The School of Salamanca: Origins of Political Economy and International Law

At the beginning of the 16th century, Salamanca was a city of 20,000 to 24,000 inhabitants, with about 7,000 students (today there are 145,000, of whom 30,000 are students). Founded in 1243, the University of Salamanca is the third oldest university in Europe. In the Golden Age (1492-1681), Spain was the country with the largest number of university students in Europe.

The reputation of the University of Salamanca grew stronger from the 15th century onwards. It became a center of intellectual influence, the symbol of the Renaissance and of Spanish humanism. The great figures, such as Antonio de Nebrija, Fray Luis de Leon, St. John of the Cross, Luis de Gongora and many others studied there. Unlike the Universities of Valladolid and Alcala (the vanguard of Spanish Erasmism), which were mainly focused on theology, Salamanca was also oriented towards legal, political and economic studies. However, the School of Salamanca was above all a theological movement that had as its primary objective the renovation of theology.

[The two most complete works on the School of Salamanca are those of Juan Belda Plans, La Escuela de Salamanca y la renovación de la teología en el siglo XVI, and Miguel Anxo Pena González, La Escuela de Salamanca. De la Monarquía hispánica al Orbe católico].

The theological humanism of the School of Salamanca, and more broadly of the Hispanic Neo-Scholastic school (the scholastic tradition going back to the University of Paris founded around 1200), was an original synthesis of Thomism, Scotism and nominalism, enriched successively by Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans, but also by Augustinians, Mercedarians, Carmelites, secular priests, jurists and laymen. The period of its full flowering was from 1526 to 1604; thereafter, its influence declined and finally died out in 1753. At its peak, the trend in favor of Thomism as an orthodox line was very strong; but in the sixteenth century the intellectual atmosphere was open enough to allow the expression of very different concerns and visions. To illustrate this atmosphere, it is worth recalling that the universities of Salamanca, Alcala, Valladolid and Osuna were familiar with the work of Canon Copernicus, who defended heliocentrism with De Revolutionibus (1543). Its study was optional at the University of Salamanca in 1561 and its teaching was compulsory from 1594 onwards. This situation was not exceptional in sixteenth-century Spain, since the Casa de la Contratación de Indias, an institution created in 1503 to promote navigation, had a large team of royal astronomers and cosmographers fully aware of European astronomy.

[Eugenio Bustos, “La introducción de las ideas de Copérnico en la Universidad de Salamanca,” Revistas de la Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas naturales (67), pp. 235-253].

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), the Master of Masters

It was the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), who first contributed to the prestige of the School of Salamanca. Vitoria came from a family of converts. He first studied at the Universities of Burgos and La Sorbonne. He was thirty years old when he left Paris and returned to Spain. He first went to the University of Valladolid, then arrived in Salamanca in 1526, where he remained until his death.

[Since the 1980s, studies on Francisco de Vitoria have multiplied. In fifteen years (1980-1995), Ramón Hernández Martín (author of Francisco de Vitoria. Vida y pensamiento internacional) estimates no less than one hundred works have been published. See in particular, Francisco Castilla Urbano, El pensamiento de Francisco de Vitoria. Filosofía política e indio americano, and Simona Langella, Teología y ley natural. Estudio sobre las lecciones de Francisco de Vitoria].

The School of Salamanca, or “Hispanic School” (since there were many of its followers in Hispanic America), was not the result of a deliberate plan, or of a well-established project. It was a current of thought that was spontaneously created around a master. And this master-founder was Vitoria. For him, as for all his followers, if power is necessary for the State, its raison d’être and its finality can only be the common good. The Pauline idea that power comes from God was accepted by the whole of Christianity, but it gave rise to two opposing interpretations. For some, the monarch governs and imposes laws in an absolute manner, by direct delegation from God (a point of view later developed by James I of England and by Bossuet). In Spain, however, it was quite different, since the idea outlined by Isidore of Seville (560-636) at the time of the Hispano-Visigoths—that the monarch or the dominant oligarchy does not receive power directly from God, but indirectly through the people. This conception was theorized and concretized by the great masters of the School of Salamanca in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, for Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, Luis de Molina and so many other Neo-Scholastic authors, God does not grant power directly to the monarch, but only to the people, who freely transmit it to the king by means of a pact that can be modified. The power is “of human right;” it is not directly divine, and it can be more or less ample, according to a free pact. The king is not a mediator between the will of God and the people, but rather the people are.

Vitoria’s freedom of expression from his chair is astonishing. An example: the instrument that Spain brandished to exercise its dominion over the Indies was a bull of Pope Alexander VI, which gave the Crown of Castile a right over the lands and inhabitants of the Indies. However, in two of his famous re-readings (Relectiones) De Indis and De jure belli (1539) [Francisco de Vitoria, Leçons sur les Indiens et sur le droit de guerre. trans. Maurice Barbier, o.p., (Libraire Droz, 1966)], Vitoria simply asserts that the Emperor is not the master of the world and that the Pope is not the lord of the planet either. According to Vitoria, the papal bull does not legitimize either the conquest or the discovery. He asserts that the property of the Indians does not belong to the monarch, nor to the conquistadors, and that the Spaniards do not have the right to get their hands on the gold of America or to exploit the wealth of the continent against the will of the Indians. The emperor, he says, rules over a community of free peoples. Imperial laws are only just insofar as they serve to promote, conserve, and protect the indigenous people.

What are the illegitimate and legitimate titles of domination and conquest according to Vitoria? Illegitimate are the alleged powers of the Emperor or the Pope over the world; the right of discovery; the violation of natural law by the natives (anthropophagi, human sacrifices, incest, homosexuality, etc.); the acceptance of foreign domination by a minority of the rulers and the ruled; and finally, the alleged special gift of God. Legitimate only are: the right of people and the right of natural communication; the right to preach and to announce the Gospel freely; the tyranny of the native rulers, the agreement of the majority of the natives; the alliance and the call for help from friendly peoples; and finally, a point that seems to be debatable—the temporary incapacity of the natives to administer themselves. One sees that paradoxically the arguments that justify today the right of interference (the possibility for international actors to intervene in a State, even without its consent, in case of massive violation of human rights) are not so far from his own.

In short, according to Vitoria, the Indies should be considered a political protectorate. A protectorate justifiable only insofar as it serves the welfare of the indigenous peoples. On the other hand, Vitoria and his followers generally agree that individuals who have never been Christians should not be forced to become so.

The reaction of the Emperor, Charles V, was remarkably debonair and peaceful. He limited himself to sending a letter to the prior of the convent of San Esteban in Salamanca to urge his colleagues to show a little more restraint and caution in expressing doctrines that might offend the dignity of the Emperor and the Pope.

In his 13th lesson, De jure belli, Vitoria redefines the theory of just war, developed until then by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas. He states his three principles: One should not seek the occasions and causes of war, but should live in peace with men; the rejection of the Gospel is not a reason for just war. War should not be waged for the loss of the enemy, but for the defense of one’s country and so that peace may result. It is necessary finally to have a just proportion between the violation of the right and the evils generated by the war, and to benefit from victory with measure and moderation.

If Francisco de Vitoria is often considered the founder of international law, it is not because he invented the notion of the law of nations, the jus gentium (the Greeks and the Romans already used, in the relations between States, elements of a true system of international law, later developed by Saint Augustine, Saint Isidore and Saint Thomas), but because Vitoria was able to discover the fundamental laws of relations between men. His genius was to consider the law of nations as a natural law, common to all men and to all States.

The Disciples of Vitoria

A whole group of scholars soon became part of Vitoria’s lineage. About twenty names are famous, but about 80 deserve to be studied. They soon became the moral conscience of the Empire. Among them: Domingo de Soto, known for his theory of money and his renovation of the law of nation /jus gentium; Melchor Cano, who advised King Philip II to resist the temporal claims of the Pope; Tomás de Mercado, who studied the commercial exchanges between Spain and the Indies; Martin de Azpilcueta, former rector of the University of Coimbra, who was the first economist to correctly analyze the process of inflation caused by the influx of precious metal from the Indies.

To these names should be added those of Juan Gil de Nava, Pedro de Sotomayor, Juan de la Peña, Mancio de Corpus Christi, Bartolomé de Medina, Domingo Bañez, Juan de Guevara, Luis Sarabia de la Calle, Fray Luis de León, Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva, Bartolomé de Medina and Juan de Maldonado. Then, the names of a second generation, to which belonged the Jesuits Luis de Molina (who taught in Madrid and Coimbra), Juan de Mariana, and especially Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). The economic thought of these authors was new and original. Domingo de Soto maintained that the wealth of nations came from exchange and not from the accumulation of precious metals. He was thus clearly opposed to mercantilism.

[Raoul de Scorraille, François Suárez de la Compagnie de Jésus, d’après ses lettres, ses autres écrits inédits et un grand nombre de documents nouveaux, 2 vols.; Joseph H. Fichter, Man of Spain: A Biography of Francis Suárez; José Manuel Gallegos Rocafull, La doctrina política del P. Francisco Suarez (Jus, 1948); Mateo Lanseros, La autoridad civil en Francisco Suarez (IEP, 1949); Reijo Wilenius, The Social and Political Theory of Francisco Suarez (Societas philosophica Fennica, 1963); Jean-François Courtine, Nature et empire de la loi. Études suaréziennes; and A. Couartou-Imatz, La souveraineté populaire chez Francisco Suarez (Faculté de droit de Bordeaux, 1974)].

Luis de Molina explained that the right price is the price of competition, of the game of supply and demand; that the value attributed to things is subjective and not objective, as Marx, and Ricardo before him, would later say. For Molina, the right price is the market price; it is the abundance or scarcity of goods that determines their price and not the costs of production, work or risk, as was believed in the Middle Ages (via Duns Scott).

The masters of the Salamanca school criticized excessive taxation and price controls. Price controls can and should only be exceptional. They also clearly defended property, which is necessary for social peace; to deny it, to refuse it, according to them, is a heresy (Domingo de Soto), but it is not absolute; it can never be detached from its social function.

The thinkers of Hispanic Neo-Scholasticism condemned usury, but accepted moderate interest. They were therefore attacked, on the one hand, by Protestants and Catholics who demanded a return to the purity of the Church’s doctrine and who reproached them for softening the prohibition, and, on the other hand, by secular authors who accused them of hypocrisy because they sought exceptions to the principle.

These thinkers also made a distinction between citizens and foreigners. Luis de Molina is the very example of the scholastic author who today offers arguments to defend restrictions on the international market and immigration.

After the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, the most famous author of the School of Salamanca is the Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). His work was known throughout Europe in his time. It consists of 27 volumes (unlike Vitoria who did not publish anything during his lifetime, his re-readings being notes taken by his students).

Suarez is an anti-absolutist thinker. In his Defensio fidei (1613), he states the fundamental axiom of Neo-Scholastic theology: “No king, no monarch, has or has had according to the ordinary law, the political principate immediately from God or by the act of a divine institution, but by means of human will or institution” [Cited by Couartou-Imatz, L’État et la communauté internationale dans la pensée de Vitoria (Faculté de droit de Bordeaux, 1972), p.16]. Public power always comes from God, but it is given to the people who place it in the hands of an individual or an institution for reasons of historical circumstances. This being the case, only the authority that does not lose sight of its mission is legitimate—that mission being, the attainment of the common good and the respect of human dignity. At the heart of the Neo-Scholastic approach is the integration of theology, ethics, politics and economics. The Dominicans and the Neo-Scholastic Jesuits cannot be described as individualistic thinkers in the contemporary sense, even though their work demonstrates a constant concern for human dignity.

It is only from the beginning of the nineteenth century that several Spanish and European jurists, all specialists in international law, began to recognize the influence of Vitoria and his followers on the Dutch Protestant jurists, Hugo Grotius, and the German, Samuel von Pufendorf, who were then considered the only precursors of international law. Their influence on the works of the Italian jurist, Alberico Gentili, the German philosopher, Johannes Althusius, the French political theorist, Jean Bodin, and indirectly on the group of Scottish economists, headed by Adam Smith, is equally undeniable.

The precursory character of the School of Salamanca was more and more admitted from the turn of the 20th century. In France alone, the pioneering work of Ernest Nys (1894), Alfred Vanderpol (1911), Hubert Beuve Méry (1928) and Louis Le Fur (1939) should be recalled.

In the field of economics, however, it was not until another century later that the thinkers of the School of Salamanca were recognized as the founders of modern economics. For a long time, they were confused with the most vulgar mercantilism (which defended the idea that the possession of precious metals made the wealth and power of nations). It had even been said that the thinkers of the School of Salamanca, guided by their religious principles, had been unable to understand the mechanisms of the market and prices. But this was not true!

The works of Pierre-André Sayous, Joseph Schumpeter, José Larraz Lopez, Luis Martínez Fernández, Andrés Martín Melquiades, José Barrientos, Juan Belda Plans, Murray Rothbard, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, Jesús Huerta de Soto, Raymond de Roover, Alejandro Chafuen, to name but a few, have shown that the thinkers of Hispanic Neo-Scholasticism described and systematized, long before the economists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in an almost complete way, the theory of subjective value, the theory of marginal utility, the theory of prices, the quantitative theory of money, the phenomenon of inflation and the mechanisms of exchange. What is most surprising is that modern economic science has confirmed the conclusions reached by the thinkers of the School of Salamanca through theological and ethical reasoning, as early as the 16th century.

Many ultraliberal supporters of the Austrian School have sought to see in the Salamanca School the origins of the liberal school of economic thought.

[See Alejandro A. Chafuen, Christians for Freedom. Late Scholastic Economics/ Raíces cristianas de la economía de libre mercado ( Buey Mudo, 2009); Thomas E. Woods, The Church and the Market. A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy/ La iglesia y la economía. Una defensa católica de la economía libre ( Buey Mudo, 2010); André Azevedo Alves and José Manuel Moreira, The Salamanca School. For the opposite view, see Daniel Martín Arribas, Destapando al liberalismo. La Escuela Austriaca no nació en Salamanca (SND Editores, 2018)].

Some of the most feverish supporters even went so far as to assert that “God is liberal/libertarian;” perhaps in order not to be outdone by those who, like Camilo Torres or Leonardo Boff, saw in Christ “the first communist.” But this is to forget that the Neo-Scholastic authors never separated the economy from morality, from natural law and from God. And this also forgets that the principles of a just Christian order, juridical, political, economic and social, are in direct opposition to those of a liberalism that idolizes freedom and private property.

The Influence on Power

What was the influence of the School of Salamanca in the 16th century? On the Church it was undoubtedly very important. Members of the School of Salamanca were omnipresent at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). During its three stages, the Spanish participation amounted to a total of almost a thousand people, of whom 245 are known among the most prestigious figures.

What about political power? It is impossible to overemphasize here the close and privileged relationship that existed between the thought of Vitoria and his followers and the Spanish Monarchy. On November 20, 1542, Charles V promulgated in Barcelona the New Laws of the Indies. His decree abolished slavery and the encomienda and ordered that the Indians be considered free vassals of the Crown of Castile. But obviously the ideal ran up against the realities and the interests of the men. The pressure of the Spanish authorities of the Indies and the various insurrections (in Peru) compelled the emperor to modify partially the contents of his decree. But the influence remained however tangible in the more than 3000 laws of the Indies enacted by the kings of Spain.

A word about the Valladolid controversy, which in 1550-1551 pitted the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas against the humanist theologian, also a Dominican, Juan Ginés de Sepulveda. Sepulveda declared the domination of the Indians just in order to civilize them, to teach them religion without doing it by force and to have them respect natural law. Las Casas, on the contrary, was a pacifist. According to him, there was no legal title that could justify the Spanish presence in America. He proposed the restitution of lands, compensation for the Indians and peaceful evangelization. But his pacifism was perceived by the whole School of Salamanca as an unrealistic and irresponsible thought. In this, Vitoria was paradoxically closer to the realist or moderately Machiavellian (and not at all Machiavellic) Sepulveda, a fine connoisseur of Aristotle, than to the utopian Las Casas.

[Machiavellianism refers to a conception of politics that advocates the conquest and preservation of power by all means. The adjective “Machiavellic,” which has passed into common French parlance, refers to the dark and manipulative interpretation of Machiavelli’s best-known work, The Prince (1531). Thus “Machiavellic” is always sinister and nefarious. This is to be distinguished from the term “Machiavellian,” formed by contrast to designate the concepts stemming from Machiavelli’s political philosophy, without passing judgment. Thus, “Machiavellian” is realist philosophy in politics].

Today, scholars continue to argue about the position of the Salamanca School on individual rights. For some, the Salamanca masters represent a resurgence and development of an authentically Aristotelian and Thomistic framework centered on an organicist conception and objective natural law. For others, they are closer to the notion of subjective law centered on individual rights and liberties. For some, they are part of the most orthodox Catholic tradition; for others they break with it and anticipate modernity.

Are Vitoria and his followers at the origin of the modern conception of human rights? No, answers the philosopher of law Michel Villey. “Certainly, the Spanish scholastics had a great desire to impose their theology and their conception of a natural moral law on jurists; but to derive from it duties, obligations to be borne by the individual. They were agents of order. As for deducing from the dignity of nature the ‘rights’ of man, they were not ready for it, not having the taste for anarchy, because of their attachment to tradition.” According to Villey, human rights have their source in a deviated Christian theology; they are the product of modern philosophy, which emerged in the 17th century.

In any case, the legacy of the School of Salamanca is originality of thought, a combination of an organic conception of society, centered on the common good, with a prominent place given to the dignity of man and even to individual rights; a simultaneous defense of the right of the city and the right of individuals.


Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECDHe is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.


Featured: “Francisco de Vitoria,” by Daniel Vázquez Diaz; painted in 1957.

Sunflowers with Tomato

The Climate religion already has its iconoclasts. Two planetary suffragettes attacked van Gogh’s Sunflowers, a painting at which they threw a Warholian can of tomato soup to the cry of “Why do you protect art and not the planet?” In this time of permanent performance, the two maenads of the Earth Goddess applied the only principle of their theology—ago quia ineptum est [I do what is stupid]—against a poor canvas whose relationship with the climatic apocalypse is more than doubtful. Given that, according to the most serious scientific hypotheses, it is the cows’ windy breath that is to blame for the agony of our atmosphere, wouldn’t it have been more purposeful, more dignified, more coherent to throw the red lump on some Paulus Potter, for example?

The very purpose of the action does not seem to have been the subject of long meditations, for neither is it very comprehensible that the preservation of art and the preservation of the planet are mutually exclusive ends. Burning five-pound bills at the door of the Bank of England or “tomatoing” Royal Dutch Shell executives, for example, would have had a greater cause-effect relationship, always within that complex system of sympathetic magic that is Woke activism. What does not seem very logical or symbolic is to attack in effigy some defenseless sunflowers, innocent children of Mother Earth. But coherence, logic, sensible analysis of the real and the adequacy of responses to disturbing facts are anathema to Woke subjectivity, macho qualities that surely offend the empowered Ojancanas of the climatic Moloch.

The action of these damsels is the necessary consequence of the kind of education given in Western schools, where instruction has long since become indoctrination, merit anathema, and seriousness and intellectual rigor crimes. Anyone who has had the dubious honor of contemplating the achievements of modern pedagogy knows that performance has become a daily liturgy, a curricular coven, a teaching jalogüín (Halloween) in all educational institutions, where earlier teachers, books, experience and reason explained the sciences and the arts to future professionals, scientists, humanists and technicians. But as now the institutes, lyceums and academies have as a fundamental purpose that the young people explore their trusses and not their brains, the stimuli of the active life are no longer in front of the weak but necessary barrier of the spirit, of the contemplative life, of the intellectual vocation. Therefore, what the iconoclasts of the National Gallery carried out was the application to external reality of what has been common practice in academic centers for decades: Dadaism.

The tomato wallops at van Gogh are the culmination of four decades of anti-elitist, anti-hierarchical, anti-class, anti-racist, anti-macho, avant-garde, inclusive, feminist, resilient, non-binary, trans-speciesist and other long etcetera of antis and -ists that the reader may wish to add. Anything but classical, humanist and scientific.

I have no doubt that these prophets of nihilism have far surpassed the great artist of our time, the woman who best represents the aspirations and achievements of contemporary man (with apologies): Marina Abramovic, who will have to invent something to surpass the two bacchantes of London. Only one superior sacrilege comes to mind: throwing tomato, or pineapple juice, or Coca-Cola or sulfuric acid on some “masterpiece” of Frida Kahlo, the best artist in history, eclipsed until our times by a phallocratic conspiracy of silence. It is true that van Gogh was a sort of hirsute, red-haired, disoriented and suicidal Frida, but with a better technique (which, on the other hand, was not very difficult, either). I think, moreover, that the tomato streaks should remain on the painting, as a sample of what we could call “Hysteric Art.” Worse things have been seen in many exhibitions and have been priced at gold-premium. The National Gallery must pay fair market value for their work to the two girls, since their “action painting,” in addition, has served to make their museum become a trending topic. And isn’t that the chief end of art?

What can bring a museum closer to the people than the opportunity to throw a tomato at the Mona Lisa? Wasn’t that what Duchamp, Jarry and Picabia advocated? Is there anything more interactive and inclusive, more accessible to everyone? Besides, the Planet will be grateful.

If there is one good thing about Woke “education” is that the most valued artists are Rothko, Pollock and Mondrian, not the devalued butches of Titian, Rubens or Rembrandt. Therefore, future tomatinas will not get to (in theory) the representatives of European pseudo art—Boucher, Renoir or Ingres who objectified the female body and who will soon be banished from museums for offending genderist curators as much as they used to offend the confessors of queens. It will be Juan Gris, Miró, Tàpies and other geniuses of our era who will receive the public tribute of the tomato-pelting. Besides, a crimson streak in their works will not be too noticeable, either: it will actually make them more material, more organic—authentic art of the masses, genuine aesthetics of democracy.


Sertorio lives, writes and thinks in Spain. this review comes through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto.

Iter et adventures baronis Trump et canis mirandus Bulger—I

Praefatio

The following stories hail from the pen of Ingersoll Lockwood (1841—1918), an American barrister of the late 19th Century. These travels and adventures were published right in the middle of a remarkable period of English letters. For a generation before the 1889 release of Lockwood’s first Trump installment, and continuing from strength to strength for another generation afterwards, these stories were part of the burgeoning collections of children’s and fantasy fiction which was received with such interest at the time.

But time and fame are fickle, and poor Baron Trump was soon forgotten, despite all his marvelous journeys. It was not until there was a real Barron Trump living lately in the White House that Lockwood’s stories were rediscovered. (Fickle, it turns out, is not always a bad thing!)

And while the coincidences between the fleshly Barron Trump and his inky double gave rise to all sorts of jabber about time traveling orange tycoons (perhaps playing 5D chess in transit), we have an even better time travel for you: journey with little Baron Trump in Latin! No matter how old it is, literature is always a living thing. It is a delight to welcome back into the imagination not only young Mr. Trump and Bulger, but also to contribute to the growing corpus of new and republished Latin literature.

John Coleman

CAPUT I.

Brevis relatio cuiusdam parvi baronum maiorum celeberrimi, qui “Eques Inermem (literally, armless)” vocatur. Mira eius fortitudo et fortitudo. Quam secutus est Cordis Leonis ad Orientem. Res egregie gestae in campo sub Ioppe moenibus. Eius matrimonium in praesentia Saladini et Cordis Leonis.

Venio ex una ex vetustissimis et honestissimis Germaniae septentrionalibus familiis, virtute et amore periculi clarus.

Unus antecessorum meorum, cum viginti intrasset, uno mane audiverat in mensa patris sui, magnum regem Angliae Cœur de Lion exercitum contra infideles ducturum esse.

“Miserere parens,” adulescens e sede evigilans, oculi ardentes, genae ardentes, “Adiungam Peregrinus et auxilium in hostium sanctae religionis interitum?” “Heu miser puer!” respondit pater, miserata iuventutis intuitu, qui per novum quendam naturae lusum sine armis natus, « non es destinatus ad gravissimas pugnas, quales exspectant patruelem nostrum Cœur de Leonem. Omnia ensem gerendi ratio detinet, lancea cubile.

“Oportet homicidium deponere corpus tuum inermum ante cimeterium miserorum Moslemi elevatum! Fili carissime, ab animo talia cogita, et te ad poemata et philosophiam converte, novo generi nomen tuum eruditione addes. “Immo vero clemens parens, exaudi me!” diserto iuvenem ocello hortatus est: “Vera, arma mihi natura negavit, at illa non fuit tam crudelis quam credi posset, in ima membro vires gigas ad recompensationem dedit.

Non meministi quo tandem mense aprum uno ictu e planta venantis percussi? “Faciam,” subridens truci sene baro, “sed—” “Ignosce pater egregius iuveni interruptio venit, “Ibo in pugnam duplicem armatum, cuivis enim strepitori figam ensem et vae Mussulmano, qui me in acie audet occurrere.

“Ite ergo, fili mi!” Clamavit senex baro, ut lachrymae pictae manant genae, “Ite, iunge patruelem nostrum Cœur de Lion, et si tu inermis resistas incredulorum furorem, adjicietur alia gloria BUCINUM nomine; et in hac avita sede pendebit effigiem equitis inermi, cui mirantibus ocellis in aevum recumbent amatores fortium factorum.

Gaudium proavi mei nullum modum cognovi.

Vix moratus, ut ad iter opus faciendum appararet, cum nonnullis fidelibus stipatoribus, ab castelli navale plausibus evectus inter millia pulchrarum virginum, quae ex vicina civitate convenerant, ad Deum inermem equitem properat.

Non nisi egregium illud sub Ioppe moenibus dimicatum est, quod antecessor meus occasionem praebendae fortitudinis, eximiae virtutis, et impetus impetus inexsuperabilis.

Non unus, non quinque, non decem miles gregarius ausi sunt armati equitis.

Totae turmae expavescebant ante hunc arcanum ultorem iniuriarum Christianae, qui sine manibus Moslemi milites perculit, ut granum ante flatum cadit.

Iterum atque iterum, Saladinus florem suorum misit inermem equitem, cuius iam vires ac virtus nomen suum terrori militi superstitioso fecerat. Parum terribilem fatum illum exspectantem animadvertens,

Mahometanorum belligerem sublato cimeterium antecessorem meum rueret, cum uno ense armato ictu arma equitis inermis equi ferire pectus, deinde infideles proterere. morte provolutus humi.

Iam meridies erat.

In edito loco Saladinus, aestum pugnae spectans, ingentis exercitus florem stragem anxius oculis horrendam vidit.

Iam nomen, ordo, et natio iuvenum antecessoris mei Moslemi ducis innotuerunt.

“La, il la! Mahomed ul Becullah!” clamavit barbam gerens. Beatus vir qui potest vocare Christianum militem suum filium. Quot prophetae infantes hodie occiderunt?

“Sexcentesimo quinquagesimo nono!” responsum datum.

“Sexcenti et quinquaginta novem” Saladinus resonavit, “et meridies est!” Cum nox accessisset, numerus ad mille et septem auctus fuerat.

Audito diro diei opere “Inermem equitis” Saladini magnum cor fudit, et tamen admirationem tantae sollertiae et fortitudinis retinere non potuit.

“Ite!” Clamavit magnanimus infidelis dux, “Ite, e familia formosae Kohilat ancillae meae, eam orbibus nigredinis nigris, florem gratiae ac florem reginae venustatis. Duc eam ad eques inermem, Saladino cum regia salutatione; virtus facit fratrem meum, Giaour, licet sit! Discedite!”

Cum speciosus Kohilât in conspectum adulescentis antecessoris mei ductus est, eique denuntiatum est Saladinum ei munera misisse, “Eques impotens,” salutationis regiae in signum reverentiae tam iuvenis. Et tamen tantae fortitudinis prima Christianae iuventutis cogitatio indignationem suam ab eius praesentia iactaret.

In illo autem momento, Kohilât oculos suos magnos et splendidos elevavit eosque plenos in facie adulescentis defixit.

Plus erat quam cor hominis stare posset.

Mota comitate ut de tentorio suo processit ad eam partem cum honore, et dixit:

“Kohilat, aliena te fata ad me misit. Magnus Saladinus nuntius mihi impertit scientiam bonitatis tuae, amabilitatis tuae, et mentis doctae, quae in suo thesauro jucundissimas imagines et utiles scientias continet. Docet me stas in directa propagine ab illa inclyta reginae terrae tuae Scheherezada, quae per mille et una noctes cogitationum Soldani Indiarum ita teneri ludibrio praeclari phantasiae tenuit. avertite eum a gravi ultionis consilio. Putasne, Kohilat, te posse oblivisci falsi dei tui et solum verum amare?”

“Ita, domine,” murmuravit mitis Kohilat, “Si ita est dominus meus.”

Risus increbruit formosam faciem juvenis antecessoris mei. Magis repugnare cupiebat in convertendo pulchram infidelem ad veram fidem, sed quamvis speciosam faciem diu et cuilibet subtilitatis signo scrutaretur, non tamen vidit.

Bene, Kohilat, dixit, et nunc responde mihi, et ex corde tuo loquere. Vis fieri uxor mea secundum ritus Ecclesiae Christianae et leges patriae meae?

Iterum pulcher Kohilât respondit:

“Ita, domine mi; si sic placet.”

Sequenti die induciae indictae sunt, et coram duobus magnis ducibus exercitus, Cœur de Lion et Saladino, ambo gloriosissimo comitatu circumventi, juvenis antecessor meus et princeps Kohilat in virum et uxorem conjuncti sunt. a regii confessoris “eques inerme,” supra circumfusam multitudinem eminens in lorica sua fulgenti loricae instar columnae argenti politae. Cum obviam prodiret lusca sponsa, anulo inter labra connubio obtentus, ingens ab utroque exercitu clamor ortus est.

Saladinus barbam permulsit. Cœur de Lion fecit signum crucis. Brevi semihora duces in castra redierant, bellumque atrociter exitio reparaverat.

Huic praeclari antecessoris mei, equitis inermi, cum Mahometani ancilla, possessionem meam prope Orientales phantasiae tribuo.

CAPUT II.

Senior baro incertus de loco certo nativitatis meae. Causae cur postea dabuntur. Parentes mei hoc tempore in Africam iter fecerunt. Senior Baronis mirabilis ascensus Montium Lunae. Miracula fugae nebulonis impenetrabilis. Ut efficitur. In terra Sut. Omnia quae ibi contigerunt. Qualiter canororum rex Snutores parentes meos in magno honore ad palatium suum deduxerunt, et quomodo ab eo habiti sunt.

Dum in mea potestate est, ut curiositati legentium indulgeam, in qua parte mundi sit, in qua tenebras primum vidi, nocte enim natus sum, tamen, quantum ad naturam statim in qua eram natus, nam dolor, possum plura facere quam verba patris mei hac de re interrogati repetere.

“Fili mi, si essem in lecto meo, tantum dicere possem te aut in medio genitum esse in magno lacu, aut in insula, aut in paeninsula, aut in summo monte altissimo, sicut saepe saepius. Explicavit tibi.“

Sufficiat ergo, lector benevole, in praesentia tibi certiorem facere, quod tempore nativitatis meae in Africa parentes mei proficiscerentur; Pater meus unum de mirabilibus gestis in monte ascensu, scilicet ascensu celsissimi Lunæ Montium, feliciter perfecit; duces eius cum maxime periculoso loco in ascensu deseruissent; sed sine illis profugisse, et post aliquot dies terribilem inopiam et famem et sitim adsumere; proprium aeris aliquantum altitudinis emensum, quod os faucesque musculi resoluti sunt. Infelix viator vel fame vel siti perit, ipso praesente fructu dulci et aqua frigida et limpida.

Ita materna, quae cum eo usque in montis partem instructa et certissima pedis steterat, iter facere perrexerunt, ut putabant, in vallem, de qua primogenita habebant, iter facere profectus.

Impetrabilis iam nebula eos claudit, et mox inermes et inermes vagantes se reperit.

Mane diei tertiae caligo etiam in crassitudine creverat, circum eas quasi pallium claudens, lucem diei fere praecluserat.

Palpando pater meus cum duobus iumentis quae sibi in ascensu partibus facilioribus ministraverant conveniebat. Quiete et incuriosi dulces et teneros frutices carpebant, quae in latere montis nascebantur.

Subito cogitatus ad patrem venit. Natum est ex ea desperatione quae hominem longum putat et durum antequam moriatur.

Sic enim cogitabat: Si haec animalia, si quando appetitus exigunt, saturitatem suam edant, ubinam sint, maximeque ubi se circumventum reperiant tam excellentibus pascuis, et, praeter ea, satis levantur ab omni labore. Sentiant tamen famem stimuli, vel potius dentem famis in visceribus suis, et cogitationes eorum statim revertantur ad domos, dominos, pabulos, et non perdent tempus profectionis ad villam ubi pertinent. Ad desperationis vigorem, pater raptim os suum osculum prensabat, ut nec pasci nec bibere posset, et eventus experimenti sui expectabat, anhelitus, propter lacrimas et gemitus miserae matris, cuius vis erat. Perculit ipsae animae refluxum ieiunium.

Post paucas horas animalia ad pedes stabant et valde laborabant, et in alia hora adeo invaluerat fames, ut cibos insanas molirentur, ut facile pater ex insidiosa linea, quam diligenter curaverat, cognosceret capitibus suis apponere.

Post horam quartam longum silentium fuit, per quod quidnam sequerentur, deliberare videbantur.

Quinta hora venit.

Mater infirma et lassa in ulnis patris quieverat. Subito constringebatur acies. Pater meus sensim dormientem excitavit, pauca susurrans solatii verba.

Iterum lineae contractae sunt.

Parentes mei iam pedibus erant in profundis inpenetrabilis nebulae prospiciens, quae eos circumvolvit et inter se etiam invisibiles fecit.

Hist! Bestiae iterum moventur! Subito impetu, quasi tandem rem aliquam, quae per aliquot horas mentes eorum solverant, bestiae, vehementibus narium stimulis, obnixi e vestigio, per virgulta coniciebant, et parentes obversabantur.

Constat plane inter conclusiones ingenio vel instinctu perductas, non enim semel distrahuntur aut subsistunt, nisi a patre cohibitus. Sicque cari parentes mei servati sunt! Totis eo die ac parte proximi premebantur.

Nebula tandem elevata est, et patuit illico patri meo quod, quamvis animalia ad habitacula humana ea regerent, tamen terra in cacumine montis iter profecturus non erat. Semita nunc tam perspicua facta est ut pater meus a duobus animalibus capistras tumultuosos removit eosque famem suam expleret, quod cum summa voluptate ageret, permisit. Mater adeo fessa fuit ut inertem procumberet. Reficiensque eam haustu fontis aquae et suco agrestis uvae, praeparato propere cubile mollia fronde, in quo tam longo fessumque cornipetu se iactare gaudebant.

Mox in altum et jucundissimum somnum inciderunt. Quamdiu in lecto frondoso iacebant, somno reficiendo involuti, nesciebant.

Longa certe hora fuit; nam cum evigilarent, stomachus fames rodebat. Libet statim colligere fructus, nisi auribus insolitis crepitibus repente salutares fuissent. Oculos terebant et se mutuo circumspiciebant, reputantes se ludibrium jucundi asini somnii.

Sed non; erant vigilantes et in plena possessione sensuum. Iterum audiuntur insoliti soni et hoc tempore propiores et clariores.

Oritur et lapsus, tumor et dein intermissio.

Soni sunt hinnuli et snappy sicut et in eis musica singularis est.

Propius propiusque veniunt. Maiore ac maiore crescunt. “Ferae?” susurrabant matrem meam medium inquirendo.

“Immo!” de ore patris mei cadit. “Non nisi homines ita ferae sint ut bestiarum nomen mereatur.”

“Hark iterum!” murmuravit mater mea.

Soni iam nullus error erat; nam, ut concentus plurium vocum, argutae et fistulae, altae et murmurantes, molles et canorae, asperae et gutturales, omnia tamen inconditam et agrestem quandam harmoniam, uno modo magnoque miscentes. Nunc demissa ac vix audita, nunc erumpente atrox ac velut ingruente vigore, cantores, ululatores, quidnamque essent, in vallem infra nos ferocem ac semianimem inordinate prosilire.

Homines erant habitu barbato, facies et fustibus pictis leviter per humeros tortis. Sive intermissa sive progressa, adhuc suum cantum incultum et arcanum, vertices, hiulcas et snappy pro toto orbe servaverunt sicut mille homines, qui ex mille capsulis emunctas modo hauserant.

“Serva me, vir!” exclamavit vultu pallida mater. “Ab his feris liberis silvae plectemur diris cruciatibus.” Risus tam mitis, et tamen tam placidus, ut lenitatem patris mei diffundi non possit.

“Numquam timete!” “scio,” inquit, “Quos quaesivi! Quod viator fortius et audacius quam me multis negatum est, sodali Trump familiae miro modo donatum est. Cum omnem Monarcham in Europam redimus, omnis erudita societas, numisma in pectore meo ligare festinabit, nam, cara uxor, vir tuus primus albus est in terram ingrediendi— “

“Ille—?” reboabat mater mea procumbens et apprehendens brachium viri sui.

“Melodious Sneezers!”

“Melodious Sneezers?” identidem mater aperitur ocello, et in omni sedet ludibrio pluma.

“Melo—“

Ipsa nihil sed porro. Infinito gaudio patris mei vehementissime sternutatio cecidit. In tam celeri successione fluit sternutatio, ut perquam minutivi machinam sub praeceps sonaret.

Tandem idoneum visum est transisse. Melo—, sed frustra; secundam syllabam attingere non poterat.

Et nunc ille vicissim, pater profectus est, lentus primo, sed ocius et ociusiens.

Mirum dictu sternutamentum mox cepit vias agrestium permixtasque penitus capere, invito conatu arcendo tempus coercere.

“Cogite ergo, cara uxor,” exclamat pater anhelans cum decuit, “Hos homines alienigenas in herbam inferiorem extensos esse “Snutores canoros”; eos non modo innoxios, sed modestos, mansuetosque ac placidos esse. Ne timeas eos! Fustibus suis solum ad ludum.” “Sed quid?” caute matrem meam rogat ne alius idoneus accipiat eam.

Responsum est, “Intelligo te.” “Audi. Scito, quod in hac valle et in majoribus infra, semper aerem myriadibus impletum super myriadibus insectorum infinitae magnitudinis; Solus microscopio validissimus probationem praebere potest ad conspectum eorum exsistentiae suae. Hic enim titillari sensus quos tu et ego innumeros aetatibus isti pacifici barbari subiectae sunt.

Rursum miserae parens meus cecidit sternutatio regularis et canorae clausulae, sursum et deorsum, altae et argutae, nunc celeriter et ocius, nunc tardus et tardius usque ad silentium.

“Sicut expertus sum,” inquit pater, “dum sternutationis tam facilem quam respirationem reddidit, ususque eventus, quos vitari non posse mox cernebant, non segniter deponere solitae naturae liberi erant. loquela et littera loqui per sternutatio “

“Sternumentum est apud eos tot intonationes, tot inflexiones, ut omnes necessarios sensus sensusque exprimendi difficultatem habeant, saltem necessaria in simplici vita, sicut postea videbis.”

Volebat miseranda mater hic transitum exprimere, Mirari non audebat os suum. “Age, coniux charissime, pater hilariter clamavit.

“Confortamini! Descendamus in hanc pulchram vallem, nam adhuc tantum in terminis “terrae canorum Sutinorum” in molli et canora lingua Lâ-aah-chew-lâ vocati sumus.

Pronunciatio huius verbi iterum parentes miseros in perfecta turbine sternumenta proiecit; sed nihil perterriti obviam ierunt, qui prima facie prostratus in uultu, per aliquot momenta sternutationis stridore humilem demissa, naribus in gramen detrusit.

Paulatim tamen pater adfirmans se haudquaquam pacatum fuisse.

Unde canororum snuetrorum tripudium singularissimum ac gratiosissimum gaudium peragebant, pedes eorum pertinuo tempore cum sternutationis choro servabant.

Chorus, ut postea pater didicit, immensam gratiam suis spiritibus albis exprimere, quod vivos non edisset.

Iter domum iam ingressus est, pater meus ambulans in manu cum rege Chew-chew-lô, et mater mea comitante nomine uxorum vel plurium, domus regiae deliciarum nomine Chew-lâ-â-. â-â- et quisque successivus, prout minus editum locum occupabat in affectibus regis nomine breviore, donec tandem Chew-lâ paulo melius quam ancilla serviens significabat.

Pater meus invenit villas Melodiorum Sutinorum ob frequentiam et vim inundationum a retis fluminum, quae penitus in terra eorum inclusa erant, domibus vel habitationibus in arboribus vel in altis acervis constructis constabat.

Ipse et mater in una commodissima domorum regiarum habitae, tot servi ac servi ad curam rerum suarum deputati, ut parum aut nullus locus movendi esset.

Pater magno cum dolore magno cum dolore aliquot centenis emisit, ut matri meae satis sine holloaing colloqui posset, ac deinde ad regem Chew-chew-lô mandavit ut tam ipse quam mater saltem hebdomade opus esset. Perfectae quietis et requies ad sanitatem et fortitudinem recuperandam post horribiles cruciatus suos in Lunae Montosis.

Plures casus venire…

The Debt to Beauty

It is the undoubted attraction, the beauty of women that leads men to become entangled in the combats of the eternal war of the sexes, never finished, never won.

There are those who have defined woman as a sphinx without mystery, without enigma, whose fascination is enclosed in appearance. Mystery or no mystery, it is her unquestionable attraction, her beauty, that leads men to become entangled in the combats of the eternal war of the sexes, never finished, never won, full of battles of attrition, of a few triumphant blows of the hand and of many months and years of trenches, barbed wire and constant, monotonogamous, stultifying bombardments. So much wastage and abundance of hendecasyllables, so many flaming and sublimated madrigals to always end up in a barren and soured bedlam: Dulcinea is always Aldonza and not vice versa. Such is the force and seduction of a simple, imaginary and unrealizable promesse de bonheur [promise of happiness], as the divine Stendhal would write. The beloved is a screen on which the lover projects his dreams, that is the quixotic misunderstanding essential to the whole love struggle, where animal impulses mingle with the fantasies of the spirit: the centaur in search of his Pallas.

For the other side—that of the sphinxes—which is the one with the strategic superiority and the most practical design, this war was resolved in a prosaic and binding objective, but very necessary for society: the family, the house, the polis, the market. That they lived happily ever after culminates all the narratives of the West, and it covers with illusion the inexorable need to reproduce the social body, to give continuity to something that is much more important than the vain and impossible happiness of individuals. Or, at least, this had been so until some members of the high castes decided to change the rules of the game and pervert the natural inclinations of human livestock with the spread of a poison that acts as a solvent of societies and civilizations: the search for an impossible abolition of reality so that even the most delirious fantasies, almost all of them purely corporeal and erotic, become real, something that, of course, cannot happen, but that makes the sphinxes stop thinking about their essential objective and replace it with a phantasm that only produces neurosis for them and great profits for those who invoke it. And when one of the sides—the strongest—is upset, the other is disoriented; the subtle balance is broken. This, fundamentally, is what El deber de lo bello [The Debt to Beauty], the recent novel by Javier R. Portella, is about.

Since the last century we knew that absurdity was the essential note of existence. But it is in this century that it has gone from being a simple intellectual or historical reference to become everyday life—the usual scenario of an increasingly ugly, puritanical, hysterical and imbecilic existence, a product imported from America but with European roots, especially Anglo-Saxon.

The protagonist of the novel, Hector, is overwhelmed (and how!) by the plagues of our time: political correctness, gender superstition and delirious feminism. Hector is the fulminated man, whose true love life was annihilated by Cristina, his former partner, and who seeks in extraordinary adventures the meaning of an existence that moves in a field of shadows where he longs for the light, but has the mania of looking for it inside all the tunnels. His erotic epiphany comes at the hand of Angelica, a prototype of the feminine ideal of our time, liberated but seductive, whose name comes in handy if we take into account that demons are also angels. Fantasy becomes reality for Hector, but it only brings him mild joys and constant ashes. Wounded by beauty and hopelessly addicted to its affairs, our postmodern Werther becomes entangled in a skein of sensual labyrinths that torment him. This comes to an extreme when he encounters a sophisticated sphinx, Margot, with echoes of Faust and Bulgakov, who leads him to his inevitable Walpurgis Night.

All of this is told with humor and with a tone that is more French than Spanish, for it is not a traditional thing to describe with elegance the deviations of the flesh, to untie with care such tender ties. Portella draws a humorous but deep portrait of an empty and full society, satisfied to the point of stupidity, a portrait that takes us from the classrooms of the pathetic Santiago Carrillo High School or from a sordid back room of the Ministry of Equality to the mansions of the European oligarchy; Hector goes through all the circles of the amorous hell of our time, of this unbridled chaos, of the glorified vulgarity that can only be redeemed by the cult of beauty, something that the protagonist misses throughout the novel and that only shines in a few moments—as that which they call “happiness.”


Sertorio lives, writes and thinks in Spain. this review comes through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto.

The Continuous Creativity of Western Visual Arts

The white students you have seen recently vandalizing cherished Western paintings likely never read a book about the history of Western art. In academia today, the West is rarely a subject of praise and almost always a subject of derision. Anyone who approaches the history of visual arts from an impartial perspective—concerned only with aesthetics, creativity, and originality—can’t help but realize, as I am about to explain in this article, that Western art stands on a league of its own. Making this claim goes against the relentless promotion of immigrant multiculturalism across the West today, which necessarily comes along with the notion that the art of the diverse peoples of the world is equally good.

Not long ago the celebrated historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto called Kenneth Clark’s judgement that Greek art undoubtedly “embodies a higher state of civilization” than African art a “warped perspective,” “a crude perversion of prejudice.” No civilization can be said to be “better,” Fernández-Armesto insisted, since each culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is adapted to a specific environment. We must abandon, in our increasingly diverse West, the “delusions of self-flattery” by Europeans. Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003) has no such qualms: it enumerates the outstanding contributions of individuals to the arts and sciences of countries across the world from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Murray concludes that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishments in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America.” He estimates that the absolute number of great visual artists in the West is far higher than the combined number of the other civilizations: 479 for the West as compared to 192 for China and Japan combined (with no significant figures listed for India and the Arab World). Murray relies on the judgments of the knowledge community in his statistical inventories. He defines excellence in the sciences in a pragmatic and objective manner in relation to whether the scientific idea empirically reflects significant aspects of “reality” according to the methodologies now accepted cross-culturally in the world.

But what about excellence in the arts, where different peoples don’t rely on cross-culturally accepted standards? Murray defines “high aesthetic quality” differently. While acknowledging that it is difficult to apply a uniform standard of excellence, he adds that the ability to appreciate the quality of a work of art “varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it.” Those who know most about an artistic field have a deeper understanding of the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the works produced. The consensus one finds among art critics, notwithstanding some variations in individual judgements, reflect qualities that are inherent in the work of art. There is a strong degree of consensus about the greatest paintings and painters. The compilation of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books about the best art and artists reflects this consensus within each respective civilization.

My disagreement with Murray is that the numbers of 479 and 192 leave out a most peculiar characteristic of Western art: its exhibition of a continuous proliferation of highly original artists with new artistic styles, new ways of projecting images on a flat surface, new conceptions of light, new standards of excellence, and new conceptions about nature and man—in contrast to a nonwestern world where aesthetic norms barely changed or where artists were invariably inclined to follow an established convention without breaking new aesthetic paths. To appreciate the achievement of the West it is not enough to have separate lists comparing great artists across civilizations. Among the 479 great painters compiled for the West one will find a much higher number of original artists than among the 192 artists compiled for China and Japan.

I don’t need to be an expert to know this. Reading some of the best histories of art has been enough to convey to me this startling contrast between the West and the Rest. This article compares the artistic greatness of civilizations in painting by examining great books in the history of art. I have in mind four of the most widely read and authoritative books: H. W. Janson’s History of Art, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Arnold Hauser’s four-volume book, The Social History of Art, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. I also examine the highly regarded book, The Arts of China, by Michael Sullivan, in partial combination with James Cahill’s Chinese Painting (1960), to get the perspective of admirers of Chinese art. The focus will be on whether China really saw new “isms” or merely continuous refinements and slight alterations within an unbroken tradition set in the past. For the purposes of this article, China is the one civilization that can be compared to the West in having exhibited the highest number of great painters as well as some noticeable changes in artistic styles. This article will then try to convey the novelties of Western art by citing the judgements of Gombrich, Clark and, to a lesser extent, Hauser. Unless one is very knowledgeable about the aesthetics of painting, it is very difficult to express exactly what makes a particular painting or painter truly great and original. Time consuming as it has been, I have thus decided to rely on the aesthetic judgments of these authors, citing their words regularly.

H.W. Janson

H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962, with a sixteenth printing in 1971, which I am using, and numerous new editions thereafter, is an encyclopedic treatment of the history of art, with millions of copies sold in fifteen languages. Janson came from a Lutheran family of Baltic German stock. His criterion for choice of great art is “ORIGINALITY.” “Uniqueness, novelty, freshness” are the “yardstick of artistic greatness.” “An original work must not be a copy, reproduction, imitation, or translation.” But be careful: Janson warns against a flimsy understanding of what “originality” entails, making the key point that “without TRADITION…no originality would be possible.” Absorbing “the artistic tradition” of one’s time, learning the “established ways of drawing, painting, carving, designing” and the “established ways of seeing,” is a precondition for creativity (pp. 12-15) .

This criterion underpins Janson’s magisterial book. This book has three opening chapters on “The Art of Prehistoric Man,” “Egyptian Art,” and “The Ancient Near East.” The rest of the book, with the exception of a short chapter on “Islamic Art” and a short “Postscript” with the title “The Meeting of East and West,” is entirely about Western art. These traditions really interest him insofar as they “contributed to the growth of the Western artistic tradition” (p. 569). He ignored China, Japan, and India until the end because they were not a “vital source of inspiration for Western art” except in contemporary times. New styles of art, new techniques and schools, was a uniquely Western phenomenon. Short sections on Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Islamic art are sufficient to convey the aesthetic qualities of these traditions, with their ceremonial forms and eventual repetitiveness after a period of creativity. The East Asian tradition had a “refined style” characterized by “many centuries of continuous development” (p. 569).

It can’t be denied, however, that this marginal treatment of Chinese art is a limitation of Janson’s book. We will see that there were some variations in artistic styles in China, and truly great painters. But Janson had to make choices. It is a large size book of 600+ pages in small print because the originality of the West is persistently great. Conveying this originality required full separate chapters on Greek Art, Roman Art, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Romanesque Art, Gothic Art, Late Gothic Painting and Sculpture, The Early Renaissance in Italy, The High Renaissance in Italy, Mannerism and Other Trends, The Renaissance in the North, The Baroque in Italy and Germany, The Baroque in Flanders, Holland, and Spain, The Baroque in France and England, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture. History of Art was determined to convey to students precisely what stood out about the Western tradition: its continuous freshness and ability to generate one artistic epoch after another, rather than a relatively continuous and monotonous tradition.

Arnold Hauser

Arnold Hauser (1892-1978) was a Hungarian Marxist with Jewish ancestry, an admirer of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, writing at a time when students were educated without diversity and equity mandates. The Social History of Art, first published in 1951, the product of thirty years of labor, opens with eight short chapters on prehistoric, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian art, covering less than fifty pages in a four-volume book that is close to 1000 pages long. This rightfully valued book argues that art became more realistic and naturalistic as Europe became less aristocratic and hierarchical, more bourgeois, urbane and cosmopolitan. A “naturalistic style” actually prevailed through to the end of the Paleolithic Age in the way animals were depicted in a realistic way, although the art was concerned as well with the performance of magical rituals. This naturalistic attitude, which was “open to the full range of experience,” gave way in the Neolithic Age to a “narrowly geometric stylization” in which the “artist tended to shut himself off from the wealth of empirical reality.” This “formalistic” and “ornamental style” persisted through the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with minor variations (Vol 1: pp. 8-21).

The profound changes that accompanied the rise of these civilizations did not occasion fundamental changes to the Neolithic geometrical and formalistic style other than the addition of a monumental quality. We should not “underestimate the spirit of conservatism” of Egyptian art. In Egyptian art, “the person of the artist himself disappeared almost entirely behind his work.” Painters and sculptors remained “anonymous” and “undistinguished” craftsmen, “in no way obtruding their own personalities” (Vol. 1: p. 27). The art of the early period of Egyptian history was “stereotyped” and “stylized” in the Middle Kingdom (2040 -1782 BC), characterized by “conservatism and conventionalism.” “Ancient-Oriental art…is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette” (Vol. 1: p. 31-35).

There was a bit of naturalism during the reign of Akhenaton (1351–1334 BC), known as the “first prophet” and the “discoverer of monotheism.” But while one sees representations of everyday scenes and some aversion from the old monumental style, the art remained “thoroughly ceremonial and formal.” The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylonian and Assyrian, despite their more dynamic trade, industry and finance, were “more rigidly disciplined, less changeable” in their art than Egypt. One would have expected the higher urbanity of the Babylonians to have encouraged less rigid forms of art, but Hauser infers that the persistency of despotic rule and “the more intolerant spirit of religion” likely countered any individualistic and naturalistic impulses (Vol. 1: pp. 42-43).

It is only in ancient Crete that Hauser finally encounters a “colorful, unrestrained, exuberant life” in art. Hauser’s argument is not that from this point on Western art is persistently creative, never rigid and traditionalist. New artistic epochs emerge (Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism) in opposition to prevailing conventions with increasing acceleration from the Renaissance onwards, led by artists who purposely wanted to break away from the prejudices of their age, innovate and experiment, and demonstrate thereby their own artistic genius. Hauser’s heavy focus on social history and literature is the reason why I will be citing him less than Gombrich and Clark.

E.H. Gombrich

The Story of Art, originally published in 1950, is currently in its 16th edition. Wikipedia says that “over seven million copies” of this book “have been sold, making it the best-selling art book of all time.” It “has been translated into approximately 30 languages.” Unlike Hauser, who follows a Marxist conception of progress in the arts, Gombrich, born in Vienna into an assimilated family of Jewish origin, carefully rejects the idea of progress, believing that “each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value” (p. 3). Achieving originality in one age usually entails sacrificing aesthetic qualities emphasized by preceding generations. At the same time, Gombrich thinks it is possible, much like Charles Murray, to make judgements about the quality of art, as long as it is a critic with aesthetic sensibilities developed through years of education.

The Story of Art is a history of art from the beginnings to the present. Gombrich estimates that three chapters, out of twenty five, are enough to cover the achievements of primitive and nonwestern art. His reason for doing this is simple:

Western Europe always differed profoundly from the East. In the East [artistic] styles lasted for thousands of years, and there seemed no reason why they should ever change. The West never knew this immobility. It was always restless, groping for new solutions and new ideas (p. 131).

Among European painters there was an “urge to be different,” do something new, find a new way to enhance the aesthetic effect of the work, convey something different about the world, new life experiences along with permanent aspects of human nature. Using originality and restless creativity as his central criterion, Gombrich could not but pay far less attention to an Eastern artistic tradition that remained continuously the same through the centuries. He writes about Egypt’s “art of eternity.”

No one wanted anything different, no one asked him to be “original.” On the contrary, he was probably considered the best artist who could make his statues most like the admired monuments of the past. So it happened that in the course of three thousand years or more Egyptian art changed very little…True, new fashions appeared, and new subjects were demanded of the artists, but their mode of representing man and nature remained essentially the same (p. 42).

About Chinese and Japanese art, he observes:

The standards of painting remained very high…but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known. It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that the Japanese dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects (p. 108).

Gombrich has a keen eye for what was distinctive about each epoch of Western art and what was original about each of the major painters. And so does Kenneth Clark. What I will do next is make a few introductory remarks about Clark’s book Civilisation, then write about the historical essentials of Chinese painting, before I return to what Gombrich, Clark, and Hauser say about Western originality.

Kenneth Clark

Clark’s book, as he says in the Foreword, “is made up of the scripts of a series of television programmes given in the spring of 1969.” The series, produced by the BBC under the same name as the book’s title, consisted of thirteen programmes, each fifty minutes long, singularly focused on European art from the end of the Dark Ages to the early twentieth century. Many were surprised by the “unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and 5 million in the US.” Everyone was impressed. Civilisation was “the first magnum opus attempted and realised in terms of TV”—”setting the standard for later documentary series.”

But complaints were inevitable in the thoroughly multicultural and feminist Britain of recent times. Overtly the objections came down to Clark’s “all men” and “all European” cast of great painters. They were upset as well by Clark’s identification of the word “Civilisation” with the creation of great art, combined with his belief that the West produced the greatest art. This may explain why the BBC announced in 2015 a new ten-episode sequel to Clark’s series to be called Civilisations (plural), with three presenters: “the committed feminist and anti-racist” Mary Beard, the Nigerian immigrant David Olusoga, and the Jew Simon Schama. This new series would emphasize “non-European cultures” to “convey a message of globalism” by “revelling in the variety of our species’ ingenuity on an international scale.”

Couldn’t these resentful conformists produce a series with a different title on the artistic achievements of women and nonwhites? No. The aim of equity and inclusion is to undermine the greatness of European culture by mixing it up with other cultures. Although Clark does not compare Western to non-Western art, and starts with the Dark Ages rather than ancient Greece, the following words in the beginning of Civilisation would have disqualified him today from any public appearance:

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of Civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world — that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony… There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world. But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium… Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in ancient Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted unchanged for six hundred years.

It is this conviction that Western art expresses the highest man has achieved in aesthetics that irks the new diversity-controlled Britain. Civilisation is a joy to read for its high minded learning and its enthusiastic appreciation of the sublime originality of Western art in its incessant striving for new forms of aesthetic perfection. Other civilizations remained content with reenacting the perfection they had achieved in the past. The West was different:

The great, indeed the unique, merit of European Civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration (p. 74).

What about Chinese Painting?

To assess Chinese painting I will rely on Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China, a comprehensive study of Chinese art and a long standing text for university students, now in its sixth edition. I will make some references to James Cahill’s beautiful book, Chinese Painting (1960), with its numerous color transparencies of paintings in plates. I can’t disagree with Cahill that “the Chinese tradition of painting [is] the richest and most diversified in world art outside Europe” (p. 5). Sullivan is also a keen admirer of Chinese art. The claim that Chinese art was relatively observant of tradition, or attached to old ways, is an interpretation Sullivan would deny as a matter of principle. Cahill less so. Yet, the overall message I take from Sullivan’s The Arts of China is that this art was very traditional. Much of Chinese “art,” it should be said, consisted of bronze casting, ceramics, and jade carving. This “art” was highly sophisticated in technique and decoration, but I hesitate to call it art. It should be categorized as applied art, the work of highly skilled craftsmen. As H.W. Janson writes, “originality is what distinguishes art from craft.”

While paintings with human figures were common from the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) until the end of the Tang (618 to 907), by the eleventh century landscape painting was the characteristic product until the end of dynastic rule in the twentieth century. Both the human figure and landscape painting operated within a stable craft-like tradition, occasionally exhibiting interesting variations, without epoch-making redirections. There is less individuality and self-consciousness in Chinese portraits. As Cahill observes about the painting below, which is a 12th century remake of an earlier 8th century original, the characters are conscious in their sidelong glances, their postures, the way the hands are poised and the heads tilted, but the picture “tells us nothing about the participants beyond defining their roles in this particular scene… nor is there any of the extraneous overlay—humor, drama, pathos, sentiment—that is so often present in Occidental genre art” (pp. 20-21).

Landscape painting occurred within a cultural matrix that encouraged standardization and regularity, rather than unpredictability and freshness. Sullivan tells us that the “Six principles of Chinese painting,” which the painter and art critic Xie He wrote in the 6th century, “remained the pivot around which all subsequent art criticism in China has resolved” (p. 95, my italics). These six elements were: “spirit harmony,” the way of using the brush, “fidelity to the object in portraying forms,” “conformity to kind in applying colors,” “proper planning in placing of elements,” and “transmission by copying.” The sixth principle “indicates reverence for the tradition itself, of which every painter felt himself to be a custodian” (p. 96). Overall this manual told prospective painters that:

Making exact copies of ancient, worn masterpieces was a way of preserving them, just as, at a later date, working “in the manner of” great painters of the past, while adding something of oneself, was a way of putting new life into the traditions (p. 96).

This passage sums up the underlying nature of Chinese creativity. New trends consisted in breaking from the regimented traditions of one’s age by reviving and putting new life into early traditions. Of course, within any tradition, painters were expected to add something of their own, otherwise they would have produced mere replicas. Not just in art but in philosophy, as I have argued elsewhere, every “new” philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism” or through different mixtures of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Sullivan mentions Daoist painters who deviated somewhat from “the rigidly traditional way of art and literature” and painters who were influenced by Buddhism late in the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), who nurtured a “new” tradition in Chinese sculpture that “contained a rich mixture of native and foreign elements” (133).

According to Sullivan, the “great masters of the tenth and eleventh centuries are sometimes called classical because they established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which later painters were to return again and again for inspiration” (p. 169). Likewise, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) “occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese landscape painting” because “he united a direct, spontaneous expression of feeling with a deep reverence for the antique” (203). He is said to have gone “beyond the orthodox Song styles” by rediscovering “the brushwork of the long neglected southern manner of [the painters] Dong Yuan and Juran” from the earlier Southern Tang dynasty (937–975). In doing this, Mengfu, “opened the way…for almost all subsequent scholarly landscape painting up to the present day” (203). The “urge to penetrate the unknown,” identified by H. W. Janson as a hallmark of Western originality, was lacking in Chinese painting.

Sullivan indeed tells us that “up until the Yuan, each painter had built upon the achievement of his predecessors in enriching his pictorial vocabulary and drawing closer to nature.” But after Mengfu this “succession was broken, as artists began to range back over the whole tradition, reviving, playing variations upon, and painting in the manner of the great masters, particularly those of the tenth and eleventh centuries” (207). Sullivan calls this “a new and indeed revolutionary attitude to painting”—yet it was just a return to an older tradition. Again, we observe this same type of “revolutionary attitude” in Chinese intellectual history: breaking from a stultified Neo-Confucian tradition by going back to the original Confucian tradition, or by integrating Daoist elements into the Confucian tradition.

With continuous generations perfecting landscape painting, refining and elaborating different variations, Chinese painting could not but be masterful. Since landscapes are inherently diverse, there was always room to paint different things, pictures of flowers, birds, insects and animals. We find Bian Wenjin (1400-1440) specializing in painting birds in fresh ways. Chinese painters also portrayed scholars seated on mountain ledges gazing at some landscape or meditating. All in all, however, these variations occurred within an established tradition. In his Qingbian Mountains of 1617, Dong Qichang affirmed his philosophy that “the great Southern tradition must be not only revived and preserved, but creatively reinterpreted, for only thus could it live” (p. 229). A new generation would go back to an older tradition to find ways to express it in new ways. Once the “new” way became a tradition, stultification would set in. “The most characteristic intellectual achievement of the Qing dynasty was, like of the Ming, not creative as much as synthetic.” The Qing age was “an antiquarian age,” and not just in painting but in its overall obsession with the collection of classic books as well as paintings, porcelain, and archaic bronzes” (246).

Western Originality: From Ancient to Gothic Times

If you asked someone what exactly makes Greek art great, what was original about the art of Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Rembrandt, or what’s the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting, or what’s new about Mannerism, Rococo, Naturalism, Impressionism, and Surrealism—you will invariably get answers full of generalities without proper distinctions. It is for this reason that I have decided to go through the very time-consuming task of distilling some of the best passages from Gombrich and Clark (and a few ones from Hauser) that, in my estimation, bring out what was novel and truly great about particular Western artists and particular works of art.

Gombrich sees a “great wakening” in Greece:

It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit…in the sixth century BC. We know that before that time the artists of the old Oriental empires had striven for a peculiar kind of perfection. They had tried to emulate the art of their forefathers as faithfully as possible, and to adhere strictly to the sacred rules they had learned…[With the Greeks] it was no longer a question of learning a ready-made formula for representing the human body. Every Greek sculptor wanted to know how he was to represent a particular body. (p. 52, his italics).

One of the greatest artistic accomplishments of the ancient Greeks was “the discovery of foreshortening,” which relates to the way we perceive an object in space depending on the angle from which we see it. It was in Greece that “artists dared for the first time in all history to paint a foot as seen from in front.” It may seem exaggerated to dwell for long on such a small detail, but it really meant that the old art was dead and buried. It meant that the artist no longer aimed at including everything in the picture in its most clearly visible form, but took account of the angle from which he saw an object (pp. 53-4).

Then came Hellenistic art with its realistic portrayals of particular characters.

It is a strange fact…that the Greek artists…avoided giving the faces a particular expression…Greek statues, of course, are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull and blank, but their faces never seem to betray any definite feeling…It was in the generation after Praxiteles, towards the end of the fourth century, that this further great discovery was made in art. By the time of Alexander the Great…the heads of the statues usually look much more animated and alive than the beautiful faces of earlier works. Together with this mastery of expression, artists also learned to seize the individual character of a physiognomy and to make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of portraiture (p. 72).
This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient Oriental art had no use for landscapes except as settings for their scenes of human life…For Greek art at the time of…Praxiteles, man remained the subject of the artist’s interest. In the Hellenistic period, the time when poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasures of the countryside for sophisticated town-dwellers (p. 77).

One should not presume, however, that the creativity of Hellenistic art was bound to continue. “The Hellenistics,” as Arnold Hauser observes, eventually “reached a dead end and simply went on repeating worn-out formulas” (97). Similarly, after Byzantine art expressed its own original style in the fourth century AD, it became rigid and inflexible, and while it experienced a “second golden age” in the ninth and tenth centuries, with some magnificent mosaic paintings, it became “formally stereotyped again…so conservative in fact that in essentials the icons of the Greek Orthodox monasteries were still being painted in the same manner in the seventeenth as in the eleventh century” (p. 128).

Gombrich—who starts with ancient Greece, in contrast to Clark who starts with the “Dark Ages”—ignores the contributions of Roman art, particularly the way in which Roman portraitures raised to a higher level the portrayal of the “real” personality of individuals. But it can’t be denied that this art, too, became stereotyped and conventional, including Rome’s unique architectural forms of the arch, vault, and dome, although through the passage of time the potential of these forms were fully exploited in the construction of a wide range of engineering structures, theatres, aqueducts, bridges, circuses, and temples.

The term “Dark Ages” is restricted to the period from about AD 400 to AD 1000, rather than covering the full Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Franks, who brought Rome down, and later the Northmen or Vikings who raided and pillaged Christian villages and monasteries, included highly skilled craftsmen capable of finely wrought metalwork and excellent wood carvings with intricately beautiful patterns. At the court of Charlemagne the tradition of Roman architecture was resurrected in the Palatine Chapel built in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) around AD 800, a copy of the famous the Basilica of San Vitale that had been built in Ravenna 300 years before. The notion of creating something different or original was still absent. Gombrich senses, however, an emerging disposition among medieval Christian artists “to express” what they “felt, beyond the Egyptian predilection to express ceremonial and stereotypical images, and the Greek-Roman predilection for a style that alternately emphasized realistic and idealizing elements.” While the painter of the figure of St. Matthew writing the gospel (dated AD 800) expressed his talent by copying an original copy as “faithfully as possible,” the painter of the same figure (dated AD 830), Gombrich thinks, “must have aimed at a different interpretation.”

Perhaps he did not want to represent the evangelist like any serene scholar, sitting quietly in his study. To him St Matthew was an inspired man, writing down the Word of God. It was an immensely important and immensely exciting event in the history of mankind that he wanted to portray, and he succeeded in conveying something of his own sense of awe and excitement in this figure of a writing man (114-15).

The Romanesque period did not simply resurrect the Roman art of vaulting large heavy buildings but through the eleventh and twelfth centuries was characterized by “ceaseless experiment” and the realization that “it was not really necessary to make the whole roof so heavy.” It was possible to fill the intervals between a number of firm arches with lighter materials, “arches or ribs crosswise between the pillars.” This revolutionary idea in architecture can be traced as far back as the Norman cathedral of Durham (p. 123).

Among the great works of art Kenneth Clark includes from the Dark Ages is the Cross of Lothair (about AD 1000), “one of the most moving objects that has come down to us from the distant past… an image of worldly imperium at its most civilized” (p. 19). It was “about the year 1100” that western Europe saw “an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence” with the “triumph of the Church” playing a major role. The Chartres Cathedral was a “masterpiece of harmonious proportion.” The main portal of the Chartres “is one of the most beautiful congregations of carved figures in the world. The longer you look at it, the more moving incidents, the more vivid details you discover” (p. 55). “One must remember,” Clark continues, “that to medieval man geometry was a divine activity. The Chartres, indeed, “was the centre of a school of philosophy devoted to Plato, and in particular to his mysterious book called the Timaeus, from which it was thought that the whole universe could be interpreted in the form of measurable harmony” (p. 52). God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles.

For Gombrich, the Gothic style further revolutionized the Romanesque vaulting method by means of crosswise arches “much more consistently and to much greater purpose.” For Clark, Gothic vaulting and the device known as flying buttresses “remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements.”

Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture, say the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to make them transcend it by means of proportion or by the colors of precious marbles, he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. Now by the devices of the Gothic style…he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit (59-60).

For Hauser, “the rise of Gothic style marks the most fundamental change in the history of modern art.”

The interior of the Romanesque church is a self-contained stationary space that permits the eye of the spectator to rest and remain in perfect passivity. A Gothic church, on the contrary, seems to be in process of development, as if it were rising up before our very eyes; it expresses a process, not a result (Vol. 1: pp. 175, 220).

The Gothic sculptor, writes Gombrich, “approached his task in a new spirit,” imbuing his statues with “an individual dignity” beyond portraying individuals as representatives of “sacred symbols” copied from religious texts. Gothic statues “look immensely energetic and vigorous.” Gothic “knowledge of the human body…was infinitely greater than that of the painter of the twelfth century miniature” (pp. 137, 139). Clark connects the Gothic world to a new world of chivalry, chastity, and courtly love.

Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the Civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. It was entirely unknown in antiquity. Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was too great, that a whole lifetime might be spent paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf, this would seem to the Romans or to the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature—from Chrétien the Troyes to Shelley (p. 64).

The “cult of ideal love” found expression in the “ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the thirteenth century” identified as “the Gothic Virgin and Child in ivory.” Clark notes that Gothic artists also took pleasure in leaves, flowers, and, most of all, birds in manuscript illustrations; “artists drew them with such obsessive accuracy, and I think the reason is that they had become symbols of freedom…Birds were cheerful, hopeful, impudent, and mobile.”

Gombrich says that the painting Faith (1306) by Giotto, born near Florence in about 1265,

gives the illusion of a statue in the round…[E]arly Christian art had reverted to the old Oriental idea that to tell a story clearly every figure had to be shown completely, almost as was done in Egyptian art. Giotto abandoned these ideas…He shows us so convincingly how each figure reflects the grief of the tragic scene…Giotto begins an entirely new chapter in the history of art. From this day onwards the history of art, first in Italy and then in other countries also, is the history of the great artists (pp. 144-148).

Clark thinks that before Giotto “Italian painting was really only a less polished form of Byzantine painting. It was flat, flowing linear style based on traditional concepts which had changed very little for five hundred years. For Giotto to break away from it and evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of the feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art” (p. 80).

Italian Renaissance

What was new about the Italian Renaissance? According to Clark:

Medieval architects had designed on a mathematical basis, but it seems to have been of immense complexity, as elaborate as scholastic philosophy. The Renaissance architects used much simpler geometrical figures – the square, the circle, forms which they believed to have some ultimate perfection – and they entertained the idea that these forms must be applicable to the human body: that each, so to say, guaranteed the perfection of the other…The same approach was applied to painting, in the system known as perspective, by which it was through that with mathematical calculation one could render on a flat surface the precise position of a figure in space. This too seems to have been invented by Brunelleschi, but we can see it best in the works of this two friends, Ghiberti and Donatello…The belief that one could represent a man in a real setting and calculate his position and arrange figures in a demonstrably harmonious order, expressed symbolically a new idea about man’s place in the scheme of things and man’s control over his own destiny (p. 96-99).

Gombrich says that with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

we see at once that it [the Capella Pazzi) has little in common with any classical temple, but even less with the forms used by Gothic builders. Brunelleschi has combined columns, pilasters and arches in his own way to achieve an effect of lightness and grace which is different from anything that had gone before…To him, it seems, is due another momentous discovery in the field of art…that of perspective. We have seen that even the Greeks, who understood foreshortening, and the Hellenistic painters who were skilled in creating the illusion of depth, did not know the mathematical laws by which objects diminish in size as they recede into the background (pp. 163-5).

For Clark, “the invention of the individual” was the source of the Renaissance’s creativity. In medieval art, “people were presented to the eye as figures that symbolised their status” but in Renaissance portraits the personalities of individuals are revealed with details of their daily lives. Giorgione, “the passionate lover of physical beauty,” painted (1500-1510) a picture of an old woman with extreme realism, titled Col tempo, “with time,” of a woman who “must have once been a beauty,” her face ravaged by time.

Hauser makes an important observation about the “individualism” of the Renaissance: while “strong personalities already existed in the Middle Ages, yet to think and act individually is one thing and to be conscious of one’s individuality, to affirm and deliberately to intensify it, is another” (Vol. 2: p. 62). For Gombrich, it was Masaccio (1401-1428) who “brought about a complete revolution in painting.”

This revolution did not consist only in the technical trick of perspective painting…We can imagine how amazed the Florentine’s must have been when this wall painting was unveiled and seemed to have made a hole in the wall through which they could look into a new chapel in Brunelleschi’s modern style (p. 165).

There was something “entirely new” in the painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), says Gombrich.

He was the inventor of oil painting… What he achieved was a new preparation of paints before they were put on the panel… For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term (pp. 170-4).

In Piero della Francesca, Gombrich continues, “light not only helps to model the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth” (p. 189). In the equestrian statue which Andrea del Verrocchio made in 1488 of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni,

we see how minutely he studied the anatomy of the horse, and how clearly he observed the position of the muscles and veins. But most admirable of all is the posture of the horseman, who seems to be riding ahead of his troops with an expression of bold defiance (p. 213).

It is said that this statue was not a portrait of Colleoni but of the idea of a strong and ruthless military commander “bursting with titanic power and energy.”

In Leonardo da Vinci,

there was nothing in nature which did not arouse his curiosity and challenge his ingenuity. He explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting more than thirty corpses. He was one of the first to probe the mysteries of the growth of the child in the womb; he investigated the laws of waves and currents; he spent years observing and analysing the flight of insects and birds…Never before had the sacred episode [The Last Supper] appeared so close and so lifelike. (pp. 214, 216-17).

Clark believes that Leonardo “belongs to no epoch, he fits into no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes…he was the most relentlessly curious man in history…Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s note-books, one is absolutely worn out by this energy” (135). According to Gombrich, what stands out about Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in history,

is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her…Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is the effect of every great work of art (p. 218-19).

No artist before Michelangelo, adds Gombrich

had even come near expressing the greatness of the mystery of creation with such simplicity and force…It is one of the greatest miracles in art how Michelangelo has contrived thus to make the touch of the Divine hand the centre and focus of the picture, and how he has made us see the idea of omnipotence by the ease and power of this gesture of creation (pp. 224-7).

In stark contrast to most current academics who agree with Fernández-Armesto’s dogma that survival and woke politics are the qualities that define a civilisation, Clark sees “the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man” for having extended in his art the “powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.” For Hauser,

Michelangelo rises to absolutely unprecedented heights…He is the first example of the modern, lonely, demonically impelled artist—the first to be completely possessed by his idea and for whom nothing exists but his idea—who feels a deep sense of responsibility towards his gift and sees a higher and superhuman power in his own artistic genius (Volume 2: p. 60).

Raphael, says Gombrich, possessed a unique artistic capacity to achieve

constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced. It is for this supreme mastery of arranging his figures, this consummate skill in composition, that artists have admired Raphael ever since…Raphael was seen to have accomplished what the older generation had striven so hard to achieve: the perfect and harmonious composition of freely moving figures (p. 234).

Clark devotes considerable attention to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) a “very strange character,” “intensively self-conscious and inordinately vain.” “No man has ever described natural objects, flowers and grasses and animals, more minutely; and yet, to my mind, something is missing – the inner life” (151).

But if Dürer did not try to peer so deeply into the inner life of nature, as Leonardo did, nor feel its appalling independence, he was deeply engaged by the mystery of the human psyche. His obsession with his own personality was part of a passionate interest in psychology in general, and this led him to produce one of the great prophetic documents of western man, the engraving he entitled Melancholia…The figure is humanity at its most evolved with wings to carry her upwards…holds in her hands the compasses, symbols of measurement by which science will conquer the world. Around her are all the emblems of constructive action: a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, a melting pot, and two elements in solid geometry, a polyhedron and sphere. Yet all these aids to construction are discarded and she sits there brooding on the futility of human effort. Her obsessive stare reflects some deep psychic disturbance (152-55).

In The Holy Night (1530), says Gombrich, we can see how Correggio (1489-1534), more so than Titian,

exploited the discovery that colour and light can be used to balance forms and to direct our eyes along certain lines. It is we who rush to the scene with the shepherd and who are made to see what he sees — the miracle of the Light that shone in darkness of which the Gospel of St. John speaks (p. 247).

Catholic Baroque and Mannerism

As you read the following passages, think about Leonardo da Vinci’s remark about the indomitable desire of the “wretched pupil” to “surpass his master.” This attitude is singularly European, completely absent in China, where the aim was to imitate, reproduce the perfection already believed to have been attained in the past. Clark sees the Baroque as a product of the Catholic revival of the sixteenth century, the counter-Reformation movement that, in the realm of art, “gave ordinary people a means of satisfying, through ritual images and symbols, their deepest impulses, so that their minds were at peace.” The Catholic Church, in its portrayal of the Virgin, unlike the Protestant North, gave “the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male.” It also had “another strength which one may say was part of the Mediterranean Civilisation—or at any rate a legacy from the pagan Renaissance: it was not afraid of the human body.”

Clark writes that “late Baroque artists delighted in emotive close-ups with open lips and glistening tears. The huge scale, the restless movement, the shifting lights and dissolves—all these devices were to be rediscovered in the movies. The extraordinary thing is that Baroque artists did it in bronze and marble, not on celluloid.” He says of Bernini that “was dazzlingly precocious,” “the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal… He not only gave Baroque Rome its character, but he was the chief source of an international style that spread all over Europe, as Gothic had done, and as the Renaissance style never did” (182). The Ecstasy of St. Teresa “is one of the most deeply moving works in European art. Bernini’s gift of sympathetic imagination…is used to convey the rarest and most precious of all emotional states, that of religious ecstasy” (191). Similarly, Gombrich judges that Bernini achieved an intensity of facial expression which until then was never attempted in art” (328).

There are so many great painters—Holbein, Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, van Dyck, Grünewald—and countless works of art one could spend countless hours thinking about. Hauser groups “late Baroque” artists under the label “Mannerism,” which retained the “passionately expressionistic aims of baroque, while showing “bodies struggling to give expression to the mind…turning and twisting, bending and writhing under the pressure of the mind.” Within Mannerism, he sees “two opposed currents—the mystical spiritualism of El Greco and the pantheistic naturalism of Brueghel” (Vol. 2: p. 92).

Gombrich says that Caravaggio (1571-1610), whom Clark views as “the greatest Italian painter of the period,”

was of a wild and irascible temper, quick to take offence…He had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal beauty’. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art afresh… Consider his painting of St. Thomas: the three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking with his finger into the wound in His side, look unconventional enough. One can imagine that such a painting struck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds—here they looked like common labourers, with weathered faces and wrinkled brows. But, Caravaggio would have answered, they were old labourers, common people (pp. 290-292).

One drawback in Clark’s book is that he ignores Spanish painters including one of the greatest ever, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), about whom Gombrich says that he “devoted his art to the dispassionate observation of nature regardless of conventions.” Of The Water-seller of
Seville
, he says:

No one who stands before this picture feels inclined to ask whether the objects represented are beautiful or ugly, or whether it is important or trivial. Not even the colours are strictly beautiful by themselves. Brown, grey, greenish tones prevail. And yet, the whole is joined together in such a rich and mellow harmony that the picture remains unforgettable to anyone who has ever paused in front of it (306).

In Rubens’s Head of a Child, Gombrich says,

there are no tricks of composition here, no splendid robes or streams of light, but a simple en face portrait of a child. And yet it seems to breathe and palpitate like living flesh. Compared with this, the portraits of earlier centuries seem somehow remote and unreal — however great they may be as works of art […] joy in exuberant and almost boisterous life in all its manifestations saved Rubens (1577-1640) from becoming a mere virtuoso of his art. It turned his paintings from mere Baroque decorations of festive halls into masterpieces which retain their vitality within the chilling atmosphere of museums (pp. 299, 302).

Dutch “Bourgeois” Painting

The seventeenth century, according to Clark, “saw a revolutionary change in thought” most visibly in the Netherlands “that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation” (p. 194). “Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism” with the “first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy.” Unlike the art produced in the past, which was feudal, aristocratic, and at the service of a Church that was rich and powerful, the “numerous group-portraits of early seventeenth-century Holland” are of individuals “who are prepared to join in a corporate effort for the public good” of their cities. While excessive capitalist wealth can produce a “defensive smugness and sentimentality” in art, it generated for some time a society in Holland were leading citizens came together to take “corporate responsibility” because they could “afford to do so” because they had “leisure” because they had “money in the bank.” Clark sees these new bourgeois individuals in such portraits as Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662).

Clark believes that “almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals” who are “to some extent a kind of summation of their times.” He includes Rembrandt among “the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe.” “Rembrandt was the great poet of that need for truth and that appeal to experience which had begun with the Reformation…Rembrandt, although in fact he was a profound student of the classical tradition, wanted to look at every episode [in the Bible] as if it had never been depicted before, and to try to find an equivalent for it in his own experience” (p. 203). Among the seven paintings he shows of Rembrandt is Bathsheba at her Bath (1654). He writes:

The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings goes beyond that of any other artists who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer-picture making. In the Bathsheba he makes use of studies from nature and from antique reliefs to achieve a perfectly balanced design. We may think we admire it as pure painting, but in the end we come back to the head. Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings as she ponder on David’s letter are rendered with a subtlety and a human sympathy which a great novelist could scarcely achieve in many pages (p. 205).

Gombrich agrees,

Rembrandt (1606-69)…one of the greatest painters who ever lived…Other portraits by great masters may look alive, they may reveal the character of their sitter through a characteristic expression or a striking attitude. Creations such as Mona Lisa…are convincing and impressive, but we feel that they can only represent one side of a complex human being. Not even Mona Lisa can always have smiled. But in Rembrandt’s portraits we feel fact to fact with real human beings with all their tragic failings and all their sufferings (p. 313, 315).

Included among other great Dutch painters are Frans Hals, Paulus Potter, who painted animals within landscapes with “uncanny realism,” Jacob van Ruisdael, “a master in the painting of dark and sombre clouds, of evening light when the shadows grow, of ruined castles and rushing brooks,” and Vermeer of Delft. “With Vermeer,” writes Gombrich,

genre painting has lost the last trace of humorous illustration. His paintings are really still lives with human beings. It is hard to argue the reasons that make such a simple and unassuming picture picture [The Milkmaid] one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. But few who have been lucky enough to see the original will disagree with me that it is something of a miracle (p. 324).

Clark prefers Vermeer’s landscape painting, “View of Delft,” about which he says:

His work is without a single parti pris, or a prejudice arising from knowledge, or the convenience of a style. It’s really quite a shock to see a picture that has so little stylistic artifice as his View of Delft. It looks like a coloured photograph, and yet we know that it is a work of extreme intellectual distinction. It not only shows the light of Holland, but what Descartes called “the natural light of mind” (209).

Rococo, Naturalism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism

Rococo “represented a real gain in sensibility…and captured new and more delicate shades of feeling,” “an art of elegance rather than greatness,” writes Clark. For Gombrich, it reflected “the taste of the French aristocracy of the early eighteenth century…The fashion for dainty colours and delicate decoration…which expressed itself in gay frivolity.” The paintings of Watteau, a sick man who died of consumption at the age of 37, is seen as the best expression of this new style, with his “visions of a life divorced from hardship…a dream life of gay picnics in fairy parks where it never rains, of musical parties where all ladies are beautiful and all lovers graceful in which all are dressed in sparkling silk without looking showy,” in the words of Gombrich (341).

With Naturalism the painter “lost all consciousness of an independent self” by immersing himself into the totality of nature to gain “thereby a more intense consciousness of being,” writes Clark as he examines Rousseau, the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the painters Turner and Constable (272, 291). He admires Turner above everyone else.

He was a genius of the first order—far the greatest painter that England has ever produced… No one has ever known more about natural appearances, and he was able to fit into his encyclopedic knowledge memories of the most fleeting effects of light—sunrises, passing storms, dissolving mists, none of which had ever been seen on canvas before… [Turner’s] new approach to painting… consisted of transforming everything into pure colour, light rendered as colour, feelings about life rendered as colour. It’s quite difficult for us to realise what a revolutionary procedure this was. One must remember that for centuries objects were thought to be real because they were solid. You proved their reality by touching or tapping them…And all respectable art aimed at defining this solidity…Turner declared the independence of colour and thereby added a new faculty to the human mind (284-5).

To sustain their originality, and find new ways of conveying our perception of reality, and surpass Turner, the “three great lovers of nature” of the late nineteenth century, Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh, “had to make a more radical transformation”—giving way to a new ism: Impressionism. “An impression of what?”—asks Clark. “Of light.” Monet, for Clark, was the “original unswerving Impressionist,” with his view that all a painting can do is give an impression of light. In Monet’s words: “light is the principal person in the picture.” He shows Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, painted from his garden grounds.

Gombrich is fascinated by Impressionism. He believes it was Manet (with an “a”) and his followers who “brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tones which blend in our eye or really in our mind” (p. 388). The painting The Balcony illustrates Manet’s intentions. Compared with earlier paintings, say Ruben’s Head of a Child, or Velazquez’s Infant Prince, “Manet’s heads look flat.” “But the fact is,” adds Gombrich, “that in the open air, and in the full light of day, round forms sometimes do look flat, like mere coloured patches. It was this effect which Manet wanted to explore. The consequence is that as we stand before one of his pictures it looks more immediately real than any old master” (388).

A novelty about Monet (with an “o) that Gombrich brings up is the “idea that all painting of nature must actually be finished ‘on the spot'” which “demanded a change of habits and a disregard of comfort.” “‘Nature’ or ‘the motif’ changes from minute to minute as a cloud passes over the sun or the wind breaks the reflection in the water. The painter who hopes to catch a characteristic aspect has no leisure to mix and match his colours…He must fix them straight on to his canvas in rapid strokes, caring less for detail than for the general effect of the whole” (392).

For Hauser, perspective painting reaches its culmination in Impressionism, in “the reproduction of the subjective act instead of the objective substratum of seeing.” “Everything stable and coherent is dissolved…and assumes the character of the unfinished and fragmentary.” Impressionism was indeed an “urban art,” a reaction to “external impressions with the overstrained nerves of modern technical man…it describes the always ephemeral impressions of city life…it implies an enormous expansion of sensual perception” (Vol. 4: p. 158).

[T]he quivering, trembling dots and the happy, loose and abrupt strokes of the brush, the whole improvised technique with its rapid and rough sketching, the fleeting, seemingly careless perception of the object, and the brilliant execution merely express…that feeling of a stirring, dynamic, constantly changing reality” (Vol. 4: p. 159-60).

Renoir’s A Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, shows an open-air dance, which appears ‘sketchy’ and unfinished but the intention, according to Gombrich, was “to conjure up the gay medley of bright colours and to study the effect of sunlight on the whirling throng.” The figures remain the focus, however—how the “forms are increasingly dissolved in sunlight and air.” “We realize without difficulty that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but is the outcome of great artistic wisdom” (394-5).

Where do we fit Goya? As Gombrich writes:

The most striking fact about Goya’s prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical, or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions. Some are meant as accusations against the powers of stupidity and reaction, of cruelty and oppression, which Goya had witnessed in Spain, others seem to just give shape to the artist’s nightmares (p. 366).

Clark seems to associate Goya with a new Romantic “pessimism” that emerge in the early 1800s, showing Goya’s famous painting of a firing squad called The Third of May 1808, and pointing to the poet Byron as the main spokesman of this new feeling, which he contrasts to the romantic naturalism or sentimentalism of Rousseau, his “belief in the beauty and innocence of nature,” and Wordsworth’s “daisies and daffodils,” found in such painters as Constable. Romantic pessimism eulogized the “great forces of nature,” the roaring of lions, cataracts, and colossal storms—with the sublime. “Consciousness of the sublime was a faculty that the Romantic movement added to the European imagination,” says Clark (307). He pays respect to Théodore Géricault, whose most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was of a disaster at sea he had read about in the newspapers, prompting him to study corpses from the local morgue.

Hauser, from a perspective that includes the study of literature, thinks that Romanticism “represented one of the most decisive turning points in the history of the European mind.” With Romanticism “all individual expression is unique, irreplaceable and bears its own laws and standards within itself.” The “intellectual atmosphere created by the [French] Revolution” nurtured an image of the artist as “the lonely human being…who feels himself to be different, either tragically or blessedly different, from his fellows” and the idea that art is “an activity of self-expression creating its own standards” (Vol. 3: p. 144). Were the Romantics, then, responsible for starting a dynamic that would eventually undermine (in the twentieth century) the standards of art, with their excessive subjectivism and preoccupation with their own feelings, with “everything dark and ambiguous, chaotic and ecstatic”? It has to be acknowledged that Romanticism was one of the most creative movements in Western history, combining the seemingly contradictory motivations of losing oneself in the unknown, the mysterious natural forces that overwhelm the confidence of the rational self, which Clark also saw in Naturalism, and an individual artist who feels, in the words of Hauser, that sincerity and creativity only comes through the creation of one’s standards “against the very principle of tradition, authority, and rule” (Vol. 3: p. 142).

Delacroix is the “pessimistic” painter Clark most admires. Delacroix “had the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived, for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress; and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it” (313). “The abyss did not horrify Delacroix: on the contrary, he gloried in it.” To escape from European Civilisation, he went to Morocco; and despite “many sordid and grotesque incidents in his life there,” he made us believe in the “nobility, dignity, and timelessness” of life in Morocco, with his painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

After Delacroix, the one artist Clark holds in the highest esteem is the sculptor Rodin, “the last great Romantic artist,” with “abundant animal spirits, creator of the greatest piece of sculpture “since Michelangelo.” Before the Romantic pessimists, he mentions the French painter Jacques-Louis David, as an artist already living, in the midst of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror, at a time that would “darken the optimism of the early Romantics.” He shows his famous painting, La Mort de Marat, 1793. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, a radical faction during the Reign of Terror. “Few propaganda pictures made such an impact as a work of art” (300). What he says about David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps reveals much about what Clark really thinks about “Civilisation”:

With the appearance of General Bonaparte the liberated energies of the revolution take a new direction—the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. But what has this to do with Civilisation? War and imperialism, so long the most admired of human activities, have fallen into disrepute, and I am enough a child of my time to hate them both. But I recognize that, together with much that is destructive, they are symptoms of a life-giving force (300).

Ruskin’s sentence—”No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers”—strikes Clark as “historically irrefutable.” He mentions a few more impressionists, Renoir, for painting “two of the most beautiful pictures of the period,” and, “the greatest of them,” Paul Cézanne, as well as van Gogh, showing a painting from each; and Georges Seurat for one of the “greatest pictures of the nineteenth century,” Baigneurs, “for the way it unites the monumental stillness of a Renaissance fresco with the vibrating light of the Impressionists” (341). He writes a bit about the “social realism” of Gustave Courbet and Jean Francois Millet, and says that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is “an impressive example of sympathy with ordinary people…By abandoning all pictorial artifice, which must inevitably involve a certain amount of hierarchy and subordination, and standing his figures in a row, Courbet achieves a feeling of equality in the presence of death” (339).

Clearly, for Clark, artistic greatness and originality were still visible in some works of the nineteenth century, although the art of this century, he also says, can be written “in terms of tunnels, bridges, and other feats of engineering.” A new age of machines had arrived, dedicated to the “glory of mammon,” money and gain, to which was eventually added a humanitarian feeling, as industrialization brought increasing affluence. Humanitarianism was “one of the greatest civilizing achievements of the nineteenth century.” This feeling that “kindness matters most in human conduct” was unprecedented in history. Tragedy and lofty subjects for painting were gone. Clark recognizes that the post-WWII decades brought us a pleasant atmosphere of “well fed” people along with many public schools and universities producing a “well read” public, though “there has been a little flattening at the top.” Of great art there can be no more.

Gombrich takes his survey up to his own time, the first half of the twentieth century. The period of the “Great Revolution in France” of 1789 “put an end to so many assumptions that had been taken for granted” for centuries. Essentially, there was a decisive break with lofty, aristocratic, sublime subjects, leading to a focus on ordinary or everyday subjects. To be sure, in the past, painters like Chardin (1699-1779) had started “to look at the life of the ordinary men and women of their time” (353), and in the sixteenth century we already had the paintings of Brueghel depicting scenes from daily life, and in some paintings we have shown above. At the same time, while some painters like Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) continued to exhort artists “to strive after lofty and dignified subjects,” “grand and impressive” art, Goya examined the faces of the aristocracy “with a pitiless and searching eye, and revealed all their vanity and ugliness, their greed and emptiness” (365). Great paintings continued, but the “foundations on which art had rested throughout its existence” were being undermined at an accelerated speed as the Industrial Revolution was added to the French revolutionary destruction of monarchical rule, the authority of the Catholic Church—by a new middle class “which often lacked tradition” and viewed art as a “perfect means of expressing individuality against all the rules and conventions.”

The history of Western art has always been characterized by individual expression and the creation of new possibilities for art. The difference now was that artists had no ideals of perfection, no sense of loyalty to their ancestors, no traditions to limit their pursuit of the truth solely through their personalities. The purpose of art was merely to express one’s personality, leading to a state of “permanent revolution” as artists “contested with each other over who was the most “creative.” It is in the twentieth century, however, that Gombrich sees artists who “proposed to make a clear sweep of all conventions…which ultimately led them to a rejection of the whole Western tradition” (427).

We saw his admiration for Impressionists, who “did not differ in their aims from the traditions of art that had developed since the discovery of nature in the Renaissance…Their quarrel with the conservative masters was not so much over the aim as over the means of achieving it” (407). He values the originality of van Gogh, who “liked the technique of painting in dots and strokes of pure colour, but under his hands it became something different from what these Paris artists had meant it to be” (408).

Van Gogh liked to paint objects and scenes which gave this new means full scope — motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just as a writer who underlines his words. That is why he was the first painter to discover the beauty of stubbles, hedgerows and cornfields, of the gnarled branches of olive trees and the dark, flamelike shapes of the cypress (417).

He views Cézanne (1839-1906), like Clark, as one of the greatest of this period: “he was constantly engaged in a passionate struggle to achieve in his painting that ideal of artistic perfection after which he strove” (408); while adding that Cézanne “had decided to start from scratch as if no painting had been done before him. The Dutch master [Willem Kalf] had painted his still life to display his stupendous virtuosity.”

In his tremendous effort to achieve a sense of depth without sacrificing the brightness of colours, to achieve an orderly arrangement without sacrificing the sense of depth—in all these struggles and gropings there was one thing he was prepared to sacrifice if need be—the conventional ‘correctness’ of outline. He was not out to distort nature; but he did not mind very much if it became distorted in some minor detail provided this helped him to obtain the desired effect (413).

Seurat “studied the scientific theory of colour vision and decided to build up his pictures by means of small regular dabs of unbroken colour like a mosaic.”

This, he hoped, would lead to the colours blending in the eye (or rather in the mind) without their losing in intensity and luminosity. But this extreme technique which became known as pointillism, naturally endangered the legibility of his painting by avoiding all contours and breaking up every form into areas of multicolored dots (414).

Conclusion

It is in the “experimental art” of the 20th century—in the quick succession or simultaneous movements of Surrealism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Abstract Art—that Gombrich sees a complete break with the Western tradition. The sole task of the artist was now to create “something new.” Many relied on non-Western sources for inspiration, African primitivism, Zen Buddhism, Chinese calligraphy, or “Egyptian principles.” Abstract and cubist painters wanted “to become as little children” in order to revitalize a spontaneity threatened by mechanization, to reproduce “the memory of childish scrawls.” The disregard for harmony and beauty was justified on the grounds of “honesty” for the truth. I agree with Gombrich that there was still great talent. I would mention such painters as Edward Munch, Picasso, Matisse and Dali. Gombrich mentions Kokoschka’s Children Playing, 1909, as a painting that “looked at children with a deep sympathy and compassion. He has caught their witfulness and dreaminess, the awkwardness of their movements and the disharmonies of their growing bodies” (431-2). But he struggles to find real greatness, as he moves swiftly from one movement to the next, without persuading us that Nicolas de Stael’s painting, Plage à Agrigente consists of “simple yet subtle brush strokes [which] often give us a sense of light and distance without making us forget the quality of the paint” (460).

I believe that Western art was bound to decline partly for the reasons Clark gives. Fundamentally this decline was a product of the culmination of the Western individualism that nurtured this greatness in the first place until it ceased to be sustained by any traditions. H.W. Janson is correct: “without tradition” the “uniqueness, novelty, and freshness” of Western art would have been impossible. Modern artists came to the conclusion that standards cannot be set by prior generations but are the self-expression of individual artists who are in a war of liberation against the very principle of tradition, authority, and standards. This very attitude has now led to the denial that Western art was “better” than the art of any other culture. We can’t restore the world of the past with its standards and world views. As Spengler told us: “Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” We can at least, however, recognize the artistic greatness of the Western past, and teach our students about the history of painting, so they realize what a horrendous crime it is to destroy great art.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar,” by Willem Kalf; painted in 1669.

The Nobel to Annie Ernaux: Whining is my Profession

Jean Baudrillard said of democracy that it is the menopause of Western societies. I don’t know why, but this remark makes me think of the books of Annie Ernaux, the new darling of the Left, who was awarded the Nobel Prize at the age of 82, for a work as thick as a feminist leaflet. In the past, the Nobel Prize has often rewarded third-rate writers, starting with Sully Prudhomme, a poet of the unctuous kind, the first Nobel Prize winner in literature, who inaugurated the long list of French authors who have won the prize, all of them male. One woman was missing from the list: the tricolored suffragette. First name: Annie; last name: Ernaux.

The Swedish committee’s trademark is to be in perfect trigonometric alignment with the spirit of the times, like a barometer that measures the atmospheric pressure with a Nordic and Lutheran rigor. This year, the atmosphere is boring, feminist and stubborn—the spit-and-image of Annie Ernaux, a pretty woman by the way, very well preserved in spite of the withering of time, except for the disdainful lips that have long collected the poisonous fruit of a bitterness that no longer has any place.

A Purging and a Punishment

Annie Ernaux deserves our recognition. She is the most powerful sedative and laxative in contemporary literature. To read her is to experience a journey to the end of boredom to Cergy-Pontoise, the new city of the Pompidolian era, where she settled eons ago as a watchdog of progressivism. The rhythm of her prose reminds the oldest among us of the throbbing sway of the suburban railroads of yesteryear, which made the traveler seasick and predisposed him to drowsiness.

Experience it for yourself. Start reading one of her books in the underbelly of Paris, as the devil himself, Richard Millet, calls it, for example on the platform of the RER A at Châtelet-Les Halles, and finish it at the Cergy train station, in the prematurely aged university Luna Park that Annie makes it a point of honor to never leave. You will come out of the experience exhausted. If Cergy-Pontoise is a sleepy town, Annie Ernaux is its pharmaceutical version, its sleeping pill, more literal than literary, it goes without saying.

Cergy-Pontoise is for her the center of the world. For the past 40 years, she has walked the alleys, the pedestrian streets, the groves between two bodies of water, the shops, including the Auchan hypermarket, which she describes with the enthusiasm of a novice bailiff and the diligence of an Auchan department manager updating his inventory. Annie has always made lists. Lists are her thing. She even made one in 2012 to send Richard Millet to the gallows, who had just published his Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik with Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, preceded by his magnificent Langue fantôme. As in the good old days of the Soviet Writers’ Union, she launched a petition in Le Monde against this “fascist pamphlet.” 128 watchdogs rushed to sign it, poodles and chihuahuas of the worst kind that came to the roaring lion. Liste Otto in 1940, Ernaux list in 2012. From one occupation to another.

Cosette is not Colette

In the land of Stieg Larsson and his antifa saga Millennium, the Nobel Prize could only go to Annie Ernaux. But if she had to be awarded a prize based on her literary qualities alone, it would be the prize of the Normandy knitters’ union or that of the nightcap makers of Yvetot, in the Seine-Maritime region, where she was born 82 years ago, at her family’s grocery store, where her novel of her origins begins—black, cruel, terribly unjust. Since then, she has alternated between the misfortunes of Calimero and the misfortunes of Cosette. Now Cosette is elevated by critics to the rank of Colette, while she is content to write feminist bluets with her hairbrush, tracing sullen lives threatened by depression and resentment.

It’s like reading one of those letters from a listener that Menie Grégoire read on RTL in the 1970s. You remember—the cultic “Allô, Menie! The radio letter from the heart. It had everything—men who don’t understand anything about women, sentimental dreams, unjust fate. Menie Grégoire and Annie Ernaux—the voice-over of sentimental bovarysm in the age of the feminist crowd. An exhaustive exegesis of commonplaces, but not in the sense that Léon Bloy meant it, as a monument of stupidity. No! In Annie Ernaux’s case, it is a monument of neo-Sulpine devotion and leftist self-righteousness. Because between Menie Grégoire and her, Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology has crept in—scholarly miserabilism, coupled with a spirit of sociological cumbersomeness. Annie Ernaux is Menie Grégoire’s letter from the heart in the format of a sociology course at the faculty of Jussieu. No literature here. The Nobel Prize winner of 2022 claims a flat, stodgy, atonic writing, which only transcribes the banality of a feminist’s daily life, without ever transfiguring it, as the moving Virginia Woolf was able to do.

Embracing Miserabilism

Marriage or abortion, this is how she summed up the dilemma of young girls at the threshold of the 1960s. She experienced both, without sparing us anything of her martyrdom. Her CV is a way of the cross, whose stations she groans out as she goes along. There was once the figure of the Christian Mater dolorosa; today, it is the #MeToo dolorosa and its hypertrophied tear glands. Women’s lives are a valley of tears. Annie wipes them away.

Victimology is a profession. So is crying. It is even one of the oldest professions in the world, if we are to believe the discoveries of archaeologists who have brought to light weeping women on Egyptian bas-reliefs. The goddess Isis herself is sometimes represented as a weeper. Wealthy families paid female mourners to feign grief, both among the Pharaohs and in Mesopotamia. In Rome, there was a choir of mourners with a leader who sang the laments while beating her chest. The mourning was all the more theatrical, sonorous and demonstrative. The last mourners logically disappeared when the feminists appeared in the 1960s. Annie is their heir. Her literature, which is presented in the manner of an electoral pamphlet, is not committed, but is a member—of LFI, to be precise.

When Lady Bosses read Télérama

Her books are like the empirical proof of the incapacity of sociological concepts to be transformed into literature. Annie may put them to music, but they remain hopelessly monotonous. If Pierre Bourdieu provided her with the instructions for her worldview, it is Didier Eribon, another sociologist, who provided her with her identity papers by making her a “class defector.” A class defector is someone who is a bit of a slob who manages to become very chic. A nouveau riche, like Annie Ernaux. She, who belongs to the champagne Left, constantly reminds us that, in her unhappy childhood, she only ate bits of cod, the fish of the poor. Every class defector is condemned to counterfeit his original culture and to specialize in sociological navel-gazing.

A remark to finish. Bourdieusian sociology is the continuation of the work of the lady bosses of yesteryear, who were the first social workers. Annie Ernaux is a lady patroness. She wants to restore the daily life of the people, even though she has lost track of it for a good half-century. She never finds the right distance. Her indignation is that of a reader of Télérama strolling through a Grévin museum of the working world where no piece is original. Why are there dominated people? Why are there right-wing bastards? Why did the working classes prefer Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon? One shudders in front of such unfathomable questionings that make Plato’s, Pascal’s and Leibniz’s interrogations seem old-fashioned? Why is there something rather than nothing, eh? Why is there nothing rather than Annie Ernaux, eh? Why is there Annie Ernaux rather than literature, eh? Dizzying, isn’t it!


François Bousquet is the editor-in-chief of the revue Éléments and also the ditrector of the Nouvelle Librairie. This article appears through the kind courtesy of revue Éléments.


The 50 Greatest Philosophers are Western

It could be that the most important historical question that points to a monumental contrast between the West and the Rest is the following: why did Western civilization produce all the greatest philosophers in history? If we agree that philosophy, at least until the first half of the nineteenth century, covered every branch of knowledge and dealt with the ultimate questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, being and becoming, why there is anything rather than nothing, what is good and evil, what is the difference between knowledge and opinion, it follows that identifying the nationality of the greatest philosophers may be a most revealing factum in our evaluation of the comparative achievements of civilizations. One does not have to agree with Aristotle that the “highest good” is the pursuit of wisdom to take seriously his claim that, if “all men by nature desire to have knowledge,” and if the highest form of knowledge is expressed by philosophers, because, as Heraclitus said, “they are inquirers into many things,” then it can be reasonably stated that the civilization that produced the greatest philosophers is the civilization that achieved the highest.

The History of Philosophy = The History of Western Philosophy

When scholarly histories of philosophies began to be written after the mid-1750s, that is, histories based on a relatively comprehensive study of the sources, it was agreed that true philosophy began in sixth century BC in Greece when a group of men known as the Pre-Socratics introduced a new way of inquiring for the “causes and principles” of the natural world grounded on rational judgements rather than on legends, myths, or gods responsible for the happenings of the world. They generally agreed with Aristotle’s confident claim that Thales of Miletus (623-545 BC) is the first known “inquirer into nature” who can be distinguished from earlier poetical “myth-makers” such as Hesiod and Homer.

It is not only that histories of philosophy began their accounts with ancient Greece. These histories were almost entirely, if not completely, about the contributions of Western philosophers in the conviction that philosophy as a venture that relies on reasoned arguments for its truth claims—even in philosophers like David Hume who believed that “reason is the Slave of the passions”—is a uniquely Western achievement. G.W.F. Hegel’s “Lectures on the History of Philosophy” (1819–1831), which were given to students, and recently published by University of Nebraska Press in three volumes, devote a brief opening section on “Oriental Philosophy” and thereafter the three volumes are entirely dedicated to European thinkers, starting with Thales. For Hegel, the history of Western philosophy “shows us a succession of noble minds, a gallery of heroes of thought, who, by the power of Reason, have penetrated into the being of things, of nature and of spirit, into the Being of God, and have won for us by their labours the highest treasure, the treasure of reasoned knowledge.”

This conviction that philosophy was almost entirely a Western phenomenon was held by historians of philosophy from every school of thought until recently. The neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband, believing that philosophy concerns the “independent and self-conscious work of intelligence which seeks knowledge methodically for its own sake,” began his two volume classic, A History of Philosophy, published in 1892, with the ancient Greeks, without mentioning a single non-Western philosopher. Windelband believed that “the history of philosophy is the process in which European humanity has embodied in scientific conceptions its views of the world and its judgments of life” (p. 9). The historicist and existentialist Julián Marías, in his Historia de la Filosofía (1941), which went through countless editions, and was translated into English, also starts with the Pre-Socratics and ends with José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) without a word about a non-Western thinker—even though he says that “philosophy is a way of life,” which seems to fit with the “Eastern” tradition of seeing philosophy in terms of an inner or spiritual religious quest. The difference is that Marías thinks that philosophy is also about “knowledge” that “justifies itself [and] constantly demonstrates and proves its validity.” Therefore, philosophy is a way of life “that consists precisely of living according to a certain knowledge; therefore, this way of life postulates and requires this certain knowledge. It is this knowledge which determines the meaning of the philosophic life.” Of course, the word “knowledge” is also used in Eastern philosophies, but Marías agrees with the standard Western view that it was with the Pre-Socratics that “a completely new human attitude” emerged: a theoretic instead of a mythical attitude. The “mythic man” is enveloped by the surrounding world, lives in a world of things he can’t differentiate in terms of their properties and contrast to the thinking self. In contrast, the “theorizing” philosopher differentiates the knowing self: “instead of being among the things, he is opposite them, alienated from them, and thus things acquire a meaning of their own which previously they did not have” (1967: pp. 2-4).

The liberal-minded Will Durant, in his popular book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (1926), profiles only Western philosophers. In a “Preface to the Second Edition,” written in 1962, we see the first inklings of multiculturalism, however, as Durant faults his book for leaving out “Chinese and Hindu philosophy,” even though he adds that Chinese philosophers were “averse to epistemology” or to inquiries into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired. The analytical-empiricist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his widely known book, History of Western Philosophy (1945), which was cited as one of the books that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, took it for granted that the history of philosophy should be about Western philosophers. Philosophy began with the Pre-Socratics because it is only then that we see speculations on the nature of things with “appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.” Russell offered a chapter on “Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy” only to the extent that Muslims wrote commentaries on Aristotle. The Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston, in his magisterial work, A History of Philosophy, published in nine volumes between 1946 and 1975, began with Greece and stayed in Europe, including a volume on Russian philosophy, right to the end.

This Western-centric attitude was unquestioned until recent times. It was the typical perspective of texts for university students. Konstantin Kolenda’s Philosophy’s Journey: A Historical Introduction (1974) says that it was the ancient Greeks who “were able to think through to new, unorthodox questions.” “Mythical accounts about gods and about the world…do not necessarily concern themselves with the question of truth. Myth is something that is told and need not call for critical scrutiny, examination, justification. The idea of possibly discovering the true nature of reality behind the multiplicity of appearances and behind conflicting opinions is a most original and revolutionary idea in the intellectual history of man” (p. 5). It is not only that the ancient Greeks posed critical questions—“Is there some substance or some basic stuff out of which everything is made?”—but that their answers consisted of “reasoned” arguments. Not a single Eastern philosopher is included in Kolenda’s book.

In 1991, Norman Melchert published The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, in which he tells students that the value of philosophy is that it teaches you “to believe for good reasons.” Opinions are as good as the reasons behind them. “That’s what philosophy is”: teaching students how to think “clearly and rationally.” Every philosopher in Melchert’s “great conversation” is Western. But didn’t Nietzsche say that the “will to power” lies behind the grandiose claims of reason? And didn’t Heidegger deny reason’s ability to reveal the nature of being? Both Melchert and Kolenda include these two great philosophers for their originality and immense impact on contemporary thought. These thinkers, I will add, did not rely on mandates and conventions, educated in a world of myths and fables. The Nietzschean argument that behind the claims of philosophical reason lay a primitive unconscious will to power, archetypes inherited from the past long before any rational consciousness, articulated in-through an education in the rationalist tradition of the West. Heidegger attempted to access being (Sein) by means of a rigorous phenomenological analysis of human existence in respect to its temporal and historical character, conducting meticulous exegeses of philosophical texts from the Pre-Socratics onwards through the writings of medieval and modern philosophers.

The Great Philosophers, a 1987 BBC television series presented by Bryan Magee, which was made available in a book of the same name, only discusses Western philosophers in its 15 episodes, beginning with Socrates and ending with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is true that in recent decades there have been noticeable attempts to accentuate the word “Western” in book titles in order to make it clear that it is not a history of philosophy per se. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, edited by Richard Popkin and published in 2006, explicitly states that the book “has assembled 63 leading scholars to forge a highly approachable chronological account of the development of Western philosophical traditions”—from Plato to Wittgenstein and from Aquinas to Heidegger. At the same time, it says that “the Columbia History significantly broadens the scope of Western philosophy” to reveal the influence of non-Western contributions. There is a chapter “dedicated to Jewish and Moslem philosophical development during the Middle Ages, focusing on the critical role of figures such as Averroës and Moses Maimonides in introducing Christian thinkers to classical philosophy.” The book also acknowledges the influence of the Kaballah upon Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton, and the influence of Moses Mendelssohn upon the work of Kant. Nevertheless, the focus remains entirely on the Western tradition; Muslims and Jews are included insomuch as they were shaped by this tradition and contributed to it.

The book, A New History of Western Philosophy, which consists of four separate volumes published between 2004 and 2007, by the British philosopher and theologian Anthony Kenny, also focuses on those works in the Jewish and Islamic tradition that became important to the Western tradition. I am certain that if Popkin and Kenny really believed there were Eastern, or African, or Aztec philosophers, who had made philosophical contributions as significant as Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke, they would have included them. Using the term “Western” was likely in response to politically correct pressures to avoid identifying philosophy per se with “Western philosophy.” There have indeed been very strong pressures since about the 1990s for a more “inclusive” history of philosophy—in a Western world dedicated to multicultural immigration. A recent, highly publicized book is Taking Back Philosophy (2017), by Bryan Van Norden. It condemns American universities for “failing their students by refusing to teach the philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and other non-Western cultures.” Without a background in Western philosophy other than reading a few books by members of the Frankfurt School, Van Norden demanded that Western philosophy be seen as merely one current among many equally gifted ones. In a much commented NYT’s article, under the threatening title, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” he called upon universities “to look beyond the European canon in their own research and teaching.” As if aware that he lacked reasoned arguments to back his claim that Inca philosophy was as profoundly significant, Van Norden embraced Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive intolerance” idea in another New York Times article. We should tolerate leftist views only, for “justice dictates that access be granted to opinions and people…[that] benefit the community”—that is, multicultural communities. Those who disagreed with him were complicit with “nationalism” and “racism.” In support of him, Patricia McGuire, the President of Trinity Washington University, was direct in stating that inclusiveness in philosophy had nothing to do with the quality of non-Western philosophy: “Let’s face facts: there’s a Muslim Mayor in London, signifying the fact that even those who revere All Things British need to catch up with the now-settled reality of great diversity in contemporary life. The canon of learning should reflect that, including Philosophy.”

These mounting pressures to avoid “racist” exclusions of non-Western philosophers clearly account for A.C. Grayling’s decision in his otherwise great book, The History of Philosophy (2019), to include a “Part V: Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African Philosophy.” Grayling tries to argue that India, China, and Arabic-Persia developed schools of thought that discussed such perennial questions as what is truth, meaning, existence, and value – the truth, however, is that he has a hard time showing they did so in “intellectually rigorous ways.” At most, using his own criteria of what constitutes philosophy (which excludes religion, casuistry, apologetics, or beliefs devoid of sound reasoning) he shows that there was an incipient philosophical tradition in India, China, and, due to the influence of Aristotle, in medieval Islamic civilization. He does not demonstrate that in these civilizations (again with the exception of Islamic Aristotelians) there were sustained inquiries “into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired.” While there were “inquiries into the nature of reality and existence” and into “what is good,” there were no treatises on what constitutes valid and sound reasoning. Moreover, it is implicitly obvious that Grayling’s account of these civilizations concerns an ancient or medieval period of creativity, consolidation of a few basic outlooks, followed by repetition or decline.

When it comes to “African philosophy,” Grayling finds himself in a quandary of his own making: “are there philosophical schools of thought in Africa that are distinguishable from traditions, religions, folklore, mythology, poetry, art and collections of maxims?” He can’t avoid suggesting that Africa did not produce a philosophical tradition. Only “if one attaches an extended and very loose sense to the label ‘philosophy'” it is possible to talk about African philosophy. But he cautions not to equate “denials of its existence” with “an implicit dismissal of Africa.” “There is much to discover in Africa, for example the rich and deeply attractive concept of Ubuntu.” This term stands for “kindness, goodness, generosity, compassion, caring.” While these virtues are not unique to Ubuntu, “it is appropriate that as humankind itself came out of Africa, so one of the best ideas about how it can flourish—the idea of Ubuntu—should emanate from there too.” This is actually how this otherwise very intelligent history ends: with a childish call upon whites to think about Ubuntu and with the implication that if whites want to go far, they need to practice Ubuntu towards the African migrants invading Europe.

The First and the Second List of the Greatest 50 Philosophers

Below is my list of the 50 greatest philosophers, all from the West. There are very strong reasons to exclude non-Western philosophers from this list. However, I have created a second list of the next fifty greatest, which do include a reasonable number of non-Western thinkers—insomuch as they had a profound impact on their respective cultures, and did contribute the best philosophies outside the West. How did I come up with these two lists? I did by trusting the authority of the histories of philosophy I have referenced above, including additional histories of both the West and the East to be cited below. Throughout my student days, undergraduate and graduate, and as a professor, I have read a sizable number of primary philosophical works in combination with many secondary books and articles. My own philosophical views have influenced to some degree the choices I have made, but overall I have relied on histories written by authors from a wide variety of perspectives, Kantian, Hegelian, materialist, phenomenological, empiricist, pragmatic, existentialist, analytical – and specialists in non-Western philosophies. I have also tried to bring out the best from ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

First List

  1. Abelard (1079-1142)
  2. Anaximander (b. 610 BC)
  3. Anselm (1033-1109)
  4. Aquinas (1225-1274)
  5. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
  6. Augustine (354-430)
  7. Bacon, Roger (1214-1292)
  8. Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)
  9. Bentham (1748-1832)
  10. Berkeley (1685-1753)
  11. Carnap (1891-1970)
  12. Democritus (460-360 BC)
  13. Deleuze (1925-1995)
  14. Derrida (1930-2004)
  15. Descartes (1596-1650)
  16. Fichte (1762-1814)
  17. Frege (1848-1925)
  18. Hegel (1770-1831)
  19. Heidegger (1889-1976)
  20. Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
  21. Hobbes (1588-1679)
  22. Hume (1711-1776)
  23. Husserl (1859-1938)
  24. James (1842-1910)
  25. Kant (1724-1804)
  26. Leibniz (1646-1716)
  27. Locke (1632-1704)
  28. Marx (1818-83)
  29. Mill (1806-73)
  30. Nietzsche (1844-1900)
  31. Ockham (1285-1347)
  32. Parmenides (b. 501 BC)
  33. Peirce (1839-1914)
  34. Plato (428-348 BC)
  35. Plotinus (204-270)
  36. Pythagoras (570-495 BC)
  37. Quine (1908-2000)
  38. Rawls (1921-2002)
  39. Reid (1710-1796)
  40. Rousseau (1712-1778
  41. Russell (1872-1970)
  42. Sartre (1905-1980)
  43. Schelling (1775-1854)
  44. Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
  45. Duns Scotus (1266-1308)
  46. Socrates (470-399 BC)
  47. Spinoza (1632-1677)
  48. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  49. Zeno of Lea (b. 489 BC)
  50. Žižek (1949 -)

This is a remarkable statistical fact. It needs to be emphasized this is not a comparison of the West against three or two other civilizations groups, but a competition of the West versus the Rest. Aside from the Muslim, Chinese, and perhaps the Indian world, no other culture in the world, not the Mayas, not the Aztecs, not the Khmer Rouge Cambodians, not the Tibetans, not the Aksum civilization, not the Egyptians, not the Assyrians, not the Bantus, not the Babylonians, not the Japanese, not the Koreans—NO other culture in the world, produced any great philosopher. Let it be repeated: this is not a list based on arbitrary, idiosyncratic, purely personal, or politicized assumptions. It is based on solid, widely recognized histories of philosophies. Before I go on commenting on this list, let’s take a look at my second list, created for the purpose of finding a way to include non-Western thinkers, for the sake of argument.

Second List

  1. Al-Farabi (870-950)
  2. Alghazali (1058-1111)
  3. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)
  4. Aurelius (21-180)
  5. Averroes (1126-1198)
  6. Bonaventura (1221-1274)
  7. Bergson (1859-1941)
  8. Böhme (1575-1624)
  9. Boethius (480 – 524 AD)
  10. Brentano (1838–1917)
  11. Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC)
  12. Comte (1798-1857)
  13. Confucius (551-479 BC)
  14. Collingwood (1889-1943)
  15. Davidson (1917-2003)
  16. Dewey (1859-1952)
  17. Diderot (1713-84)
  18. Dilthey (1833–1911)
  19. Dugin (1962 -)
  20. Dummett (1925-2011)
  21. Empedocles (490-430 BC)
  22. Epicurus (341-271 BC)
  23. Erasmus (1469-1536)
  24. Gadamer (1900-2002)
  25. Grotius (1583-1645)
  26. Habermas (1929-)
  27. Hempel (1905-1997
  28. Herder (1744–1803)
  29. Hsun Tzu (Xunzi) (298-238 BC).
  30. Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  31. Kojève (1902 –1968)
  32. Lao Tzu (604-532 BC)
  33. Lucretius (96-55 BC)
  34. Luhmann (1927-1998)
  35. MacIntyre (1929 -)
  36. Malebranche (1638-1715)
  37. Mencius (372-289 BC)
  38. Montaigne (1533-1592)
  39. Mo Tzu (479-438 BC)
  40. Merleau-Ponty (1907-1961)
  41. Ricour (1913-2005)
  42. Rorty (1931-2007)
  43. Schmitt (1888-1985
  44. Scruton (1944-2020)
  45. Seneca (4 BC –65 AD)
  46. Sextus Empiricus (ca. 200)
  47. Spencer (1820-1903)
  48. Strauss (1899-1973)
  49. Thales (624-548 BC)
  50. Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) (1130-1200).

If there is a bias in my lists, it is that I neglected philosophers of history (Spengler, Vico), philosophers of science (Kuhn, Nagel, Feyerabend), of mathematics (Hilbert, Lakatos), of language (Jakobson, Austin, Searle), of law (Pufendorf, Kelsen, Hart), of logic (Boole, Turing, Gödel), and social theorists that are no less philosophical than Chinese thinkers like Confucius (Montesquieu, Sorokin, Weber).

The Score

The score for the two lists combined is:

  • Europeans 80.5 = 80.5%
  • Jews 9.5 = 9.5%
  • Chinese 7 = 7%
  • Muslims 3 = 3%

If we add Jews to the European list, insofar as they were all educated in Europe, then the Western score is 90 = 90%. Augustine was a Berber according to Gerald Bonner’s authoritative biography Augustine of Hippo: “There is no reason to suppose that he was of any but Berber stock” (p. 36). Augustine was thoroughly educated in the West. The top four philosophical nationalities are the ancient Greeks, the Germans, the English, and the French. The fact that Indian philosophy can’t be divorced from India’s major religious traditions, or was never conceived as a separate intellectual pursuit, explains why I could not include Indian philosophers, great as they may have been as religious thinkers. Surendranath Dasgupta’s impressive five-volume work, A History of Indian Philosophy, published between 1922 and 1955, is fundamentally about Buddhism, Jainism, “the six systems of Hindu thought,” including the Bhagavadgita, the “most revered of all the Hindu texts,” the philosophy of Srikantha, which argues that the Shiva and the Brahman are the one and the same, and Saiva philosophy, which posits “the soul’s bondage within the fetters of existence.” Sue Hamilton, an expert in Indian philosophy, acknowledges that “what Westerners call religion and philosophy are combined in India, and that its philosophies are correctly referred to as soteriologies, or ‘system of salvation.’” The Indian philosophical tradition holds that “understanding reality has a profound effect on one’s destiny.” The attempt “to understand the nature of reality” is a “spiritual undertaking, an activity associated with a religious tradition.” The aim of Indian philosophy was to escape from consciousness, to obliterate the thinking self; and every philosopher, or every philosophical outlook, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, were preoccupied with the notion of reincarnation, the process of birth and rebirth, the transmigration of souls and the “release” of the soul from that process.

We know that a belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historical figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. But as Russell qualifies, the very Pythagoreans who believed that the “soul was subject to a sequence of transmigrations… gave rise to a scientific and more especially a mathematical tradition… in spite of the mystical element arising from the orphic revival.” Sue Hamilton agrees, adding that while in Western medieval philosophy the existence of God was taken to be true as an article of faith, attempts were made to separate truths established by means of reason alone, and to even establish the existence of God by means of reason. In modern times, Kant, a devout Christian, would go further by insisting that “what one could know for certain was strictly limited to what could be ascertained by means of reasoning…one could never have certain knowledge about issues of faith” (pp. 1-12). Nevertheless, Sue Hamilton, as is generally the case with Westerners who study Eastern thought, misleads readers with her view that Western philosophy “tends to be concerned with detailed and technical questions about kinds of logic and linguistic analysis” – whereas Indian philosophy is a “spiritual undertaking” about “big metaphysical questions” concerning the meaning of life and how to live one’s life in order to have an effect on one’s destiny. Van Norden also criticizes the notion that the West discovered the “one universal method of rationality.” Chinese philosophy has its own modes of reasoning and its own way of searching for the truth.

Let’s leave aside the fact that both India and China have now embraced the scientific rationality of the West, apparently with the conviction that this rationality is universally useful. The Western philosophical tradition contains the most reasoned critiques of the pretensions of reason in favor of alternative ways of finding meaning and making sense of the universe—intuitive, poetical, artistic, archetypal ways. The difference is that those philosophers who pointed to the limitations of reason would go on to develop alternative methodologies, or fully articulated philosophies, such as hermeneutics, phenomenology, and existentialism—by individuals well educated in the Western rationalist and empiricist traditions. I will return to this point below. Jacob Böhme, whom Hegel called “the first German philosopher,” and is included in my second list, had a major influence on Schelling, and German thinking in general, with his idea that an irrational force, the Ungrund, a groundless will, was the primary fount of being, not reason.

Seven Chinese philosophers out of 100 is more than enough. In China there are five major philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Mohists, and the Yin-Yang school. All these traditions emerged in ancient times, and thereafter, in what we called the “medieval” and “modern” eras, all we get are “neo” developments of these schools: “Neo-Confucianism” and “Neo-Taoism,” or philosophers who combined aspects of the various schools to produce slightly different ideas. The highly respected sinologist, Frederick Mote, goes as far as to say that every major philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism”—notwithstanding the role of Daoism and Buddhism. This is why I included only one philosopher that is not from ancient times, namely, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Xi is indeed seen as the philosopher who “exercised the greater influence on Chinese thought,” except for Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Hsun Tzu. He synthesized most currents within Chinese philosophy within a grand Neo-Confucian system, with his “most radical innovation” being the selection of “the Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean…as the Four Books, commenting on them, and making them the orthodox foundation of the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 to 1905 (1963: p. 588-90).

Including other Neo-Confucians in the list would have been the same as including notable European philosophers who followed in the footsteps of prior great philosophers, such as the so-called Cambridge Platonists: Henry More (1614–1687), Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), John Worthington (1618–1671), George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630–1679) and John Norris (1657–1711). Including Neo-Taoists would have required including many gifted Cartesians: Antoine Arnauld, Balthasar Bekker, Tommaso Campailla, Johannes Clauberg, Michelangelo Fardella, Antoine Le Grand, Adriaan Hereboord, François Poullain de la Barre, Edmond Pourchot, Pierre-Sylvain Régis, Henricus Regius, Jacques Rohault, Christopher Wittich.

Should We Really Include Chinese Philosophers?

We may indeed ask: Is Confucius really a philosopher? After all, Confucianism is a “doctrine of worldly social-mindedness,” a guide for proper moral behavior for the scholar gentry class of China’s despotic bureaucratic state, a doctrine that, in the words of Joseph Needham, became a “cult, a religion, based on a kind of hero worship and borrowing from the cults of nature-deities and ancestor worship” (1997: p. 79). Confucius never asked questions about the ultimate nature of reality. The Confucian term “all under heaven” does not refer to the universe, the infinite, but is a term that denotes the geographical area associated with the political sovereignty of the emperor.

One could seriously argue that China produced individuals better described as writers of guidelines on how best to rule, how best to meditate, contemplate nature, combined with some allusions and illustrations about the “boundless” and about the ways of nature, without “elaborate reasoning and detailed argument.” These last quoted words are from Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Yu-Lan, after stating that China has a rich philosophical tradition with contributions in logic and metaphysics; and after clearly stating that a “philosopher must philosophize…must think reflectively on life, and then express his thoughts systematically… [and offer] theories [that are] the products of reflective thinking,” (p. 2) goes on to say:

“The fact is that Chinese philosophers were accustomed to express themselves in the form of aphorisms, apothegms, or allusions, and illustrations. The whole book of Lao-tzu consists of aphorisms, and most of the chapters of the Chuang-tzu are full of allusions and illustrations. This is very obvious. But even in writings such as those of Mencius and Hsun Tzu, when compared with the philosophical writings of the West, there are still too many aphorisms, allusions, and illustrations. Aphorisms must be very brief; allusions and illustrations must be disconnected” (p. 12).

He adds that this way of thinking is “not articulate enough,” but that this “insufficiency” (“briefness and disconnectedness”) is “compensated” by the “suggestiveness” of the allusions (pp. 11-12). Yu-Lan is right that this lack of “elaborate reasoning” is “obvious” to anyone who reads Chinese philosophers. I will go further in saying that Chinese philosophy never rose beyond the pre-rational, mystical, poetical, bureaucratic, style of writing that prevailed in all cultures up until the ancient Greeks singularly discovered the faculty of reasoning and came to realize that there is a mind that reasons, and that this mind can generate its own rules of reasoning in conscious distinction to presuppositions from extra-philosophical beliefs.

This conscious differentiation of reason from its object, and appearance of free self-determination, this awareness by reason of itself as both tool and object of reasoning, reached its culmination in post-Kantian idealism, but it was Aristotle who did the most in ancient times to delineate what constitutes a proper philosophical statement about what there is and what constitutes a valid form of reasoning about why something is so. He invented formal logic, a precise language about reality, about what things can be said to be substances and the reasons why they are as they are. He showed that true philosophical statements are composed of basic categories—substance, quantity, quality, relationship, place, time—which express the various ways in which being is, and that these statements can be formulated to be subject-predicate statements. This is just a little part of what this incredible philosopher did.

In some ways Chinese philosophers resemble Pre-Socratic philosophers. Aristotle criticized the Pre-Socratics for failing to articulate fully criteria for differentiating faulty arguments from good arguments. This is what Aristotle sought to provide with his formal logic and the syllogism. Chinese philosophical statements are devoid of demonstrative reasoning. Chinese arguments lack clearly stated primary premises, with precisely defined categories. Actually, in fairness to the Pre-Socratics, even though they did not invent syllogistic reasoning, they did discover logos, that there is a rational order in the world and that humans have a faculty, nous, which they can employ in contradistinction to beliefs handed down without reasoned debate.

The words from Needham I cited above about Confucianism come from The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China: 1, which is an abridgment in three volumes of Joseph Needham’s magisterial project with the same title, which consists of twenty seven books dealing with the history of science and technology in China. Needham, still recognized as the most impressive scholar of Chinese culture, is the author of most of these books. While he was not keen about Confucian philosophy, he wrote admiringly about the Taoists, Mohists, and Legalists, claiming they made fundamental contributions to scientific knowledge, empiricism, and to a “mechanistic-naturalistic” conception of the world. He thinks that members of these schools rose above the “metaphysics” of philosophy. (Needham, by the way, was a Marxist who believed that science had rightfully displaced philosophy, and this is why he wanted to portray Chinese thinkers as harbingers of modern scientific thought. I reject this positivist downgrading of philosophy). As it is, all the passages that Needham brings up from Chinese philosophers strike me as poetical, mystical, and alchemical statements. The founding text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (300 BC) consists of a string of impressionistic statements about “the Way.” This book of five thousand words is as long as a magazine article. He claims that Lao Tzu wrote in a language similar to the proto-scientific language of the Pre-Socratics, citing the following:

“The ways of men are conditioned by those of the earth, the ways of Earth by those of Heaven, the ways of Heaven by those of the Tao, and the Tao came into being by itself” (90-1).

He cites many similarly worded passages from later Taoist texts; for example:

“All phenomena have their causes. If one does not know these causes, although one may happen to be right, it is as if one knew nothing, and in the end one will be bewildered…The fact that water leaves the mountains and runs to the sea is not due to any dislike of the mountains and love of the sea, but is the effect of height as such” (93).

But these statements are not at all “mechanistic” in outlook. They are not even at the level of the Pre-Socratic search for naturalistic causes. The way Taoists write about the Tao, the being that came to be by itself, lacks rigor; it is really a mystical way of apprehending a oneness that is complete onto itself, which they describe in hazy words, asserting that it is, but not deducing it. In contrast, when Parmenides wrote about “the One” he tried to deduce it from prior statements. Parmenides contrasts the expression that something is to the expression that something is not. He then argues that saying that something is not does not make sense since you cannot know what is not, and you can’t even express it. He writes:

“There are only two ways of inquiry that can be thought of. The first, namely, that it is (and that it is impossible for it not to be), is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other way of inquiry, namely, that it is not (and cannot be), is a path that none can learn at all. For you cannot know what is not, nor can you express it.”

Having said this, Parmenides follows up with his main point that only that which is can be thought about in a meaningful way, and only that which can be thought about can be:

It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. What can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be…One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is.
From here he infers that what we can say about the One is that it is eternal, indivisible, unmoving, that is, uncreated and indestructible. He offers a rational reason for making this inference, saying that if we say that the One became, or came into existence, or will cease to exist, then this would be the same as saying that it was not before it became, and that it will not be after it ceases to be, which would amount to making expressions about things which are not, which is impossible since you cannot know or say anything about what is not. Therefore:

[The One is eternal], for how can “what is” be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, then it is not. Nor is it, if it is going to be in the future. Thus, is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.”

Needham says that the paradoxes of the Mohist Hui Shih are similar to the paradoxes of Zeno. He cites this paradox from Shih: “The South has at the same time a limit and no limit.” But as I have argued elsewhere, paradoxes come in different degrees of difficulty; some paradoxes are “weak or shallow,” based on unfounded suppositions, faulty reasoning, or ostensibly vague wording. The philosophical evidence shows that Europeans conceptualized all the sophisticated paradoxes in history. The Western mind did so because it has a peculiar inclination to seek truths that don’t violate the self-legislated laws of reason, the law of contradiction, the law of excluded middle, and the law of identity. If a claim is illogically inconsistent, in violation of these laws, then the claim or the reasoning behind it must be reevaluated or rejected. This is why Europeans took Zeno’s paradoxes seriously, for they seem to suggest that one could reach a logically unacceptable conclusion on the basis of sound reasoning from apparently sound premises. They wondered whether these paradoxes revealed deficiencies in the way we reason, calling for improvements in our reasoning powers, a better system of logic and a more precise usage of language.

At the same time, however, some European thinkers did not conclude that paradoxes were mere expressions of faulty reasoning but a testimony to the limited nature of the human mind in its capacity to offer rationally consistent answers about the ultimate questions of the universe and life. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that reality was inherently contradictory and thus paradoxical. The intellectual culture of paradoxes in China was fundamentally different in degree of sophistication, the reaction of intellectuals to paradoxes, and the absence of philosophical reflections about the contradictory nature of the universe. The School of Names was the only one that brought up some paradoxical expressions, and this School remained an isolated moment in China’s intellectual history. The Confucians in control of intellectual discussions dismissed the paradoxical expressions of the School of Names as “bizarre expressions” that discouraged young minds from the proper use of language and the obligation of educated gentlemen to promote “ritual propriety and righteousness.”

Should we even include any of the major members of the Legalist school? As Frederick Mote says:

“Legalism is not a movement in philosophy. It is not concerned with truth. It is not reflective thinking on the great individual and social problems of life. It does not seek the general principles under which all facts can be explained. It is a system of methods and principles for the operation of the state, and even the state is given only the barest of ideological foundations. Legalists were content to justify their system by the single comment: “It works” (p. 108).

So, it looks like Hsun Tzu (298-238 BC), the founder of legalism, should be taken out from this list. Confucius too, and the Taoist mystics and the not so impressive Mohists. If we include the Legalists, then we should include many other European political philosophers I left out, starting with Machiavelli, Bodin, Cicero, Thoreau, Bakunin, Hooker, Calvin, Lenin, Harrington, Blackstone, Paine, Jefferson, Burke, Godwin, Constant, Madison, Gentile, Sorel, Oakeshott—to name some. Honestly, the 50+50 list is very conciliatory.

The Transcendental West Stands above the Embedded Chinese

Some sinologists believe that Chinese philosophers came to the realization—long before Western philosophers—that thinking inevitably occurs within a context and that it is not possible to transcend the culturally-specific context from which all thinking emerges. Among the publications which have made this case, the most comprehensive is Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture (1997), by David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames. This book draws a fundamental contrast between the “transcendentalism” of European philosophers and the “embeddedness” of Chinese thinkers. Early on in their history, this book tells us, Chinese intellectuals came to the “pragmatic” realization—well before Western pragmatism and hermeneutics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—that all thinking is “embedded” to a time and a place. Chinese abstained from the “naïve Western supposition” that intellectuals could transcend with their ideas the social context from which they emerged.

I believe it was precisely the transcendental capacity of Western thinkers to reason in terms of universal concepts independent of context that gave them eventually the “pragmatic” or “hermeneutic” ability to understand the ways in which knowledge-claims are culturally embedded. The West’s transcendental capacity did not spring out of the “human mind” as such, but out of its unique historical experience. The Chinese mind was embedded to its particular traditions and historical contexts without being self-aware of this, because the Chinese mind lacked a transcendental capacity. The transcendental capacity of Europeans did not emerge without historical conditions, outside a particular context, but developed over time, beginning in ancient Greece. The ability to generate “transcendental concepts” is the product of a culturally specific mind, which can only be understood by situating it within the specific background of Western history.

Hall and Ames believe there are no “universally human, culturally neutral grounds to which we can appeal as a basis of comparison of particular cultures” since any account will necessarily “presuppose something of the theoretical stance of the tradition from which the analysis and evaluation begins” (xii). Only a “pragmatic method” provides us with an escape from the Western arrogance of a “disembedded” or detached “I” capable of adjudicating over different traditions. We should rely on pragmatic thinkers such as George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, for an appropriate vocabulary for understanding how the self is socially constituted. This pragmatism, they argue, fits right in with the Chinese perspective that the person can never be identified in abstraction from the social roles that define and constitute the person. Besides pragmatism, Hall and Ames mention hermeneutics and poststructuralism, as forms of thinking that allow us to overcome the dualistic thinking of the West with its separation of mind and matter, self and society, and its pretensions to a view that is objectively valid.

Don’t these two academics realize that pragmatism, hermeneutics, and poststructuralism are Western products? They acknowledge this in a low-key way, stating that these schools of thought arose late in Western history; and yet their entire argument is that Westerners have been unable to understand Chinese thinking because they have relied on dualistic ways of thinking. Their pragmatic and “historicist” method are the best way to apprehend the meanings of Chinese words and writings, against Western-centric readings, which judge other cultures in terms of such Western concepts as “mind,” “self,” “transcendence,” “person,” “subject,” “object,” which lack corresponding terms in the Chinese language or have very different meanings within Chinese culture. So, implicitly, without wanting to draw attention to the irony of it all, and perhaps without even knowing what they are doing, Hall and Ames rely on Western schools of thought to criticize Western-centric readings of Chinese culture.

The very academics who claim that we need to contextualize our thinking, because it is impossible to have a view from nowhere, fail to contextualize the particular historical roots of their way of thinking. What Hall and Ames fail to realize, and this includes every Western academic condemning Western logocentrism, is that the Chinese have never self-consciously thought about the way knowledge is context-bound, the way the consciousness, will, desires, and ideas of individuals are culturally situated. The Chinese mind has been unable to stand back from its cultural surroundings to reflect upon the ways it has been culturally situated. In contrast, the Western mind was able to develop methodologies to understand texts from different eras and different cultures, because this is the only culture that learned how to draw ontological distinctions between mind and matter, individual and society, the three parts of the soul, and so on, in the course of which this mind eventually developed particular sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, botany, sociology, economics, etc.—to explain different aspects of reality, and newly emerging properties, while also realizing that the concept of “man in general” is limited by historically determinate factors. The prior ability of ancient Greek philosophers to discover the distinctiveness of the faculty of the mind, the distinction between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom) nurtured a transcendental outlook that allowed Western thinker to stand back from their context and view other cultural contexts in their own terms.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that all knowledge is historically situated, the expression of a particular people. If all knowledge is contextual, then all knowledge claims are equally valid. We have to ask why the West developed all the theories about how knowledge is context-bound, and why the West produced all the modern sciences. Self-conscious cultural relativism—a relativism in which subjects are not completely absorbed by their culturally specific world views—presupposes a subject that has come to a transcendental understanding of the relativistic views of other cultures, and is thus able to understand its own relativism, and in this way transcend it.

From a Piagetian perspective, as I argued elsewhere, we can say that the Chinese mind did not rise above the concrete operational stage, that is, above the third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. While the Chinese mind showed signs of formal operational thinking in some of its mathematical operations and rationalization of state bureaucracy, it did so only at an elementary level. In stark contrast to Hobbes, who conducted a thorough study of Euclid’s Elements and the mechanistic science of Galileo in order to reach generalizations about the nature of political power, the ideas espoused in The Analects of Confucius, for example, are tied to actual historical times and personalities. As Burton Watson notes: “In the Analects, therefore, the reader will find no lengthy discussions of terminology or expositions of ideas. Instead, moral and political concepts are presented in terms of particular individuals, the teacher Confucius and the disciple or other persons with whom he is conversing and the particular circumstances under discussion” (2007: p. 7). Like the concrete operational mind, the Confucian mind was limited to thought concerning things that were available to immediate perception about past virtuous rulers; it did not seek to reach general rules, or understand cause-effect relations detached from particular contexts. The writings of Confucius consist of aphorisms advising future rulers and officials how the ideal gentleman should comport himself if he is to meet the established conventions set in the past, the roles and rituals the ideal gentleman must follow in order to rule properly according to the Way.

In conclusion, if I may end on a realistic-pessimistic note on the current situation in the West: as immigration replacement accelerates, and as the populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, United States and other European nations, become thoroughly diverse, and the universities fulfill their current mission for “inclusiveness, diversity, and equity,” the teaching of philosophy will include as equally substantial names from all over the world. Already, as it is, research on the racism of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Aristotle, and many other philosophers, is one of the most lucrative, grant collecting activities in academia. These philosophers will be taught less for their philosophies than for their sins in racism and their threats to an open, tolerant, and inclusive Western world. As Karl Popper had already insisted, “we should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” While Popper did not call for the intolerance of these thinkers, he condemned and dismissed the philosophies of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as nationalistic, xenophobic and intellectually worthless. It was only a few steps for Herbert Marcuse to construct his argument that any views that don’t accept the spread of cultural Marxism should be suppressed and outlawed.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Seven Sages of Greece,” or “Plato’s Academy.” Roman mosaic, from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus, in Pompeii; ca. 100 BC to 79 AD.

Derrida the Negator

There are posthumous editions that are only of secondary interest in relation to the work already known by their author. Such is not the case with this work, written by Derrida in 1960. It cannot be reduced to its sole pedagogical aim, which was to provide the learned correction of a dissertation subject given to his philosophy students at the Sorbonne, on a subject that is none other than a sentence written by Alain: “To think is to say no.” Indeed, in his Preface, Brieuc Gérard stresses that Derrida, then an assistant in “general philosophy and logic” at the university of the Sorbonne, enjoyed for four years “a complete autonomy as to the subject-matter of his courses and the organization of his directed works,” which ceased in 1964 when he was forced to follow the program of the agrégation of philosophy at the École normale supérieure of Paris. In virtue of this autonomy, proper to any enterprise of “general philosophy,” Derrida thus professed his own thought through those he taught. By the mediation of the philosophers that he summoned and discussed, according to a well determined direction leading to his master Heidegger, Derrida who became one of the greatest thinkers of “French Theory” gives us to read and to think the most important premises of his philosophy of deconstruction.

Deconstruction

The title given by Derrida to his four-session essay thwarts the reader’s expectations—instead of representing an apology of negation, in the logical sense of the term, it first follows faithfully Alain’s original proposal to lead to a thought of “neither yes nor no,” where the implications and presuppositions that organize the two affirmative and negative modalities of thought are deconstructed, that is to say, unpacked, and not eliminated. The opposition that Alain makes between thought and affirmation begins in fact, at first, by being translated in the terms of an opposition between thought and belief—for him, Derrida tells us, “the idea of proof as a technical instrument of truth is to be refused, because as soon as one says yes, one ceases to think and one begins to believe.” In this sense, Alain, more Cartesian than Descartes, would adopt an “ultraradicalism of doubt” which consisted in not using it to reach a certainty under the aegis of a veracious God, but on the contrary in remaining at “the hypothesis of the deceitful God and even of the Evil Genius to save thought and the initiation of thought… which has no initiation except in the “no,” hostile to any proof, to any definitive destination in the true.

Even before opposing the ready-to-think provided against it by “the world, the tyrant and the preacher,” the thought is thus constituted by a movement of negation: on the one hand, negation of appearance, insofar as to think, that is to say, to examine objects and to reflect on them, is to refuse to stick to what one perceives; on the other hand and above all, negation of what one holds oneself to be apparent, since “in order to see something, necessitates [already] a whole implicit work of selections, criticisms, questions;” that is to say, of negation of what one excludes in our perceptual sorting: “to believe everything, therefore to say yes to everything, is to choose to see nothing,” Derrida comments. To say yes, one must say no.

In fact, this raises an objection to Derrida, in that this total affirmation, instead of being only a total deprivation of the visible, can be, on the contrary, under different conditions of the rational or discursive thought, the way of access to the invisible itself. Doesn’t the naive “yes to everything” deserve to be measured and rethought by the “I choose everything” of Saint Therese of Lisieux?

Notwithstanding what the saint may object to in the dialectician, Derrida pursues Alain’s reasoning, whose antithesis does not fail to put classical skepticism out of the game: if belief signifies a halt in the movement of thought, its being put to sleep, it is only as “credulous thought.” On the contrary, faith, in its broad sense of an act of trust, is not naive credulity, but the inevitable presupposition of all awakened thought, of all thought that says no: “without a kind of primitive axiological adherence to the legitimacy of truth, it would not even be possible to challenge opinion in general… as a de facto breach of the truth.” In other words, to be able to deny, one has to feel that one has to do so: to say no, one has to have confidence in truth as an ideal against which an opinion can be refuted because it is wrong: “to say no, to doubt, to refuse, one has to want to, to decide to. It is a necessary fiat or a be that is a yes to the will to say no.” The actuality of doubt is based, if not on the ideal certainty in the truth, at least on a confidence in it. To say no, one must say yes.

By showing that thought says neither yes nor no, Derrida leads to the deconstruction of affirmation and negation. This in a double sense: by revealing, on the one hand, the negation supposed by affirmation (in the form of a sorting, a selection) as well as the affirmation supposed by negation (in the form of a confidence in one’s own project), he denies—on the other hand, the pretension of both to represent two modalities of thought, each one provided with its own and definite meaning. In so doing, Derrida challenges classical logic and ontology, which respectively make non-being and negation the symmetrical opposites of being and affirmation, in order to disseminate the meaning of these two opposites in the variety of their mutual implications.

Dissemination

While following Bergson, Derrida notes that negation in classical logic is not a negation; it is only a “modalization” of affirmation, since it consists in refusing an affirmation in the name of another implicit affirmation. For example, to say that such and such a table is not white is to affirm in disguise that the table is of another color. This is why, in the same way, the nothingness in the classical ontology is not a nothingness either, because if it is a nothingness; it is nothing at all; we don’t have to talk about it; it is thus, on the contrary, under the mode of “the haunting” that it means something: “it is necessary that the nothingness haunts being so that negation is possible.” The negation, logical or ontological, must therefore be rethought. By ending his course on Heideggerian phenomenology, Derrida announces what his philosophy will be based on: a renewed thought of negation. For a negation to be really such, in fact, it is necessary, while remaining discursive (without which there is no judgment), that it is the affirmation of nothing. For there to be negation, it must not be a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation; consequently, not the determination or definition of any meaning, but the dissemination of meaning.

Derrida has indeed a neantizing conception of freedom. He repeats in his course that humanity experiences its freedom only through its power of “neantization” of the world, of negation of everything: “for my affirmative judgment to have a value of truth,” he says, commenting on Bergson, “it is necessary that I be free to choose for the truth and that I be able to say something other than what I say;” that is to say, to negate the truth. It is thus “by the negation or the thought of nothingness that the spirit authenticates itself as freedom,” he concludes. However, it was Bergson’s mistake, as well as Husserl’s and finally Sartre’s after him, to think negation incompletely: if, indeed, consciousness that denies all existence does not deny itself as existence (or as “being”), its negation is not complete. To affirm its freedom, the subject must be able to deny itself also, to include itself in the hyperbolic negation: “The most comprehensive phenomenological reduction, the most extended, the deepest anguish [will be able] to negate the totality of the world, the totality of the states, the totality of the regions of the being [only by negating also] the man, the for-itself, the consciousness included. It is thus necessary to exceed this opposition consciousness-world.

This is what Heidegger finally understood when, abandoning his theme of anguish, he refused to affirm the power of neantisation “from to be [or] from being,” and to think it on the contrary from “the difference between to be and being,” by which “to be shows itself by hiding itself in being.” Indeed, for Heidegger, nothingness haunts everything, since everything appears and disappears on a purely undetermined background—the fact that any phenomenon can appear and disappear indicates to us that any phenomenon always rests on an empty place; that nothingness is not the opposite of existence but its condition of appearance, as a blackboard allows any form to be drawn on it. But as long as we remain in the order of logically measurable language, this Heideggerian theory of “ontological difference” is an error, since logically speaking, “there is only difference within a genus, [and] being is not a genus.” To assume the ontological difference, it is thus necessary, for Derrida, to make language incommensurable, to subtract it from any possibility of logical measurement, by thwarting any attempt to fix meaning, to define it. Such was the Derridean enterprise of the “dissemination”—once deconstructed the sense of the words, necessarily, instead of recomposing what has been deconstructed, leave the elements of sense scattered, without a coherence definitively assignable to a system or to a given interpretation; it is necessary to let the elements show themselves scattered in an irremediable multiplicity and without substance. Derrida thus saveed the coherence of the Heideggerian phenomenology by exceeding it in a more radical theory—that of the meontological “differentiation,” true contrary thought of to be.

Unbinding

The “differentiation” that Derrida theorized consisted in substantiating the insubstantivable—not the fact of differentiating one thing from another, but the fact of deferring in time the meaning of a concept by its inscription, in a chain of other concepts. Against the traditional principle of identity which, at the foundation of the other principles (of contradiction and of the third-excluded), stipulates that “every thing is what it is,” “A is A,” the course “Thinking” is saying no; it intends to show that the two fundamental elements of language, the yes and the no, have no determined meaning—the yes is not a yes, the no is not a no, since their meaning is always deferred, awaiting donation through the diversity of their uses and their mutual implications. We thus understand why Derrida concluded his course by saying that Heidegger’s “ontico-ontological difference” “would allow us to really hear Alain when he says that ‘to think is to say no'”: this thought indeed opens a breach in the possibility of thinking a negation that is really one, by preventing any determination, any assignment of any meaning whatsoever to a given sign by disseminating it, by always ceaselessly deferring the sign from itself.

The Deconstruction inaugurated by Derrida is thus much more subtle, and therefore more pernicious, than what many contemporaries understand it to be by associating it, wrongly, with an enterprise of pure and simple destruction. Derrida does not destroy anything—he deconstructs to disseminate, to untie. He exhibits the constructions of thought and language, without suppressing them nor recomposing them, by leaving them “disseminated” out of any possibility of stable recomposition. To the antipodes of the philosopher Albert Leclère who, in 1901, defended in his Essai critique sur le droit d’affirmer (Critical Essay on the Right to Affirm) that “the thinking subject cannot consider thought without immediately noticing that it poses the existence of some reality,” concluding that “the reality of being, of metaphysical being, is a necessary affirmation of thought.” On the contrary, Derrida wrote, sixty years later, a succession of essays to show the necessity, for thought, of denying. All of Derrida’s originality is to see to it that this negation is a true negation; that is to say, not a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation—this is why he considered that “to criticize a philosopher is a lamentable gesture” and, refusing all criticism, does not seek to refute but to dissolve the problems by taking care to never completely satisfy the need for comprehension, by thwarting all attempts at definition.

Derrida thus represents the most coherent attempt to dissolve the traditional philosophical “realism” of a Saint Thomas Aquinas, by denying to signs not only their connection to things, to which they refer (as the nominalists were content to do), but also their capacity to coincide with their own meaning. If, from this course, the sense is untied from the real (“the noem is nothing real since it is a sense,” he infers about Husserl), the sense announces itself similarly to be untied from itself in the justification of the thought as “saying no.” Thus, it is not excluded to think that Derrida completed, in the 20th century, the whole process of desubstantialization of language inaugurated by nominalism from the 14th century, completing the modernization of thought in an enterprise of final dissolution of meaning.


Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].


Featured: “Via Dolorosa,” by Sybil Andrews; linocut print, 1935.

Paul Cantor (1945-2022): The Philosopher, Tricked out as Clown

By a twist of fate, our eulogy of Professor Paul Cantor was first drafted shortly after the death of Elizabeth II. [Note: This article assesses Mr. Cantor’s contribution to Shakespearean scholarshipit is not an endorsement of his politics].

Struck down by the same malady which killed Paul Cantor, only now have I learnt of his death. Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia and guest Professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he died in February 2022 at the age of 76, having devoted his life to teaching Shakespeare.

Here is our first enigma: for 45 years and to over ten thousand students, Cantor taught a Shakespeare and Politics seminar, erudite and above all, thought-provoking. That notwithstanding, he was greeted with stony silence in Europe and even in England. Not once, saving error, was he engaged as consultant to a history play, not once was he invited to speak before a European scholarly society.

Through all those years, Cantor’s international contacts were restricted, if that is the word, to hundreds of telephone and e-mail exchanges with foreign students, including students from the PR of China. What could possibly explain the void in academe?

As it happens, Paul Cantor lived a double-life: one as a neo-conservative ideologue in economic matters, a friend to avowed war-mongers such as William Kristol. Apologist to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, Cantor espoused the Austrian School of Economics, notorious for players like Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher, who would have wreaked rather less harm in vaudeville.

That said, Cantor’s role in that côterie was rather that of the Court Fool, whom he much resembled physically. Short, well-padded and ever-jolly, Cantor spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent and wore his coat-sleeves dangling to the fingertips. Hardly the image projected by notable Shakespeareans such as Jonathan Bate, now Sir Jonathan—tall, slender, elegant, with thoughts as gracefully policed as their every gesture.

Court Fool, perhaps. But another enigma: how did a scholar and polymath of such calibre (at Harvard, he nearly opted to study astronomy), take up with a clique of the gimlet-eyed fanatics who lie behind every major US policy disaster since Dallas, November 22, 1963?

Scroll back the decades.

Paul Cantor’s birth-year was 1945, the year of the US atomic firestorm at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Meanwhile, in a New York putatively at peace, the child Cantor had access to his father’s and grand-father’s large private libraries. Very evidently a victim neither of material nor cultural deprivation, Cantor’s childhood and teenage years were nevertheless marked by two other firestorms sowing fear amongst American Jews, of whom many had recently fled Germany or Eastern Europe: the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1953, and the allegedly “anti-Communist” terror campaign (circa 1949-1955), spear-headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. The targets were “Communists,” or “homosexuals”—whether real or imagined is irrelevant—largely Jewish intellectuals from the East Coast, theatre people and Hollywood script-writers, as well as leading academics and State Department career diplomats; what that motley crew had in common was opposition to the Doctor Strangeloves of this world.

The elephant in the room in Cantor’s youth was thus the hell unleashed by HUAC; its figure-head was a drug-addict and doubtless blackmail victim, Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose substances for abuse are now known to have been procured by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

HUAC’s hearings in the US Senate led to suicides, countless dismissals, and exile for some of the country’s most remarkable citizens. Amongst HUAC’s celebrated victims one finds the actor and producer Sam Wanamaker (Wattenmacher in Yiddish), who left for London with his family and never returned; it was Wanamaker who had the Globe Theatre, of which Shakespeare had been shareholder, rebuilt on Bankside. Another victim was Jerome (Rabinowitz) Robbins, dancer and choreographer of West Side Story. Crumbling under the pressure, Robbins denounced to HUAC a string of real (?) or make-believe (?) “Communists” among his fellow artists, with disastrous results.

From a press release by a HUAC victim, the blacklisted Shakespearean actor Morris Carnovsky, one gets a whiff of the pornography of violence that typifies HUAC: “an inquisition into the inviolable areas of one’s deepest manhood and integrity—the end result is the blacklist, the deprivation by innuendo of one’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in work. And here we have what the black opera singer and actor Paul Robeson threw back at HUAC.

As it happens, Paul Cantor knew Carnovsky well, of whom he recalls: “at the then flourishing American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, among the many performances I experienced there, the highlight was seeing Morris Carnovsky in the role of King Lear (twice!). To this day, I consider this the greatest Shakespeare performance I ever saw and it inspired my devotion to King Lear and Shakespeare in general.”

In 1956, a sensational film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was released. Cunningly disguised as a horror-film, it is an allegory of the conformism disfiguring US society, turning citizens into zombies, as HUAC’s Iron Curtain slammed down on independent thought.

Thence emerged what now goes by the terms “Wokism” and “Political Correctness”: once the thought-police had dealt with so-called “Communists,” or whatever, backing into the same tight corner the so-called Right and traditionalists was like taking candy from a baby.

Moreover, something one might readily forget here in Europe: until the year 1965, Apartheid reigned in the USA under the term “Segregation”—and again, amongst the White activists in the Civil Rights Movement, Jews were the majority. Slandered, assaulted and sometimes murdered, these intellectuals, dixit Earl Lively of the John Birch Society, intended to set up an “independent Negro-Soviet Republic”[sic] (Invasion of Mississippi).

As for Cantor’s adolescence in the 1960s, it was marked by a series of murders designed to throw open the citadel to the Strangeloves: John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963); Malcolm X (1965), Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (1968), and a host of small-fry such as Jack Ruby, “disappeared” for having gleaned bits and pieces of the puzzle.

The Articles of Faith, 1536—2022

As a subject of His Britannic Majesty, the author of these lines is well-acquainted with the leaden cape cast over the Kingdom since Henry VIII and his Articles of the Faith (1536) which were imposed by extortion, intolerance and violence. A Kingdom, where since the theocrat Henry, freedom of thought and political action have lived on only in Shakespeare’s theatre.

Although the USA may for a moment in history, have been a temple of liberty, since that day at Hiroshima in 1945, the people of the USA have cowered in a Don’t-Go-There mind-set, feverishly seeking to comply with whatever the day’s Articles of the Faith may enjoin.

Accordingly, and without pressing the point, I would venture to suggest that Paul Cantor may have unconsciously sought shelter under the wings of a clique seen as both fearsome and eminently respectable. And as Cantor lived in the cool shade of the Ivy League’s ivy leaves, he had never to confront in person the reality of the dead, the mutilated, the bankrupt, the exiled, strewn in the wake of his self-satisfied, war-mongering friends.

In Europe, the academic milieu, leaning “centre-left,” appears to have resolved to stonewall a Shakespearean who, unlike his more duplicitous colleagues, owned very frankly to such untoward acquaintances. Error! For Paul Cantor—another enigma—is amongst the few who have understood why Shakespeare wrote what he did, and among the few who have inspired tens of thousands of youths to serious study.

Academic, and Mountebank

To his students, Paul Cantor was an interpretative artist like Dinu Lipatti or Pau Casals; he neither “explained” Shakespeare, nor “criticised” him, but tried to think his way into his thoughts.

In the best sense of the term, Cantor remained a child all his life, gazing at the world through the eyes of his idol. He rejoiced like a child at a student’s awkward question; riding the waves of his idol’s ideas, he cheerfully took a slap in the face whenever Shakespeare wrecked a fond neo-con belief. When William Kristol asked whether Shakespeare might be neo-con compatible? Cantor retorted—no—would have been nice, but Shakespeare will not be pigeon-holed.

As mountebank, Cantor, who wrote extensively on US television, had seen classical theatre collapse through lack of subsidy and an apprentice-system, and had realised that for his own lifetime, the class-room would have to be the theatre, and the professor, an actor on that stage.

The groundlings standing on their own two feet before the stage, and who in Shakespeare’s day made up the bulk of the audience—were Cantor’s students, lucky to have access to a master free of cynical utilitarianism. The good news for posterity is that while Cantor’s writings may not perhaps be ground-breaking, his true and irreplaceable contribution, those marvelous in-person seminars where Cantor, thinking out loud, revels in the to-and-fro with students, have largely been filmed.

“Idiocene” or Ideas?

In his life as a Shakespearean, Cantor knew that it was the average citizen’s intellect would decide the fate of the republic. In July, the Italian politician Pino Cabras summarized the point thusly: “though the notion of staking our hopes on the optimism of will-power may be attractive, I would nonetheless suggest that this crisis is without precedent, and that consequently, the ruling classes, frightened out of their wits, will concede nothing, not an inch. Meanwhile, those who object to their rule suffer from backwardness, be it cognitive, cultural or political, while we are the ‘first generation which cannot afford to make mistakes.’” (See also Teresita Dussart). Taking on that backwardness was Cantor’s mission, and this is what he said of his 40 years’ teaching:

“…the only thing I teach where the students continue to respond with the same enthusiasm is Shakespeare. With other things, things vary in time—and you can see trends and fashions—but Shakespeare is a sure-fire hit. Shakespeare doesn’t need our help. You know it’s John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, they need our help; that’s where you see the curriculum collapsing.

“Shakespeare stands on his own two feet and basically you can’t keep students away from Shakespeare courses. They’re the most heavily enrolled at the University of Virginia… The poetry is so beautiful, the drama is so powerful, and they all can relate to it on some of the most basic levels.”

(Of course, Cantor refrains from concluding that it was his seminars that had students piled to the rafters).

Cantor, an Anti-Exceptionalist on the US Island

Through Cantor’s study of Shakespeare, he came to see that the USA was a sort of island, remote from the realities of this world, and that his students needed to grasp this as a peril rather than a privilege: “Shakespeare understood that different forms of government shape different kinds of people … his Romans are different from his Englishmen and in fact his Republican Romans are different from his Imperial Romans. He understood that not all human types are available at all times. So, for example, he’s very aware of how living in a pagan republic as his characters do in Coriolanus is very different from living in a Christian monarchy as, say, his characters do in his history plays.”

Thus, in Cantor’s seminars on the Venetian plays—Othello, The Merchant of Venice—he notes that Shakespeare weighs arguments asserted variously by Muslims, Jews and Christians. Taking no sides, he scrutinises the impact on public life of each thought-system, comparing Venice, a thoroughly oligarchical republic practising religious tolerance for commercial motives, to the tottering theocracy of Elizabeth I, as the latter took the worst possible path to stabilise the state, i.e., empire-building.

In so doing, Cantor led his students to wonder whether their own, American personality, sprung from a given time and place in the reign of imperial exceptionalism, might truly be an Ideal of Man, in an Ideal State?

“Not all human types are available at all times” … Quite. But would the American Regina Dugan perhaps be a latter-day replica of the condottiere Gilles de Ré? A point to ponder.

Monarchist? Republican?

Which brings us to the republican question. From Cantor’s standpoint, neither was Shakespeare Calvin, nor England, his Geneva:

“Now, traditionally in literary criticism, people assume Shakespeare was an uncritical supporter of the English monarchy. I think he really was thinking about the monarchy and how it might be reformed.… I think he understood the greatest defect of monarchy was succession. That no matter how good a king might be, there was no guarantee that his son or daughter would be equal.… Moreover, I think Shakespeare was interested in the way being brought up to the throne is a corrupting influence, and something he shows about Richard II, and much of the Henry IV plays, I think, are designed to show how a king might get a good education.

“So, I don’t think Shakespeare was an uncritical supporter of monarchy as a form of government in the abstract.… he shows an unusual interest in republics for someone who’s supposed to be just supporting monarchy.

“I think that Shakespeare is accepting the fact that England is a monarchy. He’s not going to try to bring about a revolution and institute a republic … But he was interested in how could we reform the monarchy and maybe move it more in the direction of a republic? And that I think is the key to the story of Henry IV and Henry V.”

The Professor remarks that Shakespeare was well aware of the keen interest with which the élite, up to the Monarch herself, followed his plays (on Richard II, Elizabeth I famously declared in private conversation “I am Richard, know you not that?”), and that accordingly, his scrutiny of Rome’s systems of government from the primitive Republic (Coriolanus), to its fall and the premises of Empire (Julius Caesar) and the Empire itself (Anthony and Cleopatra) would—eventually—most likely have political repercussions.

To Cantor, Shakespeare is a tough realist, who saw England as too immature politically for a republican revolution in his time without smashing the crockery; pig-headed and pitiless, Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a kind of premonition of Oliver Cromwell, dictator. Conversely, how might one sow the seeds of an ideal republic and throw a few sops to the nobility, without cracking the State’s foundations? Can this succeed with a starving, desperate, dangerous people? In Coriolanus, Shakespeare concludes that where a purportedly republican élite holds its own people to be “rabble,” they will give the State over to treachery, civil war and war. A state of affairs we are currently come up against.

Philosopher in a Clown Suit

Despite being surrounded, some might say fenced in, by neo-cons entangled with a certain small state in the Middle East, Professor Cantor was anything but a Professional Jew, and he always refused to howl with the wolves. Few save Cantor have noted that in The Merchant of Venice, the Christians are depicted as liars, hypocrites and self-righteous in their cruelty, whereas Shylock unashamedly advertises his nastiness. Translated into Yiddish in 1900, the play had the great Jewish actors all vying to play Shylock, including the aforesaid Morris Carnovsky.

Cantor had no time for the ludicrous authorship controversy. Perusal of the abundant and coherent documentation and especially, the internal evidence, left him in no doubt that William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. In this context, we cannot resist quoting Robert Gore-Langton’s delightful article on the launch of Shakespeare North; here he is questioning the Trust’s Chairman, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby: “Is there any belief in the family that Shakespeare was actually a cover name for the 6th Earl of Derby, as some believe? The short answer is an emphatic no. “I once asked my uncle and he said: ‘have a straightforward answer to that: we could have never been bright enough; it couldn’t have been any of us.’”

Bright, Paul Cantor certainly was. In an essay he penned in 2014 on Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy between the Lines, intitled “Philosophy in a Clown Suit,” and which I came across only after formulating the thoughts above on his double life, Cantor appears to give us the key:

“Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous ‘double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.’ They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines.”


Mendelssohn Moses is a Paris-based writer.

Following the Thread

As intrepid travelers not willing to let “advancing age” stand in the way, we met in Istanbul and then boarded a 12:15am flight bound for Uzbekistan…on the far side of the Caspian Sea. Some five hours later in Tashkent, we were met by our very knowledgeable “professors” and astute guides: Vedat Karadag, a folk art specialist and tour guide in Istanbul, and Marat Karimov, his Uzbekistan partner, who is based in Tashkent.

There, they led us on an incredible insiders’ journey along the fabled Silk Road from the Ferghana Valley in the east to Nukus in the far west and then back through the ancient walled cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand to marvel at glorious architecture, monuments and vistas.

The Yodogorik Silk Factory shop.

This 16-day tour in May, sponsored by Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of International Folk Art, included visits to some of the Uzbekistan artists who have participated in the International Folk Art Market held on the grounds of the Museum each year over a July weekend (next year July 5-9, 2023). They included Rasuljon Mirzaahmedov, an ikat master from Said Akhmad Khoja Madrasa, a little city in Margilan. There, as in other madrasas we visited, we came to appreciate the fact that there can be more to a madrasa than memorizing the Quran, and that the type of education madrasas offer can differ dramatically from country to country. In the nearby village of Rishton, we spent a very pleasant morning with the world-famous UNESCO-protected master potter Rustam Usmanov and his son, Damir Usmanov, who would be participating in that year’s Folk Art Market. So some of us decided to wait to buy their pottery in Santa Fe, rather than trust fragile treasures to the airline baggage handlers.

But it was no holds barred (except for running out of cash) when it came to textiles. Fortunately, we were warned about the scarcity of ATMs and were told that the U.S. dollar was the preferred currency for major shopping—what with the exchange rate being some 2,500 Uzbekistan Sums/US$1. that spring (compared to 11,145/US$1. today).

The Yodgorlik Silk Factory, housed in spacious adobe buildings in the 2,000 year-old city of Margilan, which turned out to be one of our favorite “shopping centers,” stood as proof that private enterprise has succeeded the years of Soviet domination and state planning since it was transferred to local hands in 2000. There, we watched the whole wonderful process: the extraction of silk thread from the cocoons boiling in a vat to the winding of the warp, tying of the intricate ikat designs, and the handweaving to the pressing of finished yardage between giant rollers.

Another unique treat dating from the Soviet era was the Karakalpakstan Museum of Art in the city of Nukus (a two-hour flight northwest of Tashkent), which had an extraordinary collection of Central Asian archaeological objects, in addition to applied and contemporary art and the Savitsky Collection of Russian avant-garde art. Who among those of us who had been enchanted by the film, The Desert of Forbidden Art, which ran for weeks at a local art film theater two years before, had dared dream of ever having the chance to see the works in person? The late Igor Savitsky, a courageous Russian artist-archaeologist, had managed not only to smuggle some 40,000 stunning works of banned art out of the Soviet Union, but also raised the funds to pay the artists, as well as build this museum to house the collection. And our gracious hostess, who led our tour of the museum and treated us to lunch, was the very woman he had designated as the one and only director, Marinika Babanazorova.

Still, Uzbekistan may be a land too far for some folks. So for those who would rather experience Uzbekistan vicariously and yet collect some of its exquisite crafts, we suggest that they attend the International Folk Art Market.

Meet multi-lingual Marat Karimov, our wise, witty Uzbek guide, who is still leading tours for the International Caravan Travel Service.

Marat Karimov.

Jean Ranc is a psychologist retired from the University of North Carolina.


Featured: “A Girl of Khiva,” by Pavel Petrovich Benkov; painted in 1931.