keskiviikko 9. marraskuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Essay on revolutions (1797)


Chateaubriand, especially famous of his influence on the literary movement of romanticism, wrote also some more broadly philosophical writings. The most famous of these, concerning the essence of Christianity, could be said to represent a romantic stance on the philosophy of religion, laying emphasis especially on the aesthetic nature of religious experience. Yet, before we take look at that book, I would like to consider a work Chateaubriand himself later regarded as a juvenile experiment: Essai sur les Révolutions.

The aim of Chateaubriand’s Essay is to understand the forces behind revolutions. We need not wonder the reason for such a work: it is obviously the on-going French Revolution Chateubriand wanted to understand. Yet, he spends relatively little time with the current revolution, since his method is historical – he looks at the great revolutions in ancient Greek and he plans to continue with the Roman and modern European pre-French revolutions, although he later abandoned this project.

Chateaubriand’s main idea is that while the political status of Europe during French Revolution resembles that of Mediterranean during the rebellion against traditional Greek monarchies, its moral status resembles the time of downfall of Greek politeias under the Macedonian rule. We may be quite quick with the first comparison, because even Chateaubriand himself in his more mature period noticed the deficiencies of this approach. The young Chateaubriand drew analogies between the relation of Greece and Persia on the one hand and the relation of France and Holy Roman Empire on the other hand and continued e.g. by comparing Carthage with England and Scythia with Switzerland. Needless to say, these analogies fall apart very quickly – the attempted conquest of Greek city states by Persia had in most likelihood little to do with the rise of democracies, while the war against revolutionary France had a clear ideological basis, not to mention that Greek city states formed no unitary nation unlike France.

Still, if we at least accept the broad analogy of a fledgling and apparently weak democracy pitted against a huge monarchic conglomeration of nations, we can still appreciate Chateaubriand’s questions – will the new French government be able to counter the monarchic backlash and whether it is preferable that it does so? Starting from the latter question, it is surprisingly difficult to find out Chateubriand’s true allegiances in the ideological conflict between democracy and monarchy. Indeed, he was a member of the counterrevolutionary army of emigrants, but this was perhaps more to do with his belief that revolutionary France was no true democracy. Here we can see influence of Rousseau – Chateaubriand holds a legislative assembly of all citizens to be a necessary feature of democracy, while so-called representative democracy is then just a monarchy in disguise or an alliance of smaller democratic republics.

Still, even direct democracy is not the ideal form of state in Chateaubriand’s eyes, paradoxically, because of its lack of freedom – he is apparently thinking of the tradition of ostracism in ancient Athens or the mob trials during the Reign of Terror. Politically, Chateaubriand clearly leans more on the tempered English version of monarchy and not the French absolutism. Yet, sometimes even the English monarchy seems too restrictive for his love of freedom, as he speaks eloquently of the American savages who live in a state of no states in small familial communities.

Chateaubriand does not make the mistake of projecting his ideals to his predictions on the outcome of the Revolutionary Wars. Instead, he bases his estimates again on the example of the battle between Greek city states and Persian empire. What Greeks had and what French revolutionaries lack is a certain moral constitution, which made the Greek men into reliable defenders of their way of life. This moral constitution, Chateaubriand suggest, could be gleamed especially from the philosophers of the period, who all upheld traditional ideals of the city state and polytheistic religion. Then again, when the morality of the people relaxed and philosophers started to speak against both the democratic form of constitution and polytheism (both tendencies might be seen in Plato), the Greek city states fell under the Macedonian rule.

Chateaubriand suggests that the French nation had for long time been in this state of moral degradation. His primary evidence is formed again by the philosophical tendencies of the time – the so-called Enlightened philosophers were all moving toward abolition of traditional Christian monotheism. In this juvenile work Chateaubriand does not suggest that French philosophy should turn its course and start to speak for Christianity. On the contrary, he supposes that the whole Christian clergy is mostly rotten and decadent and that Christianity itself would then fade away. Chateaubriand does suggest the possibility that some form of Enlightement could take the place of religion in the future, but he is more likely to believe that this is all just a premonition of an up-coming time of barbarism, from which a new civilization might then gradually rise again. In his mature phase, Chateaubriand rejects this conclusion with the forceful rejoinder that there are not that much non-civilized areas in the modern world, from which the current civilization could be assaulted. Furthermore, he is far more positive about the strengths of Christianity. We shall see next time how Chateaubriand defended Christianity in his later years.

tiistai 1. marraskuuta 2016

Pierre Jean George Cabanis: On the relations between the physical and moral aspects of man (1802)


Even during the tumults of French Revolution, the French philosophical and scientific culture was thriving, as we’ve seen a while ago with Volney and Condorcet. This time I’ll take a look at a friend of Condorcet, Cabanis, and his seminal work, Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme.

Although the title of the book might suggest a work on ethics, this is far from the case. Instead, morals mentioned mean simply the mores or habits of a human person. In other words, Cabanis is investigating the question, how the two sides of a human being, traditionally marked by the names “body” and “soul”, relate to one another.

In principle, Cabanis has an easy solution – he is a straightforward materialist, and what had been called soul, or the kernel of human behavior, is nothing else but brain. Then again, there are interesting nuances in the materialism of Cabanis. Firstly, Cabanis appears to be a sort of an emergentist. Physical laws reveal one layer of the world, but they cannot by themselves explain the more complex chemical laws, and even more complexity arises on the biological level.

Even if Cabanis appears to deny that the regularities of the more complex level could be reduced to those of a simpler level, he does admit there are certain analogies running throughout the whole system of nature. One might say that there is a certain centralizing tendency, starting from the gravitational forces working between large bodies. Similar centralizing tendency can be seen in chemical combinations, Cabanis adds, but again, with complexities that were not apparent on the lower level. Chemical combinations are elective in the sense that a substance shows more inclination to combine with one reagent than another. Cabanis goes even so far as to suggest that this elective affinity is the first sign of will in nature.

The centralizing tendency gets even more apparent with biological entities, which form clear organic units, in which individual organs interact with one another. The highest pinnacle of this development is an animal organism, in which sensibility is added to life. This sensibility, Cabanis notes, is not restricted to just brains, although it is its center, but can be detected throughout the whole nervous system as an ability to receive affections and react to them.

An interesting aspect in this view of animal organism is the emphasis on the organic unity. Thus, Cabanis criticizes Condillac’s thought experiment of a statue, which receives one sensitive power after another, beginning from smell and going finally through all different senses. Cabanis notes that one cannot really isolate individual senses, because they work in so close co-operation with one another and with the whole organism.

Another interesting aspect is Cabanis’s discussion of the development of moi, or self. He notes that a newborn baby is not a complete tabula rasa. Firstly, it has surely managed to receive certain sensations even in the womb, of course of its own internal condition, but also of the world outside, through voices vibrating to its ears. Although these sensations must have been quite muddled and soon their memories are overcome by more vivid sensations, they have been there. Secondly, the newborn also comes with some instincts, probably caused by the centralizing tendency. Thus, a baby is already bent on conserving itself and feeding itself with nourishment given to it. Especially interesting is one of these instincts, namely, the instinct to move. Through moving the body, the brain becomes volitional and gets a sense of its own self.

Even though it has a will of its own, brain is still affected by the body around it and its constitution – change the muscular structure a bit and it becomes more difficult for the brain to move itself around. The effects of the constitution to the brain form different personality types – a baggage, which Cabanis inherits from traditional medicine and only slightly alters by adding two further unnamed types to the traditional four (melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic).

Cabanis goes so far in insisting on correspondence between bodily constitution and personality that he of necessity must also find a clear difference between male and female personalities. His descriptions of women as frivolous creatures with no patience to conduct proper scientific studies sound more like cultural roles extended without any justification to the whole humanity. At least Cabanis is willing to admit that not all women fall under the stereotype – that is, if they have a rare physical constitution.

Cabanis does not fortunately state that the rare constitution of manly women would be an illness. He does acknowledge that real diseases can, through affecting body, affect also personality. Indeed, all effects of the environment can have an effect on our constitution and personality, especially those that come through senses – for instance, a certain odour might invigorate us. Particularly forceful effects are caused by climate, which we are in contact with daily. In a somewhat Lamarckian fashion, Cabanis thinks that all these effects can be inherited by the next generation. And because climate will have the same effect on the next generation, this will eventually lead to clear differences between various types of same species in different continents – thus Cabanis explains also the supposed racial differences in human species.

Although the majority of the book is dedicated to the influence of external surroundings to personality or brain, Cabanis does admit that the causality can go the other way also – after all, brain is a part of the material world and can affect it on its part. This suggests to Cabanis the possibility of affecting one’s own constitution and hence also one’s personality. Although this is no true book on ethics, some phrases indicate, to which direction Cabanis wished to develop humankind – to a vigorous harmony, in which all capacities of human personality are used to their utmost.