Sunday, June 21, 2009


Alexander the Great, the Emperor Augustus,Charlemagne and Napoleon, besides being great rulers and conquerors, had also each of them a great impact upon the culture of his time. Hard-bitten, practical men, politicians and merchants and so forth, often deride culture -- literature, philosophy, art and so forth -- as being both a waste of time and a refuge for weaklings who cannot deal with real life. These practical types tend to measure one's success in "real" life by one criterium: the amount of one's material possessions. At an opposite extreme, one thinks for instance of Nietzscheand Oscar Wilde,are those who maintain that art alone makes life worthwhile. As with many other instances of extreme differences of opinion, so here I feel that such extremes are rather silly. Art is important, but without food, shelter and other basics which the practical types are constantly, industriously providing, no-one would be able to create it. Both extremes contain kernels of truth: often artists are, in fact, pampered sillies who cannot cope very well with the world at large. And art does certainly make life nicer. The practical types probably have no conception of a world completely without art, and would be just as horrified as anyone else if they ever did get a glimpse of such a world.

Whether or not Alexander's relationship with Aristotlewas more than just an interesting historical coincidence, whether Aristotle ever thought of his pupil or Alexander of himself as a philosopher-king, or not -- he died rather young for a philosopher, and in the dozen years of his reign he was extremely busy with practical and political things -- at the very least, one must regard Alexander as an extraordinary patron of culture. Although his empire collapsed into many separate kingdoms almost immediately after his death, still, everywhere he had been, from the Adriatic to Afghanistan, Greek culture flourished for centuries, because Alexander had consciously planted it there. A philosopher, a rhetorician, a musician could travel all over the vast Hellenistic world and find a market for his services in every city, and that he owed directly to Alexander.

It is a commonplace that in the age of patronage, poets and princes had a relationship that was often self-serving on both sides: the princes wanted praise and so supported those poets who flattered them, and the poets realized that the princes were the best patrons, and so flattered ceaselessly, shamelessly and with no regard for the truth. Like many commonplaces, this one overstates the matter somewhat. Doubtless, many writers throughout the ages of patronage were toadies, just as many are today, and many princes were conceited fools ready to swallow any amount of flattery -- as are many leaders and wealthy people today. But it's a great oversimplification to dismiss every description of every prince by the writers of his court on these grounds.

It may not be such an oversimplification, however, in the case of Augustus. Augustus is justly celebrated as the initiator of the pax romana, the greatest period of peace the Mediterranean world, or indeed perhaps any portion of the world at all, has ever enjoyed. Because of his reforms, his institutions and his example, the peace lasted for centuries after Augustus' death. That is certainly to be praised. When one considers the arts, however, a chillier picture emerges. There seems to have been little room for poetry that did not praise the Emperor and his family, and no room at all for anyone who criticized or made fun of them. The Aeniad is a great poem. Perhaps Vergilcould have done no better if he had not been obligated to praise Augustus in his poem. but who knows how many other poets or would-be poets there were, of whom we have never heard, or who never began at all to compose and declaim, because their talent for flattery was too slight? And Ovid,the greatest of all Augustan poets, was banished to a fort on the Imperial frontier on the Black Sea coast, a particularly cruel punishment for such a thorough urbanite. We don't know exactly what Ovid did, how he gave offense to the Imperial house. We can be pretty sure, however, that the offense was pretty minor, of the sort that many princes would ignore, even if it hadn't come from the greatest poet of the age. We know that Ovid apologized profusely, begged pathetically and in vain to be forgiven, until he died on that frontier post. It is generally agreed that Latin literature declined precipitously after the Augustan age. Surprisingly seldom, in my opinion, does anyone think to blame this directly on Augustus.

Alexander and Augustus lived in a culture -- it was in very many respects one and the same culture -- in which it was taken for granted that a sovereign could read and write. By the time of Charlemagne, the Roman senatorial families, the heirs of the rulers of the western Empire, had faded from the scene, any power they might still have confined mostly to the Catholic Church. Almost all of whatever literacy remained was to be found in the monasteries. The rulers of Western Europe, the heirs of the barbarians who had swept away the remnants of the western Empire, could neither read nor write. They fought ceaselessly among themselves, not the least among their own families. Patricide, matricide, fratricide, filiocide and every other sort of depravity was rife, along with famine and plague. To appreciate how great Charlemagne's achievement was, one has to understand how thoroughly awful things had become before him.

Charlemagne united and for the most part pacified a large portion of Western Europe. It's true, he waged war ceaselessly, but he waged it mostly at the expanding borders of his empire, thus pacifying an ever-growing area within. Within his borders, palaces and monasteries were built on a vast scale, and in these monasteries Charlemagne gave great support to learning -- not only Christian learning, but also the preservation of the ancients. In his main palace at Aachen, centuries before universities began to appear in western Europe, there was a sort of academy, from which officials and clerks went to every corner of the Empire. Einhard,Charlemagne's friend, minister and biographer, says that the Emperor himself spoke excellent and fluent Latin in addition to his native German, and could understand Greek as well. The whole time since the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire, its legitimate heirs had continued to rule in Constantinople. After Charlemagne was named Emperor of the West by the Pope in AD 800, he was, in his own eyes if not in theirs, the colleague and equal of the Byzantine Emperors. In any case, it was only natural that a dominion as large as Charles' would send and receive embassies to and from Constantinople. Einhard also says that Charlemagne tried very hard to learn to write, and was hampered in this only by the fact that he had begun late in life. Charlemagne's vast contributions to letters are not in doubt. Among other things, the first example of written German come from his time, upon his orders. Perhaps Einhard was flattering Charlemagne's memory in his description of the prince's linguistic abilities. We don't know. To me the description has the ring of truth.

A thousand years after Charlemagne, it was once again taken for granted in Europe that princes could read and write. Many other men, however, the bourgeoise, the businessmen, could also read and write, could build palaces, buy fine paintings, produce plays, maintain orchestras and so forth. Their wives and daughters, presumably, often had their hand in all this artistic enterprise. It was not seemly for middle-class women to be obviously, publicly concerned with business, but still they had their salons which could be as grand as those of any princess. For all that titles were losing their significance, however, it was not taken for granted that a man could rise to the rank of king or emperor on his own initiative. But then Napoleon went ahead and did it anyway, and we are still sorting out the consequences of his reign. And the contradictions, which are glaring: this Emperor came to power under the auspices of a Revolution which, or at least so many of its adherents had thought, was to do away with sovereigns. With all sovereigns, once and for all. Beethovennamed his third symphony after Napoleon, then, when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, almost destroyed the score in his rage. He neded up renaming the symphony "to the memory of an heroic man," to the memory of the younger, not-yet-corrupted Napoleon.

Goethewas less disturbed by titles, and met twice with the self-crowned Emperor. Beethoven accused Goethe of being too subservient to Napoleon, but I don't know if the accusation makes much sense. Their lives were so very different that it may have impeded their communication: Beethoven was the son of a musician in an age when musicians were servants. That Beethoven himself refused to be treated as a servant, to grovel before anyone, was a radical break with the past, and was very brave. Far from living out any such traumatic class struggles himself, Goethe was an aristocrat, although not quite as much of one as he claimed to be when describing the past of the Goethe family in Frankfurt, which he consistently, extravagantly exaggerated. He always had servants, he never was one, apart from the formulas of address required among various ranks of the aristocracy, which could very often include such formulations as "I am your most humble servant" and such. Perhaps Beethoven confused such figures of speech with actual servitude. There is no reason to confuse the two things. And in any case writers began earlier than musicians to free themselves from feudal patronage: pen and paper were cheaper than a musical instrument, much cheaper than an orchestra; the princes, although although they usually sought to control literature through censorship, did not compete with the businessmen, the bourgeoise, when it came to printing; and literature may always have attracted more solitary people, more prone to individual assertion and rebellion, than music, which flourishes in the direct interaction of groups.

Goethe himself was a very powerful man, a minister in the state of Weimar who looked after all sorts of things which were by no means confined to the realm of culture -- for example, mining and irrigation were under his purview -- and the most highly-respected poet in Germany, perhaps in all of Europe. The age of patronage had faded to a large degree, replaced by printing presses and mass readerships, and theatres and art galleries open to the public. Then again, things which are often thought of as belonging strictly to the past, have not, upon closer inspection, completely ceased to be. One visited Weimar and hoped to be received by the great man, very much as if he himself were a prince, and not strictly out of admiration for Goethe's talent, although that was always the stated purpose, but in hopes of furthering one's career, either with a job in Weimar or with a recommendation elsewhere. Among Goethe's local circle of friends was a rich and charming widow named Adele Schopenhauer, whose exceptionally gloomy son Arthurwould go on to be a philosopher, one whose fame, in keeping with his dark mood, was destined to be mostly posthumous. Arthur mostly quarreled with his mother, but got along quite well with the Herrn Geheimrat Goethe. Goethe and the young Schopenhauer collaborated on the study of optics, until such time as it dawned on Schopenhauer that Goethe's ideas on optics were unsound. His integrity would not allow him to lie to his master; but the respect he felt would not allow him to contradict him openly. So instead, Schopenhauer moved to Berlin, published his studies on optics, and left Goethe behind.

A few years later a young and still relatively unknown Jewish dandy named Heinrich Heinecame to Weimar and called upon the great man Goethe. Perhaps Heine had been insulted by an antisemitic remark in Goethe's house, or on the way there; for whatever reason, Heine did not deliver the awed respect usual among Goethe's literary visitors; indeed, he seems to have been relatively monosyllabic and just this side of ostentatiously rude. The old Geheimrat tried to draw him out, asked him: What are you working on now? Heine: A version of Faust. Goethe: Do you plan to stay long in Weimar? Heine: Actually, now that I've met your Excellency, my chores in Weimar are completed. And with that the young smart-ass bowed and took his leave. And it turned out that Heine's career blossomed greatly without the protection of Goethe or any other great man, an example of how things were changing. Unfortunately, other things were staying the same: Heine's big mouth, his fearless pen and, to be sure, his Jewish heritage combined to make him intolerable to the powers which were gradually making one Germany out of hundreds of principalities. Like his friend Karl Marx,Heine had to spend most of his life in exile. He settled in Paris and wrote most of his brilliant poems and essays there.

Antisemitism was widespread in Germany, but by no means universal or unchallenged. I doubt that Goethe personally offended Heine, but it's easy to imagine that Goethe's butler or some other of his servants, or one of his aristocratic friends, might have made some crude remark about how things were going to Hell, if this sort of person, pointing to Heine, could now get in to see that sort of person, pointing in the direction of Goethe's drawing-room. One acquaintance, erstwhile friend and colleague of Goethe's who was, unfortunately, clearly antisemitic, was Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer set himself up at the University of Berlin and quite brazenly announced philosophical lectures to be held at the same time as those of Hegel.Did his failure actually surprise Schopenhauer? Competing as an unknown against one of the most popular philosophers of all time, a thinker who was enjoying rock-star fame, speaking in the largest lecture-halls whose seats were always all taken while many other people crowded into the aisles and entrances, seems like the act of a man who wants to fail, all the better to be able to call all of academia sour grapes.

Whatever his subconscious motivations may have been, Schopenhauer quickly canceled his lectures and settled into a solitary bachelor's life, living comfortably on the income from inherited investments, writing philosophy, not voluminously but very brilliantly, and very biliously. His criticisms of academia in general, and of Hegel in particular, are extreme. Extreme as they are, I admire them, although I wonder if they and I are wrong. To put my cards on the table: I, like Schopenhauer, failed pretty badly in academia and tend to resent it for personal reasons. And I have never begun to understand what Hegel was talking about, and so am perhaps too eager to accept Schopenahuer's analysis: that Hegel wrote nothing but nonsense, that he was an unparalleled charlatan who drastically set back the cause of philosophy. What if Schopenhauer never understood what Hegel was talking about? I'm reminded of the stupid comments against all modern, non-representational or conceptual art, uttered by people who obviously have no conception of any aesthetic ideas from later than 1850 or so, and who probably are just as clueless about earlier art as well. I am troubled by the very many later philosophers who seem to take Hegel very seriously indeed.

In any case, though I tend to nod and agree as I read Schopenhauer's critiques of academia, of Professorenphilosophie fuer Philosophieprofessoren, and of Hegel, I shake my head in dismay when Schopenhauer comments upon the Jews. Still, Schopenhauer had high, rare praise for Heine, whom he discovered late in both their lives. Is it possible that he did not know that Heine was a Jew? (I think he did know.) Or is it possible that Heine's writing caused Schopenahuer to reconsider some of his prejudices? (I think it's quite possible.)

The age of patronage, as it was with Alexander, and still with Charlemagne, and to a large degree still with Napoleon, is now gone -- but completely? I don't know. In earlier ages culture was dependent upon princes. When the prince was enthusiastic and openminded like Alexander or Charlemagne, culture flourished, and therefore life flourished. (I'm closer to the one extreme I criticized at the start of this essay, which states baldly that art alone makes life worthwhile, than I am to its opposite. Maybe I'm wrong when it comes to most people, but in my own particular case I'm right: if I can't be surrounded by, drenched in art, then I'm in a pretty sorry state. I can understand Nietzsche and Wilde pretty well, I can't muster much besides horror when considering a Rockefeller or a Gates.) There are fewer princes around nowadays, the ones who survive have far less power and less to say, in the field of culture as elsewhere; but there still is a type of patronage. Businessmen have to some degree taken the place of princes, and unfortunately they often tend to be somewhere between unsophisticated about and downright hostile to culture. There is large-scale state sponsorship of the arts in many European countries, so large-scale that if they had an inkling of it, many American artists would emigrate. Back here in the home of the brave the most important patrons are the successful artists -- and the philosophers and historians and so forth who have the qualities of artists. Unfortunately we don't have one word which embraces them all, although they are a unity as they always have been, as much now as when Leonardo da Vinci was painting and sculpting and designing buildings and bridges and artillery and dissecting bodies and otherwise embodying the definition of the Renaissance Man -- who recognize and promote and more and more often finance their as-yet unrecognized peers. Ever since Plato, the idea has been to inspire and educate the princes. Well, the princes of the ancien regime are just about gone, and their remnants are more sad than inspiring, let alone inspired, less and less capable of sustaining the old fantasies of good princes. The more successful among the artists, however, have begun over the course of the last few centuries to resemble princes. I'm thinking here more of Coppola than Schwarzenegger, more of Bellow than of Rowling. Clearly, Schwarzenegger has at the moment more political power than Coppola. But one certainly has to hope that Coppola has more power in determining what films will be made, and how and by whom. And that Bellow's appreciative remarks on this or that fellow-writer will still resound when no one any longer remembers Harry Potter.

1 comment:

  1. That's a wonderful rant, Steven, going through the ages.

    I've discovered Ovid a bit lately, his love elegies.

    And I don't think it's conceivable that Schopenhauer didn't know that Heine was Jewish. The term "anti-Semitism" was only coined in 1879, although there was of course hatred of the Jews through the ages.

    Gotta go. I hope to get back to this post for some more comments. Thanks for your writing. I really appreciate it.