Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those thinkers that is both admirable and terrible. His work is admirable in its depth and range of thought as well as in its lasting significance through its tremendous influence. At the same time, however, it is also terrible in that I believe it embodies the most destructive and false aspects of Enlightenment thought.
For this brief post on the first two books of his The Social Contract, my most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of that thought, an aspect which I believe is at the heart of the trouble. This is that Rousseau believes that human nature can be changed through the imposition of laws upon individuals and societies. This idea of Rousseau is, of course, a central component of modern liberal thought. Ultimately, it seems to me to be what separates the modern conservative from the modern liberal. The modern conservative is someone who believes that human nature is immutable; the modern liberal is someone who believes that human nature is mutable.
For historical antecedents, the modern conservative might look to those many thinkers, which include most of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who believed that the purpose of government and law was to keep a check on the worst aspects of human nature and to encourage the better aspects. It is not that human nature can be changed by the laws, say these thinkers (Plato, for instance, and Aristotle, as well as Aquinas come immediately to mind); it is, rather, that the laws serve to help humans, both as individuals and as societies, control their nature(s).
The modern liberal, drawing largely upon thought since the Enlightenment, believes that government and law can and should mold human nature, even that human beings are creatures without a nature, as the existentialist, surely a modern liberal, might assert. Sadly, out of this belief in the mutability of human nature have arisen all of the many experiments in utopianism of the last several centuries, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the Holocaust and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Each of these was, at its heart, an attempt to alter or to overcome human nature through the imposition of law and the power of government. And each proved itself to be a catastrophic failure.
These attempts at utopianism and at the molding of human nature into some desired form continue today, albeit largely in less genocidal forms. In the world of education, of which I am a denizen, one might point, for example, to the ubiquity of charter school management companies like UnCommon Schools, which present themselves as the Great White Hope which while finally bring about the much-desired perfect egalitarian society. Of course, their need to resort to underhanded manipulation of statistical data and their rote robotic approach to “instruction” (what a poor word for what used to be called “discipling” or just plain “teaching” and “mentoring”) betray the truth of their ineffectiveness and pitiful condescension. As it turns out, one cannot engineer human beings even if you get them while they’re young and mercilessly beat them into the desired shape.
I know that someone will accuse me here of the infamous argumentum ad Hitlerum. That is not, I must assert in my own defense, my intent, however. I do not mean to say that “liberals are like the Nazis because x.” On the contrary, I do not intend to make a political point at all. My intent is merely to discuss, with no doubt too much brevity, the historical development of a fascinating and quite influential, even if false and harmful, set of ideas.
Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.
The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes
prayed aloud, promising sometimes
on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices
if the Slayer of souls would send relief
to the suffering people
Such was their practice,
a heathen hope; Hell possessed
their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,
the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,
the Wielder of Glory.
Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.
The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:
It was with pain that the powerful spirit
dwelling in darkness endured that time,
hearing daily the hall filled
with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,
the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling
of the remote first making of man’s race.
He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth
a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,
exulting established the sun and the moon
as lights to illumine the land-dwellers
and furnished forth the face of Earth
with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted
to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.
While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.
The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.
Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:
Wearily he sat,
a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,
trying to wake him with water; but without success.
For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold
his battle-leader’s life in this world
or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;
for every man’s action was under the sway
of God’s judgement, just as it is now.
The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.
The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.