Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cultural Greatness, Political Decadence

Back from the APA, frantically trying to finish a paper for a conference on equal respect next month at the University of Pavia, I have no time to write a real post. (I just looked at the calendar -- that conference is now this month, not next month. Yikes! Okay, now I am frantic.) Here is a cheap substitute for a post -- a quotation. This caught my eye in John Derbyshire's current column. Speaking of a opera now playing at the Met, The First Emperor, he says this:
Another point on The First Emperor: Why this fixation with the hoodlum Qin Shi Huang? With nearly 3,000 years of recorded history (and a couple of millennia of myth preceding that), China has plenty of stories much more engaging that Qin’s brutish stomp to power. I suspect that the real reason for the fascination with Qin is that Chinese people know, in their hearts, that the unification Qin carried out was a ghastly mistake.

In the “contending states” of pre-Qin China, there was great creativity and cultural variety. Real civilizational progress comes in such conditions — compare pre-Sargon Mesopotamia, the Greek city-states before Alexander, Renaissance Italy, or 19th-century Europe. From a great bureaucratic-despotic system like the one Qin established comes nothing but stasis, complacency, blind cultural arrogance, and civilizational stagnation. The ancient unification project, like the modern one, is a horrid blunder, from which nothing good will come. China is a civilization, not a country.
It's often me remarked that periods of cultural greatness are also times of political decadence. Can't be a coincidence, can it? But then what the heck is the connection? Granted political power is not needed for cultural creativity. Why does it actually tend to milititate against it? John's comment is probably a clue. Cultural creativity tends to coincide, not merely with political weakness, but with political disunity. Everyone knows that America's great literary flowering, the American Renaissance of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman (wow, what a pantheon! try matching that in any one generation!) occurred before, not after, America was "unified" by the American Qin Shi Huang, Abraham Lincoln.

My hypothesis: Cultural greatness tends to arise from clashes between different points of view. Multivocality is the theme. Contending states are good for culture because they breed contending schools.


Anonymous said...

Some loose thoughts on culture and political strife, etc.

The golden age of Greek drama, the building of the Acropolis, much of the best sculpture and amphora painting, and the surge of Greek philosophy, all occurred during the so-called Athenian empire, when Greece enjoyed the highest degree of political unity prior to Alexander. It was after the collapse of Athenian hegemony, following the Peloponnesian War, that the Greek cultural sunburst begans to fade -- although in fact it retained remarkable candlepower for centuries thereafter, despite Alexander and his successors.

So might we not just as easily argue that the great fifth-century flowering of Greek culture was made possible by LESS contention between city-states rather than more? In my opinion, ALL such generalizations are far too simplistic. Reliable law-like correlations in history are extremely hard to come by, and I think it's probable that analogous cultural effects (brilliant cultural flowerings, for example) result from quite variable social and political conditions.

Take the American Renaissance. To speak of antebellum New England (the actual home of the "American" Renaissance, after all) as in any sense a scene of "contending states" seems to me incorrect. Can one even begin to compare its high degree of political integration and harmony with the free-for-all of Greece during the Peloponnesian War or of Italy during the Renaissance?

What I'm suggesting is that the role of political strife between states, or the lack thereof, in the emergence of cultural excellence must be very particular in each instance, just one of many variables. Sparta, let's not forget, was in a cultural dark age compared with Athens, despite sharing the same atmosphere of inter-city conflicts and rivalries.

It seems to me that perhaps the real historical "law" which you wish to observe concerns the correlation between totalitarian political systems (and approximations thereto) and the cultural deadness they inevitably bring with them. This correlation, however, is as law-like as the assertion that a gag over someone's mouth will impede his ability to sing -- not exactly a great example of historical hypothesizing.

Qin Shi Huang and Abraham Lincoln? Seriously? Political unity and harmony are not what squelch the emergence of cultural genius. ONE of the conditions that matters most for the development of a lively culture, probably the most important, is the amount of freedom allowed to culturally creative people WITHIN a given polity, whatever it's degree of political integration. What made Athens brilliant and Sparta dull was not the rivalry that existed between them but the amount of freedom and diversity that each tolerated within its borders. This freedom, I suggest, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of brilliant culture.

This still leaves us with the mystery of what other conditions contribute to the emergence of golden ages. Again, I rather suspect that the causes are as variable as the cultures, although, as said, freedom seems particularly important in every instance.

Thank you for your (as usual) stimulating blog. I hope I haven't misunderstood.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous --

Thanks for your substantial and thoughtful comment. At the moment I have two further comments, one concrete and one theoretical.

As the to the American Renaissance, it wasn't just New England. Whitman was very much a New Yorker, and Poe grew up in Virginia and died in Maryland. Before Emperor Abe brought unity and stability to these states, most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their state first, of the national government second. This was not just a Southern phenomenon. Thoreau, very much a Yankee, was perhaps the most extreme localist of them all, maybe one of the most extreme who have ever existed. Regional conflict was horrific, involving not merely ideological arguments but plenty of murder and mayhem. The Whigs based their whole platform on ending this, and as every schoolboy knows, they went extinct. (However, they enjoyed a violent sort of postumous success: Lincoln and most of his cabinet were Whigs, and forced Whig nationalism on us by means of a bloody war.)

On the more theoretical point: Freedom is of course important for cultural creativity, but it would be easy to exaggerate its importance. (It is worth noting that, throughout the millennia, artists have typically served the paid glorifiers of the powers that be, the nobility, the priesthood, and the state.) What worries me is the possibility that freedom can actually counteract creativity. If you think of freedom as a free society, then freedom is, so far from being chaos, actually a sort of system. Given certain basic conditions, such as a tradition of rationality, people come up with different ideas, check and resist the ideas of others, are checked and resisted in return, and come up with better ideas. Seen in this way (which is how John Stuart Mill saw it) freedom is a self-correcting system. People converge on more and more reasonable ideas. This is good, supposing that the reasonable is the true, because truth is good. But from the point of view of creativity, this can have its downside. What if we have a free society that is so reasonable that the inner workings of people’s minds begin to converge? That’s a rather frightening thought, isn’t it? Freedom might not guarantee creativity nor perhaps even always encourage it. For creativity, people have to be willing and able to use their freedom in certain ways, and this might require a good deal more than freedom alone.

Anonymous said...

In expressing skepticism about your generalization that "periods of cultural greatness are also periods of political decadence," I gave two examples of cultural greatness that took place (I claimed) during periods of political ascendency and consolidation. The first was fifth-century Athens, the second antebellum New England. Since you deferred the Greek example and focused on the American, I'll do the same.

Let me begin with the head count. I claimed that the American Renaissance was a New England phenomenon. You rightly pointed out that Whitman was a New Yorker and Poe a virtual southerner. You neglected to mention that Melville, too, was from New York. That leaves Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne on my list of New England greats. If I now include Emily Dickinson of Amherst -- to omit whom would be criminal -- I now have four New Englanders to your three non-New Englanders. Whitman, however, was deeply influenced by Emerson, and the Transcendentalists instinctively embraced him as one of their own. Even Thoreau felt obliged to visit him when the opportunity presented itself. Would it then be unreasonable of me to include Whitman on my list as a sort of honorary New Englander? That would give me five greats to your two. So let me call a truce and amend my original statement. The "American" Renaissance was, for the most part, a New England phenomenon. Now on to the real issue.

You make antebellum New England (plus New York!) sound like "bleeding Kansas" from Maine to Manhattan, and this, I am claiming, it assuredly was not. During the time in question, the constitutional experiment of 1789 had emerged as a clear and brilliant success, despite the "peculiar institution" and the more or less constant irritation it created between North and South. The Civil War was the last (ghastly) phase of this long process of national consolidation, which was far advanced before the South Carolina bombarded Fort Sumter. Indeed, the war could never have happened had not a significant majority of Americans passionately assumed that the United States was a single great nation worthy of sacrifice to be preserved.

You're right to point out that citizens in those days more strongly identified with their states than they do today. But the over-all trend, I repeat, was in the direction of national identity. Robert E. Lee was torn between devotion to the Union (his words) and devotion to his state. While he finally chose to go with his state, the point is that he was torn. His national identity had a powerful hold on him and he had to struggle to suppress its claims. It's a plain fact that affection for and devotion to the United States, this national identity, was ubiquitous in the North. Indulge me a quotation:

"Is it not the chief disgrace of the world ... to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, or the party, the section, to which we belong; and our opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south? Not so, brothers and friends, -- please God, ours shall not be so."

This comes from Emerson's "The American Scholar," 1837.
The American scholar, please note, not the Massachusetts scholar or the New England scholar or the Northern scholar. Three years before Emerson's address, George Bancroft began publishing his History of the U.S., with its doctrine that the American nation had a "manifest destiny" to become a continental power. By 1855, in Whitman's expansively nationalistic poetry, this affirmation of American identity undergoes an almost cosmic inflation. It's true, as you say, that Thoreau was a confirmed localist, but I fail to see how his personal attitudes change the fact that he lived in a time of political ascendency, not political decadence. The sentiment "I hate large states" obviously has no bearing on whether or not I live in one.

By the way, I'm not disagreeing with you that nationalistic sentiment is unsavory and perhaps despicable. But a large, peaceful polity of free individuals (Emerson's and Whitman's "nation of nations," perhaps) does not require bellicose mystics of the Bancroft variety to keep it going. I hope! Besides, small states can be just as nasty as big ones in this regard.

To conclude, I think my argument stands: the high culture of the American Renaissance was concurrent with an era of political consolidation and is therefore an exception (but not the only one) to the old chestnut that periods of cultural greatness are also (always) periods of political decadence.

I have many more thoughts on this topic, but I fear I'm abusing your time and blog-space. Thanks, again, for causing me to think about all this, Lester.

One more word! Your speculation that the "market place of ideas" might eventually result in a final "rational convergence" and thus stifle all creativity is a startlingly original dystopian fantasy and deserves a post of its own. And you're right to point out that freedom might not always be an unqualified good for culture. The unqualified assertion that culture depends on freedom is yet another of those plausible-sounding historical "laws" that can't withstand close scrutiny. Consider, for example, a brutally repressive society where a craving for freedom produces a defiant literary underground of true genius. It's possible.