April 29, 2009

DIFFICULT TRUTHS:

Paul Elmer More: American Reactionary (Brian Domitrovic, Fall 2003, Modern Age)

More attended Harvard, and his brief experience there only convinced him to establish himself as a scholar on his own distinct terms. On the positive side, More met Irving Babbitt at Harvard. Babbitt mentored More, weaning him off sentimental novels and philosophy by directing his reading in the classics. Babbitt, More said, “was born in Horace’s cradle.” Babbitt also imparted his notorious intransigence to More. Babbitt’s withering contempt for modern languages, his disdain for “pertinence,” his insistence on the idea of decline—these all became More’s own hallmarks. In time, this intransigence would gain More, as it had Babbitt, many young disciples. But mentoring such young persons proved to be more in line with Babbitt’s talents—who was a lifelong professor—than More’s. [...]

Literature is a work of imagination, not, strictly speaking, reason. Literature can communicate great truth by stirring the imagination, but its very form runs the risk of encouraging sentimentality. Philosophy, on the other hand, by making use of the harder faculty of reason, is more adept at getting at truths that are more difficult to understand. And difficult truths may be the most important ones.

More came to these conclusions as he set aside literary criticism for a series of meditations on the western philosophical tradition that would become the crown jewels of his oeuvre. It is important to note that More’s decision to delve into the “harder” discipline of philosophy did not derive from the fashionable intellectual trend at the time that lionized “hardness” and “tough-mindedness.” At the turn of the century, William James and others had been warning scholars that they were not sufficiently acclimated to the emerging world around them. The habits of thought that underlay the bourgeoning United States, the argument ran, were evolutionist and progressive. Scholars could continue to confine themselves to ethereal speculation on the classics and other traditional subjects only at their peril. They risked losing pertinence in a fast-changing world if they did not adopt the “tough” and “hard” dispensation of the scientist, if not the street-fighter. This indeed was the Zeitgeist that Charles Eliot endeavored to enforce at Harvard during More’s years there.

More turned to the rigors of philosophy after 1914 for much the opposite reason. He was wholly unimpressed with the results of importing the scientific habit of mind into humanistic pursuits. In “Academic Leadership,” which may be seen as his statement of intention to get serious about classical philosophy, More wrote:

. . . I must say frankly that, after dealing . . . with manuscripts prepared for publication by college professors of the various faculties, I have been forced to the conclusion that science, in itself, is likely to leave the mind in a state of relative imbecility. . . . [S]uch men in the majority of cases, even when treating subjects within their own field, show a singular inability to think clearly and consecutively, so soon as they are freed from the restraint of merely describing the process of an experiment.

More preferred his humanists as classicists. The very difficulty of mastering classical languages and arguments had the effect of “lifting one’s self out of the familiar rut of ideas into so foreign a world.”

Here, More was not slipping into romantic excitement. To the contrary, he was on the verge of elaborating a vast philosophical history that took the West to task for forgetting the lessons of Plato. In a series of books on Plato and the Greeks from the late 1910s and 1920s, More developed his contention that any form of philosophical monism amounts to error. By monism, More meant those habits of thought—such as Rousseau-ianism and Darwinism in the modern period—that offered comprehensive explanations of the workings of life and the world. More conceded that monistic explanations have a certain allure (indeed, the allure of certainty), but insisted that monism be resisted in the interest of realism. The hard state of affairs is that related in so laborious a fashion (via dialogue) by Socrates: that the truth resides in a One above us all; that approximation to, but not unity with, that One is all that is available to us—and that, through a difficult process. This is a far cry from the tough-mindedness of the “educationists” (More’s sneer) of the progressive American university.

In More’s account of the West’s philosophical history, Plato’s lessons were forgotten almost immediately. Even Plotinus, the most influential of Plato’s admirers, was guilty of thoroughgoing monism. He made the One explicitly connected to the realm of creation via a chain of causes. Plotinus left an impress on early Christianity, which in its Western version became distracted by notions of sin, repentance, and works-righteousness—implying, once again in monistic fashion, that reconciliation of the entire order of creation is conceivable if only one figures out how to act properly. Even evidently spiritualistic developments in Christian history, such as scholastic theology, betrayed the rationalist’s optimism, a sure indicator of monism.

Not that More found Greek philosophy, even in its pristine Platonic form, wholly satisfactory. He considered the philosophical anthropology implied in Plato too pat, for in Plato, man’s faculty of reason enables him to ascertain aspects of the divine logos. As More wrote in the final volume of The Greek Tradition:

Man is logical not only by possession of the faculty of thought . . . but he is endowed also with the faculty of language, by which he embodies his ideas in symbolic sounds and signs and sends them forth to live a kind of life of their own. Thus it is that logos communes with logos, and a man knows himself not to be solitary in a friendless world, but member of a great society of kindred souls.

But this offended More’s sense of realism. Human beings do not commune in thoughtful recognition of each other, except in the rarest of circumstances: witness the example of Socrates himself. More knew that he needed a philosophical account of evil. He also needed instruction, on rejecting Plotinus, concerning the divine’s purposes in replicating itself in an inferior order of creation. These problems were leading More to Christianity, specifically to meditation on Christian ideas of divine incarnation. As T. S. Eliot said of More’s writings—and Eliot was most impressed with The Greek Tradition: “More’s works are, in the deepest sense, his autobiography.”


MORE MORE:
-Writings of Paul Elmer More (Jim Kalb)
-Paul Elmer More (Internet Archives)
-GOOGLE BOOK: Paul Elmer More: Literary Criticism as the History of Ideas by Stephen L. Tanner

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2009 6:04 AM
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