make it, and Faulkner is just enough of a comedian to help them along sometimes.