YELLOWED LECTURE NOTES ON MOBY DICK
Norton Critical Edition
New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1967
728 pp., $6.95 (paper)
By W. B. Allen
It will do one no good at all to read this sketch of Melville's Moby Dick unless he has firmly in the mind (as a recent reading would ensure) the story in the novel. For this sketch is prepared as a dialogue (with no further reference than the reader's curiosity) to engage the reader, rather than as an exposition to teach him. The drama is a simple one. A whaling boat captain, named Ahab, seized with red passion, pursues the apparition of a great whale with uncommon virtues to the mortal peril of himself and his heterodox crew, save for one Ishmael, our narrator for the most part, who survived the destruction.
"Call me Ishmael," said he, so modest was he that he would place in our hands the ultimate fate of his proper name. Or rather, as one seemingly disinherited, it mattered little whether we should regard him as a mere vagabond, a wanderer upon the earth. I suggest that we must understand Ishmael above all, which is to understand him, first, as Melville presents him and, second, as Ishmael understands himself.
I will be backward. Ishmael's own perspective regarding his place in the world is first suggested on page sixteen (it is last suggested and refined by the central chapter, echoed in the closing words). Ishmael, to begin, is poetic and prosaic. The first intimation of his sense is the imagined series of newspaper headlines which contained notice of his pending voyage. It ran, first, an election of an American president, in italics; then, second, the whaling voyage by one Ishmael, in small Gothic; and third, in bold type, the bloody battle in Afghanistan. Ishmael's literal and prosaic appreciation of this image is a confession of ignorance of the reasons which induced the Fates to assign to him "a shabby part of a whaling voyage," while others receive "magnificent parts in high tragedies, short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces." His part is none of these; nor does he understand his part. But, says he, "I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did. . . ." Eros may in the end be one of the Fate sisters. In any event, Ishmael sees at least far enough to regard it as a delusion to think his part resulted from free will.
Ishmael again indicates his peculiar perspective in his response to Queequeg (pp. 52-53), the savage from whom he initially recoiled only, subsequently, to find himself ever drawn within Queequeg's silent circle. In Queequeg Ishmael finds "a touch of fine philosophy." Then, pushing the matter (his observations mediated by an acute sensitivity to things physical around him), he "began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me." Ishmael and Queequeg build a relationship out of the distance between them. They share quarters in a village inn and awake in marital embrace. Somehow, their warm relationship is made out of the very things which bespeak a lack of civilization, and yet they become the very model of brothers or fellow citizens. Note the "umbilical tie" in the cutting operation (pp. 270-71), which is followed, to the end of the novel, with a conscious detachment reflected in Ishmael's accounts of his other ship's fellows.
Another way of fitting together the pieces of Ishmael's perspective is to understand his relationship with or to Ahab. In one sense that is also most important. Unfortunately, he nowhere speaks in terms that establish a direct link between them. He renders his impressions of Ahab, not Ahab's impressions of Ishmael. But, he sometimes describes Ahab in a categorical manner, and at least one element of his self-description is categorical. Of course, this could allow for comparison, if they belong in the same, similar, or logically related categories. To check this I must jump ahead in my reading, but only momentarily. In chapter eighty-two (p.304), Ishmael indicates that "there are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method." "The more I dive," says he, "into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demigods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity." (Could man ever more fitly praise belonging to his family?) This occurs in a chapter which truly speaks of gods, prophets, and heroes and does not mention Ahab. Nevertheless, that category to which the gods, heroes, and prophets belong is general, and is not whaling per se. It has to do with greatness generally.
Ishmael makes clear that not every sailor, because he sails a whaleboat, can claim membership in that order. Only those sailors who in some way master "the true method" of looking into the subject are thus considered. No Starbucks, or Stubbs, and especially, no mediocre Flasks, are accorded membership. Now, let us go back and look at Ahab. The very first description that would seem to bear on his character (it does not name him) occurs when Ishmael digresses from his description of the character of Captain Bildad. He speaks of blending Bildad's piety, adventuresomeness, and bold dashes of character (p. 71).
Then, he adds, that these things may be united in a man of "greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature's sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin, voluntary, and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation's census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half willful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease. But, as yet we have not to do with such an one. . . ."
Now, I argue that the implied promise that we are to meet such a man in this narrative is fulfilled in the person of Ahab. And I would add that the category this description places him in is precisely that to which Ishmael belongs, "in a subordinate role." And, I would further argue that Ishmael's role is subordinated only to the extent that that "morbid edge"—the capacity for the tragic greatness—is missing in his character. (Indeed, sometimes, it seems that there is not even any more reality to Ishmael than to "King John's" Bastard.) We will, at last, see the importance of this, but first let us consult other of Ishmael's references to Ahab to sustain the first point.
Firstly, we have Peleg's assertion (p. 76) that Ahab is a "grand, ungodly, god-like man. . . . Ahab's above the common; ... [he has] been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales." And then, "stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!" So far, these statements all occur before Ishmael actually meets (one should say, sees) Ahab.
The first direct description of Ahab—indirect in its characterization—speaks of Ahab's need to conceal his ultimate objective in the guise of immediate practical objectives. The model for this necessity is the political order, as we learn with the "noble lie." "For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that forever keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass." A footnote assures us that "God's true princes" are they who "do not seek outward worldly honors or power." It is irresistible: this God is democracy, and the equality it necessitates not only licenses the demagogue but, more importantly, becomes the hiding place for superiority or intellectual virtue. Occasionally, though, intellectual virtue is found rooted in the head of him that possesses political virtue as well. The result is a fearful tyranny, as the reference to Czar Nicholas suggests: When "the ringed crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain," Ishmael says, then it becomes clear that political and intellectual ambition have combined. Ahab's task in commanding his ship, therefore, is likened to the tyrant's task in commanding his city. The "sultanism" of Ahab's brain became "incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship."
Ahab's superiority can be seen as a combination of political and intellectual virtue. In so far as he and Ishmael belong in some way to the same order, I surmise that it must be the order of intellectual virtue. This was already apparent in Ishmael's response to Queequeg. Shortly it will seem still more apparent. It is troubling, however, to note what is implied—that that which is morbid, absent in Ishmael and present in Ahab, might somehow relate to political virtue. This is suggested then, in the following passage (p. 130), Ishmael reminds us that Melville could never have overlooked the hint contained in the above passage, where he sought to "depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct swing" and the necessity for discussing the trappings (clothing) of greatness when one discusses political virtue. That which is great in Ahab is found in "the unbodied air." Politics, as in the case of Ahab's crew, is of the body. To enlist the men in his higher, airy quest, Ahab must provide for their "common, daily appetites" (p. 184). It is for this that he must indulge those "external arts and entrenchments," in themselves "more or less paltry and base."
It is not the same to say that politics concerns the body and to say that politics is morbid. What is morbid in Ahab seems to have less to do with the body, per se, than with the curious relationship Ahab develops among body, mind, and soul. It is a certain kind of emphasis on or use of the body (or, desire) that leads to morbidness instead of health. Stubb, in all his vainglorious revelry after killing a whale, is not seen as morbid; Ahab's very desire to kill the whale is seen as morbid, that peculiar relationship between mind, body, and soul in Ahab (which makes the mind's happiness entirely dependent upon satisfaction of the desire and renders the soul the slave of the intellect) is given the apt description, "monomania," by Ishmael.
This singular madness raises a single aspect of or hope in man to an organizing principle for that interior holy trinity, body, soul, and mind. Ishmael first traces this development in Ahab in chapter forty-one (pp. 160-61), here we see that body and soul have been fused. A broader madness—or anger with the material universe, usually understood as the dictatorial sway of bodily passions—has been entirely displaced by a singular madness. And simultaneously (because the body and soul now serve one purpose) Ahab's great natural intellect surfaces, equally dedicated to that purpose. This, however, is not the common understanding of madness. Ahab knows his madness and willfully submits to it (chap. 44, p. 175). He is so given to it that his soul is depicted as completely commanded by his intellect, thus cutting off the possibility of seeing some of the other irrationalities, as Ishmael knowingly puts it, in this world. The result, in Ahab, is roughly akin to the picture painted by Ishmael of the whiteness of the whale. To that I will return later.
The morbidness of Ahab—that shows up in his singular purposiveness. The absence of morbidness in Ishmael, equally a man of great intellectual virtue—that also colors his relationship to the universe. I suspect that we can understand this relationship best in its political sense. The place to turn for that understanding may well be the dramatic interlude which occurs at about page 40. We cannot fully explain this interlude, for we are and must remain uncertain whether it be Ishmael, or the author, Melville himself, who there speaks. The form is such as to admit of either possibility. Were it Melville, of course, our conclusion about Ishmael's role would be all the more convincing. We would be in a position roughly analogous to that of the Old Testament prophets, or of that of Moses receiving the tablets directly from the hand of God.
The interlude I mean begins at chapter thirty-six, although the stage is set for it in chapter thirty-five, towards the end of which Ishmael the narrator seems to fade away. Thus, he makes room for the characters, from Ahab to the meanest member of the crew, to speak in their own names in the chapters that follow. Those chapters not only give primary focus to direct quotation, but they are headed by stage directions—signaling the dramatic break. And only the first, chapter thirty-six, has any narration whatever. Singularly, that narration is done in the third person and from a perspective somewhere transcending the ship, including a privy view of Ahab's inward thoughts: "Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion."
One reason that Ishmael fades from view, perhaps, is that in this series of chapters, in which Ahab discloses the challenge of the pursuit of Moby Dick and weds his crew to his quest, we find the only complete presentation of the entire hierarchy of the ship. It is in this moment that Ahab forges his disparate crew into a single entity. They hailed from nineteen or more differing countries and from all regions of the globe. But Ahab made the Pequod their common country. By the force of his rule he gave his madness the shape of sanity, dedicating his new found community to the constant pursuit of an inscrutable something. Can Ishamel there preserve his health?
This interlude passes from morning (chap. 36) through sunset (chap. 37), dusk (chap. 38), early evening (chap. 39), and midnight (chap. 40). It took a full day to settle this project. For Ahab, who "would be democrat to all above," required still to enlist the wills of them that "he lords it over [all] below." As Ahab put it, he had to be the match which lights their fire: "Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!" Still it was all in a day's work, for Ahab, this resort to "external arts and entrenchments," to establish a "practical supremacy" (p. 129) over his motley crew cum cosmopolis.
But where is Ishmael? Must we ever speak of Ahab? In this cosmopolis, dedicated to a universal principle or quest, a universal something or other, the wanderer appears but thrice. On the three occasions when all speak in unison, there Ishmael appears, hidden in the mass, clothed in equality. Immediately after the drama closes, however, when we return to our narrative, we find that he is as well their objective, distant observer. He admits to joining them in their blinding devotion the chase; he does not admit to being equally blind.
In the chapters that follow Ishmael offers a "scientific" description of Ahab, and of Moby Dick. He proves that, though he can participate in the moral drama, he can also stand back and judge occurrences by the standard of nature—by some notion of that which is right by nature and not simply that which is right by command. The universal God which united this cosmopolis was to him as open to question as the particular gods which once created the polis. Still, there comes a point at which the questions stop (cf., pp. 162-63), at which he abandons himself to time and place. Unlike Ahab, who found the limit of his intellect in its fatal service to his elevated desires, or, his morality, Ishmael's very morality marks the point at which he "can dive no deeper" into an objective quest. This recognition of (or at least a willingness to abide by) the distinction between moral truth and truth per se, then, marks the distinction between Ishmael and Ahab. Ahab pursued the two as one and identical and, hence, lost both. This is not to confuse the loss with his death. To Ishmael, Ahab is long before lost. The model for his character can, to some extent, be found in one understanding of the chapter, "The Whiteness of the Whale."
Much is important in that chapter, but at the surface it offers one clear teaching: a notion that there is a special kind of innocence about full whiteness, the full absence of distinguishing color. It is not the innocence of the newborn babe, not that of the virgin. Those are circumscribed by moral possibility and can only occur where, for some reason, the possibility of choice within a moral context is limited. The innocence of full whiteness relates to all possibility. It is an innocence which is so only because it signifies nothingness—or, that nothing else is possible. We might call it nihilistic innocence; or, we might say that the innocence of whiteness is soullessness.
At the end of chapter forty-four (p. 175), Ishmael described Ahab as having yielded "up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose: that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed independent being of its own." Thereafter Ishmael consistently described Ahab as having completely emptied or divested himself (some ideas are expressible only in the language of morality!). "When what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself." This is very like, nay, identical to the picture of the whale's whiteness at the end of chapter forty-two (p. 170).
It seems, then, that Ahab adopts the soullessness, innocence, godlessness, whiteness of the whale. Or, his soul, in league with his mind, has bolted his body. His body is the abode of whiteness, of innocence, as Moby Dick. But, whereas there is the suspicion of intelligence in Moby Dick, there is the certainty of intelligent willfulness in Ahab. Hence, Ishmael, in perfect contrast to Ahab, would seem the very embodiment of intellectual virtue, that intellectual virtue which is yet mindful of itself in a universe, and particularly in a political universe.
Thus, I take Ishmael's import to be bound up in that teaching of his which occurs in the central chapter (though I do not know it to have any particular importance for that reason):
It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole, like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few are domes like St. Peter's! of creatures, how few vast as the whale! (chap. 68, p. 261)
He counsels man to be in this world, but not of it. And immediately afterwards he reminds that only a few of surpassing intellectual virtue can attain that goal. Ishmael was indeed in the Pequod, but he escaped far more than its fate. It is after all we, alone, who must take care to preserve his proper name.
Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review
John Hart Ely
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980
268 pp., $15.00
By Edward Erler
The proper role of the Supreme Court in the American constitutional order has been vigorously debated from the inception of the Constitution. Today the argument usually forms around the question of whether the Court should be "activist" or "nonactivist." More often than not, the argument centers on the Court's role in interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly the Equal Protection Clause. What distinguishes today's debates from those of previous years is that today's arguments are no longer couched in terms of the necessities and requirements of judicial statesmanship. The great jurists—Chief Justice Marshall preeminent among them—thought the Court's role was primarily one of bringing the enduring principles of the American polity to bear on particular constitutional issues. Today's jurists are more likely to view the Constitution as a procedural instrument informed by no purposes or principles beyond the procedures themselves.
There is little doubt, for example, that equal protection of the laws is intimately connected to constitutional government. All civil liberties, in one form or another, are traceable to this basic constitutional precept. As a constitutional precept, equal protection of the laws derives its dignity from the fact that it is the conventional reflection of the principles that flow directly from natural human equality. Questions of equal protection thus inevitably propel us into considerations of first principles, or what used to be known as regime questions. Such fundamental questions lay bare the principles of the regime and provide, as it were, occasions for the periodic return to the origins of the regime. However, these questions of principle are no longer known as "regime questions." This is attributable to a very simple reason: the Supreme Court and most authoritative commentators no longer believe that the United States is a regime, let alone one informed by fundamental principles. Justice Stevens, for example, quoted favorably this remarkable statement in a recent case: ". . . the last few years have reawakened our appreciation of the primacy of process over product in a free society. . . . If this republic is remembered in the distant history of law, it is likely to be for its enduring adherence to legitimate institutions and processes, not for its perfection of unique principles of justice, and certainly not for the rationality of its laws."
Most of those who debated the Reconstruction Amendments knew they were engaged in a debate about fundamental principles, and not simply about the procedures and processes of the Constitution. Such an artificial separation of the consideration of means and ends was not a part of the intellectual horizon of the 1860's. Indeed, the Reconstruction Amendments can be properly viewed only as an attempt to complete the work of the Founding. The regime of the Founders was incomplete precisely because it had countenanced the continued existence of slavery. Even if the Constitution placed the institution of chattel slavery on what Lincoln rightly termed "the road to ultimate extinction," the Constitution was still inconsistent with the principled injunctions of the Declaration: that "all men are created equal" and—as a necessary consequence of equality—that the moving principle of legitimate government is the "consent of the governed." These principles—in the words of The Federalist, "the fundamental principles of the revolution"—provided the animus of the Constitution.
Thaddeus Stevens, the leading Radical Republican, made this precise point in a speech urging the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment before the House on May 8, 1866.
I beg gentlemen to consider the magnitude of the task which was imposed upon the [Joint Committee on Reconstruction]. They were expected to suggest a plan for rebuilding a shattered nation—a nation which though not dissevered was yet shaken and riven . . . through four years of bloody war. It cannot be denied that this terrible struggle sprang from the vicious principles incorporated into the institutions of our country. Our fathers had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration, and wait for their full establishment till a more propitious time. That time ought to be present now.
References to the Declaration as "organic law" were so frequent throughout the debates that one can hardly doubt that the Reconstruction Congress was self-consciously engaged, in some sense, in ratifying a refounding of the regime by embodying in the Constitution the victories that had been won on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Professor John Hart Ely's Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review is the most recent attempt to interpret the Constitution as an exclusively procedural document. Ely self-consciously represents his "theory of judicial review" as a dialectical mean between the extremes of constitutional interpretation—what he terms "interpretivism" and "non-interpretivism." The "interpretivist" maintains that constitutional issues can be resolved by "enforcing norms that are stated or dearly implicit in the written Constitution." The "non-interpretivist," on the other hand, asserts that it is necessary to go beyond the Constitution and "enforce norms that cannot be discovered within the four corners of the document." Both of these positions are defective in Ely's view; the "interpretivist" because it can provide no guidance for interpreting the Constitution's "open-textured" phrases (e.g., Equal Protection, Due Process, Ninth Amendment), and the "non-interpretivist" because it can provide no reliable standards outside the Constitution. Such purported standards as "natural law," "neutral principles," "reason," "tradition," "consensus," and "progress" are all tested by Ely's irrefragable logic and found lacking as potential sources for informing or illuminating the Constitution. Ely never identifies the adherents of these two schools of constitutional interpretation with any precision, and indeed it would be difficult to find anyone who adhered exclusively to one position or the other. Ely's own position, as it turns out, is virtually indistinguishable from the "non-interpretivist" position.
According to Ely, the defects of both the "interpretivist" and the "non-interpretivist" position can be avoided by viewing the Constitution as a procedural instrument which is indifferent to "substantive values."
Contrary to the standard characterization of the Constitution as an "enduring but evolving statement of general values," is that in fact the selection and accommodation of substantive values is left almost entirely to the political process and instead the document is overwhelmingly concerned, on the one hand, with procedural fairness in the resolution of individual disputes (process writ small), and on the other, with what might capaciously be designated process writ large—with insuring broad participation in the processes and distributions of government, (p. 87)
In this regard the Warren Court represents for Ely the epitome of process oriented constitutional interpretation. It sought not only "to insure that the political process . . . was open to those of all viewpoints on something approaching an equal basis," but also "that everyone was being similarly accommodated" with respect to the "bounty of representative government," i.e., the "patterns of distribution generally" (p, 74).
Ely ultimately proves to be wrestling with a problem that is endemic to democracy and one that the Framers of the Constitution understood quite well. According to Ely,
Rule in accord with the consent of the majority of those governed is the core of the American governmental system. Just as obviously, however, that cannot be the whole story, since a majority with untrammeled power . . . is in a position to deal itself benefits at the expense of the remaining minority. . . . This . . . has been understood from the beginning, and indeed the Constitution contains several sorts of devices . . . to combat it. The tricky task has been and remains that of devising a way or ways of protecting minorities from majority tyranny that is not a flagrant contradiction of the principle of majority rule. . . . (pp. 7-8)
His solution is at once to charge the Supreme Court with insuring that the channels of political participation (the representative process) remain open, and to insulate minorities from "majority tyranny." The latter he would accomplish by casting the Court in the role of virtual representative of "discrete and insular minorities," any group "we know to be the object of widespread vilification, groups we know others . . . might wish to injure" (p. 153, emphasis added). Ely would thus literally engraft onto the Constitution a theory of virtual representation, not only for the vindication of constitutional entitlements but also for "constitutionally gratuitous" rights as well—"benefits, goods, rights, exemptions, or whatever" (p. 136). He maintains this view is justified by a "literal", reading of the Constitution's "open-textured" phrases, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Ninth Amendment. But this literal reading proves to be nothing more than a vehicle for reading into the Constitution an extended liberalism. Ely's reading of the Constitution thus reveals him to be the quintessential "non-interpretivist." What, we might be allowed to wonder, are the standards that Ely uses to vindicate his own new found brand of "non-interpretivism?"
Interesting in this respect is Ely's treatment of the question of natural law. Ely concedes that the Declaration of Independence had referred to "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" as the standard of legitimate government. But, according to Ely, this reference was not serious.
The Declaration of Independence was, to put it bluntly, a brief. . . . People writing briefs are likely, and often well advised, to throw in arguments of every hue. People writing briefs for revolution are obviously unlikely to have apparent positive law on their side, and are therefore well advised to rely on natural law. This the argument for our Revolution did, combining natural law, both English and colonial, to the genuine 'will of the people,' to the 'rights of Englishmen'—in short with references to anything that seemed to help. (p. 49)
Ely goes on to note that, in any case, "The idea [of natural law] is a discredited one in our society" and, he adds, "for good reason." According to Ely, natural law arguments can be used to support any position or preference because they are so "uselessly vague" that one is forced "to choose between triviality and implausibility" (pp. 50-52). It is certainly true today that the idea of natural law has generally been discredited, but it is emphatically not true that the Framers regarded the arguments of the Declaration as merely a "lawyer's brief." In fact, the arguments flowing from "the laws of Nature and Nature's God"—the central proposition being that "all men are created equal"—were rightly considered by the Framers as the only reasonable (i.e., nonarbitrary) basis for human society. They believed that any government which does not rest on this universal proposition will become despotic because it does not depend upon law, but upon human fiat. Government is necessary to protect rights, but it is not the creator of those rights. Rights exist because of natural equality, that unique human distinction which makes each individual by nature the executor of his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. If we begin with any proposition other than natural human equality, we introduce arbitrary and unreasonable class distinctions among human beings. "Consent of the governed," as the moving principle of legitimate government, is a necessary inference from the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God," and thus the only reasonable basis for human society. One wonders how Ely can posit "equal concern and respect" as the central problem of constitutional government without some notion of natural equality. Without this "natural law" proposition, Ely's preference for "equal concern and respect" is arbitrary. Needless to say, the regime he would envision to foster his preference would be arbitrary as well.
Ely does not believe that reason has any constitutional role to play because "reason alone can't tell you anything: it can only connect premises to conclusions." Besides, reason is "so flagrantly elitist and undemocratic that it should be dismissed forthwith" and, in any case, could only support the values of "the reasoning class" (p. 56). But Jefferson knew that reason was not the exclusive preserve of any particular social or economic class, and would serve as the certain means of overturning the feudal system which was based on what he called "monkish ignorance." Without reason—without what might be called the irrefragable dictates of the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God"—what grounds are there for human community? One might appeal to tradition or consensus. Ely rejects these as well, because tradition and consensus do not always support democratic values. Why one should value democracy on Ely's terms remains a mystery; presumably because it can be valued without itself being a value. One wonders, in addition, to what extent there could be democratic values without a democratic tradition or consensus, both of which would seem to be necessary (but not sufficient) conditions of any constitutional regime based on the "consent of the governed." Lincoln remarked that in democracies "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions." To say, therefore, as Ely in effect does, that tradition and consensus are not the sufficient conditions for the preservation of democratic values, does not mean ipso facto that they are not necessary conditions.
It is difficult to imagine that one of the nation's leading legal scholars would reason that the law finds its support neither in nature, nor reason, nor tradition, nor consensus, but in some basically arbitrary (i.e., unreasoning) preference for democratic procedural values. Statesmanship—particularly judicial statesmanship—is the ability to distinguish between the necessary and sufficient conditions of democratic constitutional order, and to gauge their interplay within the interstices of specific constitutional pronouncements. The Framers understood that statesmanship is more complex and variegated than a mere adherence to procedures and processes. And, as Ely himself ultimately demonstrates, there is no way to avoid difficult substantive questions in politics. A precise theoretical understanding of first principles is a necessary requisite to the prudential choices demanded of true statesmen.
Ely's argument that the Supreme Court should serve as the virtual representative of "disfavored classes," as a way of overcoming the characteristic problem of republican government, is one that the Framers of the Constitution considered dangerous to constitutional government. The intrusion of class politics into the Constitution is clearly at odds with the principles of the regime—principles which are ultimately derived from the proposition that "all men are created equal." Class considerations explicitly deny this notion of equality by abstracting from the individual and ascribing to him class characteristics that are different from—and necessarily unequal to—those of other classes. If there were no inequalities implicit in class distinctions, such distinctions would simply be superfluous.
The Framers of the regime knew well that class politics, whatever its character, was incompatible with the moving principles of liberal government. In a large diverse republic, Madison reasoned, it would rarely be in the interest of the majority to invade the rights of the minority. In Madison's own words, there is less probability that "a majority will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." It is unlikely that there would be either permanent class interests, or that there would be permanent majorities and permanent minorities. Thus the majority would never develop a sense of its own identity and interest as a majority. The majorities that do form will be essentially composed of coalitions of minorities that come together for limited self-interested purposes. As private interest groups, they remain largely unaffected by the fact that they have become a part of the majority. By and large the solution of the Framers has worked remarkably well.
Nonetheless, Professor Ely is at odds with this understanding. He argues that,
We are a nation of minorities and our system thus depends on the ability and willingness of various groups to apprehend those overlapping interests that can bind them into a majority on a given issue; prejudice blinds us to overlapping interests that in fact exist. As Frank Goodman put it so well eight years ago: "Race prejudice divides groups that have much in common (blacks and poor whites) and unites groups (white, rich and poor) that have little else in common than their antagonism for the radical minority. Race prejudice, in short, provides the 'majority of the whole' with that 'common motive to invade the rights of other citizens' that Madison believed improbable in a pluralistic society.
Ely points to no specific examples but, like the Supreme Court in some of its recent cases, assumes the existence of a "monolithic" white majority from which "discrete and insular minorities" are permanently excluded. But the kind of permanent white majority that Ely and a majority of the Court have manufactured, has never existed in American politics, not even before the Civil War. Nevertheless, Ely would establish as a solution a modified version of Kant's categorical imperative, one that does not depend on its universality as a guarantee of justice, but one that rests on the positive disadvantage of the majority. He argues that only legislation which imposes disadvantages upon the majority would be constitutionally nonsuspect. Only the imposition of such disadvantages insures the possibility that legislation, which on its face has no discriminatory purpose, is really nondiscriminatory.
The Court has come very close to this position in its recent interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Weber), The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (United Jewish Organizations), and the Public Works Employment Act of 1977 (Fullilove). The Court has viewed these essentially as remedies fashioned by a permanent, monolithic majority for the relief of discrete and insular minorities. These remedies necessarily impose disadvantages on individual members of the majority. But the Court, like Professor Ely, is mistaken; the guarantee of justice does not rest upon a test of who is disadvantaged or whether the disadvantage amounts to "stigma," but whether the common good is served. The most obvious cases in point are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The singular fact to emerge from the 1960 election was the solid vote of urban blacks which accounted for Kennedy's narrow margin of victory over Nixon. Since this same urban vote had gone for Eisenhower in 1956, the evident political strategy for the Democrats in the 1960's was to consolidate this vote in the Democratic camp. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whatever altruism they may have displayed as remedies for "historic" discrimination, were a large part of the attempt to keep the urban black vote solidly Democratic. They were thus, not laws intended to protect those who were "isolated from the majoritarian political process," but a recognition that blacks had become a significant and crucial part of the governing majority.
This is Madisonian politics at its best, creating a situation where it is in the interest of the majority to protect and extend the rights and interests of the minority. Probably no finer examples of legislation serving the common good in this respect can be found than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But treating these acts as class remedies for class injuries undermines the ground of the common good upon which they rest. Understanding American politics in terms of "monolithic" majorities and "discrete and insular minorities" precludes the possibility of creating a common interest or common ground that transcends racial or class considerations. By transforming the Fourteenth Amendment into an instrument of class politics, the Court—and Professor Ely—run the considerable risk either of making a majority faction more likely, as the majority inevitably becomes more aware of itself as a majority, or of transforming the liberal regime into one no longer based on majority rule.
OF NEO-CONS AND DONS
"Ethics—In Education, Business, and Politics"
Peter F. Drucker
The Public Interest
Number 63, Spring, 1981
pp. 3-94, $3.50
Aristotle for Everybody—Difficult Thought Made Easy
Mortimer J. Adler
New York: Macmillan, Bantam Paperback Edition, 1980
Essays on Aristotle's Ethics
Edited by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
438 pp., $7.95
By Ken Masugi
That we consciously choose one way of life rather than others would seem to imply that reflection on this choice makes some difference concerning our happiness. Classical philosophy referred to what today are called "lifestyles" as "ethics." Yet contemporary students, thoroughly abetted by their teachers, believe that individual preference is the core of ethics. One person's lifestyle or value judgment (as Secretary of State Haig would put it) is as valid as another's.
The works reviewed here reject this premise of contemporary student and scholarly thought. All can make some contribution toward combating the prevalent relativism; nevertheless, each work is seriously flawed in a way which is typical of virtually all scholarly reflection about ethics since Aristotle. These writings evince once again the failure to take seriously the place of splendor (usually translated as "beautiful" or "noble," from the Greek kalon) in the way we live our lives.
Let us begin, in Aristotle's spirit, with a work concerning the immediate political, economic, and educational implications of current ethical teachings. The spring issue, 1981, of The Public Interest contains papers from a symposium on ethics in education, business, and politics. The contributors are Peter F. Drucker, the renowned Clarke Professor of Social Science at the Claremont Graduate School; Public Interest assistant managing editor Mark Lilla; economist and strategic analyst Thomas Schelling; professor of physics and philosophy Martin Eger; and professor of philosophy Andrew Oldenquist. Each makes instructive criticisms of prevailing academic trends in the study of ethics, and the practical application of ethics in the fields of business, public service education, economics, and the new moral education.
It should be kept in mind that The Public Interest, with Commentary, is the leading organ of neo-conservatism. Now the neo-conservatives are critics above all else. An insistence on sobriety and a suspicion of the Utopian or impractical run throughout their writing. Neo-conservatives are superb at disrobing the crackpot beneath the mortarboard. Well acquainted with the academy, they know the true quality of a phony doctor (aka Ph.D.). They know that words and theories about men in society must recognize the old Adam, who will not easily allow himself to be quantified, categorized, or preached to. Not that neo-conservatives have no ideals; theirs are the solid, tested, workable ideals of tradition, constantly brought up to date by cautious practice. Hence the chief neo-conservative ideal is liberty, soberly understood. America they say, was born in a revolution of sober expectations, and it ought to rediscover and honor that tradition. Yet we must never romanticize the past, nor dwell on a rosy pink future: there lies the road to fanaticism and disillusionment. The sober neo-conservative walks a straight line between romantic reactionism and revolutionary utopianism. Having a lump in your throat may get you a bushel full on the head.
Who are these men and women? They include Democrats and Republicans, socialists and supply-side economists, politicians and publicists. They have in common an opposition to the deterioration of American foreign policy in the 60's. They also believe that many of the political and social programs of that period—e.g., antipoverty programs, affirmative action, and SALT—were muddleheaded and counter productive. Thus neo-conservatives now hold policies that real conservatives advocated in the 60's, but which they—then liberals—had spurned as reactionary, primitive, or racist. Born again, the neo-conservatives are older and wiser. (By the way, never ever take "neo-conservative" to be a highbrow appellation for "new right," which is quite, quite different.) Nationally prominent politicians who would be considered neo-conservatives include Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Though one finds a great deal of good sense in neo-conservative thought and practice, agreement on a political program does not betoken agreement on ultimate ends, on the most important questions of human life, that is, ethics. Since the most informative debates occur between those who already agree upon much, a focus here on a few fundamental questions will be most illuminating.
It is not possible within the limits of this review to discuss each essay. Let us then focus on the business ethics essay, since so many students today are preoccupied with making a living by going into business. Moreover, such a study gives us an opportunity of discussing one of Claremont's own, Professor Peter Drucker. No label, such as neo-conservative, appropriately describes this eclectic gentleman. Even eclectic seems a bromide. Drucker has written on a wide variety of subjects—fascism, management, American politics, and Japanese art, among them—throughout his broad-ranging career as a banker, writer, consultant, and teacher. (His Adventures of a Bystander is a series of marvelous essays which constitute a sort of biography.) Drucker's virtues are apparent once again in his article "What is Business Ethics?" But a major defect of all the articles, and of the neo-conservatism The Public Interest espouses, is evident as well.
"'Business ethics,'" Drucker declares, "is not 'ethics' at all, . . ." and in fact qualifies as "'ethical chic' . . . [which is] more a media event than philosophy or morals." It is gross indulgence in "sophistry and . . . non-questions"(pp. 25, 30, 32). The main problem is that business ethics implies a separate standard for one part of the society: businessmen. Thus, it would appear to be yet another means for its advocates to cleanse the land of its J.R. Ewings. But Drucker points out that maintaining a separate standard for business will "end up as a fig leaf for the shameless and as special pleading for the powerful and the wealthy"(p. 34). (In other words, J.R. is probably bankrolling all those seminars on business ethics.)
Drucker deftly dismisses as fatuous the recent hand-wringing over business payoffs to foreign governments to obtain contracts, as well as the indignation over alleged payments made by the Secretary of Labor's construction company to union officials who threatened his employees and property. Drucker maintains that under "traditional ethics" the businesses' actions would be regarded as simple knuckling under to force. Now the new business ethics brands such knuckling under as immoral, when in fact it is no more immoral than being mugged. (Consider what he says in his essay on Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors' chief executive, in Adventures of a Bystander. There he discusses the Naderites and other critics of the corporations' failure to accept responsibility. Taken to its extreme—and Drucker does not explicitly carry the argument this far—the Naderites are demanding something like the corporate society envisioned by fascism in its original phases. It is impossible, morally, politically, and economically, to require that a corporation or any other group or individual be responsible without also having authority, which in turn implies power. Thus the argument for corporate responsibility becomes a justification for formally acknowledged corporate power.)
In his survey of western ethical thought Drucker finds that "the ethics of prudence and self-development," originating in Aristotle and culminating in its "ultimate triumph and its reduction to absurdity in Machiavelli's Prince," would restrain society's leaders (including business executives) from behavior which they would disapprove of in others (p. 27). But, he argues, the ethics of prudence must be supplemented by the Confucian "ethics of interdependence," which locates moral conduct in the proper behavior of members of organizations to each other. "Right behavior . . . is that individual behavior which is truly appropriate to the specific relationship of mutual dependence because it optimizes benefits for both parties"(p. 30). Drucker was forced to turn to the East because he failed fully to appreciate the wisdom of the West, particularly that of the founder of the ethics of prudence, Aristotle.
Drucker's and the neo-conservatives' misunderstanding of Aristotle's prudence distorts their own comprehension of the relationship between ethics and politics. By prudence Aristotle meant the intellectual excellence which enables men to choose the way to splendor and justice, the two main elements of classical morality. (Prudence must not be simply identified with a quality Aristotle called cleverness, which is the intellectual capacity of men to obtain whatever they happen to want—splendor or baseness, good or evil, justice or injustice.) Following attacks on Aristotle by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Kant, splendor virtually disappeared in thinking about ethics. (Nietzsche made a desperate, futile attempt to revive it in his notion of the noble.)
What the ancients knew as splendor, which was manifested in great political deeds, has for modern men deteriorated into something soft, sensual, and trivial. Splendor has been reduced to the merely pleasant. Knick-knacks have replaced monuments; aesthetes, students of politics.
For Aristotle splendor was the aim of ethical or moral excellence. Splendor can exist in such grand actions as heroic deeds in battle, generous acts of giving, and proud defiance of foes, as well as in more frequently practicable qualities such as an elegant sense of humor and an amiability which avoids the extremes of surliness and obsequiousness. As diverse as these activities are, a prudent man will see the splendor in each of them and practice them. A common notion of splendor creates a political community, and all political communities require deeds of splendor in order to survive.
And so it should not be surprising that the best examples of prudent men are statesmen. Consider Lincoln in his action in transforming a war to preserve the Union into war against slavery, or Churchill in his efforts to warn England to the dangers of Nazism and his subsequent rallying of the English and the Western spirit against Hitler. The neo-conservatives fail to capture this heroic dimension of prudence. Hence they regard the Constitution as the height of the American nation, whereas an Aristotelian would point to the most splendid part, namely, Lincoln.
Blind to the splendor which is the object of prudence, the neo-conservatives come close to identifying prudence with mere instrumental reason; that is, calculation (with no regard to its object) or what Aristotle called cleverness. They would, of course, criticize the intrusion of such a dangerous, arbitrary instrument into ethics. This criticism underlies Mark Lilla's attempt to draw a clear distinction between ethics and ethos. The latter, he contends, relies on habit and custom (allegedly according to Aristotle, and more recently Oakeshott) while the former relies on pure reason (Kant and Rawls). But an ethics resting on pure reason alone becomes an intellectual game, a wholly theoretical endeavor. Born of such a theoretical attitude, "applied ethics" or "values clarification" offers a myriad of rationalizations for whatever course of action a body might desire.
But without an intellectual excellence such as prudence, which can discern splendor and separate what is truly splendid from an illusion, the neo-conservatives can provide no basis for their ethics. This comes out most dearly in Andrew Oldenquist's attempt to defend society's promulgation of (as he insists on putting it, indoctrination in) the values which will sustain it. This defense is unobjectionable, as far as it goes, but it leaves open the all-important question, to what end ought we to be educating people? What ethic will in fact sustain our society? What do we want society to be like in the future? Neo-conservatives are, again, superb in their critiques of contemporary trends. But their own limited notions of reason and ethics, which result from their inattentiveness to Aristotle's virtue of prudence, leave their critiques groundless and thus ultimately indefensible. The neo-conservatives do not and cannot truly inspire.
We smile at the ingenuousness of Mortimer Adler's title, Aristotle for Everybody—Difficult Thought Made Easy. But Adler, dedicated teacher that he is, is quite serious. Adler, who refers to himself as a "philosopher at large," has dedicated his life to restoring "philosophy to its proper place in our culture." This endeavor has led him from the associate editorship of the Great Books of the Western World to his current attempts to teach great books to high school students. However, derided as a huckster of higher education and even made the butt of academic jokes, Adler once observed, "I've been run out of the academy."
Aristotle for Everybody is written for everybody from twelve years old on up, "except professional philosophers." This Bantam Paperback features brief chapters and simple language. The aim of this fine introduction to the spirit of Aristotle is to portray Aristotle's "uncommon common sense." For its section on "Man the Doer," which we will focus on here, this book can justly claim a place beside C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man in the current attempts to combat the mindless, facile relativism regnant on college campuses today. (In academic jargon Adler would be classified as a Neo-Thomist.)
Most of "Man the Doer" can be read as a gloss on the first few sentences of Aristotle's Ethics. Adler emphasizes man's capacity for choice, his need to devise a plan for living a happy or good life. In a truly good life, one chooses the real as opposed to the apparent goods. "The things that are really good for you are the things that satisfy your natural needs. . . . real goods are things we need, whether we are conscious of the need or not. Their goodness consists in their satisfying a desire inherent in human nature" (pp. 80-81). Adler explains that we need some things as means to others, such as money. Other things we prize in themselves, such as knowledge and friends. In order to choose well among both types of goods, men need moral excellences such as temperance, courage, and justice. Aristotle believed that human life should be consciously spent in the "pursuit of happiness," as Jefferson would put it 2200 years later. The author of the Declaration would agree with the philosopher, that the political community exists to promote the pursuit of happiness.
By his own admission Adler oversimplifies. He has never allowed himself "to be drawn off the main path by the qualifications, the complications, and the subtleties that Aristotle himself introduces. . ."(p. 175). But Adler also errs drastically when he claims that Aristotle favored the Greek practice of slavery, when he actually condemned the prevalent, conventional slavery. A more important flaw is that Adler's focus on needs, in his explanation of Aristotle's view of human life as a set of choices, excludes splendor as an object. Thus, in the discussion of the moral excellences, Adler reverses the order of Aristotle's treatment of courage and of temperance. Adler commences his discussion of excellence with temperance, whereas Aristotle begins with courage, the courage of a soldier on a battlefield. Above all the other virtues, courage raises the questions of whether the life one is living is indeed worth living, and for what causes one ought to risk that life. By contrast, Adler, while not incorrect, is prosaic. He explains that "pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life" (p. 95). Thus courage enables us to see that, say, to play a musical instrument well we may have to practice hard. However, to gain credibility for his argument, Adler has to sacrifice even mentioning the end of morality, splendor. And it is the goal of splendor which attracts and inspires men of spirit (thumos), who long to possess it. The moral man we discover in Adler's Aristotle is a sober democrat, and certainly American democracy today is in great need of such citizens. But it is problematic (at best) whether American democracy or the best way of living can be understood through an Aristotle devoid of splendor and the spiritedness which wants to possess it.
Amelie Oksenberg Rorty's compilation of recent articles on Aristotle's Ethics consists of twenty-one essays by seventeen different authors, including such well-known figures in Anglo-American philosophy departments as J.L. Ackrill, John M. Cooper, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams. Rorty has organized the selections into a running commentary on the text of the Ethics. Although the essays are clearly intended for a scholarly audience, Rorty claims, "What attracts contemporary classical philosophers to Aristotle's ethics is . . . the investigation of a self-contained, enormously illuminating theory, rich in practical consequences as well as in theoretical insights" (p. 3). Like Adler, she wishes to educate her readers in their conduct. But the editor's own illuminating essay on the contemplative life and a few other exceptions aside, this volume will not have the desired effects on practice or theory—and happily so. This is a book for scholars, not for students interested in ethics, that is, living better lives.
Virtually all of the essays here bear the ponderous traits of the school of linguistic analysis currently dominating Anglo-American departments of philosophy. Several of the contributors are at times unbearably smug. They assume superiority to Aristotle, hence, they fail to realize that he may be making an argument quite different from their own. For example, they do not take seriously Aristotle's description of the Ethics as an outline, nor that his procedure is the refinement of the phenomena under investigation. Most of the essays are dry and spiritless. For linguistic analysts philosophy is puzzle-solving. They treat arguments as tiles of a Rubik's Cube to be manipulated into place, rather than as alternatives concerning the way one lives.
The contributors to this volume may best be denominated intellectuals. Evidently they would justify their scholarship on the grounds that they live a version of the theoretical or contemplative life, which Aristotle regarded as the highest and the happiest. But the Rorty intellectuals' implicit claim to do so is highly questionable. Consider for a moment the meaning of contemplation or theorizing (theorein); it means simply to look at or observe. The contemplative life is the life of observation. Taking contemplation in this strict sense one might surmise that the many Americans who spend hours staring at television are leading the highest life according to Aristotle. Now this is of course a terrible misconstruction of contemplation, because contemplation discriminates in its objects. Do we dare say that the contemporary academy makes a similar error in believing it partakes of the heights of human existence and happiness, when in fact it leads a slavish, bestial life? Like Aristotle's incontinent man, the Rorty intellectuals know the words of the arguments but lack comprehension. The arguments have no more meaning for them than do the mere words of an argument for men who are asleep, mad, drunk, or beginning students (Ethics, VII. 3). They lack understanding because they lack spirit and a regard for splendor, the splendor found in political life. It is not that they never mention splendor; they simply do not take it very seriously.
The most prominent instance of their denigration of splendor occurs in the omission of an essay on pride (literally, "great-souledness," megalopsuchia), "a crown of the excellences. . . all-perfect excellence" (IV. 3). An exegesis of this virtue would have required political examples, and linguistic analysts tend to be apolitical. (Consider the Tom Stoppard film, Professional Foul, in which a British linguistic analyst visits Prague for a philosophy conference and then gradually discovers that he cannot abide by the conventions of Communism.) The Rorty intellectuals suffer from the vice affiliated with pride, not arrogance but humility ("small-souledness," mikropsuchia). The small-souled do not regard themselves as worthy of great accomplishments, so they shrink from striving for splendor. Aristotle regarded this vice as the worst, for it is at root of all the others. The Rorty intellectuals have failed to take to heart Aristotle's teaching. Lacking spirit themselves, they cannot inspirit their students about the virtues.
Finally, their failure to acknowledge the proper place of splendor in human life prevents them from rising above linguistic analysis to philosophy. Rorty describes Aristotle's prudent man as seeming "to resemble a stodgy well brought-up gentleman" (p. 386). The slightest recollection of the statesman's virtue, prudence, with its aim of splendor, would have allayed this thought. Indeed, by denying splendor as one of the objects of prudence, modern ethical thought shrinks not only the scope of ethics but of reason itself. The ultimate effect of slighting splendor is to make philosophy, the highest exercise of reason, impossible. In order to philosophize, ancient philosophy contended, men must confront their political element. This in turn means serious reflection on splendor and the deeds which citizens regard as splendid. One cannot fully exercise reason, the ancients maintained, unless one reflects on splendor. This is why in Aristotle's Politics the two great descriptions of man follow so closely on one another: man is by nature a political animal, and man is the being possessing logos, "rational speech."
Those who seek to reflect intelligently on ethics—and thus to read Aristotle in the proper spirit (and especially those who wish to teach Aristotle)—need to combine the political concerns of the neo-conservatives, the popular appeal and pedagogical passion of Adler, and the scholarship of the Rorty intellectuals with a true appreciation of splendor. True students of the liberal arts can find such a discipline in political philosophy which, among other inquiries, examines the splendor of political actions. Now Adler maintains that the last thing he would recommend to a beginning student is to read the works of Aristotle, and in this he may well be correct. A beginning student would surely be better off examining the speeches and deeds of statesmen such as Lincoln and Churchill, or the writings of the most prominent Aristotelian of our time, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Such an Aristotelian approach to the study of human life is needed now more than ever. For not only living a good life but simply surviving may depend on our understanding of these matters. Recall what Solzhenitsyn once said about courage: "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. . . . from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end." As Senator Moynihan once put it, in concluding an argument against social science foolishness, "It is curious how often we end where Aristotle began."
THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE
The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives
Edited by Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman
Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1980
288 pp., $25.00 ($11.95 paper)
By Carolyn Parker
The radical concepts formed by Russian artists during the Bolshevik Revolution are among the most important but least recognized sources of American contemporary culture. The skyscraper and advertising, respectively the emblem of postwar American culture and the most ubiquitous facet of American life, reflect the formal and intellectual influence of the Russian avant-garde. The first large scale exhibition of Russian avant-garde art by an American museum, without loans of art from Soviet Russia, was presented from July, 1980 to February, 1981. It was jointly sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum and the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The purpose of the exhibition and its catalogue is to present to the American public an unrecognized but significant source of modern art.
In its early stages the Russian avant-garde was guided by the principle of art for art's sake. This was expressed in a number of styles, including Neo-Primitivism, Rayonism, Cubo-Futurism, and Suprematism. The Russian avant-garde shared a concern for the formal elements of art (color, line, plane, and texture) with the Western avant-garde movements of Cubism (1906) and Futurism (1907). In search of a new system of aesthetics, artists of both the Russian and the Western avant-garde abandoned such traditional elements of art as subject matter, representation, and illusionistic perspective. Within the Russian avant-garde this search led quickly, although not uniformly, to nonobjective art styles. Kandinsky's expressionistic abstractions of 1910-11, and Larinov's Rayonist paintings of 1912, are good examples. Suprematism and Constructivism culminated this development.
The common ground of the Russian avant-garde styles was their revolutionary artistic and political character. Each style was understood to be a deliberate renunciation of traditional Western art. The desire for a total break with the artistic past was joined with the desire for political revolution. The rejection of traditional art was thought to be necessary to modern man's new understanding of reality, and was merely one part of a total repudiation of traditional Western Civilization.
Initially concerned with new aesthetic formulations of art for art's sake, the movement turned in 1920 to a utilitarian concept of art. Pavel Mansurov, painter and head of the theoretical section of The Institute of Artistic Culture in Petrograd, is representative of the Russian avant-garde movement. In the sixth point of his 1923 "Declaration," he states the following: "Down with religion, the family, aesthetics, and philosophy" (p. 206 [All citations, unless otherwise noted, refer to the catalog.—Editor]). The Revolutionary government gave official sanction to the passionate belief of the avant-garde artists, that new aesthetic theories were a vital part of the foundation of "modern Soviet society." Leading avant-garde artists embraced Bolshevik social doctrine and were in turn empowered to establish museums, theatres, schools of art, mass entertainments, and propaganda instruments on the basis of their new theories. When the Soviet government began to censure the avant-garde in the late 1920's, many of the artists left Russia for Western Europe and America. They brought with them the radical ideas which had been formed in the atmosphere of the Russian Revolution.
With their Neo-Primitive paintings (1908-1912), the Russians Larinov, Goncharova, and Malevich rejected classical Western art. In rediscovering the flat forms of native Russian folk art and icons, they took the first step toward nonobjective art. While Neo-Primitive painting retained some narrative and figural elements, emphasis was on clearly defined, flat shapes and strong, unmodulated color. In the nonnaturalistic conventions of Russian folk art and religious icons, Neo-Primitive artists found encouragement to explore conventions of anti-illusionistic, two-dimensional composition. Through increasing emphasis on texture—on the physical surface of the canvas as the main carrier of expression—Larinov had by 1913 introduced Rayonism, a genuinely abstract style. An offshoot of Cubism, Rayonism conveys emotions through visual equivalents of the new scientific concepts of time and space. Larinov explained it as the creation of "spatial forms through the crossing of reflected light rays from various objects" (p. 14). Cubo-Futurism, like Rayonism, was also a Russian avant-garde response to Cubism. Cubo-Futurist painters, including Larinov, Goncharova, and Malevich, attempted to convey spatial dimensions through differences in the colors and surface textures of the planes into which the objects depicted had been reduced. With Cubo-Futurism emerged the close relationship between literature and painting that was characteristic of Russian avant-garde styles.
The Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures: 0-10 (1915) marked the end of Russian Cubo-Futurism and introduced the Suprematist paintings of Malevich and the "counter-reliefs" of Tallin. Both artists had a dramatic influence on their contemporaries, and on later generations of Western artists. Malevich's work in particular represents an important difference from that of the Russian painter Kandinsky, the founder of abstract painting. Kandinsky's 1910-1911 abstractions did not represent physical objects of nature but referred still to a "spiritual" object, that of the "inner necessity," which prompts feelings expressed by color, line, and shape. By contrast, the Suprematist paintings of Malevich were an attempt to express "pure feeling or perception . . . independent of the context in which it has been evoked" (See Gardener's Art Through The Ages, 7th ed, p. 826). The "supremacy of pure feeling" led Malevich to a purely "nonobjective" use of color, line, and shape, which does not represent nature but simply creates its own existence. These paintings have neither a spiritual nor a material object. This absolute nonobjectivity implies both nihilism and iconoclasm. It also led to Agitational Propaganda Art ("Agit-Prop Art") and gave way to Soviet Socialist Realism.
The 1913 Suprematist painting Black Quadrilateral (which is exactly that) can be understood as the ultimate repudiation of traditional art. For Suprematism there is no reality other than the nonobjective world. Suprematism rejects all past styles of painting and the philosophies and world views which formed them. At the same time the implications of Malevich's statements about the Black Quadrilateral, as well as its physical placement in the 0-20 exhibition, leave room for an interpretation advanced by the art historian Jean-Claude Marcade. Marcade quotes Malevich: "The form of modernity is the rectangle. In it four points triumph over three points" (p. 21). Marcade points out that for many centuries the divine had been symbolized by the triangle. He continues to quote Malevich, who called the Black Quadrilateral "the face of the new art, . . . a living, royal infant," and the "the icon of my time." Marcade notes that during the 0-20 exhibition the painting was hung "high in the corner like the central icon of the 'beautiful corner' [of an Orthodox home]. . . . There could be no better indication, in an exoteric fashion, than this of the profoundly iconic character of 'Suprematism of Painting'" (p. 22). The Russian emigre artist Michail Grobman writes in a similar vein in his essay "About Malevich." "So the Suprematist construction of Malevich," Grobman states, "is nothing else but this same attempt at conquering time and space by a visual means which is the experience of teaching the consciousness of the superman" (p. 26). Malevich did not merely supplant one style with another, or supplant representation with non-objectivity. He replaced the spiritual and material duality of classical Western philosophy with a nihilist world view. The radical nature of this change is underscored by the blasphemy inherent in the use of an antireligious image in the traditional place occupied by the icon of Christ. Suprematism presents nihilism as a religion, a religion of nonobjectivity. In the Suprematist work of Malevich lies the nonobjective geometric formality that attracted the first generation of American abstract formalist painters, of the 1940's and 1950's, and the Minimal or Primary painters and sculptors (named for their use of Primary geometric forms) of the 1960's. Present as well is the concept that the "meaning is in the use" of a work of art, which is central to the entire tradition of American Conceptual and Minimal art of the 1960's and 1970's.
The "counter-reliefs" of Vladimir Tallin were also introduced at the 0-10 exhibition. Tallin began painting counter-reliefs after he visited Picasso's Paris studio in 1913, and saw there the collage reliefs Picasso had made using recognizable objects out of the environment. Tallin's counter-reliefs, more abstract than Picasso's collage reliefs, were nonobjective assemblages of industrial materials, based on the concept that each material generates its own set of forms. The concern of Constructivism, as this style was called, was real space (sculpture) rather than pictorial space (painting). Constructivist sculpture asserts a sculptural space, rather than presenting the traditional concept of a sculpture of mass; that is, a form created by taking away mass, chiseling, or adding mass, modeling. Along with Tallin's emphasis on a culture of materials grew the concept of the "active" process of construction (assembly) out of composite parts. The constructive process was conceived as a fusion of art and life; a rejection of the "elitist" concept of high art. This anti-elitist impulse would eventually lead to the inclusion of the environment and the spectator the work of art, and into the process of construction of the work of art.
By 1920 Tallin and Rodchenko had directed Constructivism toward an antiaesthetic utilitarian posture. Later Constructivism aspired to serve the Russian Revolution through practical applications of Constructivist art to engineering, architecture, industrial design, theatre design, and book design. "Productivists," as the militant utilitarians were called, renounced individualistic art enterprises in favor of collective engineering. The desire of the early Russian avant-garde for "modern Russian" art became the desire for an art form acceptable to a society of the masses. Art for art's sake became a dishonorable intention; effective communication to the new mass society became all important. The decade of the 1920's saw the decline of easel painting and the dominance of Agitational Propaganda Art, "Agit-Prop Art"; art in the service of the communication of Soviet doctrine to the masses. Mass spectacles (such as the "Storming of the Winter Palace"), billboard trains, and theatrical performances were commissioned by the Soviet Regime and executed by avant-garde artists. This enthusiastic union of the Soviet regime and the Russian avant-garde lasted only until the late 1920's. Soviet approval was then withdrawn in favor of Socialist Realism, a propagandists aesthetic theory more easily understood by the masses. Soviet Socialist Realism was codified as the only acceptable style in 1934 under Stalin, although the denunciation of the avant-garde had begun almost ten years earlier during the Stalinist-Trotskyite power struggle. As the more individualistic artists were suppressed, purged, or fled Russia, the exceptional variety of approaches that distinguished the earlier avant-garde dwindled.
The Russian artists spread the basic tenets of Russian avant-garde culture across Western Europe and America. Productivism encouraged creative approaches to mundane design requirements of life. Many innovations introduced during this period, into theatre set and costume design, cinema, photography, and typography, are still visible in Western culture long after their suppression in Russia. The principles of 3-dimensional construction formulated between 1915 and 1923 by Malevich, and influential then among the Constructivists, passed via his students (most notably Lissitzky) through the Bauhaus to the International Style of architecture. In turn, this style dominated architecture in Western Europe and America from World War I until after World War II. Pale reflections of the radical transformation of book design and typography, also effected by Lissitzky, as well as other avant-garde designers, are still visible in advertising and in the pages of popular magazines in America. El Lissitzky is the Russian avant-garde artist principally responsible for the transmission of Soviet culture to Europe. In brief, the influence of Russian avant-garde art has not been limited to Western painting and sculpture; it has been important to the general development of the Arts in the West.
The two dominant lines of 20th century abstraction were pioneered by Russians; abstract expressionism by Kandinsky and geometric abstraction by Malevich. Abstract expressionism dominated American art of the 1940's and 1950's and, for the first time, American art led the art of Western Europe. Geometric abstraction dominated the 1960's and 1970's. Ad Reinhardt, himself a source of inspiration for younger American artists of the 1960's, admits that his work clearly embodies the spirit of Malevich. The American formalist abstract painters, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella, were also influenced by Malevich. In the exhibition's catalogue, Maurice Tuchman (Senior Curator, Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) discusses the relationship of the Russian avant-garde with contemporary American artists. Tuchman emphasizes Frank Stella's importance to American art of the 1960's, and Stella's admiration for Malevich and other Russian avant-garde artists. Stella himself points to the influence of the Russians on the Minimal artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre. Other heirs of Russian Constructivist theories include the American sculptors David Hare, George Rickey, and Richard Serra. "In the 1960's," Patrick Ireland observed, "we talked Paris but looked at Moscow" (p. 119). Some groups of American Constructivist artists looked to Moscow to discern "how and where" the Russians displayed their work. Others looked to discern "why." The sculpture collective of the Park Place group (Mark Di Suvero, Frosty Myers, Ed Ruda, Peter Forakis, Robert Grosvenor) was drawn to the social intentions of the Russian avant-garde. The Park Place group saw themselves as "pioneers, breaking down the capitalist system; we were antigallery" (p. 120). Tuchman presents a strong claim for the influence of the Russian avant-garde on contemporary American art: from Minimalism to Conceptualism, from artists as activists to artists' collectives, the historical precedent was to be found in the Russian avant-garde movement. Some Americans found formal, others intellectual, precedents for the inclinations in their own work. "In Minimalism, the Russians' socially conscious endeavor is startlingly inverted: in place of the revolutionary artists' desire to change the world, the Americans of the 1960's appeared to want to 'torture the middle class,' as one artist put it, with art that was 'hostile; aggressive, resistant, and boring" (Barbara Rose on Minimalism, p. 119). While the Russian's ideas were often transformed or inverted in the process of assimilation, an understanding of American art of the last three decades is incomplete without an understanding of the Russian avant-garde movement and its legacy.
Nevertheless, the Russian avant-garde movement has been comparatively neglected by scholars and the public because of a number of factors. Of all the important modern art movements—Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism—the art of the Russian avant-garde is unique in its physical inaccessibility to both scholars and the public. At its height from 1914 until immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, avant-garde culture was initially embraced and then repudiated by the Revolutionary government. Avant-garde works in Russia that were not destroyed in the political struggles preceding and following the Revolution have been suppressed by official Soviet policy, which considers them an aberrant prelude to Socialist Realism. Any attempt to secure loans of Soviet-owned avant-garde art falls victim to aesthetic and political controls imposed by the Soviet government—as recent attempts in London (1971), New York (1977), and Paris (1979) demonstrate. Within the Soviet Union, the official stance regarding the avant-garde is sufficiently hostile to hinder any inclination by Soviet scholars to do objective research on the subject. Neither does the study of Russian avant-garde art benefit from the normal inquisitiveness of scholars about their own country's past, which often motivates such men to inquire diligently into even trivial matters. With Russian holdings of avant-garde art inaccessible to Western art historians, and Soviet historians reluctant to risk official displeasure, serious study of the Russian avant-garde relies heavily on the rather surprising amount of this art that has found its way to the West.
The organizers of this exhibition were judicious in their decision to limit themselves to Western collections to avoid the compromises imposed by Soviet loans. However, this decision was not maintained in the choice of essayists for the catalogue. Of the nineteen essays that form the body of the catalogue, three are written by Moscow professors and art historians and two by a Warsaw art critic. There is already considerable inherent difficulty in understanding the varied degrees of emphasis on the spiritual, philosophical, political, and formal aspects of art within the work of the Russian avant-garde. Vasilii Rakitin (identified in the catalogue only as "an art historian, Moscow"), in his essay on the avant-garde artist Gustav Klucis, concludes that "it is impossible to separate political tendentiousness from the artist's own creative value. . . ." It is likewise difficult, but important, for the reader to distinguish between the political beliefs of the artists and the tendentiousness of the essayists. Rakitin himself demonstrates this predisposition toward an acceptable understanding of the avant-garde throughout his essay. "But it is not politic to hasten with accusations," Rakitin states, "and we will not accuse those who believe that industrialization would solve all problems and that it would open the gates to the 'paradise' of a new life, the 'Soviet dream.'" Also, in a good anti-Stalinist vein, he claims that "art now aspired to a social classicism. Fervor was replaced by a stipulated program as people pretended that Utopia had become fact—an idyllic decoration concealed a complex and menacing reality" (p. 63).
Perhaps a less obvious political ambiguity is shown by the other Soviet contributors. Dimitri Sarabianov (Moscow University), in an essay on Popova, refers to Popova's death as occurring "just as the avant-garde movement was entering a state of decline. . ."(p. 42). He neglects to mention that the decline was imposed by an official Soviet policy of suppression and extermination. In his discussion of the artist El Lissitzky, Boris Brodsky (Moscow) emphasizes Lissitzky's Jewish origins. By analogy drawn on the comparison of Lissitzky's "figures"—graphic, abstract personalities such as his "Sportsman" or "Innovator"—and the monstrous Golem of the Legend of Prague, Brodsky accuses Lissitzky of viewing himself as a "Magus and demiurge." That is, he accuses Lissitzky of believing himself possessed of God-like creative power (pp. 94, 95). In his conclusion, Brodsky first praises Lissitzky's rejection of the traditional European view of a God-centered cosmos, and his acceptance of radical Soviet atheism. He then condemns Lissitzky for his belief that the function of the printed word is to "educate, to remake the human species." This condemnation implies that Lissitzky feels himself part of an intellectual elite whose role it is to educate the masses, an idea contrary to the official Soviet understanding of the press as the mirror of the "thoughts and aspirations of the millions" (pp. 96, 97). Similarly, the Warsaw art critic Szymon Bojko's predispositions are observable in his enthusiastic proclamation that "history has ennobled the mass-meeting style of Maiakovsky's poetry, the agitational range of Vertov's film truth, the tendentious impact of Meierkhold's and Tairov's staging, the agitational blatancy of the "Rosta windows" posters, as well as the many unrealized artistic ideas of the monumental propaganda plan" (p. 72).
In contrast to the Soviet essayists' political tendentiousness, there is a tendency on the part of some of the European and American essayists to overlook or de-emphasize the radical political content of Russian avant-garde ideas, ideas which have become commonly accepted in Western culture. This radical intellectual and political content is intimately bound to many of the formal concepts of the Russian avant-garde artists, and should not be ignored in light of the prevalence of these formal concepts in contemporary art. A cautious reader, aware of the different biases of contributing scholars, can find in The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930: New Perspectives an illuminating and much needed addition to the literature on this subject. The essays by Stephanie Barren (Associate Curator, Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Magdalena Dabrowski (Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York) should be of particular interest to the general reader. Other essays convey fascinating glimpses of the mentality of revolutionary Russia's intellectual elite, as well as a disturbing realization of its eventual fate. Not the least informative part of the catalogue are the photographs (all illustrations are in black and white) of artists, students, participants in mass theatre production, and of the Revolutionary Russian people in general.