10 October 2017

Realism, history and politics

The ancients, who were our betters and nearer the gods than we are, handed down the tradition, that whatever things are said to be are composed of one and many, and have the finite and infinite implanted in them: seeing, then, that such is the order of the world, we too ought in every enquiry to begin by laying down one idea of that which is the subject of enquiry; this unity we shall find in everything. Having found it, we may next proceed to look for two, if there be two, or, if not, then for three or some other number, subdividing each of these units, until at last the unity with which we began is seen not only to be one and many and infinite, but also a definite number; the infinite must not be suffered to approach the many until the entire number of the species intermediate between unity and infinity has been discovered—then, and not till then, we may rest from division, and without further troubling ourselves about the endless individuals may allow them to drop into infinity. This, as I was saying, is the way of considering and learning and teaching one another, which the gods have handed down to us. But the wise men of our time are either too quick or too slow in conceiving plurality in unity. Having no method, they make their one and many anyhow, and from unity pass at once to infinity; the intermediate steps never occur to them. And this, I repeat, is what makes the difference between the mere art of disputation and true dialectic.

   - Socrates, Philebus
This passage from Plato’s Philebus was brought to mind by a couple of conversations I had been party to on Facebook recently – only one of which was on the topic of colonialism. The problem with modern discussions of colonialism (among other historical phenomena needing critique), that I can tell, is that they vacillate between two mutually-irreconcilable and incommensurate poles, which themselves nonetheless exist in a strange kind of dialectic with each other. The first is the one of moral outrage – the idea that colonialism was a horrific evil (which it was), and that any effort to differentiate or distinguish between different forms of colonialism is an attempt to muddy the issue or to exculpate oneself wrongly from the institutions which resulted. The second one is one which pretends to understand the issue, but which actually does exculpate an involved historical figure by claiming – without any further reference to the context – that he or she was a ‘product of his time’.

Actually, the conversation which brought this issue to mind was a discussion of Jehan Cauvin, in the wake of a rather tone-deaf article by Calvinist author Marilynne Robinson attempting clumsily to portray Cauvin’s Geneva as some kind of enlightened proto-Scandinavian welfare state, and Cauvin himself as a jolly French liberal humanist and democrat. Contrarianism can be charming, but not when it comes at the cost of historical fact. I pointed out that the Consistory which handed down totalitarian repressions, tortures and death sentences with relative abandon was largely the work of Cauvin himself, and backed up my argument with evidence drawn from Geneva’s own judicial records. The response, tellingly, was that Cauvin was a product of his time, and that similar tortures and executions were carried out in France and Russia.

Leaving aside the historical fact, here, that even though corporal punishment was used often, execution was vanishingly rare in Muscovite Russia until after the reign of Peter the Great, there is still a distinction that needs to be made. Cauvin’s Geneva was demonstrably worse in the torture-and-executions regard, even than nearby Zürich. In just seventeen years, Cauvin’s Geneva – one city of about 10,000 people – executed 139 – an average of over eight executions per year. This may be compared with the record of the canton of Zürich with over 73,000 people, in which 574 executions were held in the entire sixteenth century, an average of under six executions per year in the entire county. Cauvin’s Geneva was actually worse than the prevailing norms when compared with other examples from its own time and space. These drastic differences in degree should hint to us that it’s simply not enough to excuse the very real evils for which Cauvin was directly responsible, by simply making him a ‘product of his time’ and submerging him and his ideas both in the misleading philosophical unity of his historical epoch.

Likewise, cover is given if we dismiss the Europe of the Reformation and the Renaissance as characterised by a false infinity of iniquity. The initial, lazy slacktivist overreaction which refuses to draw distinctions between different kinds of ‘social evil’ – different kinds of slavery, different kinds of colonialism, different kinds of misogyny – discredits itself by rebelling against our moral intuitions that qualitative differences exist between different circumstances and environments: the same intuitions to which Socrates alluded in Philebus. We miss highly significant differences when we absolutise a particular kind of evil, and we discount these differences altogether when we relativise evils under the guise of ‘historical progression’. As I was arguing earlier, following the labour historian Frank Tannenbaum’s book Slave and Citizen, slavery in Anglo-America was a demonstrably crueler institution than it was in Latin America. In Latin America, slavery was still slavery – and attended by all of the brutalities and inhumanities that characterised slavery in the former British colonies. But, as Dr Tannenbaum carefully notes, manumission was nowhere near as difficult in Brazil and in New Spain as it was in North America; freedmen were treated with full legal dignity; and ‘miscegenation’ was not frowned upon at all.

If we’re going to find a way out of the current war between these emotivist factions in our politics, both the identitarian left and the identitarian right, then that way out needs to find a way to draw distinctions, make meaningful comparisons and create apposite analogies that can situate and orient us realistically within our historical moment. The aim of Socrates and Protarchos in the Philebus was to seek out and define ‘the good’ for the human person; here we are using some of the same insights to sort between evils. But the end goal is the same. Politics is about finding and implementing a course of action which moves us toward the good. Dithering between the poles of false unity and false infinity does not get us there.

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