Bastiat, and a Return to a Blog Long Forgotten

Firstly, an aside.  I have not posted here in many months; in fact, I believe the last time I posted here with any kind of regularity is when I began an ill-fated project to blog my way through some potential thesis research on medieval memory techniques and their influence on medieval interpretation of scripture.  Since then the visicitudes of life have occasioned my flight from the groves of academia to seek my fortune in the wide world, where I met with some fortune, some misfortune, and became engaged to be married, among other things, before I returned very recently to the embrace of books, quiet morning tea, lectures, long evenings with Plato and bourbon, drizzly Moscow afternoons, and the other pleasures of an academic life.  Now that I am provided with a bit more leisure for literary pursuits, I hope to post here more often, but if my adventures in the world have taught me anything, it is to make few promises.


Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law, seeks to provide a definition and a role for the law and the legislator.  He begins by asserting the classical definitions of man and of justice received from the Enlightenment, that “Existence, faculties, assimilation–in other words, personality, liberty, property–this is man.”  Law, he says, was created for the preservation of man, that is, these rights: “it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”

The law, however, has been perverted through two causes, “naked greed and misconceived philanthropy”; greed, the natural tendency of legislators to use the force of law to plunder the lawfully earned goods of more industrious men; philanthropy, the misguided use of the force of law to enforce virtue and industry among the naturally lazy and dissipated populace.  Both of these causes lead to what Bastiat classifies as plunder, defined as “when a portion of wealth passes out of the hands of him who has acquired it, without his consent, and without compensation, to him who has not created it, whether by force or by artifice.”

Basiat then proceeds to spend the majority of the central section of his work examining why it is inappropriate to use the law for philanthropic ends.

The Socialists say, since the law organizes justice, why should it not organize labor, instruction, and religion?

Why?  Because it could not organize labor, instruction, and religion, without disorganizing justice.

For remember, that law is force, and that consequently the domain of the law cannot propertly extend beyond the domain of force.

When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing upon him but a mere negation.  They only oblige him to abstain from doing harm … But when the law, through the medium of its necessary agent–force–imposes a form of labor, a method or a subject of instruction, a creed, or a worship, it is no longer negative; it acts positively upon men.  It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative.

This is the crucial distinction between postive and negative law that separates Bastiat’s plan from that of the socialists.  The purpose of the law, argues Bastiat, is merely to prevent injustice, and not to force justice, for, as he later says, justice, strictly speaking, does not exist; it is simply the absense of injustice, and it is this absense of injustice which is the legislator’s duty to enforce.  Note that it is difficult to imagine any philosopher prior to the Enlightenment defining justice in such a way.  “What is law?” asks Bastiat.  “Law is common force organized to prevent injustice;–in short, Law is Justice.”

The second distinction, which I find rather striking, is his denomination of what is within and without the “domain of force.”  Labor, instruction, religion: all these things stand outside the domain of force, that is, of justice.  For justice, as he defined at the very beginning of the work, is the preservation of the essential attributes of man: personality, liberty, and property.  Justice for Bastiat is not a standard which should be applied to every area, that is, justice with respect to religion, or justice with respect to labor, but rather a limited sphere devoted solely to the preservation of liberty.

Bastiat puts a great deal of faith in human nature:

Law is justice.

And it is under the law of justice, under the reign of right, under the influence of liberty, security, stability, and responsibility, that every man will attain to the fullness of his worth, to all the dignity of his being, and that mankind will accomplish with order and with calmness–slowly, it is true, but with certainty–the progress ordained for it.

I believe that my theory is correct; for whatever be the question upon which I am arguing, wether it be religious, philsophical, political, or economical; whether it affects well-being, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, property, labor, exchange, capital, wages, taxes, population, credit, or Government; at whatever point of the scientific horizon I start from, I invariably come to the same thing–the solution of the social problem is in liberty.

Bastiat, writing in the first half of the 19th century, looks to America as the great example of liberty’s success, though he warns of slavery and tariffs as America’s two great violations of the principles of liberty he sets forth, liable to break apart the union: a remarkably prescient observation.

One could argue that America’s societal decline is due to the increasing lack of the liberty which Bastiat advocates, but it seems that the lack of liberty has followed on the heals of moral dissipation, rather than the way round.  For example, Theodore Roosevelt greatly expanded the force of government over the economic sphere, yet he saw this as necessary due to the avarice and trusts and monopolies, the abuses of workers, and the moral dissipation that had already rotted through the heart of America’s labor.  It would not seem that liberty, in this case, quite led to man’s attaining the “fullness of his worth,” and “all the dignity of his being.”  The history of America is a history of decline, and the historical ordering of events seem to dictate that we look elsewhere from political structure for the source of that decline.

Liberty, at the end of the day, must be liberty to do something.  Bastiat seems to take it for granted that man’s natural tendency is to climb ever higher in order, peace, and prosperity, an assumption worth at least a second glance given the examples of history.

Poetry and Cultural Relevance

“Poetry and the Silencing of Art” by Hilton Kramer in the New Criterion, recently dug up from 1993 on the New Criterion’s Twitter, is a helpful article about tendencies in contemporary poetry I’ve been thinking about for a while. I have two observations. 

Firstly, the book, which the article describes by a certain Dana Gioia, has an excellent point: that poetry has been enervated by a subculture of its own creation. It doesn’t speak to everyday people anymore, the failure of most of the talk of the universities. He wisely observes, “The modern movement, which began this century in bohemia, is now ending it in the university, an institution dedicated at least as much to the specialization of knowledge as to its propagation. Ultimately the mission of the university has little to do with the mission of the arts, and this long cohabitation has had an enervating effect on all the arts but especially on poetry and music.”

 Secondly, the end of the article dismisses popular culture and its effect on the heart and the mind with, I think, too much readiness: “High culture cannot compete with its lethal effects on the minds and bodies of the young—and not only the young, of course—and neither can serious education, not as it is now conducted, anyway. And as long as the juggernaut of pop culture continues to swamp everything in its path, not only will poetry remain confined “to the private world that is the poet’s mind” but so will all of high art—whatever remains of it —be confined to the private world of its subculture.”

 Much of popular culture, no doubt, hurts the cause of high art, and the souls of those who absorb themselves in it with the wrong motivations.  But I do not believe one can safely ignore the simple fact that people turn to much in popular culture, as resonating with their actual experience, in a way which they do not and cannot turn to ‘high art’.  As long as poetry remains absorbed in its own high and academic subculture, it will fail to speak to individual lives in the same powerful way of the best of ‘popular music.’

 I would propose a question to contemporary poetry: why do most people identify with the sentiments of the better sort of our popular singers and musicians, far more than they do with the subculture of written poetry?

Each To His Desert

We emerged from our wooden cave,
the shed with flaking siding propped up
by concrete blocks, each, passing by,
laying down a song sheet: a paper oblation
of harmony, absolutions of the mind
turned out from its cacophony
and thick-tongued worry, into night.

The steps down over shivering boards
were nails in time, plodding into the sun
receding from our faces, while the open wind
surprised our prickling arms with cold.

While we watched with halos
of paper-thin glory, the cup
of the sun poured out into the pines,
and we shivered in our T-shirts.

The embers of the day have died,
plodding down to dust and ash
in the darkness that covers all
I climb the stairs. Beneath the stars,
each like a prayer, for I do not know
what names other souls see above;
each constellation a hermit,
praying in a desert all his own.

Art That Speaks: Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought

The medieval aesthetic—and imagination, and memory—was intimately tied up with the process of communication between the aesthetic object, or the memory image, and the person viewing (or ‘remembering’) it.  Works of art are works of memory and rhetoric, because they enter into the meditative experience of the viewer, and ‘speak’ with him.

Mary Carruthers frames this in terms of comparison with the contemporary experience of interacting with art:

There is a critical difference between modern and early medieval ekphrases, which goes to the heart (or rather the gist) of medieval aesthetic.  One of the best-known examples in English of a modern ekphrasis is John Keat’s poem Ode on a Grecian Urn.  Keat’s urn, you recall, has almost nothing to say for itself.  It displays its mute pictures to the admiring poet, but he is entirely on his own to make sense of them; even his guesses about their narrative are uninformed by any assurance from the urn.  What little the urn does say is Delphic in its brevity and enigma.  Indeed its speech is so puzzling that there is not even agreement among scholars about which words it speaks.  As an orator, the artifact shares nothing with its audience; no common social ground, no story is shared by urn and admirer.  It is only an object; he is only a subject.  In our century, indeed, the urn’s isolated objectivity has been extended to an ideal of poetry that is palpable and mute, having nothing to say to any reader.

–The Craft of Thought, 223

To the modern mind, works of art do not speak to the viewer, but instead are objects to which the viewer brings his own subjective experience.  Our experience of the art is not an experience which the art gives us, but is instead an experience which we create in ourselves in response to the art.  This, I believe, is the most meaningful sense in which we can say that our modern perception of art is ‘relative.’ 

There is much talk about whether the visual arts, or music, or literature is “subjective,” or “objective,” particularly in conservative schools of thought today.  This question is typically framed in terms of whether the art itself is subjective, or objective its meaning.  But the question can be framed more helpfully by asking where we think the meaning resides.  Does the meaning of a work of art reside “in” in the work of art, or “in” the feelings produced by my experience of it, or (as we must also ask) is this even a useful way to ask the question?

It is not my purpose here to propose an answer to this question.  But Carruthers’ comments on the medieval experience of art (and memory) are thought provoking.  On the one hand, art was a kind of ekphrasis, a description that existed for the purpose of interpretation.  Art was, in a word, rhetoric.  It spoke to the reader, or viewer, or (for that matter), listener.  Art was fundamentally a social event, with a speaker, and an audience (in contrast to the urn, above, which was “only an object,” and its viewer, “only a subject”).  But the speaker was not necessarily the artist, as we might think.

Carruthers notes that “each work is a composition articulated within particular rhetorical situations of particular communities,” and applies this idea to the debates over icons between Suger of St. Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux.  Both were builders of monastic churches, yet Suger was building a sumptuous church for the royal court, but Bernard for ascetics who had turned back from the world into the “desert.”  Was the meaning of each church “in” the church?  Or was it “in” the experience of the arbitrary onlooker?  Perhaps we might better phrase it by saying that the meaning of the church, just as the meaning of any other piece of rhetoric, was in the relationship between the speaker (the church) and the intended audience (the monks).

For the modern, the meaning of a work of art is tied to my experience of it, the aesthetic object.  But as we have seen, it would be a mistake to say that the medieval was more “objective,” and placed the meaning of the aesthetic object in the object itself.  The distinction between the modern and the medieval lies in the medieval’s perception of art as a piece of rhetoric, whose meaning is derived from the dual responsibilities of rhetor and audience.  For the modern, I speak in response to the art, and any rhetorical situation is created within my own experience.  For the medieval, art speaks, I listen, and in this dual action, the meaning of the art is revealed.

This is how the art of memory (from ancient times a part of rhetoric) was tied to the process of invention.  Creativity, the creation of new meaning and imagination, was not something which happens purely inside myself, but is spawned out of my interaction with the memory image, or piece of art.  Because of course, as we can now see, we really mean the same thing by ‘art’ and ‘image.’  Works of art were memory images, and vice versa.  Creation comes not from the lone artist, breathing new content out of his ‘imagination’ (in our modern sense), but from the rhetorical situation of the student (the audience) responding to the speaker (his memory images).

To conclude, we can apply Carruthers’ insight of memory (and art) as rhetoric to an example she brings in from Peter of Celle:

Peter of Celle takes on the iconoclasts’ objection in this treatise, after he has ‘painted’ his many pictures in the text.  God prohibited the making of statues (Deuteronomy 5:8), as the iconoclasts have pointed out.  But Peter interprets this stricture ethically as referring to the cognitive uses of painting.  We can paint pictures and make statues for ourselves to use in contemplation so long as we are not sidetracked into error by that failure of imagination which is also, as we have seen, a weakness of memoria, namely curiositas and ‘fornications.’  We should use images painted in fantasy for contemplative thinking; but be careful, Peter says, not to paint upon the tablet of the inward imagination those worldly or morally objectionable or vain details which we might have observed in actual statues of stone or wood, out of a misplaced desire to remember on each occasion every detail of what we actually saw.

The Craft of Thought, 209

As we can see, for Peter, the ethical value of the image is not inherent either in the image itself, or even in our subjective experience of the image, but in what we create as a result.  To miss the point of the image, to be a distracted audience, because we engage with vain curiosities–that is what Deuteronomy seeks to prohibit.  To phrase the point in the terms of which Carruthers speaks of Keats’ poem above, the ethical value of the image is framed in “the story shared by urn and admirer.”

The Fall As a Failure of Memory

For the mind, stupefied by bodily sensations and enticed out of itself by sensuous forms, has forgotten what it was, and, because it does not remember that it was anything different, believes that it is nothing except what is seen.

–Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalion, I. i

The first several chapters of Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion, while not themselves dealing directly with the art of memory, present the medieval process of education and thought with equisite clarity.  This process is at the heart of how a mnemonic method–the method of recollection through imaginative figures and loci–could be for the medieval student not only a technique for remembering ideas, but also a means of shaping the very ideas he remembers.

Hugh begins his first chapter by presenting what he–standing in the Augustinian tradition–saw as the principle problem of philosophy.  Philosophy, as he says later on (I. iv), can be defined as the “discipline which investigates comprehensively (plene) the ideas of all things, human and divine (omnium rerum humanarum atque divinarum rationes).”  Or more simply put, as he says at the beginning, the “love and pursuit of Wisdom.”   What is the point of this pursuit?  “Wisdom illuminates man so that he may recognize himself (seipsum agnoscat),” he says (I. i).

Echoing Plato, Hugh says that the task of philosophy–indeed, of theology, as we notice Hugh’s identification of wisdom (sapientia) with the second person of the Trinity–is one of recollection.  When man fell into sin, he forgot his origin, his supernatural identity, a part of his ratio.  On the other hand, the proper recollection of man’s identity is at the heart of the remedy for man’s defect.

But in his process of recollection, far from presenting a simple means of remembering or learning, Hugh brings together the physical and metaphysical.  The universe is made up, Hugh says quoting the Timaeus, by the mixture of the “same” and the “diverse” (itemque eadem et diversa).  The human mind is a microcosm of the universe in that it is fitted together out of “every substance and nature” (ex omni substantia atque natura).  What does it mean for an idea to be contained in the mind?  Or, what is essentially the same, to remember an idea?

The soul consists of “all natures,” not, of course, physically (secundem compositionem), but analogously, or according to the ideas and patterns reflected in the physical forms (secundem compositionis rationem).  The mind is imprinted with the “likenesses” of all things (rerum omnium similitudine), and by such likenesses contains the very things themselves, potentially (potentialiter).  The similarity with the figures and imagines of the ars memoriae is instantly obvious.

This ability to contain the forms of things, and to organize and reason about such recollection, is what makes man unique.  Hugh says that animals can retain images of sense-perceived forms, but in a “confused and unclear manner” (I. iii) and unlike man, “having once forgotten them, they are unable to recollect or re-evoke them.”  Man can also remember the forms of things, likenesses of sense-perceived things impressed into the mind, but unlike the animals man can “not only take in sense impressions which are perfect and well founded, but by a complete act of the understanding (plenu actu intelligentiae), explain and confirm what imagination has only suggested.”

For Hugh, then, sin is a failure of memory, a failure to remember the way the world really is, who humans really are in their nature.  Recollection has a theological purpose, for in remembering we do not merely recall facts into our head for further thought, but we experience the real, living, forms of things which we have impressed into our minds.  It is not hard to see what biblical admonishments to tie scriptures “about your neck,” and “bind them continually upon thine heart” would mean in such a context.  To recollect, to experience “all natures and substances” which are contained in the human soul, is a part of prayer and worship, and vice versa.

With this understanding, we can see what the “pursuit of wisdom” meant for Hugh.  The pursuit of wisdom, the process of recollection, is the means by which man is restored.  “We are restored through instruction (reparamur autem per doctrinam), so that we may recognize our nature and learn not to seek outside ourselves what we can find within.” In the highest theological sense, if man is made in the image of God, then in the recollection of man’s true nature we meet in some sense a part of God’s nature, in the same manner that the soul contains “all natures” secundem compositionis rationem.  “The highest curative in life,” Hugh says at the end of his first chapter, “is the pursuit of wisdom (studium sapientiae): he who finds it is happy, and he who possesses it, blessed.”

Ars Memoriae, Introduction

For the next several months, and quite possibly several years, to come, I will be researching a thesis on the medieval art of memory, and how it influences medieval interpretations of the biblical text.

I hope to be doing biweekly blog posts summarizing my research over the summer months.  They might not be long, but they’ll help to keep me focused.

Here’s (roughly) the summer reading list.  I’ll be writing mostly about the primary sources, since I’ll be reading that more carefully than the modern scholarship.  Also, I’ll be trying to do most of the primary research in the original, rather than in translation.

Primary sources.

  • Didascalion, Hugh of St. Victor
  • ST II (selections), Commentaria De Memoria et Reminiscentia, St. Thomas
  • Confessions (selections), St. Augustine
  • Consolatio philosophiae, Boethius
  • On Memory and Recollection, Aristotle
  • Various and sundry selections from Plato.

Of course I’ll be drawing from various other sources as I go along, especially from the Patristics, but those should be the main works that occupy my time over the next few months.

Contemporary Sources

  • When God Spoke Greek, Timothy Michael Law
  • The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclerq
  • The Medieval Craft of Memory, ed. Mary Caruthers*
  • The Book of Memory, Mary Caruthers
  • The Craft of Thought, Mary Caruthers
  • The Art of Memory, Frances Yates
  • Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (selections), C.S. Lewis
  • The Canon of Scripture, F. F. Bruce
  • Medieval Music and the Art of Memory, Anna Maria Busse Berger

*This is an edited selection of primary sources.

No doubt the footnotes will lead to plenty more fun rabbit trails, but this is a beginning for the summer, placed here on the blog as a way to, shall we say, jog my memory later on.

Technology: A Metaphor For the World

In Lewis Thomas’s Essay, An Earnest Proposal,  he writes, “I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence.”  I note two points: firstly, that Thomas takes this assertion on faith, and secondly, that he separates intelligence from the soul.

These two points are connected.  We perceive the world around us through metaphor, expressing and describing our experience through comparison.  We attribute theological, religious characteristics to the metaphors we choose.

Today, technology is our metaphor.  Modernity defines itself by technological advancement.  Industry and philosophical enlightenment go hand in hand.  The economic conflict between the western hemisphere and the “Third World” is largely a difference in technology.  The War Between the States here in America was painted by northern abolitionists as a conflict between southern “backwardness” and northern “enlightenment,” where backwardness was defined by a deeply rooted distrust of theological and economic industrialism.

I am making sweeping assertions.  But I am not trying to explain modernity, or to offer a stiff model into which the modern world fits.  I am simply making observations of a specific phenomenon, which is not in doubt: we perceive our own culture, and measure our own culture, through the metaphor of technology.

Assertions to the side, I ask that we interrogate Thomas’ claim, that computers can be intelligent without souls, through a recognition that we tend to understand “intelligence” in almost purely technological terms.  Nicholas Carr in The Shallows notes that we tend to think of our brains like computers, simply because of the pervasiveness of computers in modern society.  Elsewhere on this blog I have mentioned how Joseph Weizenbaum, the great computer scientist, wrote of how computers generate their own metaphorical narrative–that they are “necessary”–based on their claim to be a universal machine.  By the adoption of that narrative, we then interpret the rest of the world based on its applicability to the computer.  On the subject of intelligence, therefore, I submit that it has become natural for us, as moderns, to think of intelligence in computational terms: so much information in, so much time in the processing unit, so much information out.  Under this assumption, Thomas’ statement is a tautology.

Of course it has not always been this way.  The very word intelligence has its roots in the Latin intellegere, meaning to understand, and assimilate.  The Latin itself has its roots in legere, to draw together, to extract.  At least in a older understanding, therefore, intelligence necessitates prudence, and volition: choosing between the good and the bad, assimilating the good together into a unity, connecting individual ideas into a whole.  For the medieval, moreover, an integral part of prudence (and thereby, intelligence or understanding) was ars memoria, the constructing of images and the systemization of the governing metaphors by which material is assimilated and understood.  Intelligence did not merely require a soul, it was a faculty of the soul.

But there is another facet to this adoption of modernity’s technological narrative, indicated by Thomas’ frank admission that he takes the computational metaphor “on faith.”  Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has written compellingly in The Atlantic on our faith in computers, so compellingly that I will quote him at length.

Here’s an exercise: The next time you hear someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with “God” and ask yourself if the meaning changes. Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers people have allowed to replace gods in their minds, even as they simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.

It’s part of a larger trend. The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

This is not a new trend.  Frances Yates wrote years ago in her book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, on the hermetic and occultic tendencies within the 16th century origins of the Royal Society.  Humans are religious beings, and whenever a culture adopts a pervasive metaphor, or narrative by which they measure the world, it quickly adopts a religious character.

Marxism is a narrative of history, by which history is measured in terms of class struggle; no one can doubt the religious fervor with which advocates of Marxism applied their beliefs.  Capitalism has done the same for some elements of contemporary American conservatism.  The worship of Reason, as a divine force, was made explicit in the French Revolution.  The list of examples could go on.

I am not inherently blaiming Lewis Thomas for his adoption of modernity’s technological, and computational, narrative.  But I would ask that we take care to discern how many common arguments are actually faux tautologies based on our shared metaphor for the world.  “Duh” moments are the most dangerous in rational thought, because we fail to notice their underlying assumptions.