Sunday, June 4, 2023

A Try at Nobility

March 2, 2010

Stephen Gatlin

A review of On Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, by Rob Riemen (Yale, 2008)

Joseph Bottum in the New Criterion has commented ably on some of the strengths and the signal weaknesses of Riemen’s book. My concerns here are not intended to overlap substantially with Bottum’s. Indeed, both Riemen’s and Bottum’s observations are well taken. By now, the demise of civilization (whatever this word may mean) is perhaps the greatest cliché among intellectuals everywhere. Mass society, especially perhaps of the American variety, is likely the most perturbing. The eminent Jacques Barzun has had the last word on this grand lament.

Before I engage my thesis proper, I would add that we do not live in the nineteenth century. If this is obvious, I apologize. We live in a world, as George Steiner has noted, dominated more by the natural sciences and technology than by the word (logos). Steiner has marked this fact for a very long time: hence his emphasis late and soon on literacy in the history and philosophy of science. Lapsing into nostalgia about the putative virtues of the past is dubious. Surely such a sustained enterprise as Riemen’s recalls one of the primary lessons of Freudian psychoanalysis: living in the past engenders neurosis, if not coupled with irony and humor and understanding. We shall assume that Riemen understands the terms and conditions of this counsel. Moreover, as disturbing as this sounds, it is not clear that the conversations of the past are even apropos for today. What will work as it were for today, vis-à-vis civilization, I do not claim to know. Certainly the matter is as perplexing as it is disturbing. No one in truth has an answer. Perhaps we have advanced no further than Voltaire: we simply tend our gardens.

This said, I can proceed with my own animadversion with what is presumably Riemen’s key assumption: the belief that nobility and civility are linked. Further, that a “nobility of spirit” (via noble conversation) can save, or at least ameliorate, civilization. It is able to “[believe] in the light even before there is dawn”.

But what does “nobility of spirit” mean?  As an historian, I have to regard the matter in more concrete terms than does Riemen. I have to query nobility, just because nobility has a dark underbelly that idealistic contemporaries often elide. It has its roots in warfare, not in gentle conversation. A “noble spirit” is more likely a violent spirit, being more inclined to action than to talk. A nobleman is, of course, based in aristocracy, ancient or modern. One became an aristocrat just because one was originally a warrior. The castles decaying during the nineteenth century, with their crumbling portraits and rusty armor, once were emblems and instruments of martial bravery and muster and slaughter, not great books and gentle conversation. One must only read, say, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to glean the historical reality I am adumbrating. Hardy knew his English history “along the pulses”. The leather-bound volumes of country estates were window-dressing. If aristocracy sustained civilization, it was not by the pen but the sword.

As often as not aristocrats (nobleman) cared more for wine and debauchery than for fine words and “conversation”. Many were patently illiterate. Rape and murder were not uncommon. Fine words were the province of underfed schoolmasters and tubercular scholars. Indeed, the profile I am getting at here fits precisely that of Joseph Goodman—the melancholy, failed pianist, the defeated soul, the weak man, a pathetic Miniver Cheevy. Yet the Goodman, in Riemen’s book, seems emblematic of one who possesses a “noble spirit”. If so, Goodman’s spirit is more Hebraic than Hellenic.

Here lies a critical distinction. No doubt I may be engaging a stereotype. But I identify nobility of spirit more with Athens than with Jerusalem. Poor Matthew Arnold labored over this terrain. Nobleman do not “turn the other cheek”. Like pagan Achilles, they unleash hell. When Xenophon was told of the death of his son in battle, he did not mourn, he was not moved unduly. He knew that men risked death on the field of battle. This was a hard fact. It was one the veteran Xenophon, the arch-equestrian and perfector of dressage, understood all too well.

My theme should be clear—or at the least implicit—by now. Nobility as Riemen is using it, is an idealization. Peace and negotiation are not traditionally the domain of the noble (the irony of the homophone “Nobel” aside). Rather, peace is more an Hebraic ideal that is commensurate with capitulation, with retreat, with, dare I say it, cowardice. Peace Studies, claims Stephen Toulmin in his Cosmopolis, begins with Descartes and modern science: the effort bring reason to bear on outrageous sectarian violence in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.

Nobility is, all the more, hardly “a forgotten ideal” as Riemen’s subtitle claims. It is alive and well among warriors.  Among soldiers of fortune. Among those who glory in the fight. And especially in certain parts of the world, where it is the ideal. These men do not generally write books or frequent bookstores. Although there are, of course, wonderful exceptions. The “White knight”, too, is alive and well (if few in numbers).

Riemen’s version of nobility is one that is effectively emasculated. It is one that is trafficked in and by those who are bookish, reclusive, sensitive, and much put upon. Have I not described Joseph Goodman? Have I not described those who advocate peace, just because they do not know battle? Just because they are too weak to fight? Let us be clear: nobility, in truth, is just what Riemen does not make clear. Peace is either for those have tasted battle, know its horrors, and harbor no illusions about its glory (my father was of that number), or peace—and civilization—is for those who live a surrogate existence through ideals that are, too, as old as “brutish battle”.

But just as troubling as Riemen’s misconstrual of nobility are his fond views and apparently unqualified approval of Thomas Mann and his works. Naturally, Mann is one of the greatest novelists of our time. His Doctor Faustus was prescient to the point of being uncanny. His understanding of the German psyche and supreme grasp of German “theology” are astounding. And this is only a suggestion of this singular and commanding novel.

But we must still deal with the enduring legacy of Mann’s supreme invention, the diabolical violinist, Adrian Leverkühn (or Arnold Schoenberg, inventor of the twelve-tone scale), the otiose individual who would deprive our lives of rich melody. If Mann could diagnose these fetishistic qualities so well, this does not mean that they have gone away. Indeed, I would argue that, despite Mann’s insight, he himself carried this “Faustian” side of the German soul in him. Faust says it more poetically and precisely, “Two souls, alas! reside within my breast”. It is hard to understand something so well and yet not partake of it yourself. He could not escape just the thing that he most understood and loathed: barbarism.

The reign of terror that enveloped Europe during the Second World War was, I argue, all of a piece with Mann’s own German profile. Adolf Hitler was not, contrary to vulgar assumptions, a thing apart from Mann. Hitler, too, shared in Kultur, even as we have wanted to relegate Hitler to the lunatic fringe, for our own benefit. All the more, it is a profound error to believe that Nazism was a perversion entirely at odds with the world in which Mann lived and moved and had his being. It would be convenient to think so. However, our best scholarship in this area indicates differently (cf., John Carey, Lothar Machten or, better still, Klaus Theweleit, the great expounder of the mind of the WWII German soldier). Why has it taken beleaguered dons and German sociologists to get radical about these monumental matters? I dare say it is because they understand and are willing to face the terms and conditions of mass murder, as politically correct and squeamish American scholars (themselves largely effeminate) have not been willing to do.

I repeat: Mann is emblematic of an aspect of the German mind, whose perfectionism and obsession for Ordnung machen are just the qualities that dove-tail seamlessly with mass murder. George Steiner has made this plain. And it is what makes Mann our best teacher. He was at once detached from and immersed in his world. That this is a commonplace among creative writers is all the better;  I am in no way impugning Mann. I am simply saying that a distance between his “German Culture” and the Volkish mentality of the German people (re-tooled by Hitler, et. al.) are closer than we think, and may like to believe.

Moreover, they do not make for the normative version of Mann that we get in Riemen. Mann and his daughter, Elizabeth Mann Borgese, are presented by Riemen as the emblems of all that is good and promising about the world, by way of culture and education and quality conversation. Yet, an admirable Bildung means nearly nothing, today, outside a coterie. Nobility of spirit is not, in fact, “the great ideal”, inside or outside the academy. Rather a routinized Ph.D. regimen (itself a perverse German invention, misapplied to Geisteswissenschaft) hardly makes for the realization of true freedom. I am suggesting that there is a snake in the garden here. I am saying that even Mann himself was as rotten (if with irony) as his contemplative sojourner in Death in Venice, Gustave von Aschenbach. Hitler too thought Europe was so decayed that he burned it. What a model! Mann does not escape this horror, except perhaps in his dreams. Nor does Riemen’s book.


Stephen Gatlin is Associate Professor of history at Eastern University,  and a member of the editorial advisory board of the Clarion Review.


2 Responses to “A Try at Nobility”
  1. Rutger says:

    ‘If aristocracy sustained civilization, it was not by the pen but the sword.’

    In most periods and cultures, aristocrats were indeed far from being good, gentle conversationalist. The learned were often either clergy or officials. As you mr. Gatlin say, the aristocrats were far too busy managing their estates and conquering enemy territory. This was the situation in Greece, Assyria, Babylon, and Europe.

    But Europe is unique. There we see in late medieval and early modern history the rise of the centralized, bureaucratic state. Kings increasingly came to depend on schooled administrators, who could handle the complex paperwork. The aristocracy felt increasingly excluded: it did not have the necessary skills for governance. Logically, the aristocracy sought to educate itself, in order to retain top positions in the government and the military (warfare became increasingly technical, see artillery). It learned to write, to reflect and to analyse, all by reading the (Latin) classics.

    So from political necessity, an ideal of nobility arose which included both the spirit of war and the spirit of philosophy.

  2. Rutger points out that aristocracy became skilled in the spirit of philosophy. Again, what is the connection between philosophy (of any ilk, perhaps literacy would better serve?) and nobility? One can easily point out that aristocrats later on (certainly by the nineteenth century, when their prerogatives had declined seriously) may have learned a smattering of necessary skills to allow them to compete with the enterprising middle classes. Yet, even so, they made a pretty sorry show of it. One only read a comic delight from Donald Sutherland called THE ENGLISH GENTLEMAN to glean the resistance of the aristocracy to work of any kind. Not to mention P.G. Wodehouse.

    But the phrase “drunk as Lords” obtained as late as the Regency, and English society during Georgian England was still ruled over by a spoiled and besotted lot of “aristocrats”, who were hardly known for their literacy. Rutger has a higher view of these guys than I do, which is fine. Perhaps I have read too many novels, for good or ill.

    Stephen Gatlin

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