Overweening Generalist

Friday, September 13, 2013

O! The Things I Don't Know! (Thomas Paine and Spinoza)

[A report on watching my memory systems work within the context of books/reading and all that reading we've done and have seemingly forgotten. What remains? All of this within the further context of historical ideas about economic redistribution and welfare, of mounting concern for me, in Unistat 2013. - OG]

I'd just finished a re-reading of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Agrarian Justice (c.1797), when a few lines jumped out at me: didn't someone else say almost the exact same thing at an earlier date? If so, who? One of the unconscious subroutines in my brain spat out an answer 20 minutes later, after I'd forgotten I'd asked the question: it wasn't another of the American fore-fathers. It wasn't Jefferson. (But what does my brain know? Maybe it was Jefferson. Parts of my brain have been known to delude and mislead me in the past. Hell: every day. But let me go find the passage from Paine...)

Ahh...Here 'tis:

When, therefore, a country becomes populous by the additional aids of cultivation, art, and science, there is a necessity of preserving things in that state; because, without it there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps, than a tenth part of its inhabitants. The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits that have arisen to society by passing from the natural to that which is called the civilized state. 

Agrarian Justice is Paine writing a proto-Henry George geolibertarianism argument after reading a sermon by one of God's men that He was Infinitely Wise in creating Rich and Poor. This pissed off Paine, who thought humans created advanced societies starting with agriculture, and this in turn created incredible wealth, but also: a squalor unseen in "native" populations, such as the North American native  peoples. "God" has nothing to do with the few rich and the many poor. Paine was outraged by this income inequality and proposed that everyone has an equal inheritance of land as a birthright, but only some have had the fortune to inherit (or sometimes, buy) enough land in which to make a decent living. And so: everyone - even the richest - should receive an annual payment, because we're all in this together. Most of us have been divested of our rightful inheritance of land. Paine says he's got nothing against the landed wealthy, but he is "shocked by extremes of wretchedness," and that "The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized." (Recall that Paine wrote this seven or eight years into the French Rev.)

I linked to the actual (very short) text in my first line. See what you make of it.

So, the lines quoted above seem like they could've been written by anyone. They seem like they were in the air among many of the Enlightenment revolutionaries and intellectuals. Was it Voltaire? I went looking through my Voltaire and nothing jumped out at me. He seems to agree, but whatever neurons fired in excitement when I read the Paine passage didn't evince a shock of recognition in Voltaire. I tried Rousseau and found a few pages that read as very proto-Marx, with a tinge of what Paine was getting at, but a bevy of neurological subsystems checked in: "That ain't it, chief." Having nothing better to do, I whiled away more of the better part of an early evening pulling books off shelves, collapsing on the couch, searching, getting diverted, going back on the trail, feeling foolish, cheering myself with Ezra Pound's line, something about true education having taken place "when one has forgotten which book..." But still: I mean, what's really the use of this search?

                                                     Thomas Paine

I guess I wanted to know if Paine had discernibly cribbed those lines from an earlier genius. At times I may be overly obsessed with the idea of origins. I happen to love Paine, seeing him as working class intellectual before the historical notion was formed. And he seized the time and rose to heroic levels.

I also get this similar feeling - "who did he steal this from? - when reading other authors, but rarely has it sent me on this Fool's Errand. Gawd, there was so much You Tube to watch. Films noir DVRed off of Turner Classic Movies. Internet porn. Bills to pay. Calls to return. Articles to write. "Real" reading to be done.

Some serious daydreaming was called for. I've been in similar spots before: have a vague feeling that there was some sort of connection to be documented, but the endeavor was like looking for a black cat in a coal cellar. But those subroutines had come through for me, countless times. And it always felt uncanny. What one must do - it seemed - was to "forget it" and go do something else. I took a long break and listened to Mussorgsky. Nothing.

Okay, okay, not a problem. There have been times when this took two weeks. Or so another set of subroutines seemed to say.

Then, just before I hit the hay, very late, after spending an evening reading unrelated books and topics (Born Losers by Sandage; Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented The Supernatural by Steinmeyer;  and Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons, which is so funny I need only pull it off the shelf before I start laffing, if you must know)...a steering committee drawn up from more modest subroutines suddenly said, "Yo! About that Paine-similar passage problem? We're thinking Spinoza." This was probably 4AM.

Bleary-eyed and slightly buzzed from a monstrously "big" double IPA, I meandered with building excitement back to my shelves. When had I last read Spinoza? I had a copy of his Ethics in my Great Books collection I'd bought from a guy I was renting a room from when I was in my early 20s. I'd grappled and floundered in Spinoza off and on, but mostly I'd read articles on his necessary subterfuges in publishing and eluding authorities in Amsterdam, the "freest" part of Europe, where the local Jews turned on him...jeez I was tired. Some nutjob in the local Dutch jewish community tried to stab Spinoza for being a heretic, or something. Spinoza died from inhaling industrial waste...something like that. OSHA was way in the offing. He'd been up to Huge doings in 'Dam, but had to stay on the QT for persecution's purposes. His family had been chased out of...was it Portugal? by antisemites. They'd been hounded everywhere by goddamned Jew-haters, and the Dutch were the most tolerant around and still Spinoza got shit there. Why couldn't I just scribble "check Spinoza" in my notebook and go to sleep?

I'm embarrassed to answer that question. Let me elude it now, by lamely employing the mountain-climber's gambit: 'Cuz it's there! It's in my personal library. Maybe.

So I start paging through the volume Descartes/Spinoza, vol 31. I feel like an idiot. Did I really ever understand any of this? And what time is it? 4:15 AM? Jeez look: here's a Euclidean diagram and he's trying to prove God's existence or something. Spinoza probably actually "believed" all this, but with hindsight may have been compartmentalizing his ideas in an effort at self-preservation.

Einstein said at one time (to the public) that he believed in Spinoza's God, who revealed Himself in the "harmony of all Being" or some stuff like that. Pantheism. A way to be a mystical Atheist-radical at that time and not be killed by The State. Or to dodge very-real fellow Jews who feel the need to overcompensate to the Dutch, by showing they can take care of their own...

Then other subroutines kicked in, chiming, "Spinoza summarized his entire book at the end for the idiots like you." Oh...right! I quickly flipped to Appendix, which visually reminded me of some of Nietzsche's books. I started skimming like mad. And there, at number XVII, I got the much-sought recognition shock:

Men also are conquered by liberality, especially those who have not the means wherewith to procure what is necessary for the support of life. But to assist every one who is needy far surpasses the strength or profit of a private person, for the wealth of a private person is altogether insufficient to supply such wants. Besides, the power of any one man is too limited for him to be able to unite every one with himself in friendship. The care, therefore, of the poor is incumbent on the whole of society and concerns only the general profit.

That's it! But how could it be? Was Spinoza even read by the Anglo or American Enlightenment thinkers? Was he translated into English then? It turns out he was, and if you Google "Thomas Paine and Spinoza" you see some interesting stuff. Interesting to me, anyway. 'Cuz damn if I don't feel ignorant sometimes. Most of the time.

                                                  Baruch Spinoza

Now here's what's most interesting to me, and you may have noted it yourself: the two passages, when read back-to-back, may seem dissimilar enough that I may seem to be making connections when they're really quite loose, even superficial. Paine addresses cultivation, art, science. Spinoza talks about how a private person who has the dough can't be expected to bring up the poor. But both Paine and Spinoza thought the poor should be cared for by some power of "wholeness" which I think stuck in my brain. Or at least that's my best interpretation, as of today, of the Situation in my nervous system and my ideas about economic justice.

What I think happened was what I'll call my emotional brain had filed the two passages together, somewhere "deep" in there, in my grey-goo. Neural clusters that "knew" about ideas of economic justice as encountered in Paine and Spinoza were close enough that, when my reading of Paine fired one circuit, a message was sent: you have another circuit that is quite related but you consider the two authors as being separate (I think I see Spinoza as a Continental rationalist Jew-genius, much persecuted, but far removed from the American and French Revs. Which I find out, was erroneous), so...you might want to obtain some of that intellectual "integrity" you say you value so much, dude.

Well, I was satisfied. If you've read this far, thanks for the indulgence.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I've never read Spinoza. Zukofsky frequently quotes him, and I don't understand the quotes.

michael said...

I can top that: I've never read Zukofsky, although I looked at _A_ for an hour not long ago. Give us our RAW, Pynchon, Pound, Joyce, PKD and few others and we make alternative universes that we inhabit for long stretches of our lives.

Spinoza has turned out to be much more interesting to me than I would've thought.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I'm trying to imagine you, a heavy metal guitarist in your 20s, carefully reading Spinoza between gigs.

michael said...

All that reading was something I had to hide; there's a lot of anti-intellectualism in metal.

Big shock, I know.

Other bandmates, after getting to know me, called me "The Professor" or "Mr. Theory," because I was the go-to guy when there was any question about modulations, what key a piece was in, what scales to use when soloing, what's the chord progression, what other chords would work, etc. There are a LOT of pretty good rock players who are ALL ear; they know very little about what they're doing. I came from what I found was a wildly unorthodox position: I realized I wanted to know theory, so I checked out Walter Piston's book _Harmony_ and studied it over and over, very closely. I later found out that NO ONE does that, esp rockers. Not even close!

OTOH, I did have a few really cool brainy students. Those were the ones whose parents would give me a xmas bonus or send me a card because they liked the influence I had on their kid.

I realized the other day I'd given a fairly decent reading to Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry. But I had not read _A_ and am not sure when I'll be able to get to it.

When I was interviewing RAW I asked about a few books, if he'd read them and at one point he said he there were a lot of books he hadn't read. I said something like well, that would make sense since there's just a lot out there, but I was still sort of surprised he hadn't read everything that I had...because he had had that effect on me: anytime I'd read something and thought it incredibly stimulating it seemed like RAW had cited the title or author in one of his books or articles.

I told him I thought the body of his work could make a deep contribution to the sociology of knowledge and said I was amazed at how well he'd discussed the sociology of knowledge in his preface to Wilhelm Reich In Hell. It's concise and articulate and other writers had taken 200 pages to say what he had in 10. He appreciated that, but when he confessed that no, he hadn't read Ideology and Utopia I was astonished.

Trying to read Spinoza in my 20s was crazy. I didn't have the necessary background in that sort of abstruse, based-on-geometrical-proof argumentation...I think I have a high tolerance for difficulty and opacity, and part of this has to do with my enjoyment of the intangibles in some writer's style. I'd read tertiary works about Spinoza (he's a pantheist!...what does that really MEAN, though?), and then try to reconcile a "God" believer with my agnosticism/atheism, and what Spinoza seemed to be saying about social ideas, which was really what I cared about. I had to hit 35 to grok Spinoza in any appreciable way, I think. (Now there seems a Vico-like cult of Spinoza scholarship that thinks of him as an anarchist, but I digress...)

There's a historian at Stanford who's written a massive book that's a lot like Jared Diamond's _Guns, Germs and Steel_. His name is Ian Morris, and before becoming a bigtime academic he was a metal guitarist. Brian May of Queen has a PhD in astrophysics; Tom Scholz of Boston patented electronic equipment and went to MIT (IIRC) at a young age. I'm sure there are other geeky axemen I'm forgetting. They do exist.