Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism

for my blog-mate, Steve Morris, with whom I often disagree 🙂 

Ah, the Lilliputians. Those diminutive people on the island of Lilliput described by Jonathan Swift’s blundering traveler, Gulliver. What the reader takes home from the voyage to Lilliput is the comical insignificance of human struggles. These tiny creatures huff and puff and bluster about all the things we do, but their size alone makes it seem like so many trifling exercises pushing forward, then backward, then sideways, and getting nowhere fast. It is the comic version of Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Were Swift with us today, he might apply that same satiric wit to the liberal cultural vision in America over the last 50 years. The changes in consciousness that liberals of the 1960s and 70s advanced so furiously are the very things that liberals today are working furiously to reverse. Whether this tale told by an idiot is in the tragic mold of Shakespeare or the comic mold of Swift will depend on your perspective, but the details run something like this…

1960s/70s liberals emphasized our shared humanness over and against demographic differences that we were told could not be overcome; now liberals strenuously emphasize that whites can’t know what it is to be black, men can’t know what it is to be women, Asians can’t know what it is to be Latino … the very walls yesterday’s liberals fought so hard to break down are the ones being feverishly rebuilt by today’s liberals. The 60s/70s group implicitly favored all forms of cultural appropriation in every direction, everyone sharing each other’s stuff in the great communal playhouse; nowadays, liberals encourage each demographic group to guard its cultural turf against plunder.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove double standards on race and gender, fought to stop talking about and start living the dream where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today’s liberals pivot and push with equal vigor to enforce different standards for how to treat someone based on preconceived notions about privilege or race or gender. As hard as earlier liberals fought to treat everyone you meet as human being, regardless of race or gender or background, today’s liberals see everyone through the lens of race or gender or privilege and indeed many universities have now labeled it as a racist or sexist microaggression not to do so.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove all restrictions on how to speak, think, dress, or set up your living arrangements. “Rules and regulations, who needs them,” sang hippie icon, David Crosby. Bust it wide open and let everyone say what they think. Today’s liberals have briskly rolled back that joyful, bumpy pluralistic chaos with innumerable speech codes, Halloween dress codes, and a general shaming of anyone who deviates from the liberal norm.

I’m not sure where the arc of liberalism goes from here. I’ve hinted before that we may need, and there may already be a groundswell for, a movement outside the scope of politics, casting off the dried snakeskin of today’s liberals and conservatives alike, a movement that embraces the chaos of pluralism, that rejects all politics left and right, and relies on only the human heart and human imagination in our treatment of one another. I can’t say whether my new movement will get off the ground, or whether today’s liberals will consolidate their gains, or perhaps we’ll swing back to the more anarchist-minded 60s liberalism. These things are hard to predict. What’s not hard to predict is that the next turn of the wheel will probably leave us as vulnerable to Swiftean satire as ever.

Related: 1960s vs Post-1980s liberals; How the left ceded the moral high ground


Henry V: Compartments and Counterfeits

One thing about Shakespeare’s Henry V – everyone in the play seems to misjudge him for one specific reason: prior to coronation, he was the frivolous prankster we know as Prince Hal, drunkenly cavorting with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. No one expects a dissolute boy to become an effective king overnight. Indeed, the initial disruption that sets the play and the course of Henry’s reign rolling is this very misjudgment by the French Dauphin, who rouses Henry to action with a mock-gift of tennis balls “as matching to his youth and vanity” (II.iv.130). Thus underestimated, Henry nabs his traitors within, handles French diplomats justly and firmly, and defeats the French army abroad. Indeed he is the epitome of kingliness, more an epic hero exhibiting the highest ideals of his people than a troubled king such as Shakespeare normally gives. Or is he?

As James Mardock (editor of Internet Shakespeare editions) points out, there is a doubleness to Henry’s character and to the play itself that has haunted critics. Henry is indeed the idealized king, but bloodthirsty enough to murder his prisoners and callous enough to break the heart of audience-favorite Falstaff. Some critics find the play too one-dimensional in its patriotic zeal, with a man-of-action king who lacks the introspection that makes Shakespeare’s other kings interesting. Others find Henry too Machiavellian to warrant his idealized status. Still others object to the doubleness itself, as if Shakespeare could not decide whether to make Henry this or that, nor whether to present war as national glory or bloody chaos.

Here’s my solution. The signature trait that separates Henry V from Shakespeare’s other kings, and that allows him to bring forth a specific form of kingliness, is his masterful ability to compartmentalize. He is quite capable of introspection, as for example in the “ceremony” soliloquy on the battlefield (IV.i.230-284), where, despite his mock-dispute with Williams, he takes Williams’s point to heart about the moral hazards of kingship. Henry is introspective enough (in soliloquy) to feel responsibility for the human consequences of his actions, that “hard condition, / twin-born with greatness” (IV.i.233-34). Though he can compartmentalize private emotions from kingly duty, he recognizes both, and indeed plumbs his own instinct to compartmentalize to remarkable depth, noting that the only thing that separates a king from a commoner is “ceremony.” Everything in the social order rests upon the distinction of king from commoner, and yet Henry sees that only an act of convention keeps those boundaries in place. It is neither natural nor divine law but rather the human effort to compartmentalize ranks through the instrument of “ceremony” that allow kingship, and indeed social order, to exist.

But with Henry, more than with other Shakespearean kings, we can rest assured that this introspection will not follow him to battle. He recognizes that there is a time and place for introspection and never blurs the boundary:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger

Similarly, when condemning the traitors (II.ii), he delivers a nuanced theory of justice, pardoning the man condemned for drunkenly cursing the king but showing no mercy to those who would threaten the kingdom (“Touching our person seek we no revenge; / But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender…,” II.ii.173-74), even though he “will weep” for these treasonous “bedfellow[s]” of his youth. Then he enjoins the “poor miserable wretches” to “true repentance” before their execution, and as they are marched off stage, he turns to his other lords: “Now, lords, for France” (II.ii.181). Thus, the great compartmentalizer. He speaks eloquently not only on the national implications but on the human values at stake in the traitor scene, but when he turns, he turns completely, the man of action now focused on France. This capacity to compartmentalize separates him from history-play heroes like Richard II or even Henry IV, from tragic heroes like Macbeth and most of all from Hamlet. Indeed, he can reference those antecedent kings with introspection, as he privately prays God’s mercy for his father’s actions in securing the crown from Richard (IV.i.290-305). But no self-doubt will trouble him on the battlefield.

This view of Henry V as compartmentalizer-in-chief finally casts a light on the “counterfeit” theme, one of Shakespeare’s favorites. The classic counterfeit in Henry V is Pistol from the low plot. Pistol, with a “killing tongue and a quiet sword” (III.ii.34), is a savvy enough braggart to fool Captain Fluellen ( But of course, he’s a total coward of the lowest and most comical sort – in a word, the very archetype of the counterfeit. At the outset of the play, it seems all the movers and shakers see Henry the way the audience sees Pistol – as a counterfeit, a punk kid who is all talk and no guts. No one expected that Henry V could so quickly shift gears from dissolute Prince Hal to proper king. But Henry, master of compartmentalization, closes the door on Hal and opens the door on Henry V in one stroke. As at the end of the traitor scene, when he turns, he turns completely, decisively. This is the signature trait of his character and the source of his peculiar brand of kingliness.

To be sure, that instantaneous shift from Prince Hal to King Henry has some ugly human consequences, as when the dying Falstaff conjures up the image of Hal’s cruel dismissal at the end of 2 Henry IV. In this case, what’s “right” for the king Henry seems “wrong” for the private human being Henry, and Shakespeare’s inclusion of Falstaff’s death scene (II.iii) indicates that he does not intend to wash the moral ambiguity away. It is a double-bind such as Agamemnon faced in the choice to sacrifice his daughter to save his men and perform his kingly duty. Faced with moral double-binds of such great human consequence, as Henry himself notes in soliloquy, no king “can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave” (IV.i.268).

The counterfeit theme on this level holds a double irony. The concept of the counterfeit is itself based in irony, an appearance that turns out to be quite the opposite of reality. It would indeed be ironic if the king who vows to “show my sail of greatness” (I.ii.274) in vengeful war with France were a boyish coward at heart. The double irony is that King Henry, whom so many perceive as a counterfeit, is the real deal, the true coin that will shine most brightly against the French on the battlefield and against the foil of Pistol in the dramatic structure of the play.

But, this being Shakespeare, the counterfeit theme gets more complicated. What about the charge of hypocrisy? Henry’s great “band of brothers” speech is counterpointed by his sorting of the dead by rank a few scenes later (IV.iii, IV.viii). Is it hypocrisy? Or is it another instance of compartmentalization? Henry makes clear in the “ceremony” soliloquy that rank and royalty are fictions necessary to the social order, but fictions nonetheless. If one puts the emphasis on “fictions,” then one can read Henry as a cynical manipulator, a hypocrite who will take the most opportune stand at any given time. But if one puts the emphasis on “necessary to the social order” (an emphasis I believe most consistent with Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience), then we can credit Henry with recognizing that in any life’s course of action there is a time to engage our shared humanness and a time to engage the fictions of distinction. Although that doesn’t relieve him of the moral consequences – Williams is right in the battlefield speech and the poignant scene of Falstaff’s death is there for a reason – it is a signature marker of his greatness as a king.

(All line citations of Henry V are to The Riverside Shakespeare.)

Science and Philosophy

For some reason, science and philosophy have recently been pitted against each other in the blogosphere and public discourse. Maybe something Neil deGrasse Tyson said in Cosmos, but I didn’t have a chance to watch it. The antagonism between those disciplines, though, seems unwarranted.

Science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”) until the late 17th century. The subset was defined as a basically empirical quest for knowledge about the sensory world, or the objective world. Science has now grown into a separate discipline, and I think all acknowledge that physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values – art, ethics, love, justice – philosophy has the edge. If you’re grappling with “how to live a good life” (a favorite question of the ancient Greek philosophers), a perusal of Epicurus or Gandhi might serve at least as well as Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the logical presuppositions of empiricism as well as the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. “Why should we care about science?” is almost by definition the purview not of physics but of meta-physics, as it requires someone to step outside of science and view science as a whole against the larger screen of human values and what makes life worth living.

I think all will also acknowledge that science isn’t “the world” but is a secondary mechanism that observes and analyzes the world at an objective distance. There will always be a difference between the immediate experience of the world (e.g., the feeling of being in love) and the mediated analysis of the world (e.g., finding the chemical process that corresponds to the feeling of being in love). Science is de facto a mediated view of the world. It gains its power by limiting its scope to what can be gleaned at an objective distance from lived reality. Just as Plato’s myth of the cave and Boethius’s metaphor of the circle and Blake’s visionary poetry and Buddhist yoga practices and Shakespeare plays give us access points to lived reality that might fall outside the scope of science (i.e., vantage points that do not stand at the same objective distance as science).

So I am as fascinated as most with the yields of science, but I say let’s celebrate the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment. And let’s keep some historical perspective. Pre-17th century periods, in which empiricism was not the dominant epistemology, didn’t value science quite as much because they considered the sensory world less important in the scheme of human values. Science and empiricism constitute the dominant epistemology of our age (a comparatively short 300 years so far). But who knows what priorities, what epistemologies, what new paradigms lay past the horizon line of the next age?

Camus’s Stranger: Hero or Sociopath

Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him [52], nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once [38]). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station [60]). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.

If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.

Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago).  And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?

Rosalind’s (Anti-)Romantic Flourish

While reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I whimsically plotted one of Rosalind’s most brilliant moments into the thematic field (romantic, classical, sentimental, etc.) of my recent blog entries (Dracula, Von Trier’s Melancholia, Darkness and Melancholia).  In the Forest of Arden (Act IV, scene i), Rosalind, disguised as a young man named Ganymede, meets Orlando, who is pining for the real Rosalind. Orlando’s excessive avowals of love might mark him as a Romantic in the schema of my previous blog entries (albeit a Romantic with a sentimental rather than the darker Byronic underpinning), but Rosalind (naturally, since this is a Shakespeare comedy) decides to put him to the test. While Orlando thinks she is Ganymede, she offers to pretend to be Rosalind and engage him in a discourse of love. (On the Elizabethan stage, this means you have a boy actor pretending to be Rosalind, who is pretending to be Ganymede, who is pretending to be Rosalind, piling up layers of human and gender identity as Shakespeare so often does.) So Orlando pitches his love to Rosalind, believing her to be Ganymede. When “Ganymede” theatrically rejects him, he laments: “Then in my own person I die.” Here Rosalind (as Ganymede) beautifully debunks all the patterns of romantic love that make such excessive claims:

“The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year …. Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

Orlando further protests that Rosalind’s very “frown might kill me.” To which “Ganymede” dismissively responds: “It will not kill a fly.”

Between Shakespeare’s mastery of wordplay and the dramatic irony of Orlando’s ignorance that he is speaking to the real Rosalind, the comedy is rollicking in this scene. But there are real value systems being seriously played out against each other. In her speech, Rosalind (Ganymede) represents the cynic, who comically debunks pastoral/romantic love, and who does so with cold hard facts. It is beyond dispute that no young lover, however bold in love, has ever died from a female frown. So Rosalind’s speech seems to win the day. Using the schema of my recent blog entries, we might hypothesize that Shakespeare has deflated romantic nonsense from the point of view of the classical – the Greek cynic or the Roman satirist in this case. But Shakespeare (naturally, since he is Shakespeare) is not done with us. By the end of the play – nay, by the end of the very scene – Rosalind’s factually indisputable speech debunking the excesses of romantic love becomes, itself, nonsense. As soon as Orlando exits the stage (having been sounded and passed the test of love), Rosalind lets loose her true feelings: “How many fathom deep am I in love!”  Orlando may have been comically incapable of refuting in language the solid facts of the cynic, but his love was true; and Rosalind may have put forth the case of the cynic in terms that cannot be disputed, but her heart shows how hollow those words are. Not only is she in love, but she is in love beyond all rational measure. It is a love with “an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal,” a love “born of madness.” It is exactly the kind of unrestrained, limitless romantic love that her theatrical speech had denied.

Let this scene be a reminder to those who emphasize the play’s satirical element, which pokes fun at the conventions of love poetry, that the satirical element is recontained within a larger theme. Rosalind’s beautifully crafted and factually undeniable anti-romantic speech becomes, in Shakespeare’s hand, the perfect vehicle for showing the overwhelming and even more undeniable power of romantic love.