Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tears of Things

This post is a continuation of the dialogue that began on this site and has continued, at a tangent, on Henry's blog in reference to what could be called “the general will to life among Western Euro people.” The dialogue was sparked by Henry’s post “The Seeking of Asylum,” in which he writes: “I wish to speak about the propensity of the brightest and most capable young people of my generation to seek their place overseas and in other cultures.” He concludes:

“Perhaps the distant cultures are a refuge from the guilt-mongering, anti-vitality, anti-masculine, anti-culture nature of our present country. After all, we live in the most unnatural of conditions right now, where men are disparaged or simply poked fun at (have you seen how almost every single television commercial depicts men?), where white people are under a self-inflicted, suicidal attack from their own treasonous elite. It is perhaps the only culture where we are told to feel guilt at the circumstances surrounding the very founding of our country. Our folklore is scorned or forgotten. It seems that in the context of this homogenization/demoralization, we are being compelled to do what no human can ever do; namely live without a history, community, or sense or strength. And it is from this most unnatural circumstance that our youth flee. In a strange irony of the modern world, the adoption of an utterly alien culture is the only way to have an identity which we can be proud of, and communities that are not denigrated.”

Paul (my brother and Henry’s Dad) responded by picking up a thread in reference to Toynbee:

“There is so much in it to comment upon that I hardly know where to start. I’m tempted to drag out yet again Ortega’s comment about Arnold Toynbee ---- ‘It seems as if in the heart of this man doubts have started to ferment about whether or not it makes sense to keep on being English......’ and further on ‘... we have to approach and understand with great respect this hidden spiritual state, ... because in it lies nothing less than a great secret about the future for all of us.’ I asked Caryl about this, and she replied: ‘I was aware of Ortega's judgment on Toynbee, and I discussed it with no less an authority than John Lukacs - who himself does not seem to be altogether pro-Toynbee. However, he said he thought Ortega's statements about Toynbee were ‘unfair.’”

While I do not agree with Ortega’s specific charge, I do think that there are currents in the Toynbee phenomenon taken as a whole – the life and the work - which raise questions about being Western and modern – and what being Western and modern means in relation to Christianity. These questions may be subtle, but I think they are also important, and perhaps by addressing them we can get another handle on the questions raised by Henry’s post.

The first thing to note is how frequently in his letters, and also in The Study of History, Toynbee alludes to the First World War and the fact that half of his classmates and school fellows lost their lives in that conflagration. Toynbee’s own exemption from military service was owing to an episode of dysentery he had contracted while travelling abroad. There was in Toynbee a strain of “survivor’s guilt,” of which he seemed to be aware, and which was later exacerbated during his divorce from Rosalind Murray. In a bad moment, she had accused him, on another issue, of “cowardice” – but it seemed to touch upon this former one.

Toynbee had been much in love with the aristocratic Rosalind, the daughter of Gilbert Murray, the classicist. Perhaps he had indeed treated her too much as a “goddess” – as his father-in-law once told him. Three sons were born of their union – Tony, Philip and Lawrence. Toynbee was not a “hands-on” father – if not absent, he was frequently absorbed by his work. His son Philip later wrote in a memoir: “[He] simply had no understanding of children and young people, and no great interest in them either. My two brothers and I attracted his attention largely as nuisances. How clearly, even today, I can see his head poking out of the window of his study, his face a mask of nervous irritation, as he sternly reproved us for making too much noise.” The oldest son, Tony, shot himself “in a fit of pique,” and died a few days later on 15 March 1939. Philip was devastated and considered putting an end to his own life as well. But after a youthful fling with Communism he settled down eventually into a writing career. Both sons married and produced, between the two of them, eleven grandchildren – all girls with the exception of one male grandchild.

Lawrence, the youngest, had always been Rosalind’s favorite. When she converted to Catholicism in 1932, she brought Lawrence with her into the fold. Lawrence was educated at Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine establishment. While visiting Ampleforth in 1936, Toynbee met Fr. Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk with whom he carried on a correspondence lasting for 39 years. These letters, gathered into the volume An Historian’s Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, (Beacon Press, 1986) form an illuminating commentary on the time – full of upheavals both historical and spiritual. And by no means are all the “illuminations” solely those of Toynbee himself. Fr. Columba’s side of the correspondence addresses weaknesses in Toynbee’s philosophy as well. This loyal son of the Church was unable to convert Toynbee to Catholic Christianity but his penetrating comments helped to ensure a strong Catholic “presence” in The Study of History.

In 1937 Toynbee stated his mission: “I am trying to digest a large lump of modern knowledge and understanding of the material world which has grown up (so vigorously but yet so lopsidedly and without deep roots) during the last 250 years, and to re-place it in the Christian setting from which it has broken out.”

Fr. Columba was a great admirer of The Study of History, comparing it both to the Civitate Dei of St. Augustine and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, he wrote – “You have not yet made the deepest synthesis of all – that between faith and reason, and the message will be blurred.” He believed that modern humanity was “too smug” in not baptizing science as St. Thomas baptized Aristotle. He disagreed with Toynbee on the matter of “assertiveness.” Toynbee had written that “Wherever one sees self-assertiveness, one can be sure one is not in God’s presence.” Fr. Columba pointed out that “a Truth may be asserted for its own sake, or because it is your Truth. In the latter case you have pride, in the former not.” Not to assert Truth, in fact, is to “fail in charity” – for “good diffuses itself.”

Fr. Columba’s learned to appreciate Toynbee’s “ecumenical” approach to religion, but he also noted: “You are trying to be fair to all religions. One tends on those occasions to be unfair to one’s own (family) (religion).” Toynbee acknowledged the justice of this remark – “What you say about leaning over backwards from one’s own religion in trying to be fair to the others is very true.” In 1959 Toynbee confessed that the “uniqueness” of Christianity was, for him, the stumbling-block. He later wrote that “Our spiritual vocabulary is entirely analogical (e.g. spirit = breath). This is why I believe the different descriptions refer to identical experiences.” But this is just what it cannot be.

Toynbee's remark puts me in mind of something Owen Barfield once said about language - in connection with translation, what is of interest is the slightly different thing that is said. For example, tree, arbre, Baum, all refer to the same thing, but are they really the same? Where the Englishman sees primarily the trunk, the Frenchman emphasizes the boughs and the German sees the root. It is the same with spiritual language, only in this case there can be no “identical experiences” if spiritual reality concerns spiritual Being.

Fr. Columba replied along these lines, when he pointed out that the language used to describe spiritual reality refers to different “levels.” The question of the different “levels of Being” may essentially demarcate the Protestant from the Catholic sensibility. Rosalind Toynbee, in her book about her agnostic father, written after her conversion, The Good Pagan’s Failure, “… attributed the triumph of barbarism and egalitarianism in the late 1930’s to the abandonment of the Catholic view of the human and celestial hierarchy.”

Toynbee occupied a middle ground – or perhaps a no-man’s land – between a secular-academic world that criticized him for his view of faith and religious imagery [1] and a Catholic sensibility which may have felt at times that Toynbee’s religion amounted to no more than “an eradicable belief in his own religiousness.” [2]

Perhaps it is owing to the fact that The Study of History lived in this middle or no-man's land area, committed neither to one side or the other, that Toynbee himself finally saw his work as “really a myth about the meaning of history.” Yet it is just in the sense of “mythology” that I find Toynbee’s History so appealing. For what kind of mythology will become possible for mankind in the modern, modernist, and postmodern dispensation? What kind of zest for life or raison d’être is possible for us, who have lost all of our “naïve beliefs” and unself-conscious hopes and strivings? [3]

In this respect, Toynbee’s encounter with Henry Luce is revealing. Toynbee’s work was initially highly favored by Luce and Time Magazine. But the two men had their differences. Luce said: “Toynbee regarded America as simply a peripheral part of European civilization. I regarded America as a special dispensation – under Providence – and I said so. My spiritual pastors shake their heads about this view of mine. They say it tends to idolatry – to idolatry of a nation. I knew well the dangers of that sin. But I say we must have courage to face objective facts under Providence.”

So I want to conclude with two remarks. I think that Toynbee did have conflicts about being a man, a father, a Christian, and about rationalism, science, and maybe even “being English.” But believing in being what one is – English or American – is a danger when this self-belief is disconnected from the whole - which it is the task of “pastoral counsel,” of the kind to which Henry Luce alluded, to teach. I think that Ortega criticized Toynbee’s weakening of self-belief without seeing how The Study of History was an attempt to counterbalance and to overcome it. For individual self-belief cannot be sustained without the sense for the whole of which it is a part. Thus The Study of History is “pastoral counsel” in this sense. The "whole" is the sweep of history itself, in which Western man is to be reminded of his origins and also to be reminded about the nature of the historical enterprise itself. The mythos comprises the poetic language – and scholarly bulk – of the work itself. But the lesson is lacrimae rerum - the “tears of things.” It is this lesson which we Americans, in our reckless march to Empire, seem to be unable or incapable of hearing.

[1] Pieter Geyl, the Dutch historian, wrote: “God became man in Christ is to him the veritable sense of history.” The views of Hugh Trevor-Roper have been previously described in an earlier post. Toynbee said of the latter: "I was told that he [Trevor-Roper] has an almost physical horror of my attitude to life."

[2] The quote is from George Gissing’s description of an Englishman’s religion; cited by Maurice Samuels in his book, The Professor and the Fossil(1956). Toynbee’s views did not win many friends among the Jewish community because he believed that Judaism was a “fossilized” religion. Thus Samuels: "We [Jews] are here, it seems, and we have been here these two thousand years, not because we know how to live, but because we do not know how to die; or rather because, dead without knowing it, we cannot perform the act of self-burial."

[3] I suspect that Toynbee must have read Joseph de Maistre [1753-1821], who wrote: "Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems." My contention is that Toynbee attempted to transcend particularist beliefs, e.g. about being English or being Catholic, with a belief in "universal history" because he saw that in the modern age particularist beliefs could not sustain without a larger spiritual vision. The question of particularism vs. universality is an interesting one and I hope that people will take up this thread in discussion.


PCJ said...

Thanks for another intersting post, and for going back and chewing over yet again the engima of Toynbee.

Maybe Ortega was not so far off the mark. If what you say about Toynbee is accurate, maybe he himself would say in his own defense that he was not rejecting his Englishness, but trying to find a way to preserve it against disintegration.

“He saw that in the modern age particularist beliefs could not [be susttained] without a larger spiritual vision. »

Here -- precisely here, assuming you are accurate --- is where I part company from him, and indeed from most people in the European tradition. Once doubt has worked its effect on the beliefs of the tribe, an instinctual response of Euro people seems to be to try to think their way out of the problem. They go back to the books, or learn ancient languages, or canvass extinct civilizations. Their method is to try to think up new myths or re-vitalize old ones using their minds.

I guess 13 generations in the new world has left a mark on me, and by osmosis I have come to accept some points of view of the native American tradition. A “larger spiritual vision” doesn’t come from us. It comes from Her, a Cunning Nature, the Spirit World, (or Him, God, though I have to admit, when comes to Spiritus Mundi, I tend to be a bit of a female chauvinist). You don’t create a larger vision; you are a conduit for it. This is because nature is living. She gives it to you, maybe, if you live right, pare down, get rid of inessentials, so that when tested in the fire, there is not quite so much dross to burn away, and you stand a chance of surviving. You get it not by trying to increase control but by letting go and trusting Her --- –in full knowledge that She gives out no guarantees and is not altogether trustworthy. My hope is that She is a sucker for “fire, wit, grace, the dance of the stars, an exuberant spirituality, southern shivers of light....” not because I have those traits, but because I know that some of us do.

Toynbee and others in the European tradition don’t want to let go of rationality because in the final analysis they don’t want to let go of control. They want Her, but not Her the way She is --- i.e., living, i.e., mercurial, untrustworthy, capable of being seduced but also capable of looking upon any one of us, or all of us, with utter indifference. To be religious means nothing unless it means that ultimate reality is living. Europeans want Her, but cannot quite let go of an idea that for them is a great comfort --- that in the final accounting they can find some way to exert control. Theology and science, by this understanding, are not all that different.

Caryl said...

Hi Pauley-
Thanks for your response. This is a good issue to debate because it uncovers fundamentals.
Compare these two statements:
"Man has no nature...what he has is history." (Ortega)
"Every question about the nature of man must be resolved by history." (Joseph de Maistre)
In my view, the second statement is a bit more nuanced than the first, for it leaves the question of human nature "open" yet acknowledges that the only way to approach it is through history. Which means the use of the mind, words, reason, feeling, memory, tradition, art, thinking, etc.It seems to me a romantic illusion to think that we can approach the question of nature, human or otherwise, without engaging in some form of word-based reasoning (etc.) activity.
The question then becomes: what kind of reason...etc?
In the Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy there is a long history of thought and practice dedicated to the question of 1- whether it is possible for man's intellectual faculty to contact and share in the work of the Holy Spirit, and 2- if so, how this is done; and 3- if (2) is true, how this work of sharing differs from what we call "reason" or "intellect" or "rationality."
This tradition, which involved the development of the soul and its disposition of energies, has been lost; and in fact the loss of the concept and practice of inner or esoteric energy seems to me to be the indispensable requirement for the development of the kind of world we have today, i.e. the externalization of energy and its dispersal in "machines."
So the question then becomes: how does man recover his internal energy while at the same time retaining his history and historical consciousness? Because otherwise - merely to open oneself to the native American or Yaqui traditions, etc. - would be, all else equal, to say that all this history was utterly pointless - that it is a "tragedy without a catharsis."
Finally: it is not fair to call Toynbee a "rationalist." He disdained it, and got a lot of criticism for this. There is a difference between 'rationalism' and being deeply educated. One of those differences has to do with 'simplicity.' Toynbee's "challenge-and-response" theory of civilization is so simple, really, that many intellectuals disdain it for this reason. For them, things have to be complex, abstract, and reductive. This to me is 'rationalism.' The Holy Fathers of tradition would say in this regard that the 'simple' statement could mean that the reasoning mind has learned how to maintain contact with the other levels - emotional, tactile, sensual, moral, spiritual. Most of us are disorganized and chaotic because our minds cannot allow entrance (in your terms, let go of control) to simple understandings - the intellect puts up a barrier to the simple because it resists integration. Because integration of the soul would mean death of the intellect - or at least the submission of the intellect. The intellect does not want to submit (Non serviam!) and in fact this is the root of the Genesis story is it not?
There's a lot more to say, and of course, I have not said what I want to say! But maybe if we keep trying we'll get there.

PCJ said...

I am not sure that we are so very far apart. We both agree that our civilization is trying to live without a category --- the religious, the spiritual --- that we think is essential.

But what does it mean to be religious?

My answer is that it means that ultimate reality --- i.e., the most basic, fundamental aspect of WHAT IS—is living.

But to say "reality is living" is to say just words. What do the words mean? Well, for one thing, they mean that we are not in charge but rather He is or She is or They are. (As I say, I’m partial to “She.”)

It also means that in some way or another we have to let our energies and the energies of the Living Entity coincide, that is to say, we have to make contact with the Entity, the source of passion needed to live life. But contact is not safe. The desert people of the Old Testament thought that if you saw God, you died (unless He was in the right mood).

There is a kind of paradox here. Contact with the Living Entity is necessary but risky --- precisely because the entity is Living and in charge.

How matters work out in practice is that we want the energy, the renewal, the passion, the power that comes from contact with the Living Entity, but not the danger or risk.

I accuse Toynbee of doing is what I accurse the whole Western tradition of doing --- trying to make everything safe and secure by means of systematic theology, or science, or technology, or political arrangement, all of which work for a while but lead to structures that are brittle, and can’t hold up.

I like the aspect of the Native American tradition that understands that all of us have to go back into the hills and seek a vision --- by starving ourselves until something happens, by use of psychotropic plants, or by doing whatever it takes. Even if our efforts are not particularly successful, we gain experience, and become better at separating those who are good at vision from the phonies and the fakes.

Vision gathered back in the hills doesn’t ignore history but rather, instead, brings us up to date with history, by incorporating what we have learned so far into a new Big Picture.

Toynbee thought the Big Picture was his business. Nope, it’s Hers. (Among much else, relinquishing power over the Big Picture is what it means not to be in control, except in the old Norse sense that we show courage in the face of forces beyond control........)

Well, there you have it -- me talking my talk. Whether I can walk the walk is another matter.

DontDrinkTheTaqiyya said...

Yes, historian prognosticator Alfred Toynbee is deserving of your attention. This entire Study of Our Decline is worth a look. As is the home page for this work. I am unaffiliated with the author of the pages referenced.