Archive for August, 2015

The Best Training for Any Social Scientist

August 31, 2015

“I believe the best training for any social scientist is to read widely and deeply in history, choosing works for the intrinsic quality of the argument rather than the importance or relevance of the subject matter. Here are some models: James Fitzgerald Stephen, A History of the Criminal law of England; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; G. E. M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World; Joseph Levenson Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque; G. Lefebvre, La grande peur; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic; Tocqueville, L’ancien régime et la Révolution; Max Weber, Agrarverhältnisse im Altertum; Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; Jean Egret, La pré-révolution française; Denis Crouzet, Les guerriers de Dieu; or Martin Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law (I have stuck my neck out a bit by including some not-yet-acknowledged classics). What these writers and others of their stature have in common is that they combine utter authority in factual matters with an eye both for potential generalizations and for potential counterexamples to generalizations. By virtue of their knowledge they can pick out the “telling detail” as well as the “robust anomaly,” thus providing both stimulus and reality check for would-be generalists.” (Jon Elster, 2007, Explaining Social Behavior)


Montaigne on Stupidity

August 20, 2015

From On the Art of Conversation (M. A. Screech, 1987):

“It is a disaster that wisdom forbids you to be satisfied with yourself and always sends you away dissatisfied and fearful, whereas stubbornness and foolhardiness fill their hosts with joy and assurance. It is the least clever of men who look down at others over their shoulders, always returning from the fray full of glory and joyfulness. And as often as not their haughty language and their happy faces win them victory in the eyes of the bystanders who are generally feeble in judging and incapable of discerning real superiority. The surest proof of animal-stupidity is ardent obstinacy of opinion. Is there anything more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious, than a donkey?”

From Of the Art of Discussion (Donald Frame, 1958):

“It is unfortunate that wisdom forbids you to be satisfied with yourself and trust yourself, and always sends you away discontented and diffident, whereas opinionativeness and heedlessness fill their hosts with rejoicing and assurance. It is for the most incompetent to look other men over their shoulders, always returning from the combat full of glory and cheer. And besides, this arrogance of language and gaiety of countenance usually give them the victory in the eyes of the audience, which is generally weak and incapable of judging and discerning clearly where the real advantage lie. Obstinacy and heat of opinion is the surest proof of stupidity. Is there anything so certain, resolute, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious as an ass?”

From On the Art of Conversation (J. M. Cohen, 1958)

“It is unfortunate that wisdom forbids you to be self-satisfied and trust in yourself, and always sends you away discontented and diffident, whereas an opinionated boldness fills its possessor with joy and assurance. It is the most empty-headed that view other men with scorn, and always return from the battle full of triumphant glee. What is more, their arrogant speech and cheerful looks most often give them the victory in the eyes of the bystanders, who are generally of a poor intelligence, incapable of judging and discerning where the advantage really lies. Obstinacy and heated argument are the surest proofs of stupidity. Is there anything so positive, immovable, disdainful, meditative, grave, and solemn as an ass?”

From Of the Art of Conference (Charles Cotton, 1685):

“‘Tis unfortunate that prudence forbids us to satisfy and trust ourselves, and always dismisses us timorous and discontented; whereas obstinacy and temerity fill those who are possessed with them with joy and assurance. ‘Tis for the most ignorant to look at other men over the shoulder, always returning from the combat full of joy and triumph. And moreover, for the most part, this arrogance of speech and gaiety of countenance gives them the better of it in the opinion of the audience, which is commonly weak and incapable of well judging and discerning the real advantage. Obstinacy of opinion and heat in argument are the surest proofs of folly; is there anything so assured, resolute, disdainful, contemplative, serious and grave as the ass?”

From Of the Art of Conferring (John Florio, 1603):

“It is ill lucke that wisedome forbids you to please and trust your selfe, and sends you alwayes way discontented and fearefull; whereas wilfulnesse and rashnesse fill their guests with gratulation and assurance. It is for the simplest and least able to looke at other men over their shoulders, ever returning from the combat full of glory and gladnesse. And most often also, this outrecuidance of speech and cheerefulnesse of countenance giveth them the victory over the bystanders, who are commonly weake, and incapable to judge a right and discerne true advantage. Obstinacy and earnestnesse in opinion is the surest tryall of folly and selfe conceit. Is there any thing so assured, so resolute, so disdainfull, so contemplative, so serious and so grave, as the Asse?”

Line and Color by Isaac Babel

August 18, 2015

(Translated by Peter Constantine)

I first met Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky[*] on December 20, 1916, in the dining room of the Ollila Spa. We were introduced by Zatsareni, a barrister from Turkestan. I had heard that Zatsareni had had himself circumcised at the age of forty. That disgraced imbecile Grand Duke Peter Nikolayevich, who was banished to Tashkent, prized Zatsareni’s friendship very highly. The Grand Duke used to walk about Tashkent stark naked, married a Cossack woman, lit candles before a portrait of Voltaire as if it were an icon of Jesus Christ, and had the boundless flatlands of Amu-Dari drained. Zatsareni was a good friend to him.

So, there we were at the Ollila Spa. Ten kilometers away shimmered the blue granite walls of Helsingfors.[†] O Helsingfors, love of my heart! O sky, pouring down onto the esplanades and soaring high like a bird!

So, there we were at the Ollila Spa. Northern flowers were withering in vases. Antlers spread across the murky ceilings. The air of the dining room was fil1ed with the fragrance of pine trees, the cool breasts of Countess Tyszkiewicz, and the British officers’ silk underwear.

At the table, a courteous converted Jew from the police department was sitting next to Kerensky. To his right, a Norwegian by the name of Nickelsen, the owner of a whaling vessel. To his left, Countess Tyszkiewicz, as beautiful as Marie Antoinette.

Kerensky ate three pieces of cake and went with me for a walk in the forest. Fröken Kristi hurried past us on skis.

“Who was that?” Kerensky asked me.

“That was Nickelsen’s daughter, Fröken Kristi,” I said. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Then we saw old Johannes’s sledge.

“Who was that?” Kerensky asked.

“That was old Johannes,” I said. “He brings cognac and fruit from Helsingfors. Can it be that you don’t know old Johannes the coachman?”

“I know everyone here,” Kerensky replied, “but I can’t see anyone.”

“Are you nearsighted, Alexander Fyodorovich?”

“Yes, I’m nearsighted.”

“You need glasses, Alexander Fyodorovich.”


“If you think about it,” I said to him with the brashness of youth, “you are not merely blind, you are as good as dead. The line—that divine trait, that queen of the world—has escaped you forever. You and I are walking through this enchanted garden, this marvelous Finnish forest. To our dying day we will not encounter anything better, and you, you cannot even see the rosy, ice-crusted edges of the waterfall, over there, on the river. The weeping willow, leaning over the waterfall—you cannot see its Japanese delicacy. The red trunks of the pine trees heaped with snow! The granular sparkle that scintillates over the snows! It begins as a frozen line above the tree’s wavy surface, like Leonardo’s line, crowned by the reflection of the blazing clouds. And what about Fröken Kristi’s silk stockings, and the line of her maturing legs? I beg of you, Alexander Fyodorovich, buy some spectacles!”

“My dear boy,” he answered, “don’t waste your gunpowder! That half-ruble coin you want me to squander on a pair of spectacles is the one coin that will never leave my pocket! You can keep that line of yours with its repulsive reality. You are living the sordid life of a trigonometry teacher, while I am enveloped by wonders’ even in a hole like Klyazma! Why do I need the freckles on Fröken Kristi’s face when I, who can barely make her out, can imagine everything I want to imagine about her? Why do I need these clouds in the Finnish sky, when I can see a dreamy ocean above my head? Why do I need lines when I have colors? For me the whole world is a gigantic theater in which I am the only spectator without opera glasses. The orchestra plays the prelude to the third act, the stage is far away as in a dream, my heart swells with delight, I see Juliet’s crimson velvet, Romeo’s violet silk, and not a single false beard—and you want to blind me with a pair of half-ruble spectacles?”

That evening I left for town. O Helsingfors, refuge of my dreams!

I saw Alexander Fyodorovich again half a year later, in June of 1917, after he had become Supreme Commander of the Russian army and master of our fate.

That day the Troitsky drawbridge had been lifted. The Putilov workers were heading for the arsenal. Burning tramcars lay in the streets like dead horses.

The mass rally had gathered at the House of the People. Alexander Fyodorovich gave a speech on Russia, our mother and our wife. The crowd smothered him with its sheepskin-coat passion. Could he, the only spectator without opera glasses, even see the bristling passion of the sheepskin coats? I have no idea. But after him, Trotsky came to the podium, twisted his lips, and, in a voice that chased away one’s last hopes, said:

“My Comrades and Brothers!”

[*] Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, 1881–1970, served as Minister of Justice, Minister of war, and provisional Prime Minister of Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

[†] A former name (Swedish) for Helsinki, which until Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was Russian.

One Damned Thing After Another

August 4, 2015

Aldous Huxley on Montaigne (In Collected Essays):

The perfection of any artistic form is rarely achieved by its first inventor. To this rule Montaigne is the great and marvelous exception. By the time he had written his way into the Third Book, he had reached the limits of his newly discovered art. “What are these essays,” he had asked at the beginning of his career, “but grotesque bodies pieced together of different members, without any definite shape, without any order, coherence, or proportion, except they be accidental.” But a few years later the patchwork grotesques had turned into living organisms, into multiform hybrids like those beautiful monsters of the old mythologies, the mermaids, the man-headed bulls with wings, the centaurs, the Anubises, the seraphim — impossibilities compounded of incompatibles, but compounded from within, by a process akin to growth, so that the human trunk seems to spring quite naturally from between the horse’s shoulders, the fish modulates into the full-breasted Siren as easily and inevitably as a musical theme modulates from one key to another. Free association artistically controlled — this is the paradoxical secret of Montaigne’s best essays. One damned thing after another — but in a sequence that in some almost miraculous way develops a central theme and relates it to the rest of human experience. And how beautifully Montaigne combines the generalization with the anecdote, the homily with the autobiographical reminiscence! How skilfully he makes use of the concrete particular, the chose vue, to express some universal truth, and to express it more powerfully and penetratingly than it can be expressed by even the most oracular of the dealers in generalities! Here, for example, is what a great oracle, Dr. Johnson, has to say about the human situation and the uses of adversity. “Affliction is inseparable from our present state; it adheres to all the inhabitants of this world, in different proportions indeed, but with an allotment which seems very little regulated by our own conduct. It has been the boast of some swelling moralists that every man’s fortune was in his own power, that prudence supplied the place of all other divinities, and that happiness is the unfailing consequence of virtue. But, surely, the quiver of Omnipotence is stored with arrows, against which the shield of human virtue, however adamantine it has been boasted, is held up in vain; we do not always suffer by our crimes, we are not always protected by our innocence. . . Nothing confers so much ability to resist the temptations that perpetually surround us, as an habitual consideration of the shortness of life, and the uncertainty of those pleasures that solicit our pursuit; and this consideration can be inculcated only by affliction.” This is altogether admirable; but there are other and, I would say, better ways of approaching the subject. “J’ay veu en mon temps cent artisans, cent laboureurs, plus sages et plus heureux que des Recteurs de l’Universite.” (I have seen in my time hundreds of artisans and laborers, wiser and happier than university presidents.) Again, “Look at poor working people sitting on the ground with drooping heads after their day’s toil. They know neither Aristotle nor Cato, neither example nor precept; and yet from them Nature draws effects of constancy and patience purer and more unconquerable than any of those we study so curiously in the schools.” Add to one touch of nature one touch of irony, and you have a comment on life more profound, in spite of its casualness, its seeming levity, than the most eloquent rumblings of the oracles. “It is not our follies that make me laugh,” says Montaigne, “it is our sapiences.” And why should our sapiences provoke a wise man to laughter? Among other reasons, because the professional sages tend to express themselves in a language of highest abstraction and widest generality — a language that, for all its gnomic solemnity is apt, in a tight corner, to reveal itself as ludicrously inappropriate to the facts of life as it is really and tragically lived.

The Man-Mountain

August 4, 2015

Jacques Barzun on The Complete Works of Montaigne, Translated by Donald M. Frame (In Arthur Krystal’s A Company of Readers):

It was a hill, really, that Montaigne lived on and drew his name from; it is only the Essays that are mountainous. Like mountains they tower along the horizon, vaguely known except to a few climbers, though generally admired as decorative, in the mistaken belief that they are what they seem from a distance.

The murmur of tradition, which one is likely to overhear and trust before the mind is fully awake, is that the Essays are a bedside book, the work of a humane skeptic who remarkably anticipates the doctrines of liberalism. Living in fanatical and dangerous times, he preached tolerance and desired progressive education, confessed to doubt and contemplated death, with the aid of multitudinous quotations from classic authors. One is supposed to go to him for random reflections on life, as Shakespeare is said to have done, and if it is to the French text or to Florio’s English that one goes, one finds the reflections quaint as well as shrewd. Montaigne thus survives in conventional criticism as a sort of prose Chaucer or discursive Horace reiterating the religion of sensible men.

Any tameness in this is felt to be redeemed by extensive and candid self-revelation, some of it titillating; so that as autobiographer and explorer of the human condition (the phrase is his), Montaigne becomes IMPORTANT. If only he had had the gumption to put his—ah—er—insights into systematic form if he had produced a philosophy susceptible of close analysis, the contemporary examiners of credentials such as the douanier Eliot would assign him a higher place. But then he would not be a bedside book. The Essays would be moved to the study and eventually to the public rooms, where they would impress the neophytes and supply them with topics of disputation.

Now, it may be too late to shake off the curiosity hunters; they do little harm as long as they remain a murmuring minority. But it is essential to give the rest, and especially the newcomers) a chance to see Montaigne for what he is; and for this Donald Frame’s new translation of the entire canon—Essays, Letters, and Journal—comes remarkably apropos.

The first sight of the volume is in itself tonic; these eleven hundred large pages cannot possibly be turned into a bedside book-they crush dilettantism and shame impertinence; while the merest glance at the sinewy modern prose dispels quaintness and brings before you, speaking and gesticulating, a subtle mind at the service of a powerful will. Though Montaigne’s long paragraphs have been broken up to please our modem eye, the prevailing impression is that of an irresistible continuity of thought.

The greatest of Montaigne’s readers, who was Pascal, felt this pressure of mind most deeply and forged his own philosophy by leaning against it, as many jottings and allusions in the Pensees testify. What is more, Pascal’s ultimate triumph in the unwritten work projected in the Pensees was to rest on the same base as Montaigne had solidly erected in the Essays. Pascal uses the chart of existence that Montaigne has drawn, but adds to it the realm of Transcendence. And even the arguments for giving faith and primacy to that realm derive from the premises and conclusions common to both thinkers. When, therefore, Pascal says that in reading Montaigne one finds a man and not an author, the reference is not to the autobiographical details—that Montaigne was below medium height, walked briskly, wore only black and white, had a keen sense of smell, loved conversation, and hated beer—it is to the fact that the Essays embody knowledge and not learning.

The presence of the many quotations is in fact as misleading as the tradition of the wise old skeptic: it was only after Montaigne’s death, in the first posthumous edition of 1595, that the bulk of the Latin insertions occurred. True, Montaigne had been gathering them during the last four years of his life, but who shall say that his motive was not the familiar one of seeking confirmation by parallels? The more independent and imaginative a writer is, the more in retrospect he is likely to find his novelties consonant with recorded reality. It is not as tags or as proofs that Montaigne multiplies classic instance; it is as a means of establishing an historical span for the truth of his observations. That is why he says ““Historians are my meat,”” knowing that he was not compiling an anthology: ““I speak others’ minds only to speak my own the more.””

Sweet and Harsh, Sharp and Flat, Soft and Loud

August 4, 2015

“We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only one kind, what would he have to say? He must know how to use them together and blend them. And so must we do with good and evil, which are consubstantial with our life. Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one element is no less necessary for it than the other. To try to kick against natural necessity is to imitate the folly of Ctesiphon, who undertook a kicking match with his mule.” —Montaigne