Commentary Magazine


Of Fish and People

. . . Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court . . . address[ed] himself to one of his favorite topics, conservation. “I am on the side of the fish now and against people,” he said.

—New York Times, August 17, 1971

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For a Justice of the United States Supreme Court there is the side of people and there is the side of fish (or animals, or birds), and to be on one side is to be against the other. He is on the side of the fish. “The Puritan,” in Macaulay’s backhanded compliment, “hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” (For their part the Cavaliers, no blue-nose spoilsports, loved bear-baiting.) Is the Justice against people because he is on the side of the fish, or is he on the side of the fish because he is against people? “We the Fish of the United States, in order to . . . establish justice . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution. . . . The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court. . . .” This is sometimes called the new humanism.

Last spring I had a conversation with a fine young man, a college senior, a progressive Catholic. He told me the unforgivable offense of his church: in the Middle Ages it cut down the pagans’ sacred trees. I was surprised, because when he had begun to talk of the Middle Ages I was expecting remorse about Charlemagne’s proselytizing massacre of Widukind’s Saxons, or about the Albigensians, or about the Jews. I told him that as a Jew I was willing to have Judaism assume the responsibility for those trees. It was from the Jewish Bible Christianity had received the command to cut down pagan groves, where human victims were sacrificed. Well, he answered, maybe so; but still, he went on, is killing a person as final as cutting down a tree? There are more people in Europe now than there were in the Middle Ages, but fewer trees.

In the last century Flaubert kept, and transformed into art, a sottisier—a collection of pretentious sillinesses. Now a collector need only clip the New York Times. One thing he would soon discover is that the Judeo-Christian tradition has seen better days. (About the thing itself, the Judeo-Christian tradition, I am possessed by the spirit of contradiction. Affirm it, and I want to deny it. Deny it, and I want to affirm it.)

• Letter to the editor, Times, August 20, 1971:

. . . Mrs. [X] assures us that the “Friends of the Central Park Zoo” are making it a “more rewarding place for its several million visitors.” It is this blind and blinding anthropocentrism, so deeply embedded in the Christian-Judaic ethic, which is destroying the beauty of this world. How about making Central Park Zoo a “more rewarding place” for its caged animals?. . .

• Dispatch, Rome, September 5:

“No false Judeo-Christian shame!” proclaimed posters displayed by members of the Italian Naturist League recently in demonstrations against alleged harassment of nudists by the police and others. . . .

The Italian nudists’ slogan is intriguing—less because their repudiation of false Judeo-Christian shame might be taken to imply their adherence to true pagan shamelessness, than because the European “Judeo-Christian” is different from the American. In the United States, when the lady who wrote that letter to the editor said “Christian-Judaic” she meant essentially what an Italian would mean by “Christian”—the nation’s religious tradition, its ancient system of ethical thought and precept. In Italy, “Judeo” attached to “Christian” signals that an old propaganda device is being used. “Judaizing” is a favorite term of abuse in the history of Christian controversy. Catholics called the Reformers Judaizers, and quarreling Reformers called each other Judaizers. Only twenty or twenty-five years ago the Greek government and church, persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses, called them Judaizers.

But the accusation of Judaizing has been too useful for it to remain Christian property. Ex-Christian philosophes desirous of attacking Christianity, but not daring to do so explicitly, could do so implicitly, and safely, by attacking the contemptible Jews and their contemptible Judaism. Mocking the name Habakkuk, Voltaire could mock the Christianity whose scriptures included prophecy by a Jew bearing that ridiculous name. Leo Strauss has shown that some of Spinoza’s attack on Judaism is also, or perhaps even primarily, a concealed attack on Christianity.

For the philosophes this was good clean philosophical fun. But some of it was also anti-Semitic. In Germany liberal Protestant theologians wanted to purify Christianity of its Jewish dross, and some of them cooperated with Hitler in his German Church. There is no reason to suppose that those Italian nudists are anti-Semitic. Still, they knew what they were doing when they put their hands to that proved instrument, devaluation by a Jewish label.

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If you say that “the Christian-Judaic ethic” is the enemy of animals, presumably you think some other tradition is better. In the West, what other tradition is there? Sir Henry Maine said that “except for the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in origin.” (The apocryphal Oxford don had a similar thought: “Whenever I am struck by a novel idea, I go to my bookshelves to see how the Greeks expressed it.”) What is the Greek tradition or teaching about animals? If directness and largeness of vision, and the elevation of nature over convention, are the great Greek virtues, then Aristotle is the greatest Greek; and about nature and animals and men, Aristotle says (Politics 1256b): “. . . nature has made all the animals for the sake of men.” To which he immediately adds that war and hunting are alike by nature. Hunting is justly used against animals. War is used against those sorts of men who, though meant by nature to be slaves, resist enslavement—“so that by nature such war is just.”

“Nature,” “by nature,” “natural,” “naturally,” “according to nature,” “against nature,” are key words in Aristotle. The Bible has no word for “nature”—which may be why the Bible knows nothing of men who are slaves by nature. Accepting slavery, the Bible nevertheless commands (Deuteronomy 23:16-17):

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who escapes to you from his master. He shall live with you, in your midst, in any place that he chooses, in one of your towns, as he prefers; you shall not mistreat him.

“Nature has made all the animals for the sake of men” is Greek, by the greatest Greek. Yet it is “the Christian-Judaic ethic” that is now condemned for anthropocentrism.

Since Maine’s time we have become more aware and inclusive of non-Western traditions. Do the Chinese and Indian cultures encourage kindness to animals? If anthropocentrism is the enemy, the Chinese tradition is as anthropocentric as can be. And though the Hindus do not kill cows, Indian cows are not greatly to be envied. (“Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive/Officiously to keep alive.”) The Judeo-Christian tradition is anthropocentric only when an opponent wants to make a point. More than the Judeo-Christian tradition is anthropocentric, it is theocentric. Or perhaps (like an ellipse) it is dually -centric: theo- and anthropo-.

There is still another tradition—modernity, “the tradition of the new.” The difference between the old, Judeo-Christian tradition and the new, modern tradition is a central theme in an immortal American book, Moby Dick.

What is the essential crime now being alleged against us? Hubris. We have set ourselves over and against nature. We have neither piety toward the cosmos nor pity toward the other speccies with whom we share life. The impious and blasphemous will befoul, pillage, and destroy a sanctum. In our impiety toward nature we blasphemously deny the sanctity of our world and of the various kinds of life in it. We befoul the world as we pillage and destroy it.

Moby Dick is about, among other things, the hubris of moderns. Detached from family and village, separated from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the modern makes his own law. He will not obey the law of another (or Another). Enrage him, and so far from acquiescing in being part of the universe, the modern would rather attempt to swallow up the universe within himself. The somewhat literary name for the modernity represented in Moby Dick by Captain Ahab is Faustianism. Faustian man desecrates and ravages the earth and the fullness thereof. (This is written for the benefit of the young and their forgetful elders. Only a few years ago, before the current indignation about the Judeo-Christian tradition, Faustian man was common coin, worn by use.)

The “I” of Moby Dick is Ishmael, and he too is modern, detached, like Ahab, from tradition and traditional ties. An outsider and a spectator, Ishmael nevertheless has his way of swallowing the universe—vicariously, by watching others attempt it, by role-playing in the mind. At the other end of the ship’s hierarchy from Captain Ahab, differing from him in character, he understands him better than anyone else does. Partly that is because Ishmael has an understanding imagination; but it is also because he recognizes in himself the seed, the potentiality, of the obsession that in Ahab is full-blown. In his judgment of Ahab, Ishmael makes the modern choice. He gives primacy to the aesthetic over the moral. In Ishmael’s eyes Ahab has the elemental force and the beauty, beyond good and evil, of the White Whale himself, or of those awesome storms at sea.

The two countrymen of Ahab and Ishmael in sharpest contrast to them are Father Mapple and Starbuck, the Quaker from Nantucket. Father Mapple reveals that by force of will he has turned from a life at sea that, given his character, could have made of him too a kind of Ahab. He has compelled himself to submit to God. He is the Jonah both of the Book and of his own sermon, first rebelling against God’s claim on him and then embracing it.

In Starbuck character and tradition are of a piece. He is active not passive; but he is measured, moderate. Courageous, he despises fool-hardiness. Engaged in whaling—and therefore believing that humanity’s right to use other creatures extends even to killing them—he is resolute against more killing than is strictly necessary. He would be disgusted by bullfighting; he would hunt for food, but not for sport. He is integrally opposed to Ahab’s mad enterprise. He will not be caught up in the excitement, he will not admire aesthetically what he loathes morally and opposes prudentially.

Standing within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Father Mapple and Starbuck are not of those who make war on God’s creation. They are not Faustian. For aggression against the cosmos is a Faustian crime—in the case of Ahab a crime so much grander than the average man’s petty larcenies that in us half-hearted Faustians it arouses more admiration than horror.

Since Faustianism is a rebellious overthrow of the Judeo-Christian tradition, why is the Judeo-Christian tradition blamed for the Faustian crime? It is no good to say that Faustianism is a Judeo-Christian heresy, and therefore of Judeo-Christian origin. In that sense, practically everything in the West which is not Judeo-Christian is a Judeo-Christian heresy. The Judeo-Christian tradition cannot be invoked to explain everything. What explains everything explains nothing.

In Starbuck a Jew can recognize a character almost ideally that of a proper Jewish householder. We could hope many Jews to be like him, without at the same time having to hope for a transvaluation of Jewish values. (We would only have to hope for overcoming the habits implanted in us by galut .)

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The Jewishness of the Christian Star-buck argues for a Judeo-Christian tradition. But of course that does not make Judaism’s tradition (s) identical with Christianity’s. Discussing the Jewish and Christian doctrines and law concerning animals, Jewish apologists say that Paul has much to answer for. They point to I Corinthians 9: 9-10:

In the law of Moses it is written: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Does God care about oxen? Or is He not rather referring entirely to us? Of course that was written for our sake—so that the ploughman shall plough in hope, and the thresher shall thresh in the hope of getting his share.

The Jewish apologists say that this teaching of Paul’s is responsible for later Christian teachings that did nothing to mitigate, and actually encouraged, cruelty to animals.

By contrast, our apologists refer us to that part of the “law of Moses” from which Paul quotes, Deuteronomy 25: 1-4:

When there is a dispute between men and they go to law, and are judged, and the innocent man is declared innocent and the guilty man guilty; if the guilty man deserves to be lashed, the judge shall have him lie down and shall have him lashed by number, in his own presence, proportionately to his guilt. He may be given forty lashes, no more; lest, if your brother is lashed more than that, excessively, he be degraded before your eyes. You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.

The Jewish apologists note that in Judaism, unlike Christianity, the law against muzzling the ox has not been “spiritualized” to the ox’s hurt. It remains actual, concrete law. Our apologists could also note that well into the 19th century the navies of Christendom punished enlisted and impressed men not with the biblical maximum of forty lashes—which the Rabbis had reduced to 39, to avert the possible sin of 41 by mistake, and the ensuing, more grievous sin of degrading our brother in our eyes—but with a hundred, five hundred, even a thousand lashes. Like the ox, those sailors too would have preferred a little more of carnal Jewish law and a little less of spiritual Christian love.

The law against muzzling the ox follows immediately upon the law against degrading our brother the criminal, to teach that God cares both about man and about beast. “Of man and beast Thou art protector, Lord” (Psalm 36: 7).

All this is well enough, but in fact it is hard to say anything confident about the relation between doctrine and life, between document and deed. In Jewish law the prohibition (in Deuteronomy 20: 19-20) against besiegers destroying fruit trees was expanded by the Rabbis to include all wanton destruction. Recent articles about “Judaism and the environment” have discussed it; but how did that affect flesh-and-blood Jews? Sometimes doctrines and documents count for a great deal, and sometimes they don’t.

John Maynard Keynes said that the businessman or man of affairs may pride himself on being a no-nonsense, practical sort who has no truck with theories; yet without knowing it, he is a slave to the theory of some long-dead scribbler. But have all long-dead scribblers their disciples, knowing or unknowing?

Documents can lie ignored for centuries, and then be recalled to use. The Patristic anti-Jewish teachings and decrees of late antiquity had little influence on such Christian rulers in the early Middle Ages as Charlemagne. In the later Middle Ages, when European society took a new anti-Jewish turn, those teachings and decrees had an influence. That’ is, the anti-Jewish turn preceded the resuscitation of dead letters. But if those ancient anti-Jewish doctrines and laws had not been available for revival, the Jews of the later Middle Ages, and their descendants, might have suffered less.

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In asking ourselves what influence Bible and rabbinical literature actually had on Jews, we might therefore do well to start from the Jews rather than from Bible and rabbinical literature. Let us imagine a “typical” Jewish community, as it was before the irruptions of modernity shattered it—in the Ukraine, say, a hundred years or more ago. What were those Jews like in their relation to nature and to the animal kingdom?

First off it must be said that though most of them lived not in cities but in villages, they had nothing like their peasant neighbors’ closeness to nature. Maurice Samuel has shown us the striking poverty of Yiddish in names for the plants and the animate beings of the very earth on which its speakers stood, in contrast to the richness of their neighbors’ languages. (A suggested sociolinguistic research project: compare, for poverty or richness, the flora-and-fauna vocabulary of the Sephardim’s Ladino and of 15th-century Spanish, from which it derives, as well as of the non-Jewish languages spoken in what used to be the Ladino area: Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Greek.) The Jews’ distance from nature, as reflected in their very language, was an effect less of Judaism than of galut.

Not all Jews were entirely removed from nature and the animal kingdom, or equally removed. There were, for instance, the Jewish wagoners, the balegoles. Was a Jewish wagoner, who as a Jew was indeed farther removed from nature and the feeling for nature than the Gentile wagoner in the same village, likely in consequence to treat his horse worse than the Gentile did? I doubt it. Geographically, sensitivity about cruelty to animals did not flourish in Eastern (and Southern) Europe. Socially, it did not flourish among the peasantry. The probability is that the Jewish wagoner treated his animal better than the Gentile one.

If so, in part that must have been because Jewish culture and society encouraged kindness to animals and discouraged cruelty, and this affected even the lowly balegole. The learned elite, whether those communal officials called rabbis or their yeshivah-mates who earned their livings differently, were only a small part of Jewish society, but they set the tone. They needed none of the aids that the technology of modern scholarship has produced to take the place of old-fashioned erudition. Learned Jews had neither Bible concordance nor Gross’s Otsar Ha-aggadah, they simply knew Bible and rabbinical literature—including what is said in the Talmud about these verses from Deuteronomy (22:6-7):

If you happen on a bird’s nest along the way, on any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs in it and the mother bird sitting on the fledglings or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You must send the mother away, and then you may take the young; so that you may fare well and have long life.

As it happens, although about these verses the elite, as ever, knew more than the somewhat less learned—the Jewish solid citizens—they did not know incomparably more. The Jewish solid citizen may not have had much Talmud, but he had his Pentateuch. This he knew well, because the more any part of Jewish sacred literature is used liturgically, the better the Jews knew (and know) it. In the synagogue the Pentateuch is read from beginning to end every year. Before hearing a section of the Pentateuch read publicly, a Jew studied it at home, year after year. The solid-citizen Jew knew Pentateuch far better than Prophets, because Prophets are less liturgical. Of Prophets he knew above all the haftarot, the extracts that follow the Sabbath and holy-day readings of the Pentateuch. Because the entire Psalter was liturgical, Jews knew Psalms well; but some psalms they knew better than the rest—for instance, the 145th, which a Jew who prays says three times a day.

So not merely the elite but all Jewish men who were not actually ignorant knew what the Rabbis of the Talmud had said about Deuteronomy 22: 6-7 (concerning the mother bird), because what the Rabbis had said about it is reported by the commentators—Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, etc.—whose commentaries surround the Bible text in the standard Jewish editions. There was no such thing as studying Pentateuch without Rashi, and many consulted the other commentators also. From the commentaries the ordinary Jew knew how important, in the tradition, is the identity of reward—long life and faring well—for tenderness toward a mother bird and for honoring father and mother, though honoring father and mother is of the Ten Commandments: in Exodus, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may have long life. . .”; in Deuteronomy, “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commands you, so that you may have long life and that you may fare well. . . .”1 It need not be added that the ordinary Jew knew the Ten Commandments enjoin Sabbath rest for “your ox and your ass” (in Exodus) and “your animal” (in Deuteronomy).

From the commentaries he knew, further, that the Rabbis had linked the command about the mother bird to other commands, about other animals: “You shall not on the same day slaughter an ox, or a sheep, together with its young” (Leviticus 22:28); “If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, though you would prefer not to raise it, you must raise it with him” (Exodus 23: 5); “You are not allowed to see your brother’s ass or ox fallen by the wayside and ignore them; you must raise them with him” (Deuteronomy 22: 4).

In Nahmanides discussion of the commandment concerning the mother bird, they learned about his respectful dissent from Maimonides, whom he quotes. Maimonides teaches that the commandment was intended for the bird’s good, because while animals lack human speech and intellect, they have feelings like those of human beings, and it would be needlessly painful to the mother bird (besides being forbidden cruelty in a human being) to add to the mother’s loss of her young the hurt of seeing it happen before her eyes. Nahmanides thinks that the command is intended to benefit not birds but us who obey, by training us away from cruelty. (In general, Nahmanides likes to stress the principle, formulated in the Talmud, that the purpose of God’s commands is to refine us of our impurities.) He cites yet another reason for the command about the mother and the eggs or fledglings: it teaches us that while we are permitted to use animals, even by slaughtering them for our food, we are forbidden to destroy a species.

All this, and more, was available not only to the learned but also to every Jew who could read the Pentateuch with its commentaries.

Then there were the law codes, of which the content was known to all law-abiding Jews. It is not pious advice but codified, binding Jewish law (from Berakhot, in the Talmud) that “a man is forbidden to eat before he feeds his animal,” and (from Bava Metsi’a) that “a Jew must care for a Gentile’s animal as for a Jew’s.” How widely known a more technical legal point was, I am unsure: “The prohibition of cruelty to animals is [not rabbinical but] biblical” (in Bava Metsi’a and Shabbat): a biblical command is higher, more unassailable than a rabbinical law; as the Constitution has more force than a statute.

Nor does this story about Rabbi—i.e., the Rabbi, R. Judah ha-Nasi—(again in Bava Metsi’a) seem to have been a monopoly of the learned:

A calf that was being led to slaughter ran and hid his head under the edge of Rabbi’s cloak, and cried. Said he to the calf, “Go. That is what you were created for.” Then it was said in heaven, “Because he was not merciful, let sufferings come upon him.” . . . Once Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping in the house. Some young weasels [sic] were lying there and she was about to sweep them away when Rabbi said, “Leave them alone. It is written (Ps. 145: 9), ‘[The Lord is good to all, and] His mercy is over all His creatures.’” Then it was said in heaven, “Because he was merciful, we shall have mercy on him.”

The Jews exile from nature was not inherent, but was an aspect of the more encompassing Exile, galut. Again the liturgy can testify, copiously. For instance, every Sabbath afternoon from Sukkot to Passover the 104th Psalm and the Songs of Ascent (or of Pilgrimage), Psalms 120-134, are read. The 104th Psalm, a lovely, noble poem about nature, was particularly admired by the earlier German romantics. As to the charge of destructive anthropocentrism against the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have seen that if there is aggression against nature, it is by Faustian man. The most concentrated expression of the spirit at the opposite extreme from Faustianism that I know of is one of those Songs of Ascent—the 131st Psalm, of three verses. In fact, it is entirely too anti-Faustian. (Psalm 131: 2 is one of two verses in the Bible [the other being Isaiah 66:13] where God, who is ordinarily likened to a father, is instead likened to a mother; except that in Isaiah the image is of a man comforted by his mother, while in the 131st Psalm “I” says of himself that he is like a weanling child at his mother’s breast.)

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The time has come to return from the Bible’s birds and oxen to Justice Douglas’s fish. Should we be concerned about the danger to fish? Yes. About polluted water and air? Yes. Should we be against people? No.

When public discourse is conducted in shrieks, voices at a lower decibel level go unheard. With water and air, both the analysis of what is wrong and the treatment for righting the wrong are not at all new. For many years economists have been distinguishing between private cost and social cost. In the old textbooks, air was the example of a free good. No one will be as careful with a free good as with a costly one. If abusing air and water is not free but has to be paid for, we shall be as unwasteful of them as of anything else that has to be paid for.

Is the question of water and air about prudence, about the normal, quotidian more and less? Or is it a question about the End of the World? There have always been temperaments that like to believe in the imminent End of the World. Now our culture itself likes End-of-the-World thought, or emotion; and dislikes people.

Though we are—or say we are—for the masses, we have a distaste for those who make up the masses. Residents of suburban shore towns we call selfish and bigoted when they try to close their beaches to the busloads from the city; but we, who used to have the national parks pretty much to ourselves, are only being high-minded lovers and protectors of nature when we shudder at those crowds of slobs who have been descending upon us lately in their cars, with their noise and litter. Just so, isn’t it revolting, what all those tourists are doing to Venice? When we go to Venice, we are not tourists. We are visitors, or travelers—or researchers.

Rather more serious is the possibility that somehow, as by a kind of unarticulated, subterranean communication—a Marxoid class consciousness?—the philosophers have decided that the time has finally arrived for them to become, as rightfully they should be, kings.

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To cry crisis can have one of three functions, of which the first is praiseworthy, the second tolerable, and the third sinister. The first function of crying crisis is to tell people about a real crisis. The second is to get one’s self heard about something that, while not a real crisis, does need consideration and remedy; but since people pay attention to nothing but exaggeration—if that—one exaggerates. The third function of crying crisis is to declare a state of emergency.

A state of emergency requires emergency measures: inter arma silent leges. If—regretfully, of course—I decide that the United States should introduce compulsory sterilization, I declare that the country is in a state of emergency, that it is in danger of sinking beneath the weight of its population. A country in a state of emergency cannot afford democratic luxuries, it needs a strong king. Since it is knowledge that moves the world today, only the philosopher—the scholar, the expert—is fit to be king.

If salesmen were to declare a state of emergency that required salesmen as kings, we would be suspicious. If the Attorney General asked for a suspension of civil liberties so that, in the Roman formula, the state should not sustain detriment, we would put the burden of proof on him. When scholars and experts declare a state of emergency that requires them as kings, should they be exempt from our suspicion and from the burden of proof?

The scholar judged by his colleagues to be the most influential psychologist in the United States titles his latest book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. To those who will shirk their duty and not read the book he speaks through the Times (September 3, 1971):

“Traditional concepts of individual freedom and dignity have made an immeasurable contribution, but they’ve served their purpose,” the rangy, cheerful, 67-year-old Harvard university professor asserted. . . .

We could wish him a bit less cheerful.

An address to the American Psychological Association by its president (Times, September 4) calls for “the creation of new drugs that could routinely be given to people, especially leaders holding great power, to subdue hostility and aggression, and, therefore, allow more humane and intelligent behavior to emerge.” People like us, enlightened people, understand that addiction to drugs is just an extension of the public’s addiction to all kinds of chemicals, from aspirin to tranquilizers. We understand that this general addiction is only what can be expected of a society that has put its faith in technology: a drug fix is a form of chemical fix, which is a form of “technological fix.” But when it comes to declaring a state of emergency, and deciding what we shall do when we are in power, our disdain for fixes vanishes. Then we want people to have the right fix. We want them to take the right chemicals, the chemicals we will give them.

Who will administer the behavioral training to make the race healthy and happy, after it has been helped to see through the illusion of freedom and dignity? Who will perfect the anti-hostility fix, and administer it? Who but the philosophers—the scholars and experts? Not only are they alone skilled enough, but also they are very moral. We can safely give them the unchecked power they will need—for in a state of emergency, and especially after we have advanced beyond freedom and dignity, there will be no excuse for the obstruction of uninformed blather, whether by Congressmen or by journalists. If you can’t trust philosopher-kings, whom can you trust?

The philosophes thought they could use benevolent despots to carry out the philosophical program: Voltaire and Diderot on the one hand, Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia (both of them, for some reason, called Great) on the other. It soon became questionable whether the benevolent despots were benevolent, but it remained unquestionable that they were despots. The philosophes’ attempt failed. They did not become the power behind the throne.

Now some descendants of the philosophes, doubtless more unconsciously than consciously, appear to feel they need no longer settle for second best. Plato’s ambition may be attainable at last. The philosophers will be kings in their own right, not standing behind thrones but sitting on them. The philosophers’ despotism will necessarily, by definition, be benevolent.

A Jewish question-and-answer: Q: In what way does a tailor resemble a human being? A: A human being works, and works, and works, and then he dies. And that is how it is with a tailor.

Q: In what way does a philosopher-scholar-expert-intellectual resemble a human being? A: A human being wants to be a despot, and he is sure he will be a benevolent one. And that is how it is with a philosopher.

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Footnotes

1 But suppose, the Rabbis asked in the Talmud, that coming down from a tree, after he has obeyed the command of sending the mother bird away, a young man falls, breaks his neck, and dies. How do you reconcile that with the long life promised for obedience to the command? The answer, of course, is that the long life we are promised is the eternal life of the world to come.

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