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.

The skills needed for success in its depiction are certain to be extremely disparate from case to case. Some of them are fairly rare; and their union in any particular case is necessarily a trifle haphazard. To edit such a series is to give a fleet of hostages to fortune and to run little risk of pleasing most prospective readers most of the time. No editor of such a series could fairly be blamed for all the consequences of his selection of authors. But what he can reasonably be held responsible for is the selection of his subjects. In this at least, it is reasonable to ask for a self-conscious and prudent balancing of considerations of eligibility and hazard, and a firm sense of how authority itself is to be conceived. Where the relation between our surviving knowledge about the human life in question and the content of the ideas which it generated is too bleakly disjunctive, there can be little prospect of success. We need not regret, perhaps, the absence thus far from the prospectus of a volume on Euclid, despite the well-deserved durability of his didactic heritage. But by the same token it is hard to resist some qualms at the inclusion of Homer. The omission as yet of Aristotle and Plato (as indeed of Mahomet) is no doubt purely temporary. But, on any reading of the concept of authority, it is a little surprising to find Godwin and Herzen figuring in the initial list of Masters. Here perhaps the editor’s well-founded appreciation of his authors mildly distorts the balance of his judgment of what such a series can coherently undertake.

So much, then, for the first glimpses of the wood. But what of the individual trees? Thomas’s first master is still widely suspected of having been God. While, from the view-point of a peculiarly crass modern intellectual, this might seem an unfair competitive advantage in the recruitment of a historical retinue (and certainly to possess no intrinsic implications for the ethical or epistemic status of the master’s beliefs), it does present a number of difficulties to anyone who undertakes to write about him without going blatantly hors śerie. Aquinas and Pascal plainly (and perhaps even in some senses Hume) were not modern intellectuals. But they were recognisably professional thinkers, and even from the perspective of today it is not difficult to grasp broadly what they were at. What Jesus Christ was at is today less easy to discern.

It is possible to consider the history of Christianity as an organised religious enterprise at virtually any level of causal ambition without committing oneself on the issue of whether or not the suspicions of Christ’s divinity are well-founded. It might be possible to consider the life of Christ in some depth without deciding firmly whether or not he was literally God on earth (whatever that would be). But it is hard to see how one could be said to consider it at all, however superficially, without judging broadly who he thought he was or what he thought he was doing. Here Mr Carpenter rushes in where even an angel might tread with some trepidation. (The tone for example, of the title of Chapter Five, ‘Who did he think he was?’, is less than prudent, and its imprudence is far from being repaired by the content of the chapter itself.) Eager to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of the Christian faith, Mr Carpenter interrogates his texts, as he confidently and frequently tells us, as a historian. In this capacity, he has much of interest to tell those of us who are thinly acquainted with recent New Testament scholarship, and he writes freshly and agreeably. When it comes to hermeneutic judgment, however, he is epically unconvincing. If Jesus thought he was a divine being, then ‘to modern minds’, we are instructed, ‘he must have been quite astonishingly self-assured.’ Self-assured. Even if he did not display such deplorable (such un-Oxonian) conceit, if he really did believe that his own death could take away the sins of the world, then this, to us, evidently deranged belief ought to remind us merely that he belonged to a culture in which all too many ‘could certainly entertain ideas about themselves which we would regard as insane’, and ought not to lead us to ‘assume that a messianic view of himself would be incompatible with Jesus’s sanity.’

It is hard to guess whose anxieties these assurances are intended to assuage. But whoever they are intended to benefit, it is not necessary to share the suspicion of Jesus’s divinity to find them as offensive as they are ludicrous. On the grounds adduced by Carpenter himself, a sceptical historian (to say nothing of a modern critic) would have little difficulty in deciding that, while we can still readily form rather confident beliefs as to when Jesus lived, we really no longer have any basis for deciding with any confidence who exactly he thought he was or what exactly he thought he was doing. To make anything at all illuminating, even ‘historically’, out of these materials, a more credulous, a more captivated and a more imaginatively compelling approach is indispensable.

The full banality of Carpenter’s own vision comes out unerringly in the account which he offers of the character of Jesus’s moral teaching. (If only the insane can now regard themselves as divine beings, any minor academic or littérateur can still go in for a spot of moral teaching.) As moral teacher. Jesus, it seems, was not ‘a liberal’ He acknowledged the continuing authority of the Mosaic Law; and he failed to ‘speak in moral abstractions which can be straight forwardly detached from the context of his religious beliefs’. Ressuringly, however, he was ‘certainly a radical’, since he thought that the moral and ritual requirements of the Law should not simply be observed but greatly exceeded. (Carpenter offers no general characterisation at all of how or even why they should be exceeded.) Somewhat surprisingly, since Jesus believed he could perform miracles and ‘the modern rationalist would have found him a very uncongenial figure.’ in arriving at his moral judgments ‘he merely used his conscience, like any modern liberal’; and more surprisingly still, these judgments ‘agree precisely with what most of us find in what we call our consciences’. In their lack of historical self-awareness and philosophical grasp, these pronouncements transcend comment.

On the steps of Turin cathedral on 13 April of this year. Pope John Paul concluded a morose diatribe on the emptiness and malignity of modern capitalist society with a ringing proclamation: ‘But there is Christ and he is sufficient for all time.’ Three centuries or so earlier, Blaise Pascal summarised the theme of his apology for the Christian religion in roughly equivalent terms. ‘ 1. Partie. Misère de l’homme sans Dieu. 2. Partie. Félicité de l’homme avec Dieu. Autrement 1. Part. Que la nature est corrompue, par la nature mème. 2. Partie. Qu’il y a un Réparateur, par l’Ecriture.’ In view of his Polish background, we may safely presume that the Pope had no desire to commend an existing secular alternative to modern capitalist society, and that it was thus his intention, as it was Pascal’s, to proclaim Christ not merely sufficient but also indispensable. Seen from today, the historical trajectory from Jesus to Marx can reassure only those who can agree with the Pope and Pascal, or those, by contrast, who succeed in presuming Marx to have been not only broadly correct in his beliefs, but also predominantly happy in the identity and purposes of the disciples whom he has since mustered. However erratic they may have been in their demographic distribution, the claims to authority which are still made for Jesus and Marx are at least broad enough in scope to specify the proper place for authority within human life. But the same can scarcely in good faith be said any longer for the epistemic or moral foundations of the beliefs of ‘modern liberals’, let alone ‘radicals’. Unless, therefore, they opt for a fideist espousal of the beliefs of Jesus or Karl Marx, the hardest task for any writer in Dr Thomas’s series will be to muster the personal (the literary or intellectual) force to lend authority to the perspective which they adopt towards their subjects.

Much the most impressive essay in this vein is Dr Kenny’s study of Aquinas. It is hard to see how such a book could be done better. The racy and amusing portrayal of St Thomas’s life has an attack which may surprise readers of Kenny’s more strictly philosophical writings. The trenchant assault which he mounts in the second chapter upon Thomas’s ontology sustains the initial pace without apparent effort, while the final chapter, a warm but discriminating eulogy to the depth and illumination of Thomas’s philosophy of mind, not merely records a personal debt but also vindicates very cogently the good sense of having incurred this debt in the first place. Dr Kenny has, of course, built an extremely successful philosophical career as a philosopher of mind quite largely on what he contrived to learn from a close study of the works of Aquinas. In this book he manages to convey with great vividness the astonishing depth and intensity of Thomas’s commitment to coherent rational understanding and the prodigious intellectual industry which he displayed in its pursuit. In the quality, scope and speed of his intellectual labours – he wrote the second part of the Summa Theologiae, more than a million words, in a mere three years – Thomas should enforce humility on all but the most obdurately complacent of ‘modern liberals’.

With Pascal, by comparison, Dr Krailsheimer is markedly less successful in communicating either his subject’s past mastery or his present significance. This is clearly not because of any lack of zeal to establish each of these. In his scholarly grasp of Pascal’s life and works and of the French intellectual and social context in which Pascal came to compose his works, Krailsheimer is beyond reproach. He writes of Pascal, too, with passion as well as knowledge. But his account of Pascal’s thought is extremely unclear, and his testimony to the depth of experience which lay behind this conveys his own subjective excitement rather than the human authority of the experience itself. Partly this is simply a literary failure, a consequence of writing in a stilted and opaque manner. But by the close of his book it becomes difficult for a reader not to attribute much of the failure to the vagueness or confusion of Krailsheimer’s own conceptions of the rationality of human belief and action. We are certainly told a great deal that is interesting about Pascal as a man, an inventor and a theological controversialist. What we are not told clearly is what exactly the viewpoint adopted in the Pensées implies, and to what extent and why anyone today should still take it seriously. If the conclusion of the Pope’s Turin address really could be validly derived from the nature of human rationality, this result would be of some general interest. If, however, as seems more probable, it cannot be validly so derived, a rather less devout and more perspicuous account of the character of Pascal’s authority would be more helpful. And if it can be validly so derived, it is hard to see how details of Pascal’s workman-like contributions to the development of public transport can be an acceptable substitute for showing exactly how it can be derived.

With Professor Ayer’s Hume we are back in calmer waters. Written with predictably impressive skill and verve and graced by a generous selection of Hume’s own marvellously elegant ironies, it will no doubt give pleasure as well as instruction to many. When set beside Dr Kenny’s Aquinas, however, it does seem imaginatively a little indolent. Hume is in some ways so very modern. (Almost any modern rationalist would find him a highly congenial figure.) But just because he is in some ways so close to us, it is easy to lose the sense that in many others his beliefs and experiences stand at some little distance from our own. Ayer begins determinedly by proclaiming Hume ‘first and foremost a philosopher’, a potentially defensible judgment in itself but one which, as he interprets it in practice, is not historically altogether convincing. The book closes (a little nostalgically?) with a ringing endorsement of the single Humean pronouncement which is most strongly reminiscent of Language, Truth and Logic. But for most of it Hume is given a firm Oxford tutorial and his epistemological views are stroked and moulded in the course of this into a fair simulacrum of those of the later Ayer. Interesting though this process is in itself, as a historical portrait it does do less than justice to a large range of Hume’s preoccupations, distorting in some measure both his intentions and his achievements. More strikingly, it also succeeds in removing most of the intellectual drama and engagement from Hume’s life, leaving him seemingly a less historically obdurate and original figure than he was. In representing past mastery, it is important not only to be intellectually capable of assessing authority in the present but also to succeed in keeping one’s historical distance from the master in question.

The last of these five titles, Peter Singer’s Marx, is a somewhat hasty little book. Marx is obviously an exceptionally difficult figure for such a study. His work ranges so widely. It is concerned so directly and so urgently with intricate practical affairs; and it is so decisively less dominated by regard for overall rational intellectual coherence than that, for example, of Aquinas. Because of the contingencies of modern discipleship, it is also uniquely important just how far and where Marx’s thought is correct and how far and where it is mistaken. All in all, it is extremely hard to see how a really good book about Marx’s intellectual experience and its implications could possibly be written at this length. In any case, Singer has not written one. He recognises fully that the historical impact of Marx’s thought makes it absurd to consider him simply as a theoretical thinker, though the implicit comparison with religious figures like Jesus or Mahomet fails to provide him with a firm complementary perspective. What he has to say about the limitations of Marx’s attempts to think systematically about social causality may well be broadly correct: but it is too summary in presentation to convince anyone who was not already inclined to believe it true. Even his more sympathetic account of Marx as being less a failed scientist than a profound philosophical analyst of human freedom is weakly developed. We may by now, as he says, be quite certain that Marx had over-sanguine political expectations. We may well suspect also that Marx underestimated the need for mild coercion in sustaining human social cooperation. But it is not clear that, as Singer appears to presume, these are the most important limitations in Marx’s broad conception of social freedom. It is indisputably true that within a capitalist mode of production 50 million citizens cannot together plan the life of their society. What is a good deal more disputable is the claim that, under any conceivable set of ownership or production relations, 50 million people could in any clear and honest sense decide how their society will in fact live. The very idea that such a collective decision could be an instance of genuinely free action shows an extremely superficial grasp of the profound untransparency of social causality.

The quite exceptionally disagreeable cover illustrations of these five texts are certainly an object lesson in how not to represent Past Masters. (What will they do to poor Homer?) Taken as a set, the texts themselves display both the confusions in our contemporary conceptions of authority and the acute literary problems of depicting those who can plausibly be thought to bear it. But one of them at least, Dr Kenny’s Aquinas, shows triumphantly that these problems can be solved, and it also testifies that a deep understanding of past authority does not require an inability to escape from the past into the present. Whether or not today we can comfortably accept either God or Master, we indubitably still have plenty to learn. There is no reason why ‘Past Masters’ should not assist us to learn it. But if they are to assist us at all handsomely to do so, they will need to broaden their present range. Keith Thomas’s own masterpiece, Religion and the Decline of Magic, offers an equably rationalist perspective on the earlier stages of the erosion of religious authority. Not all his contributors write from within this perspective. But even where they write with eloquence as well as clarity, they cannot as yet be said greatly to extend its imaginative reach. On the central question of the place of authority in human life, accordingly, thus far they exemplify the disenchantment of the world more fully than they can yet be said to illuminate it.