Learning to Eat with Addison

When CiRCE attains that state in which we can patronize young and up-and-coming or old-with-unwrit-wisdom writers, I will commision somebody to write a book on the following theme: Addison To Waugh: Manners Aristocratic and Bourgeois from the Spectator to the Death of Brideshead.

In my research into freedom and the ideas that sustain it, I came across an article by Peter Gay on Joseph Addison, that master stylist of the 17th century. Gay argues convincingly that Addison was teaching an unruly age how to behave and think in the new world they were growing into.

 One idea that impressed me was Addison’s “romantic” view of the stock market and how it brings people of every stripe together in one peaceful setting. I thought, “Well, that idea has been around the block  a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive thing.”

Voltaire came to England in 1720 and read Addison’s Spectator and used the same imagery about the stock market in his philosophical letters, which were widely read and influential texts in the France of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who I have no doubt read Voltaire and was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, turned to Addison and Steele when he determined to learn how to write. Franklin seems to have appreciated the outlook of Addison and Steele as much as their style, and it is likely that both outlook and style helped him when it came time to defend and negotiate terms for American Independence.

His aforementioned contemporary, Samuel Johnson, either encouraged Franklin’s action or followed it himself. In his Life of Addison, Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

But he isn’t much read today and isn’t much liked by many who read him. CS Lewis said that “Everything the moderns detest, all that they call smugness, complacency, and bourgeios ideology is brought together in his work and given its most perfect expression.

And yet, says Gay, Johnson admired Addison without embarrassment and without reservations, admired him for his delicacy, his authentic elegance, his wit, admired him above all for his willingness to use his abundant talent in a cause as important as it was just. ” He includes an extensive quotation from Johnson about Addison:

He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary charcer above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.

Lives of the English Poet

If we could have an Addison today! We are all convinced that the stakes have grown so great in our politics and social life that we cannot afford to be civilized and gracious. But if we are not civilized and gracious, why would we want to live in the world we would create by fighting for our policies?

How different Addison’s genteel grace sounds to the brutish duty-mongering of Kantian philosophy and its spawn (a sentence, I would add, that Addison would never have written). Was it Addison that saved Coleridge from the Prussian excesses?

There is a line from Addison through Franklin to our Declaration of Independence and even our Constitution. Another lines runs from Addison through Johnson to a century of British literary theory.

I want to find the ends of those threads, to rebind them, and to strive to write with civility of manner, graciousness of tone, and humility of expression, all while laughing at the ridiculous and never failing to perceive that the image of God can never be, though it can express, the ridiculous.

I have the feeling our liberties are bound to our civilities. The thing is, we all learn to speak by listening to what people say to us and how they say it. Reading the really great stylists can help us rise above ourselves and the limits of our surroundings. We ought not dismiss such a fact with reckless (think: reck, less) alacrity.

On Being Civilized

Until we accept that we are not a civilized people, and that it matters, we have little hope of becoming one.

Knowledge, Love, and Civilization

Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” and I know of no record of him ever apologizing.

What sort of disposition would lead a person to saying such a thing. It’s not as if people prior to Bacon did not realize that knowledge gave its possessor power. But they had good manners and higher values, so they didn’t come right out and say it.

But Bacon did.

Worse still, people embraced this statement.

When Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” he introduced a scientific revolution. But what even the experts often fail to see is that he initiated an intellectual revolt that introduced a new intellectual temper.

Prior to Bacon people believed that it was possible to know things for what they were. In Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Solomon, St. Paul and Erasmus, one finds a consistent awareness that knowledge is not justly said to be power.

For the great western Christian classical tradition knowledge is apprehension, perception, relationship.

Such an awareness makes civilized life possible.

But in Bacon we hear the destructive philosophy of an elegant barbarian.

Let me draw an analogy to present times to explain my point. You will often read in the New York Times or USA Today or Wall Street Journal about how civilization has advanced over earlier western society or sometimes even over, say, the third world, because we have more advanced technology.

The widely held assumption of people who believe that such a thing as civilization might conceivably exist is that, if it exists, it is measured by technological advance, which is another phrase for power.

This is utter rubbish. Genghis Khan was amazingly advanced in some areas technologically. The gang-leader in LA has access to more advanced technology than Erasmus was able to conceive.

A person who believes that technology is the mark of civilized society is a barbarian himself. A person who believes that knowledge is power is both profoundly and utterly ignorant and a barbarian.

That knowledge gives power one cannot deny. The claim that knowledge is power is a revolt against the entire Christian and classical tradition.

I don’t want to imply that Bacon himself held to such a thoroughly barbaric conception of knowledge in all his thinking.

Nevertheless, after Bacon British thought embraced his axiom and developed an anti-philosophy under the name of Empiricism that has undercut civilized thought everywhere in the world.

I mean these claims to be taken quite seriously and not as mean-spirited ad hominems.

In fact, I might go so far as to claim that the difference between barbarians and civilized people is that the former lives by Bacon’s axiom and the latter live by something higher, richer, less easily coined, and more human and humane.

For example, in Plato, we see the groping of a mind for something beyond power, something that will harmonize the soul and the community. In Aristotle we read in his Metaphysics that “All men by nature desire to know,” and he goes on to explain that knowledge is an end in itself because knowledge itself is a delight to the soul.

What Aristotle meant, at least in part, was that, since our nature desires knowledge, we derive pleasure simply from knowing. We do not need to apply it, make it “relevant,” or derive some practical application from our knowledge.

Simply knowing gives us pleasure. So we keep our eyes open – and we don’t only look at the things that we might trip over. Sometimes we look at the stars in the sky even if they don’t provide any practical guidance.

Bacon’s axiom, on the other hand, would lead us to look at the stars only as astrologers or sailors.

Which might explain why we don’t teach astronomy much any more even though a cursory study of the history of science will reveal that all the natural sciences as studied in the western tradition developed out of the study of the stars.

Civilized people use things rightly. In other words, they deal with them according to their natures.

Bacon’s axiom (for which I will use the name Bacon from now on) led to the conclusion that things cannot be known in their natures. We can only “know” them from the outside.

The culmination of this teaching was reached in Dewey’s doctrines and is the unknown core principle of teaching in America.

He argued that knowledge in the Christian classical sense does not and cannot exist. Knowledge to the benighted Christian or classicist was derived from a hang-up on permanence.

But Bacon’s revolution was secured by Darwin who showed us that nothing is permanent.

Things don’t have a nature, Dewey argued (he used the term “species” following Aristotle). Things are like they are now, but their environments will cause them to become something other than what they are now in time.

There is no human nature. There is only the present state of the offspring of human parents.

The nature of things, therefore, cannot be known, since it does not exist.

Thus to set limits on things, which is a precondition for knowledge in the Christian and classical tradition, is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Why set limits on what humanity can become? If people as smart as Dewey can only rule us, they can make us into something better than what we are now. So give us the schools and let us have our way.

Why set limits on what a word can mean?

Why set limits on what a text is saying?

Why set limits on what the state is allowed to do?

Why set limits?

Limits imply natures, and natures don’t exist.

The problems with such a horrific idea are manifold and would merit an encyclopaedia of their own. Our age is that encyclopaedia.

If you don’t set limits on what a word can mean, the word doesn’t mean anything. Take marriage for example.

If you don’t set limits on what a text can mean, the text doesn’t mean anything. Take our constitution for example.

If you don’t set limits on what the state can do, the state can do anything.

If you don’t set limits on what the object of your attention can be, you can’t give the object your attention.

To define is, by definition, to set limits on meanings. To remove the limits from meanings is to overthrow meaning itself.

To live a life without meaning is to be a barbarian.

Thus we delude ourselves to think we represent civilization. We live in a barbarian country.

We are all barbarians.

We don’t love civilization; we love meaningless equalities and limitless liberties and undefined powers.

What then is needed? Is it possible for us to become civilized?

It is possible, though it isn’t likely. Civilization is difficult and it requires submission.

First, it requires submission to reality. Civilization’s core principle is that all things must be treated according to their natures.

But the rewards are unspeakable, and the first of those rewards is that our souls can escape the lust for power that led Bacon to his foolish axiom and Nietzsche to his extension of it in his doctrine (much more worth reflecting on than Bacon’s) of the “will to power.”

Our souls can return to a right understanding of knowledge. For in the Christian classical tradition, knowledge is not power.

Knowledge is perception.

Knowledge is apprehension.

Knowledge is relation.

Civilized people recognize that right knowledge requires love because to perceive something for what it is we need to receive it into our souls as it is.

To receive something into our soul requires that we will the thing we seek to know.

Thus knowledge requires, first and foremost, a pure will in relation to the thing we seek to know.

Love does not feel good about its object or even desire, first, to be united to its object. Love wills its object – it wills the perfection and well-being of its object.

And this is possible only when the nature of the object is acknowledged and known.

Thus love alone makes accurate knowledge of the object possible.