Monday, 4 February 2019

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies

One of the great things about reading books - whether non-fiction or fiction - is that you get to see alternative viewpoints to your own. The exercise forces you to see the world through somebody else's eyes (really, a lot other peoples' eyes - primarily the authors but also the characters). I am sure that as a result of this people who read more tend on average to be more nuanced in their thinking than those who don't. 

This makes reading very important, especially in times like this when everybody in the Western world seems to be at each other's throats and existing in social media bubbles spreading lies and distortion and carrying out a neverending 2 minute hate directed at political opponents.

Back in the late 40s - when genuine ideological differences had only recently just torn the world asunder - Lionel Trilling* called on liberals to regret that contemporary conservatism had become "bankrupt of ideas", because liberalism would become "stale, habitual and inert" without intelligent opponents putting it under pressure. He cited JS Mill's paean to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "'Lord, enlighten thou our enemies...'; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength." What he meant by this, of course, was that one's own wisdom only grows when forcibly examined by vigorous opponents and supplemented by their own insights. 

For Trilling, the only solution, since conservatism had become in his era so weak, was for "a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism [performing] its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time." It was only then that liberalism could refresh and renew itself and remain pertinent. This was the job of fiction, as Trilling saw it, "because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty." 

What Trilling had to say was wise and important and works for anybody of any political persuasion. You don't get to be a better liberal/conservative/socialist/environmentalist/whatever by reading people you agree with. You get to be a better one by putting your ideas appropriately to the test and reconciling them to other forms of wisdom. While it may seem eccentric, to say the least, to argue as Trilling did in this superficial and image-obsessed age that literature can actually save humanity, I think he was probably on to something.

Put in terms more relevant to readers of this blog in particular, it's worth tracking down the best authors whose views you are sure you don't share. For me, that's probably Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Ken MacLeod, M. John Harrison... although it is almost certainly much easier to do for people roughly to the right-of-centre because so much SF/Fantasy literature (and literature in general) is written by left-leaning authors. If it strengthens your convictions then, fine, and if it weakens or modifies them, they were probably wrong to begin with; if all it does is make you feel a little humbler about what's right and what's wrong, then the exercise will be more than worthwhile.

*In the Preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950).


  1. Nice thoughts. I'd not heard the Trilling (why does he have an asterisk?) speech / Mill passage before.

    I'm fairly leftish, but my favorite sci fi authors tend to be of the opposite bent (Vance, Wolfe, Lafferty). I've wondered why this is.

    Also: enjoying the recent spate of posts. You're on a bit of a roll.

    1. The asterisk was to provide a reference which I promptly forgot to include. It's there now.

      Was Vance on the right politically? It makes a kind of sense, but I wonder if there's any hard evidence for it.

      I think the large majority of SF and fantasy authors and readers are sort of soft-left. There are a couple of out-and-out hard leftists but not all that many. But some of the real titans buck that trend (Tolkien, Wolfe, Heinlein - he is hard to pigeonhole though).

      Thanks for the vote of confidence - I think a break did me good, but also oddly it feels better just to posting and responding to comments here rather than on G+.

    2. Vance was not overtly political, but he's generally understood to be of a sort of classic breed of conservative prevalent in the US West up until the later part of the 20th century. Conservative without being doctrinaire, firmly secular, pretty strongly libertarian. (I never met him, but I've had a few conversations with people who knew him reasonably well. Not sure if that's "hard evidence")

      Also he's too interesting of a writer to have made his works polemics, but there's is a pretty strong thread of mildly skewering collectivist societies. (Alastor: Wyst, Emphyrio)

    3. Vance was certainly on the political right. Wyst is a satire of collectivism, The Grey Prince is a deeply conservative take on colonial liberation movements, and Araminta Station's views on citizenship, immigration and progressive meddlers are pretty much textbook reactionary.* He was pro-Vietnam war, which most of his peers weren't. Tellingly, Vance had NEVER been published in socialist countries, where SF had to be from at least nominally progressive authors to merit publication. If people were still reading books (especially old ones) these days, there would be a lot of clamour around him instead of that stupid YA manuscript which got torn to shreds last week.

      And yet whatever his politics, Vance was highly original. His books are not screeds against political opponents, but autonomous and complex works, even when they are dealing in satire. In this sense, Vance is not left or right - he is first and foremost good.
      * My favourite exchange from the book:
      "Sunje stalked across the room and flung herself into a chair. "I think you're all rather vapid."
      Milo told Glawen: "Perhaps I should mention that Sunje endorses the program of the New Humanists, who are in turn the cutting edge of the Peefers."
      "LPFers, if you don't mind."
      "These are terms and phrases from the nomenclature of Naturalist politics, Milo explained to Glawen. L, P and F stand for 'Life', 'Peace' and 'Freedom'. Julian is an ardent member of the group."
      Glawen said: "With such a slogan, how dare anyone raise his voice in opposition?"
      "It's generally agreed that the slogan is the best part of the program", said Milo.
      Julian ignored Milo's remark: "Against all sanity, opponents to the great LPF movement not only exist but flourish like noxious weeds."
      "These are evidently the 'DWSers': the advocates of 'Death', 'War' and 'Slavery'. Am I right?" said Glawen.
      "They are clever and devious!" said Julian. "Never would they flaunt their true colors so brazenly. Instead they call themselves Chartists and think to hold the high ground by waving funny old documents at us."
      Milo said: "These documents are known as the Articles of the Naturalist Society and are otherwise known as the Charter. Julian, why don't you read them someday?"
      Julian made a debonair gesture. "Far easier to argue from ignorance."
      "All this comes as a shock to me," said Glawen. "At the Station we consider the Charter to be the First Law of the Universe. Anyone who thinks otherwise must be a Yip, a madman or the Devil himself.""

    4. Melan: You're right about Vance being conservative, but I think you go a little over the top in your analysis. Could a left-liberal not write and appreciate satires about collectivist societies? And it's not as if that's really a central theme of Vance's body of work in any event. His books contain send-ups of almost every imaginable human societal relationship and dynamic. It would be shocking if he *didn't* make fun of progressive busybodies at least as much as he makes fun of grasping, hyper-greedy "small businessmen."

      I guess I mainly want to respond to emphasize and agree with this point you make:

      "[W]hatever his politics, Vance was highly original. His books are not screeds against political opponents, but autonomous and complex works, even when they are dealing in satire. In this sense, Vance is not left or right - he is first and foremost good."

    5. You could add Dunsany, Chesterton, Lewis and Kipling (often not thought of as a fantasy writer, but in fact one of the greatest and most influential) to the list of trend-bucking titans.

      I second the praise for this recent run of posts - great stuff!

  2. I think reading other viewpoints can also render you kore generally humane; you understand and sympathize with your opponents more after really engaging with their thought, generally.

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  4. Replies
    1. At least Compare Electric Rates remains a steadfast centrist in our crazy times.

    2. Cheap electricity does help 'enlighten' even the darkest of places.

  5. My favorite person for this sort of exercise is CK Chesterton. Half of the time I'm cheering him on and half of the time I want to throw the book across the room because he's being such a dumbass but he always makes me think, more than any other writer I can think of.

    So I think for this sort of thing it's good to read someone you agree with half of the time. It works well for me at least.

  6. Liberalism is what Conservativism was for Trilling, sort of incoherently and ineffectually defending a perceived status quo, and honestly the latter was probably irrelevant even at that time. Especially in the United States, which has never really had anything like Conservativism and which has instead reactionary and progressive strains of liberalism.

    I cannot remember the writer, bur during Marx's time is was common for people who disagreed with him to actually have read his works, and this contemporary commented that if you took his premises as true then his logic was ironclad. These days incoherent nonsense like "postmordern neomarxism" is the standard for public intellectual.

    Literally anyone can be advantaged by taking a deep read of by-the-book Marx. I have never come across a thinker whose work makes me question what I think I know so often.

    1. I agree. I always say that Marx analysed the problem entirely correctly. He was just terrible at making predictions and even worse at making prescriptions.