gall and gumption

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Email from Tom: "the dog will not bite." So I followed the link which took me to a NPR piece about a new book on Rousseau. It sounds interesting, and the guys who wrote it sound interesting.

One of the great passages by Burke that is quoted in the O'Brien book is his assessment of Rousseau's character and the role his work played in the French Revolution. The Reflections caused a sensation, and after they came out Burke wrote his 1791 Letter to a Member of the National Assembly" which took up a couple of points the Reflections didn't quite get to. So the letter is like further thoughts. The passage on Rousseau is only part of the letter and is quite long itself, so here's just a small snip:

The assembly recommends to its youth a study of the bold experimenters in morality. Everybody knows that there is a great dispute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance of Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day, or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polycletus; he is their standard figure of perfection. To this man and this writer, as a pattern to authors and to Frenchmen, the foundries of Paris are now running for statues, with the kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches. If an author had written like a great genius on geometry, though his practical and speculative morals were vicious in the extreme, it might appear, that in voting the statue, they honoured only the geometrician. But Rousseau is a moralist, or he is nothing. It is impossible, therefore, putting the circumstances together, to mistake their design in choosing the author with whom they have begun to recommend a course of studies.

Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action. They find dispositions in the mind of such force and quality as may fit men, far better than the old morality, for the purposes of such a state as theirs, and may go much further in supporting their power, and destroying their enemies. They have therefore chosen a selfish, flattering, seductive, ostentatious vice, in the place of plain duty. True the basis of the Christian system, humility, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance, they have totally discarded. Their object is to merge all natural and all social sentiment in inordinate vanity. In a small degree, and conversant in little things, vanity is of little moment. When full grown, it is the worst of vices, and the occasional mimic of them all. It makes the whole man false. It leaves nothing sincere or trustworthy about him. His best qualities are poisoned and perverted by it, and operate exactly as the worst. When your lords had many writers as immoral as the object of their statue (such as Voltaire and others) they chose Rousseau; because in him that peculiar vice, which they wished to erect into ruling virtue, was by far the most conspicuous.

We have had the great professor and founder of the philosophy of vanity in England. As I had good opportunities of knowing his proceedings almost from day to day, he left no doubt on my mind that he entertained no principle either to influence his heart, or to guide his understanding but vanity. With this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness. It is from the same deranged, eccentric vanity, that this, the insane Socrates of the National Assembly, was impelled to publish a mad confession of his mad faults, and to attempt a new sort of glory from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices, which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents. He has not observed on the nature of vanity who does not know that it is omnivorous; that it has no choice in its food; that it is fond to talk even of its own faults and vices, as what will excite surprise and draw attention, and what will pass at worst for openness and candour.

It was this abuse and perversion, which vanity makes even of hypocrisy, that has driven Rousseau to record a life not so much as chequered, or spotted here and there, with virtues, or even distinguished by a single good action. It is such a life he chooses to offer to the attention of mankind. It is such a life that, with a wild defiance, he flings in the face of his Creator, whom he acknowledges only to brave. Your assembly, knowing how much more powerful example is found than precept, has chosen this man (by his own account without a single virtue) for a model. To him they erect their first statue. From him they commence their series of honours and distinctions.

Oh dear that still ended up being rather long.

Critics of Burke's style complain(ed) of its heaviness. But if you are moving big heavy things around you can't do it with light self-referential wit, you know. If you read a bit of it out loud you will notice how well it is written to be heard. He's working the resources of English poetry here.

The paragraphs that follow this one continue the critique of Rousseau and he's making a really important Burke point in them: one reason why he dislikes Rousseau so much is because the great believer in universal benevolence gave up all his children for adoption. I mean, like, he had a bunch of children and just -- gave them away one day. His account of his motives is an instance of that vanity. This would enrage someone like Burke, who was a man of intense family affections. He had one son whom he adored. Burke attacks the notion that any meaningful public benevolence could come from a man who so lacked ordinary and natural human affections. That he lays this to vanity is one of those great pieces of Burke insight that is almost prophetic.

The vanity of one foolish man accounts for so much of our current troubles.

Unlike his father, the younger Bush was visibly comfortable in the business of creating fabulous fiction. We know that Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer, "embedded" himself on that carrier days before the President hit the deck. Along with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman and lighting specialist, and Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer, he planned out every detail of the President's landing, as Bumiller put it, "even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the ‘Mission Accomplished' banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ‘magic hour light,' which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush."

The same Puritans who get on the barricades in the Culture War and denounce, in the name of morality, what they choose to call self-indulgent individualism, those same people cheered this bogus theater of truly titanic vanity -- lives, truth, national credibility, national security, civil liberties, the unimaginable sums of money, all gobbled up by it without a thought -- like a bunch of TV Reverends who can't stop blowing the old people's donations on lap dancers.

Suddenly this man is not a public employee any more. He's Big Man. This formula of "liberty" runs on a parallel track to the theory -- which I've never understood the appeal of -- that if Donald Trump has lots and lots of money, it might happen to me some day too. If the president has lots and lots of liberty by depriving me of my little, somehow one day I might get to be like him and have lots more liberty than anybody else. This is the theory under which he operates, the one that maintains that the president is above the law. This is as extreme, narrow, stupid and selfish a theory of liberty as you could ever hope to find anywhere. And yet many people will tolerate it in him because they want it for themselves. Just as they do with Donald Trump's money. When they get money and power they want to have it on the same terms.

Eat your vegetables and you may grow up to do anything you want. But you'd better keep buying those lottery tickets, just as a fallback plan.


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