Short Books on Great Men

John Dunn

  • Jesus by Humphrey Carpenter
    Oxford, 102 pp, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 283016 3
  • Aquinas by Anthony Kenny
    Oxford, 86 pp, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 287500 0
  • Pascal by Alban Krailsheimer
    Oxford, 84 pp, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 287512 4
  • Hume by A.J. Ayer
    Oxford, 102 pp, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 287528 0
  • Marx by Peter Singer
    Oxford, 82 pp, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 287510 8

To be truly a Master is to have authority. To claim to be a Master is to claim to possess authority. We can be confident that more persons claim to have authority than do truly have it. What is less easy to determine is who in fact does possess it. The place of authority in human life is both centrally important and irretrievably contentious. The personnel of the ‘Modern Masters’ series may simply map the credal disorder of our days, the fitful intellectual allegiances of a society of masterless persons. Past Masters, however, are, or at any rate ought to be, figures of historically proven authority. It is easiest to see historically proven authority as essentially the authority of continuing traditions. One question, therefore, which Keith Thomas’s series must confront at the start is simply whether for us as moderns any continuing traditions do (or even could) retain their authority. (An entire school of sociologists, for example, seeks to define modernity as a categorical denial of authority to tradition in its entirety.) What, then, is authority? And more particularly, how far is it genuinely open to us to think of authority as something which can be incarnated, realised in the historical persons of individual human beings?

A major difficulty in seeing how to answer this question is an ambiguity, within the concept of authority itself, between the idea of social efficacy and the idea of moral or cognitive validity. By vulgarly quantitative criteria of social efficacy, two of the five figures here in question are decidedly more magisterial than the others. However many of their followers’ performances Christ or Marx would have regarded with enthusiasm, they have clearly mustered an amazing retinue of followers. Social efficacy, of course, is not necessarily a sound criterion of ethical or cognitive merit: but at least the procedures for identifying it are appreciably less controversial. Sociologically considered, Christ, Mahomet and Marx are perhaps still the three leading past masters of our day. The inclusion of two of them in Dr Thomas’s first batch suggests a very natural expectation that, in this dimension at least, mastery can be firmly linked to effective demand in the market.

Social efficacy is simply a fact, a datum of history. But the very idea of historically proven authority perhaps implies an unacceptable conflation of credence with validity. Since the 17th century, the view that history can prove validity has become extremely hard to defend. And if what history proves is not validity but endurance, it is not clear that mastery is a very decorous term to employ for its identification. The classically anarchic slogan, ‘Ni Dieu, Ni Maître would not have pleased Immanuel Kant himself, but it does state a natural extension of his moral ideals. If moral and intellectual autonomy ought properly to be the standard for human existence as a whole, the view that authority for human beings can be fitly incarnated in a master seems unenticing. To an anarchic disposition, then, such a series must necessarily be a mild offence, though the offence is liable to be sharpest in the case of more modern masters. From one point of view, the idea of very short books on very great men is a publisher’s dream. But there are numerous other points of view from which it could readily prove an intellectual nightmare. Writing a very short book about any very great man is unlikely to be easy. But the difficulty is certain to be augmented where the brief for the book is not merely to tell the story of a human life but also to interpret the authority which that life discloses, and to make clear how far this authority was simply a matter of social efficacy and how far it was truly one of epistemic or ethical validity.

A suitable criterion for inclusion in such a series might perhaps be that it should matter deeply to us that these persons should have thought or acted (lived their lives) as they did, and an appropriate criterion for success in its individual texts might then be that they Should tell us why it does still matter deeply. This sounds less pretentious than an attempt to fathom the nature of authority: but it may well simply be less clear. In any case, it is plain that to get crisply together a presentation of the authority which the master’s life discloses, and an account of the human life in which this authority was incarnated, will be a hard task. It could scarcely even be attempted by anyone who had not already come to a firm decision whether the authority in question did in fact reside simply in the social effects of the actions of his or her subject, or whether it rested, rather, in the cognitive or moral standing of their thoughts. It will also scarcely be attempted with much success in miniature unless there is a relatively vivid and transparent relation between the life in question and the nature of the authority to which it gave birth.

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