A Bird in the Bush is Worth One in the Ear: Thoreau, Perception, and Avian Auditory Co-Presence

“Music is perpetual, and only hearing intermittent” – Journal, February 8, 1857.

Regrettably, Henry David Thoreau did not own a tape recorder. Were he alive today, he might be found with microphone in hand, producing amateur recordings of ambient sound. However, he did record sound, perhaps the deepest source of his veneration of the natural world, in writing. Pre-empting the fields of soundscape ecology, Thoreau engaged in novel forms of sonic perception which reveal a disciplined ear that was open to the vibrations of an ordered, harmonious cosmos. Thoreau’s attentiveness to ambient sound, especially his extensive writings on bird song, reveal his unique ability to perceive the component particulars of a given environmental soundscape. His written descriptions of sonic phenomena signal a development beyond his early transcendentalist consideration of sound as a singularly spiritual correspondence, toward a balance with a more empirical, universal method of recording. In studying his method of deep listening and subsequent written representation of sound, we can trace Thoreau’s development of multiple eco-acoustic theories, including a synergistic view of subject-object orientation, acoustic niche theory and human-animal co-presence, all of which reveal a rare ear open to the sonic possibilities produced by the birds of Concord.

Readers of Thoreau know that he was an astute observer of all natural phenomena. His writings, especially his journals contain valuable records of his findings, etched out in exquisite descriptive detail. As such, Thoreau is today considered one of the first major interpreters of nature in American literary history, a patron saint of environmentalists. However, he was aware of the limitations of his activity as a naturalist, indeed of the limitations of the human perception and language he used to record his collections. In a Journal entry from November 20, 1857 he noted that, “Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself” (Searls 479). In recognizing the limitations of the written word, Thoreau correctly identifies sound, “the language of these fields,” as something distinct and worthy of his attention. This natural language requires learning, or a special type of listening to gain access, possible only if the observer prepares the whole self to perceive it. In Thoreau’s words, “The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of a whole man” (Cramer 92). This consideration of the whole man indicates a balance between the mind of an empiricist and the invigorated imagination of an inspired poet. Perhaps this combination of perceptual techniques allowed Thoreau to more regularly hear the perpetual music of the natural world.

The “I” and the Ear: Developing the Technique and Learning to Hear

Before investigating Thoreau’s writings on sound, it is essential to first understand the component parts of Thoreau’s philosophy, which would have impacted the way in which he perceived his natural environment. To do so, one must investigate his transcendental inheritance. One can find some of the early development of Thoreau’s sonic philosophy in the writings of Emerson, who was a towering figure in the polymath’s life in Concord. Thoreau, often described as Emerson’s empirical opposite, moved gradually beyond the core of what Emerson put forth in his seminal 1836 work, Nature, which identified nature as man’s spiritual counterpart, arguing that natural phenomena contained both spiritual and material significance (Emerson 8). Ultimately, Thoreau developed a greater ability to integrate self and nature, whereas Emerson was rooted in the human perspective. In his 1844 essay Experience, Emerson describes a synchronic connection between the perceiver and the perceived, in which, “Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself” (Emerson 210). While this synthesis seems to suggest a human-natural co-presence as a mode of being and as a sense of being, the idea that the object “falls successively” into the subject creates a distinct hierarchy of the perceiver over the perceived. This stab at the concept of subject/object synthesis signals Emerson’s understanding of a universal cosmic vocabulary, where humans and natural phenomenon are intertwined, but Emerson’s understanding is invariably rooted in the experience of the human, whereas Thoreau’s is considerably more open.

In Experience Emerson goes on to consider how, “The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place…let us treat the new comer like a travelling geologist, who passes through our estate, and shows us good slate, or limestone, or anthracite, in our brush pasture. The partial action of each strong mind in one direction, is a telescope for the objects on which it is pointed.” (Emerson 211). Emerson’s subject is a hungry one, a subject that consumes the world around it, subjugating it to the sense-world of the perceiver. For Emerson, a lecture or a bird song might reveal to the listener the inner essence of his own perception, the listener’s “good slate.” This is not to discount Emerson’s mode of perception; indeed, he recognizes the ability of external objects to serve as an unexpected teacher, which must be listened to or perceived attentively, without too much interference. However, his mode of perception nearly always favors the human consumer.

There is no doubt Emerson’s thought left an indelible impression on Thoreau’s mind, although after 1850, Thoreau’s approach to nature became markedly empirical. A growing commitment to exact observation saw more lists and solidly descriptive text emerge in the Journal (Searls 139). While Emerson’s primary consideration was how nature might subserve humanity, Thoreau realized a different epistemological aim. Thoreau’s intention was to define, with words and rough data-collection, nature’s structure both spiritually and materially, for its own sake, and in a form that was as close as he could get to nature’s own language.

What set Thoreau’s mode of perception apart from Emerson’s? Ecocritic Lawrence Buell claims that Thoreau’s turn to the empirical represented his ability to overcome not only the limits of his classical education and his early transcendental idealism, but also an intense preoccupation with himself, his moods and his overall identity (Buell 172). Buell states how, “this narcissism he surmounted by defining his individuality as the intensity of his interest in and caring for physical nature itself.” (Buell 172). In his enthusiastic studies of Thoreau’s auditory capabilities, musicologist John Titon further develops this claim, arguing that Buell overlooks the way in which Thoreau’s listening body “integrated self and nature…it was not so much a surmounting of narcissism as an understanding of the relations between self and environment by means of listening and co-presence” (Titon 146). Here, Titon underlines the unique role of the notion of co-presence and of auditory economy at play in Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau was aware of the multiple acoustic agents of any environment, all jockeying to define their sonic niche: different species of birds using different calls to identify their kin, the drones of crickets or “dreaming toads,” even human sounds of the deep cut made their way into Thoreau’s ear. How would Thoreau make sense of such a heterogeneous orchestra? To develop his ear more wholly, so as to pick apart the components of this sonic tapestry, Thoreau needed to cast off his early mentor’s influence and develop a mode of perception all his own. He did so in his shift to the empirical.

Thoreau describes this shift in the Journal, where on September 2, 1851, he considers “A writer, a man writing [as] the scribe of all nature – he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing.” (Cramer 92). Here Thoreau is constructing a new model of literary perception in which he is not merely recording nature or taking its dictation, but what Sharon Cameron describes as Thoreau’s desire to “incarnate [nature’s] articulating will” (Cameron 47). This empirical shift indicates a new openness to whatever aspects of the sonic environment present themselves to the perceiver. Thoreau’s new mode of sonic perception was one that rejected common listening habits, described in a Journal entry from March 30, 1853 where, “the walker does not too seriously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself” (Searls 193). Thoreau’s receptivity to bird song, his ability to listen and truly hear, was not just brilliance; it represented a technique that required practice, a form of sonic meditation, and a hyper-awareness of sonic environment. This was likely an outgrowth of his lifelong note taking, a highly industrious practice, a competence of the whole self, and a complete knowledge of particulars. His writings following 1850 feature even more detailed records, lists, sketches, and written meditations, all distillations of his sauntering in which he would often lose himself in these particulars.

Lost indeed, Thoreau seems to have encountered limitations to a purely objective approach. In a Journal entry from August 19, 1851, Thoreau indicates his frustration with this new approach, writing that, “I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, ‘I know.’ The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine woods” (Cramer 89). This is not to say that Thoreau completely abandoned his poetic transcendental roots in his shift to the empirical, quite the opposite. This awareness of the limitations of pure objectivity was likely useful for Thoreau, who seemed to develop a hybrid approach that incorporated both poetic and empirical gestures.

In fact, the gestures in question denote an observer who defies binary categories of individual acoustic representation, and the text itself is generally hybrid, oscillating between didactic “manifesto” aims and empirical scrutiny. Thoreau’s complex, detailed, and even contradicting moments are akin to the auditory opacity of a wandering mind, unable to focus completely on a bird sound or some other natural element. By willingly becoming lost in a sonic environment, Thoreau thereby unlocks a new method of sonic perception, effectively rendering his mind empty and open, ready to be swept away by sonic particulars and their subsequent poetic or spiritual evocations.

This concept of losing oneself in an environment can be found in more modern acoustic study, especially in the work of John Cage, an American experimental composer and sonic artist. Cage wrote how “[You] should be ready for a new experience, and the best way to be ready for a new experience is to be attentive and empty. By empty is meant open — in other words, the like and dislike of the ego doors should be down. And there should be a flow so that the experience of listening can come in” (Kostelanetz 235). Here the similarity between Thoreau and Cage’s sonic philosophy is striking. Both were interested in allowing the untrammeled language of nature to unfold, without infusing too much of the human will into the listening process.

Thoreau’s language was a listening language, not meant to define with authority, but to describe, letting the world take him along for the ride. In his essay Poethics, Gerald Bruhns develops a crucial distinction between using words to grasp the world and using them to inhabit it, and considers John Cage’s interpretations of Thoreau to do so. Cage says how “Reading the Journal, I had been struck by the twentieth-century way Thoreau listened. He listened, it seemed to me, just as composers using technology nowadays listen. He paid attention to each sound, whether it was ‘musical’ or not, just as they do; and he explored the neighborhood of Concord with the same appetite with which they explore the possibilities provided by electronics.” (Cage ix). Cage correctly identifies Thoreau’s ability to disintegrate a sonic environment into its particulars. For Thoreau, the difficulty came not in the perceiving; he was well trained in this. It was transposing natural sonic artifact in a manner that would not anthropomorphize the sound to a significant degree. If Thoreau was always in the business of learning the language of nature, he was also responsible for translating it for an audience that did not have such eco-linguistic access.

The Human-Animal Language: Linguistic Co-Presence through Bird Song

In his 1991 work, The animal that therefore I am, Jacques Derrida suggests that ‘The idea according to which man is the only speaking being… seems to me at once displaceable and highly problematic. Of course, if one defines language in such a way that it is reserved for what we call man, what is there to say?” (Derrida 116). Here Derrida hints at a human-animal linguistic co-presence, in which language should be, and is liberated from its strictly human connotation. He then attempts to rectify the faulty mechanisms of human language by placing possibility at the core of language, stating how “If one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompass it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, everything changes. I am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace; of iterability, of différence. These possibilities or necessities, without which there would be no language, are themselves not only human.” (Derrida 117). The possibilities described by Derrida contain linkages to Cage’s modes of attentive listening, wherein the observer is “Ready to hear what there is to hear, rather than what [s/he] thinks there’s going to be to hear” (Kostelanetz 237). By placing openness and attentiveness at the core of one’s listening, the observer then attains a state of what Charles Junkerman describes as a condition of “auditory disponibilité.” (Junkerman and Perloff 52). Unlike word-bound speech and writing, sounds have the ability to communicate directly, in what Thoreau calls a language “without metaphor” (Walden 411). Thoreau attempted to infuse his writing with this language without metaphor, a sort of economical prose, which only took stock of the necessary, self-evident elements of his thought and his surroundings.

Few examples illustrate Thoreau’s impartial, yet undeniably imaginative representations of nature better than his written descriptions of bird song. In a Journal entry from May 3, 1852, Thoreau recounts a sonic environment, where he hears “the first brown thrasher, -two of them. Minott says he heard one yesterday, but does he know it from a catbird? They drown all the rest. He says cherruwit, cherruwit; go ahead go ahead; give it to him, give it to him; etc., etc., etc. Plenty of birds in the woods this morning” (Searls 132-3). Here Thoreau is truly nature writing itself, indicating the presence of multiple sonic actors, considering what today we call acoustic niches, and the transcribing of the sonic characteristics of bird song itself. In doing so, Thoreau taps into multiple senses of observation, and defines multiple forms of sensorial experience, establishing a dichotomy between the song described and the cognitive effects it provokes. Thoreau uses human language to describe the rhythm and cadence of the bird song. The text connects to the reader, who is invited mentally to perform the songs described on the stage of the mind, and experience them, once-abstracted, on a cognitive-sensorial level. This transmutation appeals to the reader’s creative intelligence, promoting the virtual reproduction of the act of listening. Thoreau thus allows us to travel to the woods without moving, to give us a clue of what to listen for on our next jaunt into the forest.

The primary presentation of bird song in Thoreau’s text is as an interjection, a piece of supporting evidence. However, there are moments where Thoreau dissects the sound, anthropomorphizing it through its transformation into written language, integrating it into a human-animal hybrid language. In a passage from Walden, Thoreau describes, “For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only” (Walden 263). In describing bird song as an essential aspect of the lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, Thoreau unveils the existence of hybrid and co-dependent sonic realities, in which bird song is normally withdrawn into the mélange of background noise or overshadowed by human noises.

Thoreau found music in the natural world, it was his muse and his endless source of free entertainment. In a Journal entry from June 22, 1851, Thoreau recounts that, “I awoke into a music which no one about me heard…To the sane man the world is a musical instrument” (Shepard 44). American modernist composer and musical theorist Charles Ives writes how Thoreau’s susceptibility to natural sound “was probably greater than that of many practical musicians…Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the symphony’” (Ives 77). Ives’ assessment of Thoreau rings true, especially when reading passages of the Journal where Thoreau was deeply moved by common bird songs. Perhaps his favorite winged performer was the common wood thrush, of which he writes fondly. On June 22nd, 1853, Thoreau wrote how, “As I come over the hill I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music – affects the flow and tenor of my thought – my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses.” (Cramer 192-93). This description, while admittedly poetic, indicates a powerfully evocative communion with nature. For Thoreau, this song is not only a natural artifact, for it also retains much of the spiritual significance that both he and Emerson articulated in their transcendentalist visions. He goes on to write how, “[the wood thrush] changes all hours to an eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness. It reinstates me in my dominion – makes me the lord of creation – is chief musician of my court…All that was ripest and fairest in the wilderness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush. It is the mediator between barbarism and civilization. It is as unrepentant as Greece.” (Cramer 193). The music he describes provides the reader with an opportunity to join him on a dynamic and synesthetic exploration.

Unlike Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge, Thoreau does not solely use birds as a romantic-symbolic mode. He does not profess an American “Nightingale”, and keeps his writing more rooted in the real, remaining generally focused on relaying the sonic environment. However, he does describe bird song in a poetic form. In a Journal entry from May 17, 1853, Thoreau draws a comparison between his beloved wood thrush and history’s most famous poets, stating how, “The wood thrush has sung for me sometime. He touches a depth in me which no other bird song does. He has learned to sing and no thrumming of the strings or tuning disturbs you. Other birds may whistle pretty well but he is the master of a finer toned instrument. His song is musical not from association merely – not from variety but the character of its tone. It is all divine – Shakespeare among birds and a Homer too.” (Walden Woods Project). Furthermore, in a Journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau describes numerous acoustic actors in a single sonic environment. He writes, “The sun is up. The air is full of the notes of birds, – song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds,- and I hear also a lark, -as if all the earth had burst forth into song. A few weeks ago, before the birds had come, there came to my mind in the night the twittering sound of birds in the early dawn of a spring morning, a semi-prophecy of it, and last night I attended mentally as if I heard the spray-like dreaming sound of the midsummer frog and realized how glorious and full of revelations it was” (Searls 120-21). Here Thoreau evokes the prophetic voice of birds, but only as a semi-prophecy. He recognizes the limitations of the romantic-symbolic mode as if to say that the poetry of Keats on the nightingale, Browning on the thrush, and Shelley on the skylark are all splendid, and all evoke charismatic metaphor, but are the birds really singing for us? Nevertheless, Thoreau was clearly moved by bird song, and his descriptions of it indicate his oscillation between the empirical and romantic.

Thoreau was also preoccupied with the effects that bird song produced on the human ear, and the broader effects that sound had on its surroundings. On February 20, 1857 he pondered, “What is the relation between a bird and the ear that appreciates its melody, to whom, perchance, it is more charming and significant than anyone else? Certainly, they are intimately related, and the one was made for the other. It is a natural fact. If I were to discover that a certain kind of stone by the pond-shore was affected, say partially disintegrated, by a particular natural sound, as of a bird…I see that one could not be completely described without describing the other. I am that rock by the pond-side” (Searls 438). This relationship between the bird and the ear, in which one cannot be fully described without the other, in which they are complimentary, indicates a profound awareness of human-bird co-presence. The listener needs the subject as the singer needs the audience. Instead of a classic subject/object-oriented view, Thoreau takes the co-present, or synergistic view. When he writes “I am that rock by the pond-side” he indicates that the subject and object complete each other, that they are harmonious, part of a larger being, that of the cosmos. Listening is therefore not an activity purely of the individual mind, which represents one’s immediate reality, but an immersion in an acoustic environment that mobilizes all of the instruments of the mind and perception, thereby challenging a long dominant dualism of subject/object orientation. The act of listening is rooted in co-presence, a fact which Thoreau explored, whether he realized it or not.

Thoreau was nature writing itself; he was tuned in. The song of nature was his symphony, the wood thrush, his first chair. Sometimes it is hard to think of the Journal as anything other than a sweeping romantic life project. Why bother taking down all this information? Modern readers are lucky that someone so attuned to the cosmos happened to take notes. Among the final lines of Thoreau’s Journal include his admission that, “All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most” (Cramer 438). Over the course of his life he used that observant eye, but his scrutiny was at the same time auditory. In fact, all of his senses were used to drink up the particulars of any given environment. His life’s business was paying attention to experience, finding wonder in it, and recounting it either in his Journal, his published works, or his public oratory. Thoreau developed a grand and unifying vision which recognized a reality he called “the frame-work of the universe.” (Walls 300). Thoreau’s astute sense-perception afforded him privileged access and understanding of this framework, especially in terms of his perceptions of sonic environment. Concepts like co-presence and acoustic niche theory are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insights, which have been recognized and documented by scientific and philosophical communities, many of whose practitioners are undoubtedly Thoreauvians.

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Bibliography

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture from Revolution through Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Buell, Lawrence. “Sound Commons for All Tition.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, pp. 171–193.

Cage, John. M: Writings: ’67-’72. Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973.

Cameron, Sharon. Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s “Journal. University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Books, 2014.

Ives, Charles, and Howard Boatwright. Essays before a Sonata: the Majority, and Other Writings. Norton, 1999.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. Routledge, 2003.

Krause, Bernie. Great Animal Orchestra. Profile Books Ltd, 2012.

Mynott, Jeremy. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Perloff, Marjorie Gabrielle., and Charles Junkerman. John Cage: Composed in America. The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Sherman, Paul. “The Wise Silence: Sound as the Agency of Correspondence in Thoreau.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, 1949, p. 511.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Experimental Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Music. 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Damion Searls. The Journal, 1837-1861. New York Review Books, 2009.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. I To Myself: an Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Yale University Press, 2012.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. Walden. Yale University Press, 2006.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. Dover, 1967.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Thoreau’s Ear.” Sound Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144–154.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Henry David Thoreau: a Life. The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Zhao, Shanyang. “Toward a Taxonomy of Copresence.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, vol. 12, no. 5, 2003, pp. 445–455.

 

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Perceiving Materiality: Balzac’s Social Realism and the Marxist Connection in Père Goriot

Honoré de Balzac writes in his 1835 novel Père Goriot, “Money is life. If you have cash, you can do anything” (Old Man Goriot 205). Balzac, who was intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in Restoration society, revealed the veiled contours of wealth and its inevitable implications on the lives of men and women, most notably their material realities. With his sociological eye, Balzac depicted the effects of wealth disparity with an authenticity and evocative power that few empirical analyses have been able to match. Balzac’s stylistic approach, social realism, identified and personified the love of money, which was the root of life in Paris at the time. His literary realism uncovered the importance and preponderance of economic realities over feelings and ideas. However, it was not money alone that was of central importance to Balzac; it was the appearances that could be obtained with money, the destinies that could be unlocked by real material things and the power they signified. Balzac’s literary realism had a profound effect on the founders of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who shared this material fixation, as one could not live in the tumultuous industrial age without recognizing the effects of the media of exchange. Despite some theoretical divergence, the emphasis on materialism presented in Père Goriot contains links to the broader philosophical materialism that ultimately shaped a central aspect of Marx’s theory, historical and dialectical materialism.

Balzac’s work embodies an all-encompassing preoccupation with the material, where money and its manifestations compose the structure and meaning of La Comèdie humaine. In the social and physical world Balzac creates, the beginning and end of all feelings, beliefs, and mores is gold and its subsequent material benefits. This distinct cognizance of economic and social realities in La Comèdie humaine is strikingly similar to the necessary and universal emphasis on economics and the material in the works of Marx and Engels. In the preface to the 1888 English translation of The Communist Manifesto, Engels identifies the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus of the work, stating that, “In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch, that consequently the whole history of mankind…has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes” (The Communist Manifesto 5). This systematic approach to human history carries a Balzacian resonance, in which the prevailing mode of economic production and its material implications comprise the social substructure, the motor that puts the whole of society into motion.

It is no secret that both Marx and Engels were fans of and influenced by literary realism. Karl Marx, who praised “the present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers” in an article for the New York Tribune on August 1, 1854, stated that realistic novelists’ “graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together” (Marx in New-York Tribune 1854- “The English Middle Class”). For Marx and Engels, realism represented not only a trend in literature, but a formidable achievement in the world of aesthetics. Engels, who developed a definition of realism in an 1888 letter to Margaret Harkness in London, argued that, “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (1888 Letter).  This emphasis on truth and realistic representation of environment was not intended to merely copy reality but represented an aesthetic tool to infiltrate and reflect the essence of a phenomenon, social, historical, or otherwise. Literary realism made it possible to reveal the traits of a particular temporal context.

It follows that Marx would view language, and subsequently literature, as a reflection of particular social conditions and relationships. “Language,” wrote Marx, “is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness…language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men… Consciousness is therefore from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (The German Ideology 19). This view indicates Marx and Engels’ belief that social relations, class antagonisms and the conditions for the development of human individuality, have significant bearing on literary consciousness, determining its nature and development.

Balzac’s world is saturated with the contradictions between the exploitative capitalist system and the humanist ideals so lauded by Parisian society. This contradiction is reflected in the trajectory of the young social climber, Eugène Rastignac, who “Like other noble souls…first wanted to succeed on merit alone…[and] was soon side-tracked by the need to make the right connections” (Old Man Goriot 29). Rastignac’s forked path to material and social success is rife with moral dilemmas. The young man is nearly always pulled in multiple directions by filial piety, Vautrin’s temptations, the beckoning comforts of high society, his sense of idealism, his increasing understanding of Goriot himself, and ultimately, his love of Delphine, which is material in nature.

Engels too described Balzac’s brilliance as a novelist in the 1888 letter and highlighted a specific fondness for Balzac’s treatment of economic and material details. In the letter, Engels states that Balzac gives the reader, “A most wonderfully realistic history of French society…in economic details, (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) …I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together” (1888 Letter). Engels’ appraisal of Balzac bears a striking similarity to Marx’s article in the New York Tribune, written 34 years prior. The similarity of their praise indicates the profound impact that Balzacian social realism had on the two thinkers. Balzac was so appealing to Marx and Engels precisely because of his truthfulness of depiction, his concrete historical approach to the events and characters described, and his emphasis on the importance of material reality.  Here in the 1888 letter, the mention of the material, in this case personal property, accentuates the commonality of materialism in the thinking of all three writers.

Balzac’s realism represents a vast accumulation of real and realistic, people, cities, houses, furniture, clothing and currencies, all of which are interrelated. Indeed, trousers are not merely trousers; they are signifiers of social status and carry significant metaphorical weight, not to mention golden “Louis d’or” coins. Upon receiving much needed funding from his family members, Eugène felt as if, “The world belonged to him! His tailor had already been summoned…Rastignac had understood the influence that tailors exercise over the lives of young men… Eugène found his to be a man who understood the paternal side of his trade, seeing himself as the link between a young man’s present and future… ‘I know’, he said, ‘two pairs of his trousers that made matches worth twenty thousand livres per year’” (Pere Goriot 88). Here, Balzac is unambiguous in establishing the primacy of belongings and the power they signal. Eugène’s immediate plan upon receiving an infusion of cash is to acquire new trousers, so that he might be seen in them and make a match worth twenty thousand or more livres per year.  Balzac is aware of the magnificent power of trousers, of material, of what something as quotidian as trousers can do for their wearer.

Whether intentional or not, Balzac’s descriptive satire of this avaricious social reality effectively condemned the moral rot of capitalist society. It is no question that bourgeois society produced Balzac, who despite his own class position, was capable of transcending his particular environment to view society as a whole to produce a true and vibrant picture of real life. Balzac’s development of individual character traits, best exemplified by the inhabitants of that respectable boarding house La Maison Vauquer, reflects typical aspects of the character and psychology of the class milieu to which they belong. In the very beginning of Goriot, Balzac states that “This drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that we may each recognize elements of it as close to home, perhaps even in our hearts” (Old Man Goriot 4). While aspects of the story are almost certainly fictionalized, Balzac signals to the reader that he communicates his ideas not by didactic philosophizing, but through vivid images of the real, which represent a clear understanding of the dynamic interchange between people, classes, and socioeconomic forces, which are intended to affect the reader with their artistic expressiveness. All this well describes the standard explanation of Balzacian realism, that there is an external reality, independent of the text, that Balzac does a good job of reflecting. A more interpretive reading acknowledges that realism is not necessarily a translation of a pre-existing reality but a manifestation of that reality itself; it is, in a sense, the experience itself.

This is not to say that Balzac was any sort of proto-Marxist revolutionary. Despite the fact that Marx and Engels were deeply convinced that realist literature must reflect the deep-lying, dynamic processes of a particular epoch, which Balzac does, Balzac does not necessarily promulgate progressive ideas or defend the interests of the progressive forces in society. In fact, Balzac was deeply entrenched in the social relations of the day. He was a legitimist, a royalist, and wrote for money (Lyons 146). The serialization of his work was based on an urgent need to make money, money to pay for his expensive material tastes that he had cultivated as part of his integration into Parisian high society. Balzac, a self-described reactionary and monarchist, is less concerned with the overthrow of the existing system than are Marx or Engels. In his 1888 letter, Engels wrote how “Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry” (1888 Letter). Despite his admiration of the “republican heroes,” Balzac’s intentions are not those of the provocateur. He does not seem as focused on where things may be going; rather he is singularly fixated on illustrating how things are in Restoration society with as much detail as possible, showing it all to the reader, the good the bad, and the ugly.

Balzac’s ability to depict genuine passions and the multiple facets of the human character generates a portrait of Parisian material life that exposes the suffering and the absurdity of humans operating under capitalist relations. Balzac’s bourgeois society is hostile, and rife with collusions, alienation, and tragedy. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is personified in the life of the eponymous character of the novel, old Goriot himself. Identified by his mercantile title, “the vermicelli dealer,” Goriot represents the socioeconomic prime directive of post-revolutionary France: accumulate capital and spend it on material items that denote social significance. As Balzac introduces the character, he describes that, “Goriot arrived fitted out with an opulent wardrobe, the magnificent trousseau of a merchant with the means to treat himself on retiring from trade. Madame Vauquer had admired eighteen cambric shirts, whose exquisite quality she found all the more remarkable for the two pins joined by a fine chain, each set with a huge diamond, that the vermicelli dealer wore on his shirt frill” (Old Man Goriot 17-18). Goriot’s opulent possessions, namely clothing and gilded trinkets, are meant to be shown off, to indicate his social stature, emblematic of the materiality in Balzac’s world.

The tragic nature of Goriot’s life is inexorably tied to the material, and his degeneration over the course of the story is at all points based in material circumstances. This idea is best exemplified by the transformation of his most prized possession. As he unpacks his belongings at La Maison, Goriot reveals “a platter and a small dish with two kissing turtle-doves on its cover…the first present my wife ever gave me, on our anniversary…It cost her every penny of her maiden’s savings…I would rather scrape a living from the earth, with my bare nails than part with this” (Old Man Goriot 18). Later, Eugène secretly observes Goriot as he shapes “a silver-gilt platter and what looked like a tureen…into ingots…Old Goriot contemplated his handiwork sadly, tears trickled from his eyes” (Old Man Goriot 33). In a powerful display of what Engels called “rearrangement of real and personal property” in his 1888 letter, this transformation of sentimental artifact into material commodity is symbolic of deeply emotional sacrifices one makes to acquire cash, in this case intended for Goriot’s grasping daughters. Balzac intentionally tugs at the reader’s heart strings, not to sensationalize, but to indicate the reality of these kinds of sacrifices, which are also made by Eugène’s family, all to acquire new material goods to keep up appearances and ascend to the next rung of the social ladder. The objectivity and realism of Goriot’s story speak to Balzac’s focus on the material, and the broader human experience of suffering and endless striving in pursuit of capital.

The material emphasis in Père Goriot contains links to the historical materialism espoused by Marx and Engels, but the two are not entirely similar. Materialism is a difficult concept to pin down, and this paper will consider two definitions. The first is a standard definition, a preoccupation with material rather than intellectual or spiritual things. This is the definition that is most pertinent to Balzac’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Or is it? The second, a philosophical definition, is the doctrine that the only thing that can be said to truly exist is material substance. In this philosophical definition of materialism, one can identify the idealist/materialist split that dominated much of nineteenth-century philosophy. Broadly, idealism, which takes the process of thinking as the primary ontological reality, is opposed to materialism or naturalism, which sees matter and its movements as the primary ontological reality.

Much like his philosophy, Marx’s relationship with materialism is rife with contradiction. To call Marx a “materialist” is misleading, as he is concerned, like Balzac, with conditions of material reality, but he is not an ontological materialist in the philosophical sense. Marx was profoundly influenced by a Hegelian conception of rationality in which logic equates to ontology, and in which ontology thus equates to mind (Marx Engels Reader xx-xxi). To call Marx a pure materialist, or an ontological materialist who believes that the world is ultimately material and nothing more, would be false. Marx wished to take no position on the ultimate question of reality, rather his position was more pragmatic; he wished to address the real concerns of human beings (Megill 8). What really concerns human beings is not “What is the nature of reality,” but rather “How are we to engage the social and natural world that surrounds us?” (Megill 8). Marx is therefore concerned with material reality as well.

For Marx, Engels, and other nineteenth-century thinkers, history, change, and consolidating the sheer volume of systematic knowledge became of central concern. Marx suggests that “we see how consistent naturalism or humanism differs both from idealism and materialism and is at the same time their unifying truth. We also see that only naturalism is capable of comprehending the process of world history (Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy- Early Writings 389.) In dealing with this contradiction, Marx indicates that he has drawn from both sides of the material/ideal split, that man has a material nature but he also has a thinking nature. This empirical feature of humanity indicates a reconstitution of the split. Many intellectual historians argue that Marx was a synthesizer of ideas, that he was not an original thinker and merely incorporated ideas that came to him from elsewhere. Indeed, Marx’s historical materialism comes largely from Hegel’s dialectic, developed in History of Philosophy.  There is some validity to this criticism, but one must not ignore the breadth and applicability of the synthesis itself (Megill 36). Marx’s broader project was to bring together, in one way or another, the disparate parts of human knowledge. In nineteenth-century literary figures, especially Balzac, one can also identify a similar vein of synthesis, whose aim was to create a stylistically unified and broad-ranging description of his immediate material and psychological reality.

Like Marx, Balzac understands the connection between material and psychological elements, and ultimately ascribes more significance to the material. In Goriot, materiality is inevitably tied to psychological impact, best expressed in sentimental material artifacts, which represent the material/ideal synthesis. Balzac describes the scene at Goriot’s deathbed, where the old man reaches a hand towards his chest, grasping for his locket and “Uttered plaintive, inarticulate cries, as an animal does when in terrible pain…Eugène went to fetch the plaited chain of ash-blonde hair, presumably belonging to Madame Goriot. On one side of the locket was engraved ‘Anastasie’ and on the other ‘Delphine’: a mirror image of his heart… As he felt the locket touch his chest, the old man let out a long, deep sigh of such contentment…one of the last echoes of his sensibility” (Old Man Goriot 249-50).  The locket, like the silver gilt platter, indicates the unquestionable power of material possessions saturated with emotional significance. Without the locket, Goriot cries out like an animal, as a fundamental piece of his humanity is contained within the trinket, no doubt an indication of Balzac’s emphasis on the material.

As far as materialism is concerned, the largest divergence between Balzac and Marx/Engels rests in the agency of the human in relation to material reality. Balzac’s materialism is a bourgeois materialism, in which sensuous material reality affects the human observer through the medium of the senses, which stir up emotional and psychological effects. Here, the external world is the active element, a dynamic force that impresses itself upon the receptive mind. Balzac’s characters are not static observing beings, but dynamic forces that react to the environment around them. Upon receiving money from his family, Eugène’s near-suicidal disposition transforms instantaneously. Balzac describes that, “As soon as a few notes slide into a student’s pocket, an imaginary pillar of support rises up inside him. He walks taller than before, senses a fulcrum giving him leverage…yesterday timid and humble, he would have cowered under a shower of blows; today he has it in him to punch a Prime Minister” (Old Man Goriot 88). The profound impact that money and its potential have upon Eugène’s psychology in this scene is astounding. Furthermore, material circumstances impress themselves upon human agents, exemplified when Balzac writes that “[Eugène’s] last remaining scruples had vanished the previous evening when he found himself in his new rooms. Now that he enjoyed the material benefits of wealth…he had shed his provincial skin and smoothly made a move that pointed to a promising future” (Old Man Goriot 199). Such is the nature of the intersection between class, personal ambition, and materiality, a cash nexus where shallow values are quickly abandoned in favor of material comforts.

The crucial distinction between Balzac’s materiality and historical materialism is in Marx’s view that the human position in society is not purely that of an observer, but that of a force that impacts the world, and changes history through the negating or overturning of existing systems through dialectical progress. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (The German Ideology 149). For Marx and Engels, the passive bourgeois materialism will indeed be naturally superseded by the active part of history, the technical, production-oriented transformation of the world by human agency. Balzac himself was a thorough observer of reality, perhaps his view of this subject/object problem was influenced by his activity as an observer (Mortimer 99). Balzac’s characters, like their author, are not concerned with changing the external world, as they have seen the grizzly consequences of the revolution. Rather, Balzac’s Parisians seem more concerned with navigating a Paris that he describes as inordinate, disorganized, and chaotic, almost to an absurd degree.

Balzac describes nearly all his characters as operatives in the frenetic striving for social ascendance but does not characterize them as shaping history in the same manner that Marx and Engels do. These characters are so fixated on obtaining money and objects to climb the social ladder that they become passive actors in the broader trajectory of society, the historical materialist project that Marx is so concerned with. The characters are idealistic; Balzac describes “the Parisiennes who now fulfilled [Eugène’s] dream of ideal beauty [and] the uncertain future of this large family, one that rested on his shoulders…fueled his desire to succeed and tripled his yearning for distinction” (Old Man Goriot 29). The primary activity of Balzac’s Parisians is not to shape the world, but to allot their efforts to secure the material aspects necessary to appear as though they have ascended to a higher social class. Balzac’s moneyed classes only wish to see and be seen, like peacocks, showing off their plumage, content to trot about the palace grounds and peck at scraps of “the obvious material delights of Paris” (Old Man Goriot 28). Regardless of the characters’ lack of history-making praxis, Balzac’s emphasis on materiality parallels that of Marx and Engels, who placed the materialist conception of history at the center of their project.

Père Goriot is a masterful and accurate display of materialistic Parisian life, where “love is essentially vainglorious, shameless, wasteful, flashy, and false” (Old Man Goriot 199). In this central novel of La Comèdie humaine, we have come to identify and isolate the components of Balzac’s social realism, an interpretive tool which enabled the transposition of the author’s acute perception of social reality. Indeed, Marx and Engels identified social realism as a truthful and authentic method of encapsulating the struggles of a particular temporal context. Balzac’s realism amounts to a capacity for re-counting the same reality formulated theoretically by Marx and Engels and designates a clear implication of the primacy of materialism. Despite some theoretical divergence, all three writers ultimately shared this material fixation, and developed their works around this nucleus. In the words of Engels, “[Balzac] describes how the last remnants of [la viellie politesse française], to him, the model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar moneyed upstart…how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society” (1888 Letter). The cash or cashmere of the vulgar moneyed upstart are personifications of Balzacian materiality, the glittering gilded focal point that illuminates the entire edifice of La Comèdie humaine.

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Fracchia, Joseph, and Thomas M. Kemple. “Reading Marx Writing: Melodrama, the Market, and the ‘Grundrisse.”.” The German Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, 1997, p. 285.

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Marx, Karl, and Frederic L. Bender. The Communist Manifesto. Norton, 1988.

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McLaughlin, Kevin. Writing in Parts: Imitation and Exchange in Nineteenth Century Literature. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Megill, Allan. Karl Marx: the Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market). Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

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Mortimer, Armine Kotin. For Love or for Money: Balzac’s Rhetorical Realism. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

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The Prescient Praxis of Parable: Marx’s Theory of History in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle

It is essential to view Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle within a historical context, both in terms of when he wrote and in terms of how he portrays historical development within the play. Brecht, undoubtedly a committed Marxist, intends to utilize Marx’s theory of history as a means of forcing the viewer to reckon with his or her preconceived notions of how humans and history interact. Brecht presents multiple temporal realities in a non-linear format and ultimately infuses the play with Marx’s conception of human societal progress away from estrangement through a dialectical-practical method.

In order to discuss Brecht’s work, it is first necessary to understand Marx’s theory of history, both in terms of its philosophical origins, most notably Marx’s inheritance of the hegelian dialectic, and its theoretical component parts that appear in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although Marx intended to develop a holistic theory of history and developed the “materialist conception of history” in which he attempted to assert a unified, rational, and scientifically oriented account of human history, he was ultimately unable to develop an all-encompassing theory. Instead, Marx developed multiple fragmentary views of history. This is not to say that these fragmentary views of history were entirely separate from each other; on the contrary, the theories are largely interdependent.

The first aspect of Marx’s theory of history is an anthropological interpretation. Marx develops the concept of history as a process of humanization and naturalization in which history is directed towards man developing the potentiality of his being and becoming fully human while simultaneously becoming more united with humanized “nature”. Marx argues that this human development will arise out of the current state of affairs that is largely characterized by self-estrangement. In 1844, Marx developed a criticism of political economy in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts describe some of the fundamental elements of Marx’s anthropological theory of history including: man’s coming-to-be and future communism as goals of the historical process, the characterization of man as a social being, as well as a comprehensive depiction of the concept of man’s “self-estrangement”, which plays a central role in the theory. In the manuscripts, Marx identifies and describes four main aspects of the estrangement of labor:

  1. The fact that “labor is external to the worker…that therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy… ” (Early Writings 326). The worker feels disconnected from his activity and as such, the relationship of labor to the act of production within labor leads to alienation in the mind of the worker.
  2. The relationship of the “worker to the product of labor as an alien object that has power over him” (EW 327). This relationship creates hostile opposition between the worker and the “sensuous external world, to natural objects”, an opposition which is the root cause of the other estrangements.
  3. Estranged labor “estranges nature from man and estranges man from himself, from his own active function, from his vital activity…from his species” (EW 328). Marx goes on to explain how the animal is immediately at one with its life activity, and that humans make this life activity an object of his will and consciousness. As such, man is a species being “i.e. his own life is an object for him”. The object of labor is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man and estranged labor divorces man from his species-being. This self-estrangement makes man’s human essence and natural potential alien to him.
  4. Estranged labor also leads to the estrangement of man from man. Marx notes that because man is estranged from his individual specifies-being, “each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from man’s essence” (EW330). Marx later notes how estrangement is realized and expressed only in man’s social relationship to other men.

Estrangement, which Marx links to the current bourgeois mode of production, restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Only upon becoming conscious of this estrangement and transcending it, is man able to develop in accordance with his productive forces and truly express his species-being.

Marx characterizes man as “not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being…a being for himself…a species being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing” (Marx Engels Reader 116). Marx places particular importance on the concept of man’s coming-to-be, and puts it at the center of his anthropological conception of history. To Marx this humanization is an end goal in man’s historical development and coincides with the inevitable realization of an un-estranged society. In the 1844 manuscripts, Marx explicitly describes the linkage between man’s coming-to-be and history when he states how “man too has his act of coming-to-be–history–which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of coming-to-be it is a conscious self-transcending act of coming-to-be…history is the true natural history of man” (MER 116-117). By categorizing man’s coming-to-be as a natural historical process, Marx thereby confirms the conscious self-transcending act, man’s practical-critical activity, as a central component of historical development.

A second aspect of Marx’s theory is history as praxis or activity. Marx develops the bulk of this interpretation of history in The German Ideology, The Grundrisse, and in his contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach. Marx’s 1845 contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach represents his philosophical and practical rationale to break with Hegel, Feuerbach, and philosophy at large. Marx instead focuses his efforts on an analysis of modern capitalist society from this point on. In his first point in the text, Marx states how Feuerbach mistakenly “regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation…[and] he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity” (EW 421). In this passage Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s dismissal of praxis as a “dirty-judaical manifestation”, as Feuerbach equates all practical activity to the dishonest market practices of Schacher (a term for haggling with a negative Jewish connotation). Marx deplores the mode of social behavior that was present in the market and implied in Schacher, and rejects Feuerbach’s conception that praxis and Schacher were inseparable. The passage also elucidates Marx’s view that ‘practical-critical’ activity plays an important and dynamic role in history. Marx further elaborates this position in the third point of the text when he argues that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (EW 422). Again, Marx criticizes Feuerbach for not considering the act, the ‘revolutionary practice’, as a fundamental element of historical development. This emphasis on praxis marks a shift away from his initial anthropological thinking, but does not represent a complete break. Marx still entertains Feuerbach’s humanistic language, and still considers man’s coming-to-be as a vital aspect of historical progress.

In The German Ideology, Marx remains consistent with his prior humanism when he states how “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (MER 149). Here Marx describes the connection between history and the action of living human individuals citing the actions of human beings as making history, a current that runs throughout his work. Later in the text, Marx goes on to define history as a series of historical acts including: the production of the means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation. Here Marx frames the development of history in the context of human activity. This is congruent with the anthropological view of history because both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man, but indicates that praxis itself takes precedence.

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx states how “the real, active relation of man to himself as a species-being… is only possible if he really employs his species-powers-which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history…” (EW 386).  Here Marx emphasizes the concept of the real active relation of man to himself, again bringing attention to the importance of the act in the development of history. Marx states how praxis is necessary in the creation of a society that is fully developed which produces man in all the richness of his being. Marx argues that in creating this society “the resolution of the theoretical antitheses themselves is possible only in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man” (EW354). To Marx, the resolution of these antitheses must be practical because it is not merely a problem of knowledge, but a real problem which philosophy and other theoretical investigations are unable to solve.

The overlap between the anthropological and praxis-oriented theories of history is clear, especially when Marx continually references man’s relation to his species-being. The praxis-oriented view of history seems to have the same goals of man’s coming-to-be and future communism, but places particular emphasis on the active process itself whereas the anthropological view is more, if not excessively, metaphysical.  The anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history are also linked by Marx’s interpretation of labor as a process of productive consumption. According to Marx, labor “creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself” (Grundrisse 325). Marx uses labor to connect the concepts of the development of rich individuality and the development of activity itself, characterizing labor as productive consumption which enables the satisfaction of current needs and increases the productive potential of labor. This productive potential aligns with the development of history as it leads man to develop the potentiality of his being through active labor.

Marx’s theories of history are personified and fully expressed through the dramatic works of Brecht. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht shows that historical social change can be reflected, inspired and made accessible through fable to the audience. Brecht’s progressive presentation of historical development indicates his preference to subvert the dominant capitalist paradigm. Brecht’s Chalk Circle provides a unique opportunity for the spectator to stand outside of linear temporal reality. No longer a passive audience member, Brecht’s critically engaged observer is able to observe the montage of changing epochs, able to juxtapose the “Old World” and the new, and ultimately able to glean some philosophical lesson from the experience to share with his or her own immediate community. This format of “Epic Theater” enabled Brecht to provoke the viewer into considering Marx’s theories, and in this case, his anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history.

Brecht’s jumbled chronology invites the reader to consider the social relations of the community in each distinct socio-historical context, compare them, and acknowledge the contradictions present in each. The comparison of the land dispute portrayed in the prologue and almost all of the disputes portrayed in the “old world’ story indicate Brecht’s preference for the resolution described by the former. The peaceful resolution of a land dispute under a communist plenum runs counter to the often violent and arbitrary legal process outlined in the rest of the play. There is no doubt that Brecht intended the prologue to serve as an ideological counterweight to the rest of the play, something for the viewer to keep in mind as one observed the arbitrary and cruel rulership of the Prince, the Governor, and Azdak, whose character is more nuanced and benevolent, but unavoidably corrupt. This notion of mismanagement of the community by its elites further signals Brecht’s proletarian sympathies.

Brecht’s characterization of the “old world” as backwards indicates his preference for progress and modernity, for a future guided by the science of dialectical-historical development. By juxtaposing the “old world” and the “new”, Brecht wants to draw our attention to the fact that things have indeed gotten marginally better, history has developed and improved the lives of all those involved in the peaceful resolution of the post-war land dispute. In terms of Marx’s theory of history, the public plenum that Brecht portrays in the preface represents an active relation of species being to species powers insofar as the cultivators win the land for use, which only comes about from the cooperation of mankind and the logical result of history, which has developed since the “old world” that is expressed in the rest of the play. There are multiple dimensions to the word “develop” here, as it implies not only a sense of temporal passage but also of a net growth in social decorum, which is augmented by the structural juxtaposition against the  traditional “feudal” order, which is consistently characterized as oppressive and tyrannical.  Brecht’s portrayal of historical development mirrors Marx’s in the sense that the development of the old world into the new will only occur through what Marx describes as the real active relation of man to himself, actualized in the plenum that occurs in the prologue.

The moral framework that Brecht introduces in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is ultimately defined in Marx’s terms of social utility and production, and follow Marx’s theories of historical development. For both Brecht and Marx, historical development represents a process of both anthropological development, or actualization and expression of the species-being, and practical activity. Any sense of progress in the play relates back to this historical model first put forth by Marx. In the prologue, the land goes to the party most likely to put it to good use, to develop it in accordance with the growing collective’s species-being. In Grusha’s case, this utility oriented morality is most clearly expressed by the actions she takes to make the child her own, which indicate her social utility and her seizure of the “means of production”. Grusha’s intersession and adoption of the child represents a direct expression of her species-being, of her motherliness.

Grusha’s sacrifices and peril, her crossing the bridge and her engagements with the ironshirts, all develop her “productive” capacity, as she “produces” her own sense of motherhood of the child. At the conclusion of the fateful chalk circle scene, Grusha states how she is unable to tear the child from the circle in fear of hurting him, indicating the true heart of a mother. In response, Adzak formally appoints Grusha as the new mother, stating how “In this manner the court has determined the true mother” (CCC127).  It is Grusha’s practical activity, or in this case, the lack of harmful action towards the child, that ultimately cements her identity as a mother. This final sentencing accords with Marx and Brecht’s social utility-oriented moral framework and anthropological-practical model of historical development.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle human activity is the object of inquiry, not merely taken for granted as a function of the plot. It is Grusha and Azdak’s radical actions that propel the play forward, each one overturning the status quo in some manner. Grusha’s praxis is present in her intercession with the child. She interrupts the natural lineage of the royal family to claim the child as her own, and has in this sense created history on her own. Azdak co opts the legal-juridical framework and introduces his own brand of arbitrary sentencing. Brecht describes Azdak’s period of judging as “a brief golden age, almost an age of justice” (CCC128). Considering the fact that Grusha and Azdak are the only characters who exhibit praxis and develop in accordance with their species-being, perhaps society at large is not yet prepared for a full-fledged “age of justice,” hence the “almost” that modifies the singer’s narration. For both Brecht and Marx, the actions of these two characters represent a taste of what is possible for a more modern society developing under proper conditions with the proper actions taken by all individuals of the community.

The conclusions of the legal disputes in both eras of the story indicate Brecht’s approval of Marx’s developmental theory of history, and Marx’s theory as a whole. The legal outcomes of both trials reject estrangement, which restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Grusha and Azdak both “invent” history by disrupting the normal progression of “feudal” society, they reject the bounds placed upon them by their class, and reject the ruling paradigm. By overturning the pre-existing structures of authority, they are effectively staging a revolution of their own, advancing the historical dialectic that Marx puts forth in his theory of history. Even the trial of the chalk circle represents a practical resolution of two antithetical agents. Two individual humans physically pull on the child to resolve the dispute, only one can win, just as the dialectic propels Marx’s praxis oriented theory of history.

The legal outcomes of the play are also congruent with Marx’s view of history as a series of historical acts, which appeared in the excerpts from The German Ideology mentioned above. Azdak, Grusha, and the collective farmers are responsible for the production of means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation, especially the last two. As Marx frames this development in the context of human activity, it is congruent with his anthropological view of history, as both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man.

In the closing scene of the play, the singer neatly summarizes the moral of the story, which ultimately affirms the anthropological and practical aspects Marx’s theory of history. The singer states how “what there is shall go to those who are good for it, children to the motherly, that they prosper, carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, the valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit” (CCC 128). By allowing “what there is” to go to “those who are good for it,” Brecht’s form of justice negates estrangement and allows for both Grusha and the collective farmers to fulfill their species-being. Only upon becoming conscious of estrangement and transcending it are the characters of the play able to develop in accordance with their productive forces and truly express their species-being, be it as a mother, or a farmer. These final lines of the play neatly summarize Brecht and Marx’s position, and leave the reader or viewer with a pithy reminder of the moral-historical model expressed over the course of the play.

It is only fitting that Marx’s philosophy should find its expression in the practical act of theater, especially Epic Theater, the necessarily political form of artistic consciousness that forces the viewer into a critical, analytical frame of mind. Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the central role that humans have in the historical process. Things will develop over time, and humans will be the ones engaged in the practical activity. For Epic Theater practitioners like Brecht, historicization is necessary to show that the human being is determined by and determining of its social and physical circumstances, as Marx describes in his theory of history. Brecht considers questions of progress and rightful ownership, and invites the audience to realize the larger forces and dynamics at work in society. Marx’s theory of history ultimately equipped Brecht with the proper tools to investigate how humans participate in history, an especially pressing question in the post-war environment.

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A Spectacle of Virtue: The Performative Morality of Nobility in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro

The notion of a morally superior nobility is one often promulgated by those with enough power to do so. In the case of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart’s characterization of Count Almaviva makes it clear to the viewer that any class-ordained morality is false, and holding such powerful members of society accountable for their shortcomings requires the power of public scrutiny. This is notably illustrated as Suzanna emerges from the closet during the finale of Act II. Any sense of the Count’s morality erodes and his duplicitous nature becomes clear as he grovels for forgiveness. Mozart’s orchestral treatment of this moment underscores this revelation made possible by Suzanna and the Countess, who band together to hold the Count to task.

The Count would prefer to coerce and threaten those below him behind closed doors, where there is no threat to his public perception, where he feels as though he can use the pressure of his feudal position to get what he wants. It takes the “publicizing” effect of Suzanna’s presence to force the count to act with any sense of virtue. When facing the count alone, both Suzanna and the Countess are unable to bring him to a state of level-headedness. The Count only shows regret upon the exposure of his tyrannical activities, any attempt at reconciliation is merely contingent upon whether he has been outed yet. In a similar vein, this same publicizing effect is present when Figaro requires the public to force the hand of the count to marry the two lovers. The Count is obviously preoccupied with his public perception, and when in public, he is accountable to his pride. It is important to note that his change of heart, whether authentic or not, does not occur when he believes that he is alone with his wife and the unidentified captive in the closet. The Count only asks for forgiveness for his deeds when there is more than one person in the room and his honor is at stake.  It is also worth noting that Suzanna, the object of the Count’s unrestrained sexual desire, is able to leverage his infatuation against him, thus channeling his emotional outburst into an apology to his wife. Suzanna knows that she has sexual power over the Count, but is only fully equipped to use it alongside the Countess.

Mozart’s use of duet and ensemble emphasize the power that Suzanna and the Countess possess upon joining their efforts. As the Count recognizes that he has been had, he sings to his wife and his intended concubine, “I beg your pardon, but playing such jokes is cruel, after all.” In the same breath in which he asks for forgiveness, he accuses the two women of playing a cruel joke, indicating his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his reckless threats and accusations. In response, Suzanna and the Countess sing in a duet, “Your foolish acts deserve no pity.” The two women are of different social classes indeed, the Countess is Suzanna’s mistress yet the two are able to force the hand of the most powerful male character in the opera. If only for a moment, the two women, two sopranos, stand on equal footing and support each other to confront a man who had drawn his sword with murderous intent only moments before. This unification of two opposing social classes, two voices, into one indicates Mozart’s support of égalité and denotes his broader deference to enlightenment principles and the characteristic intellectual concerns of his time.

Mozart masterfully incorporates the orchestra into this “Giudizio Trio” which marks the emotional center of the Opera. The sheer musical tumult of this number does not employ heavy brass or percussion, but is nevertheless sonically rich, and reinforces the deeply emotional tone of the libretto. The finale is scored by a palpable rising tension, with the three-four “allegro spiritoso” establishing an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder.  This vigorous musical moment mirrors the Count’s jealous accusations and the Contessa’s phrase, “Ah! Blind jealousy, what excesses you bring about!” The orchestral tension and the Count’s tirade snap like a taught string as the door to the closet swings open, foiling the Count’s rage-fueled momentum. This shock acts as a sort of punctuation, with sparse orchestration as the strings plod along in a hushed piano. As the scene progresses, the music becomes more passionate and confident, emulating the confidence of Suzanna and the Countess, who having successfully humiliated the Count are able to gain the upper hand.

Mozart wanted to make opera more realistic and human. This imperative is especially clear in Le Nozze di Figaro, where the oppressive power dynamics between the count and his subjects. This is a central theme of the play, that all humans, men and women, high and low-born, are fallible, especially the nobility. Mozart gives proletarian viewers hope. By shedding light on the Count’s abusive tendencies through public spectacle and solidarity, those oppressed members of the household are able to trick him into acting in a respectable manner commensurate to his title.

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Arriving at Suprematism: “Zaum” and the Alogical Praxis of Kazimir Malevich’s Cow and Violin

“You are caught in the nets of the horizon, like fish! We, suprematists, throw open the way to you.”

– Kazimir Malevich

Manifesto: From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, 1915.

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The only immediately recognizable forms in Kazimir Malevich’s 1913 painting Cow and Violin are those identified in the title of the work. Like a bullseye, these two eponymous objects reside at the dead center of the painting, and invite the wandering eye with their familiar, rustic umber tones. Within a split second of acknowledging these two objects, this viewer’s eye then drifts to the background, which appears synthetic, fragmented, and hectic. Any sense that these two primary objects could exist independently of the rest of the painting is abandoned as the viewer steps back and observes the totality of competing forms and forces. An early attempt to transcend the bounds of artistic rationality, Cow and Violin presents a knot of antagonistic contradictions that convey a sense of movement and tenuous coherence overshadowed by irreconcilable extremes.

Sporting udders and horns, the cow is the most realistic component of the painting, yet its mundanity evokes an air of idealized caricature, even farcical humor. While it treads upon nothing, the cow is still on stable footing and provides an ironic sense of lateral stability. Immediately behind the cow is the violin, seemingly balanced on its endpin. The violin bisects the painting with its stubby pinstriped neck, its textured natural wood grain, and its slender triangular tailpiece. This sense of verticality is physically reified by the painting surface itself, a 48.8 x 25.8 cm wooden panel, cut long and lean. The viewer’s eyes keep returning to the center of the composition. Together, the vertical and horizontal impressions derived from the cow and the violin construct a sense of temporary stability and focus, a seemingly recognizable objective. However, this uneasy symmetry is contradicted by features like the head of the violin, which Malevich has abstracted into primitive essentials, a single whorl and two rudimentary tuning pegs flattened in profile. The sense of balance is finally toppled by the movement of the background.

The cow and the violin are enmeshed with the undulating patchwork that lurks behind. This jolted and fragmented backdrop contains multitudes. Explosions of geometric forms weave amongst each other as squares dissolve into curvatures, circles, and amorphous prisms. The composition employs a limited chromatic range of dusky blacks, glossy saturated blacks, grays, various taupes, with highlights of grass colored verticals and subdued plum hues throughout. The limited chromatic palette may reflect the limited availability or high cost of vivid pigments and medium in Russia at the time. The familiar brown-orange ochres of the cow and violin are indeed the brightest colors in the work. The natural tones seem overwhelmed by the repeated artificial industrial hues of the cubist inspired forms. White squares, grey squares and curves intermingle with long green vertical rectangles, suffocating the green, crowding the space, pushing aside the natural taupe of the top left, herding it into a cramped corner. There is a forceful scraping grattage through angular saturated layers of oily black, revealing the washed out black of layers below. Interdependent yet isolated motifs of a violin appear throughout this cubist-inspired backdrop- the bridge and strings at the bottom center, the strings to the left of the neck of the violin, the strong sweeping diagonal in the top left corner, evoking the dynamic movement of the bow. The totality of these shapes and fluid image-movements orchestrate the action in the work.

The painting simultaneously exists in different directions within multiple dimensions. The neck of the violin defines a strong vertical axis and lends an initial sense of structure and symmetry to the painting. Four circles also mark the corners of the painting, while they seem non-representative, they add a rough sense of unity and alignment, like a vision test. However, this sense quickly fades as the viewer’s attention is once again swallowed by the asymmetry and off-kilter chaos of the geometric forms in the background. If there is any balance or asymmetric unity to be found, it tenuous and uneasy, on the verge of toppling over. Unlike a traditional painting of terrestrial phenomena, there is no definable horizon, as these forms exist outside of physics. In fact, Malevich has transcended three-dimensional reality here. Aside from the two objective forms, Malevich abandons any sense of realistic proportion or logical perspective, yet his painting contains a strong sense of depth derived from the potentially infinite layering of forms.

This depth acts in two different ways, the first is established by the literal hierarchy of forms. Malevich has placed the cow in front of the violin, in front of the abstract shapes with violin motifs. The shadow of the neck of the violin upon the white square, the powerful darkness of the painting immediately behind the violin, the white square atop the other forms all lend a sense of traditional physical depth and interval between the forms. The second is an abstraction gradient along the allegorical “Z” axis that proceeds from the objective realistic cow, to the partially realistic violin, to the abstract, non-objective background, to whatever lies behind the amalgamation of forms. Logic deteriorates as the viewer proceeds along this axis, into the painting, from objective to non-objective, from obvious to distorted, diving endlessly into a fractured construction of drab colors, textures, movements, and sensations. As one travels along this axis, Malevich guides the viewer to a higher reality, free from the constraints of meaning, logic, and physics. This artistic truth-beyond-logic saw its genesis in many artistic movements of the time. Cubism, Futurism, and eventually Suprematism all employed this sense of zaum, (зáумь, which is comprised of the Russian prefix за “beyond, behind” and noun ум “the mind, nous” and has been translated as “transreason”, “transration” or “beyonsense”) or beyond-reason as a means of overturning the established, academic artistic orthodoxy, and of grappling with the future.

A sort of hybrid piece, Cow and Violin serves as an indicator of Malevich’s early steps towards zaum, Suprematism, and wholly non-objective alogical art. However, as it still contains the clearly objective elements of the cow and the violin, the piece is only ever arriving at Suprematism. Much of Malevich’s early work, especially from 1910-1913, sits solidly between his original foundation of symbolist-impressionist orthodoxy and his new foray into Cubo-Futurism and the philosophical trappings that accompanied such styles. The collective inheritance of all of these styles pulled Malevich further away from formal representation.  The synthesis of these intersecting traditions would become the evolved form of consciousness expressed in Suprematism.

Cow and Violin is therefore a thoroughly dialectical work, as it simultaneously embodies several contradicting forces, at all times confronts the viewer with an unstable synthesis of multiple contending conceptual agents. At once objective and non-objective, Cow and Violin presents exactly what the title describes, a cow and an instrument, two immediately known forms, but the fragmented background is equally, if not more distinctive, and gives the painting its overall identity. The contrast of the background with the foreground mimics the struggle between phenomenological reality and the noumenal realm of the mind, of free association. Without this struggle, the painting is merely a sketch of two pastoral objects adorned with futuristic ornament. As these planes of reality vie for attention, Malevich also invites a historical dialectic into the painting.

The work undoubtedly contains Malevich’s allegorical meditations on modernity and progress, much of his work does. A kind of temporal tension between past and future is present in this piece, as the primitive composition of the cow and the violin compete with a futuristic, synthetic sea of forms. One must question whether the two quotidien objects will emerge out of the chaos, become subsumed by it, or exist somewhere in between. The work suggests a looming inevitability of the future, painted in dark, angular, industrial, high contrast tones, the alogical zaum again eating up what remains of the “known” rationality and objectivity of the past.

The tension between the various layers of the painting also mirrors the tumultuous economic and political atmosphere of Russia in 1913. Often dubbed an agrarian underdeveloped power that hoped to engage in the great power game, Russia sat in the balance between refined European society and gritty agricultural toil- equal parts cow and violin. These forms indicate Malevich’s juxtaposition of high and low culture, of rural and urbane sensibilities. As it faced the effects of archaic social, economic, and political structures and decades of military and diplomatic failures, Imperial Russia was divided, weakened, and on the brink of engagement in the First World War. These conditions, when paired with cruel treatment of peasants by the bourgeoisie, brutal industrial working conditions, and food shortages resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Whether Malevich anticipated Revolution in this work is open to debate, but the contrast of past and future is central to the work, to zaum, and to the artistic movement at large.

Malevich’s Cow and Violin seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the irrationality of praxis. Things will develop over time, and the accompanying mood may be one of nonsensical confusion. For zaum practitioners, known phenomena will still exist, but the truth and the meaning lies somewhere beyond objective reality. The historical context of the work only adds to the sense of contradictory competing forces that may or may not find resolution, all with the mundane as the centering feature of life. Those living through such a time of uncertainty might have found some solace in known commonplace objects, perhaps recognizing the past as essential to the entire project of modernity.

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The Divergent Epistemological Pathways of Skepticism and Cartesian Doubt

There are numerous stylistic and thematic similarities between Montaigne’s Essays and Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Both works were written by thoroughly introspective French thinkers who employed a vernacular autobiographical style, and both works make use of doubt as a crucial epistemological tool. The purpose of this paper, however, is to identify the profound disparity between the philosophical conclusions of these two writers, which stems from their differing conceptions of doubt. Montaigne’s skepticism, expressed in “On Cannibals,” indicates a belief that there is no objective truth, whereas Descartes’ entire project leverages hyperbolic doubt as a means to identify objective truths, which he believes are ordained by God.

While skepticism has its classical roots in the Socratic method, Montaigne can be seen as its most viable champion and practitioner during the Renaissance. As a skeptic, Montaigne continually raises the issue of whether the reasons we have for our beliefs are strong enough to withstand doubt, yield knowledge, and by extension, objective truth. For Montaigne, the effects of doubt are a necessary aspect of the skeptic’s project. In his Essais Montaigne dealt primarily with questions of the self, and placed a high value on information gained through direct experience, but always remained doubtful of whether our lessons from experience constitute objective truth. In his essay “On Cannibals” Montaigne steps back from his typical investigation of the self to shift the reader’s attention to a broader question, that of the European response to the New World.

This epoch destabilized preconceived understandings of European primacy, human diversity, and general knowledge, which manifested as massive epistemological doubt and a fear of what else might remain unknown. Montaigne, who had always already incorporated doubt into his philosophy, finds in this destabilization the perfect backdrop for his project to remind the reader to consider that he or she might not know anything with absolute certainty, and that objective truth might not exist.

In “On Cannibals,” Montaigne uses the discovery of the Americas as an opportunity to run some thought experiments regarding the historical nature of encounters with the other, the impact of this new encounter, and the potential impossibility of objective truth. Supplying a historical anecdote of King Pyrrhus’ encounter with the early Roman army, Montaigne reminds the reader that encounters with the other are universal and human, but also acknowledges the fact that this encounter with the Americas is “worthy of consideration,” unique in its magnitude and its impact on European certainties (150).

Montaigne paints an appealing picture of life among the naturally virtuous cannibals intended to inspire the European reader to reconsider who is the more “civilized” human and more broadly, the nature of humanity. Montaigne characterizes the natives as a tabula rasa, pure, unfettered by the artifice of civilization, stating how “These nations, then…have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours; and they are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes vexed that they were unknown earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we” (153). Montaigne, in his characterization of the natives as naturally pure, attempts to consider a version of human nature entirely distinct from that which was considered to be known with certainty. Again, Montaigne plants the seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether Europe, with all its wars and corruption, is really civilized at all. While the essayist does present many valid critiques of wealth disparity and monarchical rule in contemporary European society, it is important to note that his view of the natives is incomplete and highly idealized, relying on scraps of information to project broad societal claims.

By taking a macro-societal comparative approach, Montaigne leverages the doubt borne of the encounter with the New World to challenge established European modes of knowledge and models of civilization, suggesting that we cannot know for certain whether one or the other is better, just as we cannot really know any objective truth. When regarding the exploration and colonization missions in the New World as a whole, a skeptical Montaigne writes, “I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind” (150). With eyes bigger than our stomachs and more curiosity than capacity, perhaps the “everything” that we attempt to embrace is certainty, and the “wind” we are left with is what Montaigne posits to be objective truth. Montaigne’s skepticism seems to lead to the question, if new evidence continually uppends our understanding of what is true, then can anything be considered true? For Montaigne, perhaps the only truth is that we can only get so close to the truth, and in this truth, there is a rough beauty.

He thinks, therefore he is, or is he? Descartes’ cogito is perhaps his most memorable intellectual product, and it comes from some of the same broad doubts about the nature of certainty that Montaigne used in his skepticism. Considering their close temporal and geographic proximity, it is quite likely that Descartes is reacting to Montaigne’s skepticism in his Meditations and Discourse. As a product of a relatively scientifically progressive Jesuit education and of the Catholic counter-reformation, Descartes intended to restore a degree of Catholic certainty about reality using scientific methodology and a mechanistic worldview. In order to overcome the skeptics and their limitless ability to undermine objective truth, Descartes flipped the problem of doubt on its head and used it to arrive at what he considered to be objective truth of the self, ordained by God.

Descartes does not reject skepticism, in fact methodological skepticism outlined in Meditation I is a necessary part of arriving at the cogito. Similar to Montaigne’s skepticism, Cartesian hyperbolic doubt leaves no concept unquestioned, and acknowledges that unreliable sense perception prevents us from discovering truth directly. Unlike Montaigne’s macro-social generalizations about the New World, human nature, and objective truth outlined in “On Cannibals,” Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt employs a measured micro-psychological approach. As Descartes calls the senses into doubt in Meditation I, he employs a reductive process of refining knowledge. Descartes mentally parses through each item of knowledge he can doubt at a piecemeal level until he has peeled away all potentially doubtable knowledge and is left with a kernel of what he knows for certain. He describes this process as “putting aside everything that admits of the least doubt, as if I had discovered it to be completely false. I will stay on this course until I know something certain or, if nothing else, until I at least know for certain that nothing is certain” (MII 24) This Cartesian hyperbolic doubt presents a novel method of metaphysical engagement, allowing the human to have a critical interface with his or her immediate reality, but also invites new problems.

In his attempt to grapple with doubt, Descartes creates a contradictory circular path to truth. Descartes attempts to ascribe clarity and distinctness as aspects of truth, stating how, “I now seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true” (MIII 35). The methodological skepticism that leads Descartes to this “truth” in Meditation III is not supported by any sort of epistemological certainty other than the existence of God, and it is necessary to have some sort of certainty to use empirical methodology in the first place. Also Descartes’ certainty that God exists is founded on the idea that we can perceive that God exists, which relies on circular reasoning, evident when he states how “The more carefully I focus my attention on [the ideas of God], the less possible it seems they could have arisen from myself alone. Thus, from what has been said, I must conclude that God necessarily exists” (MIII 45). Furthermore, Descartes’ epistemic certainty of both god and self is founded on doubt, which is a thought, and thoughts are borne of fallible sensory perception.

Both Montaigne and Descartes placed doubt at the center of their respective works, but each author used doubt to arrive at a vastly different epistemological conclusion. Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” compares Europe the New World, inviting the reader to reconsider their definitions of civility and human nature, and by extension, become skeptical of all established knowledge. Conversely, Descartes uses methodological skepticism to distill a tenuous objective truth, the cogito, which relies on divine intervention to resolve its logical contradictions. Whether either holds the final answer to the question of objective truth is doubtful.

Us and Them: The Divergent Human Natures of Montaigne and Shakespeare

Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest both explore the relationship between indigenous peoples and European civilization, but despite their enmeshed themes and influences, the two works present differing conclusions regarding human nature and its inherent morality. Idealistic and unresolved, Montaigne’s essay largely reflects upon the moral disparity between a perceived “natural morality” of indigenous peoples, asserting that the cannibals are still ruled by the laws of nature, uncorrupted and un-corruptible. While appealing, Montaigne’s musings are fraught with contradiction, as he projects European moral concepts onto incompatible subjects. Simultaneously acknowledging and refuting Montaigne’s view of natural morality, Shakespeare presents a more cohesive yet dismal take on human nature, that of a universal human who is corruptible, regardless of which side of the ocean he or she comes from, revealed through his differing characterizations of Caliban and Ariel and their relationship to their tormentor Prospero.

Montaigne paints an appealing picture of life among the naturally virtuous cannibals intended to inspire the European reader to reconsider who is the more “civilized” human and more broadly, the nature of humanity. While the essayist does present many valid critiques of wealth disparity and monarchical rule in contemporary European society, his view of the “New World” is incomplete and highly idealized, relying on scraps of information to project broad societal claims that reveal the contradictions of his intellectual project. In the spirit of Renaissance humanism, Montaigne is concerned with maximizing human potential through intellectual accumulation. For Montaigne, to cast a wide net and parse through all of the potential modes of knowledge will allow the individual to pick the tools necessary to sculpt oneself, hence his comparative approach. Montaigne first equates nature and perfection in the context of aesthetics, arguing that “It is not reasonable that art should win the place of honor over our great and powerful mother Nature” (152). In characterizing all human constructions as vain and frivolous, Montaigne reveals an Aristotelian naturalist influence and an inherent bias against the artificial; however he overlooks indigenous civilization itself. While communal longhouses may seem primitive to Montaigne, they are an undeniably human construction. Montaigne goes on to characterize the natives as a tabula rasa, pure, unfettered by the artifice of civilization, stating how “These nations, then…have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours; and they are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes vexed that they were unknown earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we” (153). Montaigne, in his characterization of the natives as naturally pure, attempts to consider a version of human nature entirely distinct from that which was known. It is important to note that Montaigne mentions judgement here, as it signifies his frame of reference as that of a judge, imposing a moral-legal framework over the subject. This positioning of Europeans as elevated distributors of judgement betrays Montaigne’s preconditioned belief that no matter how naturally pure the indigenous society may be, he gives preference to established forms of intelligence and contemporary moral structure whether he realizes it or not.

Montaigne builds upon this description of natural virtue to elevate the natives to an impossibly high moral standard, to one of almost divine status. By doing so, Montaigne is in effect dehumanizing and using them as a foil to what he sees as the moral failings of Europeans, projecting onto them moral categories and words which are not theirs. Montaigne’s is a superficial idealism; while well-intentioned, it is perhaps more damaging to the indigenous culture. All of these contradictions are present when Montaigne describes how, “What we actually see in these nations surpasses not only all the pictures in which poets have idealized the golden age and all their inventions in imagining a happy state of man, but also the conceptions and the very desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could they believe that…society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder… The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon-unheard of. How far from this perfection would [Plato] find the republic that he imagined: Men fresh sprung from the gods [Seneca]. These manners nature first ordained [Virgil]” (153). Montaigne’s problem here is one of optics, as he attempts to portray an entirely novel utopian socio-moral framework, but does so using references to European classical philosophy, moral concepts, and vocabulary. This contradiction indicates that despite all his praise and admiration, Montaigne is not ultimately sympathetic to the natives, and his idealization is actually a whitewashing of their authentic culture to clear the way for the blank slate upon which he and others will project the inverse of established European virtues. This self-reflection undermines his entire Renaissance humanist project of self-betterment, as it produces a closed feedback loop of European moral concepts with no room for real comparison. Furthermore, the passages Montaigne quotes from Seneca and Virgil indicate a deification of this ideal natural human, which is ultimately de-humanizing insofar as he does not honor or explore the very real possibility that the indigenous population felt a full spectrum of human emotions, be them admirable or despicable. Such exploitation develops a theme and source of tension in The Tempest. Montaigne uses the indigenous population as means to extract enlightenment-by-comparison for educated European individuals to sculpt and improve their own lives, just as Prospero uses the island to extract manual and magical labor necessary for his own survival and as a means to his own end, revenge.

While the characterization of the indigenous beings on the island in The Tempest is substantial in its relation to “On Cannibals” insofar as both authors consider the relationship between the “Old World” and the “New World,” their interactions with Prospero indicate a contrast between the two works, perhaps even a direct criticism of “On Cannibals.” Although Ariel and Caliban both represent the “New World,” Shakespeare’s portrayal of the two characters indicate divergent interpretations of an indigenous population’s reaction to technologically and intellectually advanced oppressors. Prospero’s mastery of magic books, a metaphor for both European intellect and technology, ensures his preponderance of power on the island and allows him to subjugate its inhabitants. Prospero’s oppressive nature is made especially clear when Caliban recoils from one of Prospero’s threats, and in an aside to the audience laments, “I must obey. [Prospero’s] art is of such power, it would control my dam’s god Setebos and make a vassal of him” (1.2, 371-73). Here Shakespeare uses Caliban’s fear of physical abuse to frame intelligence and modernity as oppressive forces, particularly within the context of colonial expedition. Prospero’s continual abuse of his subjects comes as no surprise, for it is within the nature of those with power to do so, but what is interesting is how prolonged exposure to an oppressive colonizer affects the inhabitants of the island. Caliban is a highly impressionable and vulnerable character, whose brutishness is borne of Prospero’s cruelty. While Prospero considers himself to be a fine master of his subjects, Caliban remains in his eyes, “a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (4.1,188-89). Prospero’s judgement in this passage is ironic considering that his own “nurturing” is most likely to blame for Caliban’s devilish nature. The wordplay on “nature / Nurture” is also significant here, as it draws attention to a tension at the core of the bard’s project. While it is unclear whether Caliban’s attempt to defile Miranda reflects a very human sexual drive that had not yet been tempered by societal convention or an inherent devilishness, Shakespeare’s characterization of Caliban as impressionable, brutish, and bestial signals his rejection of Montaigne’s morally pure native human.

While Ariel and Caliban both are forcefully beholden to Prospero’s will, they each develop in different ways over the course of the play, indicative of Shakespeare’s view of human nature under colonial influence. Ariel becomes more confident and independent, eventually gaining his freedom, as Caliban remains treacherous and tortured, cursing his pitiful existence and his oppressor until the end. The key difference here is that Prospero requires Ariel’s supernatural qualities in order to carry out his fantasy of revenge, so he provides preferential treatment, speaking to the sprite only with intermittent rancor, even tempting him with the prospect of freedom. This contractual servitude is evident when after being promised freedom in two days’ time, Ariel submits to Prospero’s will, lauding Prospero, stating, “That’s my noble master. What shall I do? Say what: what shall I do?” (1.2, 299-300). Here, Ariel’s enthusiasm to serve Prospero is performative, yet necessary for him to win his freedom and prevent any potential physical abuse. The sing-song repetition of “what shall I do” in the scene is indicative of the tenuous master-servant covenant. After this, Prospero addresses Ariel as a “Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel, hark in thine ear” (1.2, 317-18). While still commanding, Prospero’s reserved yet compulsory respect for Ariel exists in sharp contrast to his unrestrained physical and verbal abuse of Caliban, present in the next lines, as Prospero snarls “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (1.2, 319). Here Prospero addresses Caliban as a demonic slave, and curses him relentlessly for the remainder of the play, for his attempted violation of Miranda has ensured the magician’s wrath. For Caliban, there is no hope of freedom, and his all-consuming hatred of Prospero is underscored by an extreme sense of betrayal and abandonment made clear when he states how, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, thou strok’st me and made much of me…I loved thee, and showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle…curs’d be that I did so! All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats light on you! For I am all the subjects that you have, which first was mine own king, and here you sty me” (1.2, 331-42). Caliban’s backstory is tragic, as he was born free, enslaved and robbed of his mother upon arrival of the magician and his daughter. Caliban’s unsuccessful invocation of his mother’s magic emphasises the futility of resistance and the degree to which Prospero has influenced him to resort to curses and violence to solve problems. Caliban’s use of broken language is also noteworthy because Prospero taught him language, representative of his broken relationship with his master.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Prospero’s relationship with Ariel and with Caliban is that Ariel is a spirit, not a human, and Caliban is an impressionable human who reflects what he is exposed to, indicating Shakespeare’s supposition of a flawed human nature. Ariel strives for and attains freedom, whereas Caliban goes from serving Prospero and his magic to serving Stephano and Trinculo and their liquor, never able to escape his cycle of suffering. When encountering Stephano and Trinculo for the first time, Caliban states how, “These be fine things, and they be not sprites. That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. I will kneel to him” (2.2, 111-13). Caliban’s immediate willingness to serve another master denotes a different Aristotelian influence on Shakespeare’s thought, that of the concept of the natural slave. Sadly, Caliban’s entire frame of reference is restricted to what occurs on the island, and the arrival of any new human, regardless of their ineptitude is cause for celebration, even though the two drunkards verbally tease him with dehumanizing names like fish, monster, and moon-calf. Caliban promises to show them all the secrets of the island, in the same way that he first did for Prospero, stating how, “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island- and I will kiss thy foot. I prithee be my god” (2.2, 142-43). Such enthusiasm to share the secrets of the island indicates that Caliban longs for any sort of positive human interaction, even if it is only positive due to his present intoxication. Here, Shakespeare’s characterization of human nature is not a promising one. This distinction represents the most telling difference between Montaigne and Shakespeare. “Of Cannibals” posits that even after being exposed to foreigners, the indigenous people retain their inherently virtuous disposition, whereas Shakespeare argues that both the indigenous slave and his foreign master are equally treacherous, neither one being unspoiled, for they are both subject to a flawed human nature. Furthermore, most of the other human characters in The Tempest are deceitful, a characterization present in many of Shakespeare’s works.

Through his portrayal of Ariel and Caliban, Shakespeare acknowledges and subsequently refutes the naturally virtuous vision of human nature that Montaigne promulgates in his essay, highlighting the inconsistencies of the essayist’s approach. An inconsistency that plagues Montaigne’s conception of a naturally virtuous native human becomes evident when he presents the natives as capable of extreme revenge, readily willing to toss aside their cannibalistic revenge practice in favor of one that hurts more, inconsistent with his prior characterization of the natives. This characterization is present in The Tempest, specifically when a vengeful Caliban attempts to murder Prospero. Montaigne states how “[Cannibalism] is not, as people think, for nourishment, as of old the Scythians used to do; it is to betoken an extreme revenge…when they saw the Portuguese…inflict a different kind of death on them when they took them prisoner, which was to bury them up to the waist, shoot the rest of their body full of arrows, and afterward hang them. They thought that these people from the other world…were much greater masters than themselves in every sort of wickedness, did not adopt this sort of vengeance without some reason, and that it must be more painful than their own; so they began to give up their old method and to follow this one” (155). In describing the native capacity for extreme revenge, Montaigne portrays the “perfectly pure” natives as just as fallible as the Europeans, readily willing to adopt a new torturous practice, overlooking his previous descriptions of their behavior. In a decidedly Shakespearian fashion, the natives Montaigne describes in this passage are universally human, capable of revenge and violent acts, just as Caliban and Prospero are entirely fixated on revenge in The Tempest. Perhaps it is Caliban’s observation of Prospero’s obsession with revenge that makes him this way, but a lifetime of forced servitude and abuse would make any human full of hatred for his master. This readiness to adopt a foreign practice also highlights a connection to Caliban’s adoption of Prospero’s language and also his readiness to adopt a new master. Perhaps Ariel represents what Shakespeare considered to be the impossible notion of a naturally virtuous native. The fact that Ariel is the only non-human character and the only character who escapes servitude, either to an individual or societal convention, seems to represent a direct rebuttal of Montaigne’s idealistic notion of humanity. It is clear that “On Cannibals” inspired many of the themes of The Tempest, and the extent of the Bard’s debt to Montaigne is still hotly contested by scholars. Regardless of whether the names Caliban and Prospero were intended to mimic the words “cannibal” and “oppressor,” the theme of a universally flawed human nature is central to the work.

Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and Shakespeare’s The Tempest both emphasize the consequences of meddling in indigenous affairs but ultimately come to different conclusions regarding the natives in question. Montaigne’s essay defends the notion of a naturally virtuous indigenous people, uncorrupted by the ills of his contemporary European society and unconcerned with whether or not they should wear breeches. Shakespeare’s play characterizes human nature as definitively flawed, save for a few rare virtuous characters, and seems to both acknowledge and rebut Montaigne’s idealistic reflections on the “New World.” Regardless of whether untouched indigenous populations have a naturally virtuous human nature, both authors are prescient in their thinking. Both highlight the destructive force of control and the folly of colonial exploration, a warning put best by Montaigne who writes, “I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind” (150).

Crazy Little Thing Called (Courtly) Love

Imagine the age-old trope of a gallant knight in shining armor riding over hill and dale to rescue his beloved from the clutches of her tormentor. The idealistic doctrine of courtly love or fin’amor presented in these old romantic tales have come to hold enormous sway over the lived experience of lovers, with evidence of its influence on the radio, the silver screen, and even the Netflix stream. While humans are nearly always captivated by the allure of romance, we often forget that it can be an arduous process, striking to the core of our beings. Unrequited love, heartbreak, and general “love-sickness” can level even the most intrepid hero to a sniveling cur. In the Arthurian romance, Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien de Troyes attempts to present a theoretical framework for the endeavor of courtly love through Lancelot’s quest to rescue Guinevere. While Chrétien delineates a romantic ideal in the work, his model for romantic love is not nearly as positive as it initially appears, and a deeper investigation reveals Love’s idiosyncrasies, the dangerous condition of the suffering, yearning lover, and provides insight into the author’s own thoughts on the intricate nature of romantic love.

In order to identify such idiosyncrasies, it is necessary to first outline how Chrétien defines romantic Love with a capital L, specifically within the context of Lancelot’s lament on lines 4326-4403. In the passage and throughout the text, courtly love represents a romance within the context of a defined set of social practices, a long and drawn out process that places the morally pure female character on a pedestal, requiring her beloved to undergo grueling trials as a test of character. What is striking about this definition is that Chrétien ascribes an almost holy power to Love, capitalizing the word throughout the text, creating a clear distinction between mere lust, eros, and the more honorable courtly love, writing that “those who obey Love’s orders achieve honor and glory, forgiven for whatever they do, while those who fail it are cowards” (4400-4403). Here Chrétien not only characterizes Love as something immensely powerful, promulgating its divine orders for earthly vassals to follow, but also places courtly love as a requisite aspect of the quest for honor and glory, intertwining the nascent romantic ideal with two of the most important pre-existing ideals of the early and high middle ages. In the passage, Love holds such an immense power that it seems deified, as Lancelot argues how “Those who know nothing of Love constantly treat it badly, unafraid of its laws, pure pagans without belief.” (4396-4399). In declaring those who disrespect the power of Love as pagans, Chrétien further conflates Love and divinity. Considering Chrétien’s known disinterest in finishing the work and his Christian beliefs, it is clear that Chrétien felt conflicted about how much power he ascribes to Love, especially an extramarital affair. Such doubts color the work insofar as he characterizes love as equal parts honorable and destabilizing. However, this is not to say that Chrétien hated Love, far from it, he finishes Lancelot’s lament by reaffirming the importance of obeying Love’s orders, and accusing those who fail it of cowardice. As such, Chrétien hybridizes Love, honor and glory, indicative of the complicated status it held in contemporary Provençal high society.

Chrétien also situates romantic love at the center of the story’s moral framework, elevating its socio-philosophical significance. This conception of Love as an extension of morality is present when Chrétien describes how, “Nothing done in the name of Love can be held against a lover: whatever a lover does for love is love, and is right. ” (4363-4367). It is unclear if Chrétien actually believed that a deed done in the name of love was infinitely defensible, but in identifying it as such, Chrétien develops a somewhat difficult logic that does not necessarily hold. While it would be nice for Love to acquit all humans of shameful behavior, this moral absolutism is complicated, especially considering Chrétien’s depiction of Lancelot as that of a man at war with himself, trapped in a whirlwind of uncontrollable emotion.

Lancelot’s reckless suicidal behavior suggests that Chrétien considers romantic love as diametrically opposed to reason, and potentially dangerous. In the passage, Lancelot is not a character who is flourishing. Lancelot’s lament follows an ill-fated suicide attempt, and Lancelot bemoans his fate, praying for death, at the same time cursing it, as he proclaims “Ah Death! You disgusting old fraud, how much are you worth if you haven’t the strength or the will to take me instead of my lady…Perhaps it’s too good a deed, and that’s why you wouldn’t do it! That must be the answer: you spared me like a thief and a traitor! Ha! Such respect and kindness!” (4325-4333). As he verbally confronts and insults death, asking for its deliverance, Lancelot is no master of himself. Lancelot’s death-seeking behavior indicates to the reader that he is gripped by irrational forces, is not of sound mind, and is ultimately unable to cope with even a cold glance from his beloved. By characterizing his own survival as traitorous, Lancelot equates the very act of being alive with dishonor. Although courtly love emphasizes sacrifices made in the name of love, sacrificing one’s life because of one small lapse in etiquette and a subsequent miscommunication seems far from honorable.

While Chrétien’s courtly love signals the development of a nascent romantic-chivalric ideal, it is one that is easily besieged by Lancelot’s very human paranoid doubts of Guinevere’s romantic reciprocity. In his lament, Lancelot continues to bewail his unrequited passions, railing against death itself, protesting “How well you planned your moves! I’ll see you in Hell before I thank you for favors like this! I can’t even say who I hate most- Life, for keeping me, or Death, who won’t kill me. You’re both against me…yet it’s right, by God, that wanting to die, I’m alive, for I should have killed myself the moment my lady the queen showed how deeply she hates me” (4334-4345). While this might be a touching prospect for some, Lancelot’s suicidal intentions reveal some dangerous implications. Chrétien’s portrayal of a death-oriented Lancelot signals that despite Love’s perceived moral purity, unrequited love has the power to tear the lover apart and break his or her will to live. Such a destructive potential may be indicative of the author’s reticence to tout the moral purism of Lancelot’s particular brand of courtly love.

In Lancelot there exists a complicated relationship between love and honor, a relationship that is at times complimentary and at times conflicting. Unbeknownst to Lancelot, Guinevere’s dispute with her paramour was his brief hesitation in boarding the cart, and Lancelot suspects this rationale when he states to himself “for doing this deed her lover has been showered with shame, and reproach many times over, and accepted it gladly, though it soured what I meant to be sweet, for those who know nothing of Love, by God, are always acting that way, washing honor with shame, though honor’s not cleansed by such a bath, but soiled” (4386-4395). This selection of the passage is significant, as it clearly represents the idiosyncrasies of courtly love insofar as Lancelot, who is a paragon of knightly virtue is at the same time more than willing to commit shameful acts in the name of Love. Here Lancelot’s character is rife with contradictions, as he is simultaneously beholden to the societal expectations of his knightly rank and his Love for Guinevere. By allowing for even the most valiant knight to fall prey to the intoxicating effects of romantic love and, heaven forbid, besmirch his honor by riding in a cart, Chrétien further muddles the relationship between love an honor. In this case, Love ultimately wins out as Lancelot’s prime motivator, but Chrétien’s description of those who know nothing of love and their eagerness to shame an otherwise honorable knight indicate that the pursuit of Love, while honorable for the lover himself might come at the high cost of ridicule from his peers.

Chrétien also characterizes romantic love as creating unrealistic expectations that inevitably lead to suffering, signifying his reticence to support Lancelot and Guinevere’s extramarital tryst for his own religious reasons. As Lancelot considers what might have compelled Guinevere to greet him so coldly, he says to himself “For had I known what was wrong I’d have moved heaven and earth to amend it, however she liked, before her soul was called to God, if only she’d shown me some mercy” (4349-4354). It is obvious that Lancelot is thinking in extremes here, for if he was truly willing to move heaven and earth for his beloved he would not have attempted to take his own life just seconds prior. It is remarkable that brave Lancelot, foiled by one steely glance is so indecisive. Lancelot’s expectations for himself and of Love seem overblown, and have led to his instability and attempts at self-harm. It is also noteworthy that Lancelot desires mercy from his beloved, no doubt an allusion to the blessed mother, who was herself enjoying an ecclesiastical promotion during the twelfth-century renaissance. Such a reference serves to reinforce Guinevere and all women’s new elevated status as embodiments of moral purity. Furthermore, such an expectation of absolute moral purity is unrealistic, as all humans, male, female, or otherwise are subject to some form of wrongdoing and to believe otherwise is a recipe for disappointment.

Chrétien’s framework for romantic love presented in Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart seems to be based more on what he believed an ideal courtly relationship should be, instead of what was realistic or what was contemporaneously available to the masses outside of Provençal high society. Chrétien’s depictions of the divine power of Love as well as the potentially lethal pitfalls of pursuing romantic love indicate a disparity between the courtly ideal and traditional conceptions of honor that do not necessarily harmonize, or at the very least lead to a contradictory relationship between the two. Although most people in Provençal society would not experience courtly love in the same manner as Lancelot and Guinevere, the romantic ideal put forth by Chrétien has had an undeniable lasting impact, as we are still grappling with romantic love’s idiosyncrasies and continue to place it at the forefront of our collective literary and artistic vision

On Problems of Aristotelian Natural Slavery

Imagine two babies born in ancient Athens, alike in biological constitution: one born free and the other born into bondage with no hope of freedom. Slavery was an omnipresent practice at the height of the Athenian empire, and its contemporary philosophers largely defended the brutal institution that would infect the world in the following centuries. While Aristotle is one of the most formidable philosophical forces in human history, that does not render his political philosophy complete or acceptable in its terms to a modern eye. In the first pages of Politics, Aristotle attempts to rationalize the institution of slavery by arguing that there are natural slaves, incapable of having reason rule the tripartite mind, beholden to their appetites and irrational spirits, who should, in order to actualize Aristotle’s ideal polity, live as slaves for their own self-preservation. While Aristotle provides an empirical defense of the existence of the natural slave, his definition is flawed insofar as it remains inconsistent with his description of what constitutes humanness.

In order to identify such inconsistencies, it is necessary to outline how Aristotle views what it means to be human and contrast this with his concept of what it means to be a natural slave, within the context of Politics 1.2-1.5. In defining what is human, Aristotle cites rational discourse as the primary attribute that differentiates human from other animals, stating, “It is evident why a human being is more of a political animal than is any bee or any gregarious animal…a human being is the only animal with rational discourse” (1253a8-10). Here Aristotle not only introduces the primary human attribute, but also links it to natural political activity, bringing the polis to the forefront of his description of what is human.

Aristotle also moralizes the attribute of rational discourse when he describes how, “Rational discourse is for making clear what is expedient or harmful, and hence what is just or unjust and this is distinctive of human beings in contrast to the other animals, that they are the only ones with a perception of good and evil, and of just and unjust” (1235a14-15). By identifying rational discourse as the primary human attribute in moral terms, he ties together the disparate strands of morality and humanity, giving himself justification for the total subordination of some humans to other humans.

Aristotle characterizes humans as political beings, indicating his belief that the polis, with a clear delineation between ruler and ruled, is natural and good. Aristotle argues that, “Just as a human being is the best of the animals if he has been completed, he is also the worst of them if he is separated from law and the rule of justice” (1253a33-34). Aristotle believes that ideally, all humans must participate in the social order, be it as a ruler or as a slave. For Aristotle, all stages of naturally developing social hierarchy are subject to this division between natural leaders those they control. In every stage of this hierarchy, Aristotle identifies what he believes to be the natural human patterns of domination and submission.

Except for the concept of pairs, every part of Aristotle’s natural hierarchy of communities includes some sort of master domination and as such, he moves his attention to the epistemological basis of natural slaves, ultimately asking “whether there are any natural slaves – any for whom it is better and just to be slaves – or are there none, so that all slavery is against nature; this is easy both to study from arguments and to grasp from things that happen” (1254a18-21). In Aristotle’s view the existence of the natural slave can be reasoned out empirically. Aristotle argues that slavery could be right or wrong, identifying the contrary to his belief when he states how, “Others…suppose that ruling over slaves is against nature, since…law makes one free and another a slave, whereas nature draws no distinction between them; that is why such rule…is also unjust, since it rests on force” (1253b21-24). Aristotle, taking the alternate view, argues that in the ideal community slavery is necessary both for the master and the natural slave.

It is clear that Aristotle recognizes the moral dilemma at hand, but does little to characterize the slave as human. Immediately following this identification of the dilemma, Aristotle describes the natural slave as property, citing how, “The slave is not only the slave of a master, but also belongs altogether to the master,” and refers to slaves as “A particular sort of animate tool” (1253b32-33). Aristotle also portrays natural slaves as beings distinctly separate from human beings when he describes them, “As different from normal human beings as body is from soul, or beast from human being – and this is the condition of those whose function and best product is the use of their body- these are natural slaves, and it is better for them…to be ruled by a master’s rule” (1254b17-21). These descriptions of the natural slave are tenuous at best. Warriors and athletes would satisfy the same definition of those whose function and best product is the use of their body, and yet these men are free because of their arbitrary place of birth. Warriors would also satisfy the description of animate tools, acting as instruments of war by experienced generals, but still remain free.

Aristotle does not apply the aforementioned definition of humanness to the whole group of humans called slaves, but seems to define the natural definition of a human and the societal definition of a human as two different things. In his outlining of the development of society from piecemeal family units to overarching social structure, Aristotle describes the progression from pair, to ruler and subject, to household, to village, and finally to the highest form, the city. Aristotle states how, “Every city is natural since the previous communities are natural; for we say that something’s nature is the character it has when it’s coming to be is complete.” (1252b31-32). Perhaps it is Aristotle’s differing definition of causality and the true origin of things, but this progression of natural hierarchy does not necessarily hold. Only the first stage that he describes is truly natural, that of the desire for humans to pair in order to reproduce. The other four modes of society are not natural, for within each of them there is a ruler and someone being ruled.

What makes a slave any different if he is human by nature? The popular conception of the mind at the time included the rational element, the appetites, and the irrational spirit. Aristotle’s belief that the slave, limited in his capacity for rational discourse and beholden to base urges and irrational spirit, is better off receiving his reason from above, from an authoritative source. Aristotle states how, “Ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, but also expedient; and right from birth some members of a species are suited for ruling and are divided from those suited to being ruled…when one rules and another is ruled, both have a function” (1254a22-24). Here, Aristotle’s line of reasoning is inconsistent, especially with regards to his notion of rational discourse as the prime differentiator. In Politics, Aristotle gives no description of how to or who should identify a natural slave from a free human being in terms of biological constitution. Even though Aristotle views slaves as an inferior sort of human, it is abundantly clear that humans, of any social standing, are made of the same physical matter.

Another inconsistency arises at the beginning of Politics 1.2, when Aristotle mistakenly equates all foreigners to natural slaves, arguing that, “No foreigners are natural rulers, and so their community consists of a female slave and a male slave…it is to be expected that Greeks rule over foreigners…assuming that the foreigner and the slave are naturally the same” (1252a6-9). It is unreasonable for Aristotle to expect that for all of human history, there have been no other rulers aside from the Greeks. While “barbarians” may have not developed at the same rate as the Athenian empire, Aristotle’s assumption that they are fundamentally inferior to Greeks seems shortsighted, especially when considering his Macedonian heritage and outsider status in Athens. In a sense, Aristotle undermines his own legitimacy as a philosopher by suggesting a natural inferiority of those who are born outside of Athens.

Aristotle’s political philosophy seems to be based more on what he believes an ideal society should be, instead of what is natural or what is immediately observable in Athenian society. Although Athens was a slave-owning society through and through, a side-by-side comparison of Aristotle’s description of humanness and natural slaves indicates that his descriptions do not necessarily harmonize. As for the two babies born Athens, Aristotle offers no answer as to how to differentiate one from the other in biological terms, and who should live a life of leadership and power as opposed to one of subservience and servitude.

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Fate

Imagining an Athenian production of Antigone in the 5th Century BC, one can almost hear the ominous parting words of the chorus floating up above the theatron and away into the eternal twilight, “The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom” (1468-1470). In its parting words, the chorus identifies the interconnected Athenian values of wisdom, reverence, and aversion to pride. While it may initially appear as though the mighty blows of fate have taught Creon wisdom-by-hardship, an investigation of the final scene of Antigone demonstrates that the tyrant remains unwise, ignorant of his transgressions, and ultimately ruled by his unbridled emotions.

Creon is no master of himself, as he is repeatedly leveled by uncontrollable grief. In the final scene of Antigone, Creon comes face to face with his fate Upon discovery of the bodies of his recently deceased wife and son, Creon recklessly wails, laments, and prays for his own death in the same way that Antigone does earlier in the play, thereby disregarding all of the forewarnings of the chorus. In doing so, Creon remains an unbalanced character who does not exhibit self-mastery or soundness of mind. Immediately after hearing of his wife’s suicide, Creon begs for death when he cries, “Run me through with a good sharp sword…the misery, anguish” (1433-1434). Creon produces another death wish after acknowledging his culpability in the suicides of his wife and children when the tyrant, overcome with despair, kneels before the gods, asking for death to “Come, let it come! – that best of fates for me/ that brings the final day, the best fate of all” (1449-1450). While Creon does take responsibility for the deaths of his immediate family in this scene, his intention to depart the world of the living indicates his lack of sophrosyne. Creon is just as unbalanced as he was before, and by the play’s end he displays the same death-drive as Antigone, mourning his fractured oikos.

Creon’s lack of wisdom is apparent when he fails to acknowledge his involvement in Antigone’s death. At no point following his discovery of Antigone’s corpse in the cell does Creon express any regret for his stubbornness or harsh sentencing of Antigone. Creon does not even speak of her once following Haemon’s death When Creon is finally convinced to free Antigone he does so begrudgingly and mutters to himself about political obligation, proclaiming, “Its best to keep the established laws to the very day we die” (1237-1238). Creon’s words indicate that he remains as proud as he ever was, too proud to surrender his absolute authority that ran contrary to the will of the gods.

Not limited to public affairs, Creon’s authoritarian nature permeates his oikos as well, representative of his hubris. As Creon mourns, he learns how in Eurydice’s “Dying breath she called down torments on [Creon’s] head- [he] killed her sons” (1430-1431). Eurydice blames Creon not only for the death of Haemon, but also the son Megareus, who died in battle, most likely because of his father’s ideology of the family. Creon’s filial ideal becomes apparent when he explains to Haemon that a son should feel “subordinate to [his] father’s will in every way” and that the role of the family is to make the patriarch proud, that “What a man prays for [is] to produce good sons…dutiful and attentive, so that they can pay his enemy back with interest and match the respect their father shows his friend” (714-719). As Creon describes how his Oikos is centered around how others perceive and respect him, it becomes apparent that Creon’s sons are manifestations of his pride. Creon’s definition of oikos as a mechanism of pride forces the reader to question if he is in fact mourning his family or his shattered pride.

Furthermore, Creon does not acknowledge his irreverence towards the gods nor the power of fate, meted out by the gods. Were he a wise man, Creon would acknowledge the cruel chiastic balance of fate.  Creon declares that “I died once, you kill me again and again” (1416). The tyrant of Thebes does not recognize that in tempting fate by dishonoring divine burial rites, he effectively kills Polynices for a second time. It is clear that Creon has not learned his lesson as he does not begin to discuss a proper burial for any of the dead in this passage. This is not the only example of Creon’s disregard for the power of divine fate. Creon misidentifies the fate that has befallen him and the rest of the house of Oedipus as he exclaims how “A crushing fate’s come down upon my head!” (1465). While Creon appears shocked by his agonizing loss, the crushing hand of fate should be no surprise to somebody who is related to and usurped power from the accursed house of Oedipus. Creon’s ignorance of his intertwined fate to his blood relatives signals to the reader that he remains unwise.

While Creon has experienced grievous mortal losses as punishment for his pride, one might initially believe that he has attained wisdom through personal torment and suffering. Unfortunately for Creon and the Theban populace, the tyrant still exhibits a considerable lack of sophrosyne, by never mourning the death of Antigone, and ultimately remaining ignorant of his transgressions. A captive of his flaws, Creon is perhaps farther from wisdom than ever before.