I have reason to believe that the Harvard University Press has it in mind to revive the literary genre of which the exemplar is Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique – a bright idea, for Voltaire’s Dictionary is still read with delight by those who have come to think the better-known Candide intolerably tiresome.
Voltaire’s is not, of course, a dictionary in the sense of being a work of reference in which one looks things up, but something more in the style of a ‘reader’ containing upwards of fifty essays of unequal length on subjects united only by having interested their author. Nisbet’s format is, as they say, the very spit of Voltaire’s. It is suitable only for les plus belles of belles-lettres, for no literary form could show up a second-rate mind more quickly or display to better advantage a mind such as Nisbet’s – wise, urbane, deeply reflective, spaciously well-informed and independent in judgment. It may be that his independence of judgment is sometimes carried too far: I thought it strange to read an entry headed ‘Anomie’ that made no mention of Emile Durkheim or of Robert Merton. ‘Anomy’ is declared obs. by the OED but the French variant anomie stands for a sort of sociological deficiency disease: it refers to the ‘lost’ and rootless state of an individual or community that lacks norms of behaviour and behavioural standards. The resulting lawlessness, Nisbet remarks, was an important element in Greek drama; he tells us of a ‘word drama’ of the fifth century BC turning on the antithesis between physis and nomos, and this made me think the antithesis a premonition of the one which Galton drew between nature and nurture. I liked this and was pleased to see that my children’s edition of Liddell and Scott renders nomos as a ‘feeding-place for cattle, pasture’. Nisbet enfolds the history and literary usage of ‘anomy’ with the degree of learning and the magisterial style of a Logan Pearsall Smith.
Both Voltaire and Nisbet write upon the Great Chain of Being, Nisbet much more interestingly because this entry in his Dictionary finds Voltaire in one of his silly moods. Voltaire was wholly sceptical of Plato’s idea, though for the rather inadequate reason of its incompleteness, of which he gives two examples: Jewish people are forbidden to eat the griffon and the ixion – but neither exists. Moreover not every animal exists that can be rationally imagined. We can imagine any number of intermediate forms between ape and man, but where are they? Voltaire’s objections would have been more validly levelled against the naively literal conception of the Great Chain which we find in Alexander Pope and which appears in a passage cited by Nisbet from Arthur Lovejoy:
Vast chain of being; which from God began,
Natures aetherial, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,
No glass can reach, from Infinite to thee ...
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroy’d;
From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
Nisbet’s entry has the gravity and historical depth we expect in someone who has added Arthur Lovejoy’s learning to his own. I learned from him that natura non facit saltum is Leibniz’s epigram. I liked especially Nisbet’s deriving a concept of evolution from what Arthur Lovejoy had called the ‘temporalising’ of the Great Chain.
I suppose that the best-known passage in Voltaire’s Dictionary is the black theodicy in ‘tout est bien’ which begins: ‘either God wishes to expunge the evil from this world and cannot; or he can and does not wish to; or he neither wishes to nor can ... ’ The anti-religious, anti-clerical coloration of Voltaire is not for Nisbet, who is pretty even-handed throughout. Of creationism – the literal acceptance of the Pentateuchal narrative – Nisbet says that it ‘cannot be entertained seriously by any but dolts’, but he refers us to the writing of Philip Gosse (Edmund’s dad) as a warning against the too easy assumption that creationism can be confuted by palaeontological and geological evidence – for Gosse had argued that ‘a genuine God, one omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent as a genuine God must be, would not for a moment have created the world and its species without creating at the same time the geological and embryological evidences of a long past. After all, in creating man, God created a being with a unique time-binding capacity, with a sense of the past as well as the present and future. Given this sense of a past in Homo sapiens, God could not but have endowed his creation with an ingrained past.’ This is not a convincing argument: for why create a past open to an interpretation so much at variance with Writ?
In an essay on Darwinism it may be that Nisbet makes too much of recent criticisms by young zoologists of the Darwinian ‘mandarinates’, and I think that Nisbet should not have spoken of modern evidence that is ‘in nearly total conflict with Darwinism’ without also mentioning those evolutionary changes of which natural selection gives an entirely adequate explanation. I have in mind the evolution in hospitals of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and the supplanting of regular lepidoptera by dusky or melanic variants in the smoke-stained foliage of an industrial countryside. Nevertheless he delivers a salutary warning against the widespread illusion that ‘any criticism of Darwin is perforce a criticism of evolution and must come from a creationist.’
Nisbet is at his best when he fuses his own wisdom with his professional skill as a sociologist, and I especially commend his writing on Death, Abortion and Alienation – this last, he says, the subject of all too many ‘boneless abstractions’ at the expense of which Nisbet makes some fun. This came as something of a relief, for Nisbet is a very grave author and my own taste is for a lighter touch; and it had better be said forthrightly that Nisbet is not likely to appeal to anything but an educated public. To an ordinary reader – that which no one would admit to being – Nisbet makes no concessions: there are no wilful paradoxes and nothing shocks. This is ‘philosophy’ in that old-fashioned sense which was also Voltaire’s, though the young – especially the unduly young – look down on it: the pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means.