Monday, May 30, 2011

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone: Chapters 3 and 4, "A Clumsy Suitor" and "Peel's Apprentice"

Gladstone rose quickly under the mentorship of the tragedy-struck future prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, becoming a cabinet minister for the first time at just 33.

After a brief spell in power in the minority Tory government of 1835, Gladstone was without office until 1841. He spent most of the intervening years seeking a wife and stirring up religious controversy.

Gladstone spent a couple of years in vigorous and heavy-handed pursuit of two young women of rank who showed no interest in him: first Caroline Farquhar (the sister of an Eton schoolmate) and then Lady Frances Douglas. In time, he came around to wooing Catherine Glynne, the sister of another Eton schoolmate, Sir Stephen Glynne. Gladstone had become used to staying at the Glynne family's Welsh estate at Hawarden for some years, and had become fast friends with the whole family, before he hit upon this more fortunate course. He proposed while on vacation with the Glynnes in Rome just a few days into the new year in 1839, and she finally accepted half a year later in London. Gladstone made Hawarden his primary home for the duration of his life.

In the meantime, Gladstone published his first book, The State in its Relations with the Church, an extremist polemic against religious toleration (with the ironic assistance of several future Catholic converts) and spoke in parliament against renewal of the government grant to the Catholic Irish seminary of Maynooth. Such lapses in judgment put Gladstone on the wrong side of the Tory leadership, including his new mentor William Peel.

In April ,1840, Gladstone delivered his first foreign policy speech to parliament. He spoke in opposition to the Palmerston government's war against China (the Opium War). This was an early sign of Gladstone's tense relationship with Palmerston, whom Gladstone never got on with (seeing him in particular as too decadent) even though he was later to become his political ally.

When Peel became prime minister at the head of a new Conservative majority in 1841, Gladstone ended up with a less prestigious post than he had hoped, the vice-presidency of the Board of Trade. He nevertheless threw himself into his work with energy and intelligence and became a sometimes inconveniently eager advocate of free trade as a result. (He had also had responsibility for railroad regulation, appropriately for an avid if critical early railroad traveller.) He became full minister of the Board in 1843, but soon made characteristically fussy difficulties over increased government support for the Maynooth seminary. Gladstone felt obliged to resign his cabinet post over the issue because of his earlier vocal opposition to support, even though he had changed his mind and would in fact vote for bill when it came up.

Gladstone seemed strangely unmoved by Peel's death in 1850. Jenkins argues that Gladstone may have found Peel uncomfortably close in background and age, and that in light of this he found the space for his own career was limited by Peel's presence.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology: Chapter 3, "A Terminological and Methodological Cross Section of the Idea of Truth"

In this chapter Blumenberg takes a break from tracing truth metaphors through time. He notes that this approach presupposes that each chosen appearance of the metaphor has been properly understood in its contemporary conceptual context. He proposes to provide such an accounting for a truth metaphor in one instance -- to show that a "cross section" can be provided at an arbitrary point along a given temporal "longitudinal section." He chooses Lactantius as suitably mediocre thinker to investigate -- one who represents the ideas of his age but poses no threat to overturn them.

Lactantius constrains the effect of the metaphor of the force of truth (vis veritas) with a second metaphor: the truth as God's property, which he has the right to reveal or conceal. In consequence, in the introductory passage to his "Divinae institutiones," Lactantius holds that men are not able to grasp truth simply by their own efforts, and that the pagan philosophers thus failed to find it. The evidentness of truth only makes itself felt when, in an act of grace, God chooses to reveal it. Among other things, the status of truth as a secret of God (arcanum dei) preserves the proper distance between man and God.

Lactantius does not strictly maintain this view strictly throughout his work. He finds all sorts of "advances" of revelation to the pagan philosophers. Since he conceives of truth as homogeneous -- that is, since he has no place for truths which are only accessible through faith -- this means that in principle all of the truth was accessible to the ancient philosophers. This means he has to account for their failure to find it, and he uses a number of metaphors for this purpose. He depicts the pagan philosophers as looking in the wrong direction, because God had not shown them the right one: truth is "above" but they looked for it "below." Or he describes their encounter with truth in terms of of perception, particularly of touch or smell, which lack real certainty. The key point, for Lactantius, is that they lacked the criterion to verify the truths they had. So he is able to hold that truth was widely dispersed -- all sects had at least some part of it -- but was never recognized as a whole because men lacked the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood. Revelation provided the criterion by which truth could be recognized and integrated.

Another way Lactantius depicts the philosophers as leading up to Christianity is by treating falsehood as a kind of world in its own right and the apprehension of falsehood as a separate matter from discerning truth. Then the pagan philosophers can be conceded to have done the easier task -- recognizing what is false -- without being able to find truth. This trope depends upon a reversal of classical predicates: now the false is evident and the true is hidden. Truth compels men with its essential force only when God releases it from concealment.

Lactantius struggles, without real success, to account for the role of rhetoric when truth is supposed to have the power to convince all on its own. His own experience may lead him to feel the power of rhetoric, but his commitment to the compelling force of truth on its own leaves no place for rhetorical assistance.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, Forenote to the American Edition and Chapters 1 and 2, "A Liverpool Gentleman?" and "A Grand Tour Ending at Newark"

Among the reasons I picked up this book was a desire to get a better feel for England in the 19th century, and Jenkins goes some ways towards supplying that in his context-setting Forenote.

He begins with some observations that are common enough. Though Gladstone's 1809 birth came in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, that conflict did not consume the attention of the British government and hardly disturbed the daily life of the upper classes. The rural gentry had prospered from the enclosures and technical advances in agriculture of the previous decades. The wars, by restricting the supply of grain from abroad, only increased that prosperity. When the end of the wars promised to renew grain supplies from abroad, they were cut back by the passage of Corn Law of 1815. Poorer Britons, however, suffered from all these changes, and did not begin to see an improvement in living standards until the second half of the century. In the meantime, government policy until the twenties was strictly repressive.

More novel are his observations on the state of transportation in early 19th century Britain. Improved roads and lighter carriages increased the speed of overland travel to as much as 15 miles per hour -- making possible regular coach line transit from London to Bath in 8 hours and to Liverpool in 20. While this made all of England easily accessible to the upper classes, however, travel to Ireland remained difficult. So Britons from ruling circles -- even those with Irish estates -- rarely went there, and this kept the concerns of Ireland remote.

Just as telling are his comments about how Gladstone was out of step with the brash, boisterous British nationalism of the late 19th century. It was a spirit borne of insecurity, unlike the more subdued but confident national assertion of middle of the century that was Gladstone's true temporal home.

The first two chapters provide more such revelations. The most surprising, for me, was the apparent commonness not just of corrupt election practices (which I had assumed), nor even of appeals of election results for corrupt practices (which I wasn't aware of), but of the success of such appeals (which implies not just judicial independence, but respect for the judiciary and its decisions). His father had two elections appealed, one successfully. His oldest brother Tom was also removed once by appeal, and was once successfully installed by appeal as well.

Early on I also got an impression of how and compact and interconnected the leading circles of British life must have been in the 19th century. Not only is Gladstone surrounded by future men of consequence at Eton and Oxford, but even chance connections like defeated political opponents and future husbands of unsuccessfully wooed brides can turn out to be important figures.

Other notable points: Narrow classicism of the Eton curriculum. Public schools' indifference until the late 19th century to inculcating a standard south England upper class accent. Prime importance of religion in mid-19th century British intellectual life (to say nothing of Gladstone's personal outlook) -- something I have missed by knowing British intellectual life of this period mainly as the Mills, Bentham, and Darwin. The pre-eminence (especially politically) of Christ Church college at Oxford.

Gladstone himself came from a very prosperous Liverpool merchant family. (Jenkins's rough and ready 50-to-1 translation of the family fortune puts it at 25 million pounds in contemporary terms). He had astounding drive and energy, physically and mentally. His upbringing was decidedly low church, although at Oxford he was affiliated with a high church cum Anglo-Catholic circle and this tendency continued to attract him (although he always remained theologically opposed to the Catholic Church itself). He believed firmly in the unity of European civilization, and learned modern languages with typical doggedness to make good on that belief in practice. He began his career on the political right but moved left over time. He first attracted attention for his anti-reform oratory while at Oxford, and he was first elected to parliament as a member from Newark in 1833.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On a telling blindness to the history of philosophy

I will briefly break from the normal programming on this blog to make an observation about Matthew Yglesias's recent posts on Kant, Christianity, and ethics. Yglesias believes it is a commonly accepted view that moral rules should not demand more than can realistically be expected of human conduct, and he thinks this view is a residue of Christianity transmitted through Kant.

Leaving aside whether this an accurate assessment of common contemporary belief or of Kant (I would say the first is mostly correct and the second is off the mark), I am struck by his lack of historical perspective. He assumes that, but for the existence of Christianity, ethics would never have been disturbed from a pure path of finding abstract rules which we are morally required to follow no matter how difficult this may be in practice. I struggle to see how this seemingly ad hoc potted history can be reconciled with the thought of Aristotle, a really-existing pre-Christian philosopher. Aristotle didn't propound an ethics based on abstract principles. but he certainly anchored his account of good human conduct on behavior that he saw as being realistically achievable.

This is why I wouldn't really recommend pursuing a philosophy degree at Harvard.