Notes & Comments September 2019
Experiments against reality
On the passage of time and totalitarian callousness.
It is often remarked that life seems to speed up as one gets older. Writing at the end of what feels to have been an exceptionally abbreviated summer, we are reminded once again of the accuracy of that observation.
Perhaps less often remarked, but we think no less pertinent, is the sense that life’s increasing velocity is often accompanied by an increasing disparateness, as if all the contending forces one encounters are centrifugal, pushing things apart, fissiparous. By rights, summer’s season should be lush and tranquil—if not lazy, exactly, then at least not frenzied. Summer should be a time for storing up, consolidation. But this summer, with its mass shootings, international unrest, and mysterious though convenient suicide of the predator Jeffrey Epstein, has known little tranquility.
There is an important sense in which, when it comes to politikon, to the science of life, one must already know what one sets out to learn.
Was it always thus? Maybe. One of the great benefits of studying history is to remind us of the still points beyond or behind the kaleidoscope of our quotidian miscellanies. Some things, the most important, do not change, which is the gravamen of Horace’s wry observation that “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt”: those who rush across the sea change the sky above them, not their soul. What is unchanging is by nature sobering, for it confronts us with the unbreakable hardness of fact. One of the most arresting passages in the Nicomachean Ethics comes in Book I when, citing Plato, Aristotle observes that only those who have been well brought up and already possess “noble habits” can really profit from the study of ethics. There is an important sense in which, when it comes to politikon, to the science of life, one must already know what one sets out to learn.
The contrast between Aristotle’s capacious understanding of politics and that bickering, resentment-filled practice that travels under the same name today is instructive. For Americans, every summer presents the spectacle of July 4, with its invitation to think back to the stupendous intellectual and political labors that forged a commercial republican government founded on dispersed sovereignty and the virtue of prudence. That holiday is followed quickly by its demonic counterpart, Bastille Day, which is presented as a celebration of freedom but really commemorates the eclipse or perversion of freedom. After all, the “storming” of the Bastille in 1789 was the spark that started the conflagration of the French Revolution. Unlike its American counterpart, in which the rule of law and the institutions of civil society survived the change of governments, the French Revolution was one of the signal bad events in world history. It consumed civil society and the centuries-old institutions of civilization. It was an unalloyed triumph of the totalitarian spirit, and in this respect it presaged and inspired that even greater assault on decency and freedom, the Bolshevik Revolution, the opening act of one of the darkest chapters in human history. The butcher’s bill for the French Revolution is many tens of thousands. Soviet Communism was responsible for the deaths of tens upon tens of millions and the universal immiseration of the people whose lives it controlled.
Yet every July 14 is full of cheery stories about Bastille Day. Why? It is generally a bootless errand, we know, to oppose myth with history, but truth demands that the effort be made.
One canard we were all brought up on is that the Bastille was a loathsome dungeon full of innocent political prisoners. In fact, it harbored not hordes but precisely seven inmates when the mob stormed it. Contrary to what you have been told, the prisoners were detained in good conditions. At least one was attended by his own chef. Bernard-René de Launay, the warden, was by all accounts a fair and patient man. But that did not save him from the mob’s “revolutionary justice.” They dragged him out of the fortress and stabbed him to death.
What could be more benign-sounding than slogans about “liberty, equality, fraternity,” O Citoyen, but how oppressive, how murderous, were their implementation “on the ground”?
In fact, Bastille Day should be a day of national mourning or contrition. That it is not tells us a great deal—about the persistence of human credulousness, for one thing, and the folly of subordinating the imperfect, long-serving structures of civilization to the demands of impatient people infatuated by their own unquenchable sense of virtue. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book on the ancien régime, said that “the contrast between benign theories and violent acts” was one of the Revolution’s “strangest characteristics.”
Strange it may have been, but it has turned out to be a regular feature of the totalitarian sensibility. What could be more benign-sounding than slogans about “liberty, equality, fraternity,” O Citoyen, but how oppressive, how murderous, were their implementation “on the ground”? Robespierre cut to the chase when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” He knew that the index of the sort of virtue he proselytized—a heady confection inherited from Rousseau—was the rapidity with which le rasoir national, the guillotine, set about its grisly business. The pursuit of virtue by communists is a hundred, a thousand times bloodier and more soul-blighting.
The strange new fashionableness of what we might call “totalitarian chic” is another good reminder of the importance of studying history. It was right around Bastille Day that we read a news report about Bernie Sanders, the aging socialist senator from Vermont who is once again running for the presidency of the United States. It has long been known that Senator Sanders had chosen to spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union. But we just learned this summer that he never availed himself of the opportunity of visiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when the great writer and moral witness was living as a refugee in Cavendish, Vermont. Some comments about that story put his negligence down to ideology, as if Sanders, being a fan of the Soviet Union, made a silent protest by ignoring the famous anti-Soviet figure in his midst.
But we think that the deeper reason for his neglect was a quality of the socialist or communist or revolutionary sensibility that is too little remarked. We mean its ingrained, indeed its programmatic, lack of curiosity about other people.
The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, in a thoughtful anatomy of the French Revolution, is one of the few people to underscore this feature of the totalitarian habit of mind. “This absence of curiosity,” Scruton notes,
is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness. It can be seen in Marx, in his impoverished and impatient descriptions of the “full communism” towards which history is tending. And it is even more evident in the writings of Lenin, in which blocks of wooden language are constantly shifted so as to conceal the goal of communism from view.
Hence the terrifying logic of Stalin’s observation that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Revolutionaries do not trade in individuals, only masses.
An important reason for this lack of curiosity (and this was something also grasped by both Burke and Tocqueville) is the prominent role that abstractions play in the mental and moral metabolism of the totalitarian sensibility. This feature was articulated with some poignancy by Rousseau, who, at the end of his life, sadly observed, “I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.” Thus it should come as no surprise that Rousseau, in an influential prelude to totalitarian dramas to come, insisted that true liberty consisted in sacrificing all merely individual wills to the imperatives of a “general will” whose dictates were as peremptory as they were abstract. As Rousseau put it in The Social Contract, anyone who would dare to undertake the creation of a people must feel himself capable of “changing human nature.” Human reality is drained of dignity and becomes material to be shaped and formed according to the schemes of utopian power. Hence the terrifying logic of Stalin’s observation that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Revolutionaries do not trade in individuals, only masses.
We were struck by the story of Bernie Sanders’s curiosity deficit because it seems to be such a widespread liability of our political class. Absorbed by their ideological battles, the political actors of the establishment—and we include here the army of consultants, lobbyists, staffers, and pundits as well as elected officials—seem to have constructed an all-but-impenetrable carapace that protects them from the unwanted intrusion of empirical reality. Their lives are given up entirely to politics. They thereby neglect the non- or pre-political reality which is the end for which politics labors, or should labor. This disaster was promulgated by the architects of the French Revolution, for whom there was no private sphere apart from the imperatives of the state, and perfected by Soviet Communism and its progeny, for whom the individual is faceless datum, a “cog” as Lenin put it, in the party machine.
The cruel and suffocating intrusiveness of those dystopian “experiments against reality” are not so seamlessly or so thoroughly implemented in American society. But anyone who looks around at the vast, unaccountable, self-engorging bureaucracy of the so-called administrative state, anyone who watches the ignorant and vituperative grandstanding of so many of our elected officials, cannot help but mark the parallels with the remorseless incuriosity that stood behind the totalitarian juggernaut as it systematically discounted truth for the sake of the accumulation of power. All of which is to explain why we regard Bastille Day as a sobering reminder of man’s pernicious folly rather than an occasion for celebration.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 1, on page 1
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