Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Selections: Aristotle, Chesterton, D. Friedman, Bussel, and Wisdom Book Selections of the Month (January 2010)

Would you rather be a traditionalistic, sword-cane-owning British eccentric, devoted to his wife, living in the early days of the twentieth century — or a highly attractive young person in the early twenty-first century having covert sex on an airplane?

This is the question with which I was confronted (more so than usual) on my recent fortieth birthday. Not simply because I was myself tipping over an important numerical barrier from youth to decay — nor simply because my worldview is in constant tension between old virtues and new possibilities — but because two of my birthday gifts were The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (from Dawn Eden) and a copy of The Mile High Club, a Rachel Kramer Bussel-edited anthology of stories about people having sex on planes (from Jessica Seigel). But before we get to all that, let’s start with the ancient Greeks:

•Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, it’s worth remembering not only that slavery existed a mere hundred years before the Civil Rights Act he helped promote but that slavery was even more common — and less controversial — in the ancient world. Aristotle’s Politics, for all its strengths, begins with multiple chapters explaining the nature and rightness of slavery, rather dismissively asserting that there are obviously people fit to be heads of households and people who would be lost without the guidance of others’ rationality. Aristotle admits that these people do not necessarily find themselves assigned by society to their proper, natural roles, but, hey, close enough, he more or less concludes.

That people from Martha Nussbaum to latter-day Marxists to Ayn Rand (about whom much more next month) nonetheless find inspiration in Aristotle is a testament to his complexity, I suppose. It is admirable that in the Politics, which was essentially lecture notes, he avoids Plato’s method of deducing the one best way of doing things and instead surveys the empirical reality of the multiple city-states of ancient Greece, seeing what lessons can be drawn from the strengths and weaknesses of their diverse constitutions. And by constitution, Aristotle means not a modern, written document but the entire political system of a given city-state — the traditions and laws and social expectations that make it functional. His characteristic emphasis on habituation as central to real-world morals always gives him an impressively contemporary and relevant feel, even when he’s talking about things now alien to us, such as the importance of buying one’s own armor if one expects to have a say in plans to fight the Spartans.

Since countless matters now considered outside the purview of politics by most people fell within the realm of political philosophy in the tighter-knit, more collectivist/tribal world of the ancient polis, Aristotle also finds time to comment on such things as the ideal age for mating men with women, which he concludes should lead to a man being paired with a woman nineteen years his junior. This seems an excessive age difference by about two years to our modern way of thinking, but much has changed in two and a half millennia.

•Keen to find some thread of cultural continuity in all we have experienced since then is our old friend G.K. Chesterton, whose Autobiography was written very shortly before his death in 1936 (at age sixty-two) but is largely concerned with the social changes occurring in England as the earlier Victorian era ended. It’s full of amusing and heartwarming moments, from his fitting first memory — being spellbound by a toy castle and knight — to such surreal (and drunken) adult incidents as him portraying a cowboy alongside George Bernard Shaw and then being in a food fight with numerous other literary luminaries of his day, all of it filmed by the author of Peter Pan for an avant-garde project that was hastily abandoned as frivolous when World War I broke out, though I sorely wish the film had survived.

Chesterton, for all his religiosity (and often-misguided mockery of scientific thinking, right from this book’s sarcastic very first sentence, about how he takes it on faith and the say-so of his elders that he was born in England, etc.), has sensibilities not so terribly unlike my own, inclined as he is to think that warmth and kindness are keys to making us feel at home in the universe, our grateful welcoming of it helping to make it a place welcoming to others and ourselves. Or to put it in less New-Agey terms, I understand his desire, noted in this volume, to write a story about police investigators who slowly learn that the depraved activity in which a local bigwig is engaged is merely the use of his old toy soldiers, a sentimental activity frowned upon by ostensibly more-sophisticated neighbors. Why ever become cynical enough to sneer at — or stop loving — the things that made us happy, well-centered beings in youth? More important, why ever stop being happy, well-centered beings?

For all the goofiness and pretensions of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle project at the Guggenheim several years ago, I couldn’t help thinking that its mix of sci-fi imagery, racecars, animals, mythological beings, and hot chicks was not so unlike the exuberant sort of thing I probably would have done at the Guggenheim had someone handed me a million dollars when I was twelve years old and told me to decorate the place — though I would have used more Star Wars figures. And is that so wrong?

My thanks once more to Dawn Eden for giving me this Chesterton volume and, as noted in a Book Selection entry a year ago, for giving me a copy of his essay collection Heretics — not to mention a loaned copy of The Man Who Was Thursday years earlier. One of countless interesting revelations from the Autobiography: Chesterton was not yet a full convert from anarchism to Christianity/conservatism when he wrote Thursday and was in fact still struggling with the appeal of nihilism, which makes that whole novel — an influence on his fellow Catholic Patrick McGoohan decades later — even weirder.

With an impatience I can well understand, Chesterton explains his affinity for revolutionary rather than mushy ameliorative thinkers thusly:

I, for one, have always got on much better with revolutionists than with reformers; even when I entirely disagreed with the revolutions or entirely agreed with the reforms…I think the reason is that the revolutionists did, in a sense, judge the world; not justly like the saints; but independently like the saints. Whereas the reformers were so much a part of the world they reformed, that the worst of them tended to be snobs and even the best of them to be specialists. Some of the Liberal specialists, of the more frigid Cambridge type, did faintly irritate me; much more than any mere anarchist or atheist.

Chesterton, who makes quite clear his lifelong affinity for the left, even complains that most socialist fight songs don’t actually contain any fighting or bloodshed or hint of possible defeat, whereas when Hillaire Belloc wrote socialist fight songs, he went into admirable Machiavellian detail about how to slash the legs of the aristocrats’ horses and how to set up barricades, describing corpses littering the streets and so forth, not just some vague wave of human fellowship overthrowing the old order like the sun rising.

Many of Chesterton’s conservative fans would probably be shocked by the extent to which he here reconciles his traditionalism, sentimentality, and religiosity with undimmed fondness for the Liberal Party, anti-corporate “distributivist” economic schemes, and even outright communism.

•Nearly a century later, I’m still inclined to hope that we can produce a world as happy and free as the one the anarchists dreamed of but without using their socially-disruptive and reckless means to get there. Case in point: David Friedman’s Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (written during the last big upsurge in market-oriented thinking, the Gingrich phase of the mid-90s) springs from his anarcho-capitalist philosophy (the son of Milton Friedman, he believes even police and courts can ultimately be handled by private, voluntary means, making government completely unnecessary — and I cautiously agree), but the book is entirely taken up by profoundly bourgeois calculations about ordinary trips to the supermarket, lunch-planning, job interviews, and what we can learn from them about how humans (almost invariably) react to incentives.

As he puts it with his endearingly nerdy dryness, people may resent economists for claiming that they can reliably predict human action even in a world of lunatics and romantics — but even if people only do the self-interested, rational thing half the time and behave in a completely randomized, berserk way the other half of the time, economics will still be a better predictive tool than any other means of assessing the human psyche.

And Friedman is not without his own sentimental attachments, including one not mentioned in this volume that would make Chesterton very, very happy: A fan of “recreational medievalism” — nerds dressing up as faux-medieval characters and engaging in games, feasts, and other interactions — Friedman was co-founder of Pennsic, the largest annual gathering of Society for Creative Anachronism members and affiliated lords and ladies. (Decide for yourself which is weirdest, Milton Friedman founding the Chicago School of economics, his son David co-founding Pennsic, or David’s son Patri founding the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create new countries in the ocean.) The perfect blend of Friedman’s medievalism and economic rationality, of course, is his earlier book The Machinery of Freedom, in which he uses medieval Iceland as an admittedly far from perfect example of decentralized, privately-enforced justice.

I suppose you could say he is both an anarcho-capitalist and an anachro-capitalist. Ha! (Did I mention I partied with poets last night?)

•Of course, some will feel that a world of bean-counting free-market economics can never hold quite the romance of a world of Icelandic blood feuds — and for the most part, that’s probably for the best. Oddly enough, the Rachel Kramer Bussel-edited erotica anthology The Mile High Club, upon which many social conservatives would no doubt look with horror, is really the perfect example of how staid and bourgeois we have become even in our fantasies.

I mean, sure, this is an entire collection about fictional deviants sneaking quickies in airplane bathrooms, cockpits, and darkened window seats under airline blankets, but the “danger” here arises precisely from the assumption that our protagonists must not only achieve carnal union but must (for goodness’ sake!) do so before landing, without the stewardess noticing, and with the tray table ultimately returned to its original upright and locked position (no double entendre intended). There’s one story about stunt-wingwalkers doing it out in the freezing air as their biplane whirls about, which I almost found myself hoping would end with fiery death at the moment of climax, just to make things a bit more Dionysian, but for the most part these characters don’t even leave a mess or shock anyone.

And I’m not saying they should — just observing that for all our supposed decadence these days, and the decline of so many of the ancient ways Aristotle valued and the traditions and sentiments Chesterton treasured, even our naughtiest writers still regard airline rules as nigh-unbreakable taboos. I suppose that’s just as well.

I sometimes worry about Rachel Kramer Bussel, though — not that she will become too decadent nor even too jaded, but that she may just get a bit bored with it all, not quite knowing where to turn next, adrift like a bag lady on the subway system, unsure where to find the excitement she still manages to parcel out for other people in volume after volume like this one. Stay strong and keep entertained, Rachel.

•If none of the above leaves you feeling you have gained Wisdom, you might pick up the most recent issue of In Character, which makes that particular virtue its focus. I will only observe, after reading its briefs on behalf of old-time moralism, new-fangled ethics, scientific reasoning, and all the rest, that if history is any guide, the people of the future will look back with amazement at the fact that we did such a bad job of taking the seemingly opposed fragments of our civilization’s thinking and piecing them together into something larger and better, which reconciled the disparate strengths of our different approaches to understanding the universe (I mean, there was a time when people argued fiercely over whether people should read Aristotle or Swift, and eventually we realized it might be wise to read both). I’d like to get a head start on things by anticipating — and assuming the eventual existence of — that hypothetical synthesis.

(And speaking of the future, tomorrow another entry about the Terminator franchise.)


David Friedman said...

One point you don’t mention is that the second edition of _The Machinery of Freedom_ includes a chapter on Chesterton, of whom I too am an admirer.

Gerard said...

There’s no way you can have sex on an airplane in the 21st century without being detained by DHS agents. So I’d opt for the British eccentric…I guess.