May 18, 2017


The Genius of Literature : Bernard-Henri Lévy draws from the well of late-18th-century French philosopher Chateaubriand for a broad defense of the aesthetics and morals of liberalism (Paul Berman, May 16, 2017, Tablet)

Does society require a solid spiritual foundation of some sort to stave off social decay and political collapse? Is this is our problem right now, a shakiness in what is supposed to be firm, which has led to political crises in one country after another? I have been reading Bernard-Henri Lévy's book from a couple of months ago, The Genius of Judaism, which circles around this question, and I notice that his discussion and even his title invoke a very old book called The Genius of Christianity, by Chateaubriand. This is clever of BHL. It is fitting. It invites a comment. Chateaubriand is one of those writers whom everyone has heard of and hardly anyone has read; and yet, reading him is a grand and delightful experience. The tenor of his voice alone makes him a master of world literature--a gorgeous tone, supple, composed, and indefatigable. And, on the question of spiritual foundations and social collapse, Chateaubriand does have something to say. He says it with an easy air of fresh observation, too, as if he were the first person ever to have seen the problem, which surely he was not. But he did see it from a dramatic angle.

This was the unhappy perspective of a liberal aristocrat in the French Revolution--a disciple of Rousseau and a man of the Enlightenment and, all in all, a believer in human progress, even if he felt no particular urgency about progress. He believed in the Revolution, too, in its early, tepid, and reformist moments. But the early moments were brief. He happened to be in Paris on July 14, 1789, and he stood at the window of his sister's apartment and watched in horror as a revolutionary mob paraded down the street carrying severed heads on pikes. Within a few years, his brother was guillotined, together with the brother's wife and her grandfather and other people in her family. His mother and sister were jailed, and they died of their sufferings after their release. Chateaubriand himself, having lost his revolutionary sympathies, enlisted in the royalist and counterrevolutionary army, which led to battlefield wounds and illnesses and a shadow over his own life. He recovered. And, having been to hell and back, he set out, as a proper philosopher in the 18th-century mode, to sort out his intellectual confusions and to discover the roots and causes of social collapse, not just in the case of aristocratic France but universally and throughout history, beginning with the Greeks and the Romans, with lessons to apply to the future.

His first volume on this topic, which truly no one reads (but why not?), was a treatise in 1797 capaciously titled Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions Ancient and Modern, Considered in Their Relations to the French Revolution of Our Time, or, less wordily, Essay on Revolutions. This is a delicious book. It is an inquiry into his own identity--"Who am I?" (his first sentence)--and into world history at the same time. He dwells on the Athenians and the Spartans and the Syracusans. Then again, he recounts an exploratory expedition that he undertook into the far-away forests of the United States of America, where, in the course of his wanderings, he nearly fell into the cataracts at Niagara and was rescued by wild Indians!--which yields to a still more vivid chapter, "Night Among the Savages of America," about the spiritual superiority of the Indians and his good fortune in having spent a night lost in ecstatic contemplation of the Niagara moonlight.

But mostly he contemplates the causes of social collapse. These, in his analysis, boil down to a single recurrent and contemptible cause. It is frivolous intellectuals and their cynical mockeries. In ancient Athens the frivolous intellectuals were the sophists, who mocked the reigning Greek polytheism, and in 18th-century France the frivolous intellectuals were the philosophes, who mocked Catholicism; and, in both cases, mockery dealt a blow to the social and cultural mores, which led to disaster. The French deterioration was especially severe because the priests in the countryside were superstitious bigots, and the priests in the cities were hopelessly corrupt, and nobody in the Catholic Church was capable of resisting the fanatical anti-Catholics, who were in the grip of their own bigotries and corruption.

...lies in our mockery of Intellectualism.

Posted by at May 18, 2017 6:20 AM