Friday, May 21, 2010

Scholarship and Crooked Things

Several months ago in The New Criterion author Anthony Daniels reviewed "Any Rand and the World She Made" by Anne C. Heller. His review was provocatively titled "Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls" [1] and received a torrent of furious replies in the message board. Some were thoughtful, even insightful. Many were foolish, childish, and absurd. As readers may know I am rather familiar with both Rand's fiction and non-fiction. Yet I did not weigh in on the conversation here or on the New Criterion comments section. Frankly I saw little point in doing so. Once situations become so seriously inflamed, in my experience most people are no longer considering the arguments and ideas but rather simply looking for allies. Also, I rather enjoyed the article. I did not agree with portions of it, which is not unusual. My only issue with the essay remains that it was unclear where he had actually read Rand's work or was simply reviewing Rand and her ideas via Heller's book. As anyone who remembers being told in high school about  "primary sources" can tell you, this not an insubstantial claim. You would not trust the scholar who wrote an essay on a Beethoven string quartet, but had only read other books about it and had not actually heard the piece or looked at the scores. Similarly, if you really wanted to know Aristotle or Homer, say, would you first turn to books about them or to their actual work?

Now do not mistake me, I am not comparing Rand to Homer or Aristotle, though doubtlessly she would have welcomed comparison to the latter. My point is about the difference between scholarship and criticism. The reviewer looks at a piece of work, of any kind, and says I like A, B, and C and I don't like X, Y, and Z about it. They write this down, often with great wit and verve, and submit it for publication. As I understand it they are often well-compensated for the endeavor. This is not the scholarly approach. The scholar is first and foremost concerned with his own body of knowledge. All of the critical work that will come shortly is subject to the following two concepts. The first is sentimentally stated by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy.

It is far easier to point out the faults and errors in the work of a great mind than to give a clear and full exposition of its value. [2]
I suggest this idea not because Rand is or is not a "great mind" but as a starting principle for any scholar of any subject. We may thus re-state this axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes: what is this author or artist correct about? Truth being the ultimate goal of the scholar, anything that contributes to it helps him. The second principle is stated by by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Book I of his "Meditations" where he thanks Rusticus, Stoic philosopher and the emperor's teacher and mentor of sorts, for

. . . teaching me to read books for detailed understanding and not to settle for general summaries or accept uncritically the opinions of reviewers. [3]
The scholar does not read summaries of Aristotle, he reads Aristotle. (In Greek.) The scholar does not skip Suetonius when he studies Augustus just because Suetonius includes odd anecdotes and leaves much out.  He does not leave out Apollonius of Rhodes when studying Vergil or Mozart when studying Beethoven. We may thus re-state this second axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes also: the scholar does not study simply one work but the tradition from which it sprung.

Now I do not mean to be so hard on Daniels. I have read his books and enjoyed them. I always look forward to his new work and I agree with him often. He conveys such a gentlemanly disposition in his writing the vitriolic outburst against him was particularly distressing. Daniels in fact followed Schopenhauer's advice, finding some truth. (He may have followed Marcus' too, but it did not show.) He simply did not like some aspects of her ideas and style. He didn't get the "big deal" about her. Fair enough.

In fact it was not even Daniels' essay in the New Criterion that brought me to write this afternoon. It was Corey Robin's piece in The Nation. [4] For its misapprehensions and wrongheadedness it warrants correction. For its sterling incompetence it deserves a modicum of awe and much ridicule. Yet for its lack of scholarship and lack of a systematic approach it deserves to be ignored. Robin's piece by way of contrast  reminded of Dr. Daniels' essay, which I do not now praise because he was easier on Rand than Robins. (Daniels was not easier on her.) Yet because the topic was the same I remembered Dr. Daniels and his essay and the world of difference between the two minds struck me. Such is why I have opted not to deconstruct Robins' piece, with Socrates' statement in mind:

"Do you want to look at shameful, blind, and crooked things, then, when you might hear fine, illuminating ones from other people? [5]


Perhaps a natural complaint about my little essay above is this: both Daniels' and Robins' essays were not "scholarship" they were "criticism." Well what is criticism? "Scholarship Lite?" Obviously we cannot thoroughly research everything we encounter. Naturally we will research what we like most. So what of criticism then? Is it half-scholarship of things we are half-interested in? Is it very laudable or useful then?

[1] Daniels, Anthony. Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls. The New Criterion. February, 2010.
[2] Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford University Press. New York. 1983.
[3] Hicks, Scot and Hicks, David V. (trans.) The Emperor's Handbook. Marcus Aurelius. Scribner. NY, NY. 2002.
[4] Robins, Corey. Garbage and Gravitas. The Nation. May, 2010.
[5] Reeve, C. D. C. (trans.) Plato: Republic. Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN. 2004. Book, VI. (506a)

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