July 06, 2010

Augustine on Freewill: A Preliminary Thought

Augustine's discussion of free will in Book V of the City of God is fascinating. I'm not going to be able to unpick it all in this context and I think it would be immodest to try but some features immediatly strike me. The most important of these is the importance Augustine gives to the word 'free' and to the word 'will'. We need to place this in a context though. Augustine's purpose in his argument about free will is to take on two enemies. He defines them as Cicero and the Stoics- we may see the shades of Christian dispute here too. The first error, associated with Cicero, is to say that there is a God and belief in him is a good. If something is good as opposed to bad, it must have been chosen. If something is chosen the choice is unpredictable until it is made. (V 9) Therefore there can be no foreknowledge of the world. The second error is the Stoic error. That is to say that there is a fate which determines everything- so there is foreknowledge but there is no freedom. (V 10)

Augustine is attempting to show in these brief passages that both perceptions are wrong. Many scholars have laboured over precisely what he means here. I want though to pick out two aspects of his argument. The first is his concentration and obsession with the concept of will. Augustine is incredibly interested in the will and he locates all agency within the universe within wills. So he states 'material causes... can do only what the wills of spirits do by means of them'. Material things are made but do not make, spirits on the other hand 'both make and are made'. (V 9). The distinction is important. Augustine is basically drawing a distinction here between something that is conscious and intends to do something to the world and something that is unconscious and is shaped but will not shape the world. This is an attack on any idea of man's passivity or resignation before the world: Marcus Aurelius, Augustine would argue, believes in trying to make himself into some kind of thing whereas man and angels, like God, are able to shape the world they live in.

Secondly Augustine discusses the power of our will to remake the world. Here he attempts a definition of man's will as against God's. So God's will is defined by its supremacy and ability to finally shape the world, man's by its subservience, willed or otherwise, to God's. God knows the definition of each man's will before he begins his life and by that definition, a definition that is eternal, knows what man will do. As Augustine says 'our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should ahve. Therefore what power they have they have most certainly: for He Whose Foreknowledge cannot fail foreknew that they would have the power to do it and would do it' (V 9). Here the will is being defined but notice its freedom is not abstracted: it can still will but it will not will in a particular way because it has no power to do so. Augustine makes this simpler in his next section: where he asks the question about whether God is free to die. The question is an illusion, God cannot die because that is one of his properties: he is free to die in the sense that he might if he so wished but it is not in his definition to so do.

This is important. This argument from definition allows Augustine to ellide foreknowledge and freedom of choice. He puts this at its clearest here:

For a man does not sin because God foreknew that He would sin. On the contrary, ther is no doubt that the man himself sins when he sins. For He Whose foreknowledge cannot fail foresaw not that fate or fortune or something else would sin, but the man himself. If a man chooses not to sin, he certainly does not sin; but if he chooses tos in, this also was foreknown by God. (V 10)
The idea is that it is in the properties of the man that he would chose to sin. He chooses to sin and really makes a choice but the way that he was defined, the way that he was placed within the world, meant that in that situation he would sin.

As I said this is an imperfect rendering of a complicated subject: but I think it is in this area of will, definition and freedom that Augustine is able to argue both for divine foreknowledge and for human choice.

July 05, 2010


A suite for hoes and percutionists was how Roger Ebert summed up this film: I find myself agreeing. The comment sums up one of the most impressive scenes within Zatoichi, four men are tending a field, the repeated strike of their hoes on the ground turns musical and gives a scene its beat. The film itself like the scene is everlastingly visually inventive in its presentation of traditional material. Afterall the plot is that of a great number of action movies: an out of town fighter arrives in town and saves the oppressed people from the gangland bosses who abuse them. Only in Zatoichi, the fighter is not Clint Eastwood but a masseur with a sword cane, the locals are a motley assortment- a mad young man charging round the house with a spear, an older woman, two geishas (one of whom is a transvestite) and an inveterate and fairly harmless gangster. As to Zatoichi, more even than the man with no name, he doesn't really have much of an identity. He shuffles, laughs, giggles, and walks unsteadily through the film: but you don't get any idea of his inner life or why he does what he does. His rescue of the town is not the rescue of a town by a man but rescue courtesy of a natural force.

Zatoichi is an old Japanese story, redone in comics and films. I'm afraid I don't know the source material at all. However it seems to me from seeing this film that the director wants you to know that this is a traditional story. What he has done is rendered it differently. One temptation might have been to render it absurd- to do what the Three Amigos did for the Western and poke fun at the Japanese Samurai form. Or you could update the theme in the way that Casino Royale did the Bond films- turn a gentle myth into a modern drama of character development. But that isn't what the director has sought to do here at all. He has assumed we know the old myths and sought to create a new one. In parts it is absurd, in parts the plot clanks around, but the sounds, the style are so individualistic that it is evident the director wants you not merely to enjoy but to wonder at what he has done. You should come out of the movie thinking, not about the plot or the storyline, but about the buzz of the visuals, the sound of the movie, the symphony he creates out of rain splashing on puddles and the colour contrast of CGI blood against grey stones.

Here I admit to a failure of the imagination- because I am not this film's target audience. I do not find those things astonishing. I can imagine though how you could. What the director does with the plot is skew it as he skews the visuals. This is a familiar and yet unfamiliar world. When did you last see a Japanese samurai movie tackle the subject of paedophilia- perhaps the subject is not taken seriously enough but its there. There are plenty of powerful women in the film as well- Zatoichi stays with an older woman who is simply formidable. Of the two geishas, it is the girl not the boy who is more intelligent and less attractive: she leads whereas he is the bait for older men to be interested (a useful reversal of conventional gender roles). She can see the tragedy, he cannot. You could go through the film picking out these opposites. This is a samurai hero who allies with the bourgeoise against the old feudal ethic. Perhaps most emblematic of this is that Zatoichi fights with a body guard whose reason for serving come down to a chivalric desire to protect his girlfriend. The girl suffers from asthma and asks the samurai not to fight for her, he does and the inevitable happens.

I run now before my horse to market though for Zatoichi is not primarily about the story or the message or rather its message is not earnest and dull. This is a joyous film which is attempting to redefine the place of cinema. We often watch brooding and dark films with important points: Zatoichi is about recreating a cinema which is very different, the cinema of post war MGM- the dream factory. Its about giving you dreams. Even I, who don't have a visual imagination, am startled a couple of nights after I watched it by the number of times that its images come up in my dreams. Wonder is part of human life and needs cultivating: Zatoichi with its invention and its quirky sense of humour is attempting to give us wonders in the same way that Loki did before. Like Loki, the director is a trickster, he turns situations upside down and inside out, like Loki he embarrasses the conventional and creates things which could not be.

Like the Norse God he is absolutely brilliant at it and his film is very beautiful, in its own heavily idiosyncratic way.

July 04, 2010

Dacre's dividing line

F.A. Hayek argued in his Constitution of Liberty that there were two enlightenments: a virtuous one led by Adam Smith and the Baron de Montesquieu and a vicious one led by Voltaire, Rousseau and Helvetius. Hayek is not alone, many European intellectuals particularly on the right, date back the key divisions that created left and right to the decades before and after the French Revolution. Current discussions of the period suggest there is something to this: whether it is Jonathan Isreal suggesting that there was a moderate as well as a radical enlightenment, or it is John Pocock documenting the revulsion felt by Edward Gibbon for the enlightenment philosophes he encountered in France. Hugh Trevor Roper in his 1963 essay, 'The Historical Philosophy of the Enlightenment' addresses the divide in the enlightenment that Hayek and others have discerned and provides an interesting explanation of why in his view the enlightenment remains united, whilst also having at its heart a division.

Trevor Roper's interest in this essay was the enlightenment historians. Several of the great figures of the enlightenment functioned as historians- Montesquieu, Voltaire, Robertson, Smith, Hume and others all attempted historical works. The division between the sciences was not yet established, so whilst we might think of the Wealth of Nations as a great economic text, however one of Smith's greatest disciples wrote of him that 'the great Montesquieu pointed out the road. He was the Lord Bacon in this branch of study. Dr. Smith is the Newton'. Hume, Smith, Robertson, Gibbon, Voltaire all acknowledged a debt to Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois published in 1748. Hume's own histories were published in the 1750s, as was Gibbon's first essay in the craft. Voltaire's later works were profoundly indebted to Montesquieu. You can see this in their themes: when Voltaire writes of the Roman Empire, according to Trevor Roper, his themes are the same as Gibbon's- the danger of priestcraft and religion, the rise of barbarism. All the philosophic historians believed in the importance of social structure to human history and of progress: Gibbon's famous conclusion that the fall of Rome could not happen again and that the conquests of the enlightenment would be preserved was not a solitary view.

So if the philosophes and the more moderate enlightened figures agreed on ends: what did they disagree on? Trevor Roper follows through the dispute into the 1780s and 1790s and discovers that a gap which was minute widened. By 1790, Burke, a friend of Gibbon, remained an admirer of Montesquieu, whereas Mirabeau an admirer of Voltaire believed the Baron's influence had faded. The reason was not that Montesquieu and Gibbon did not endorse reform but that they believed that it could take place within existing structures. Gibbon endorsed Anglicanism, Robertson was moderator of the Kirk of Scotland. Both were loathed by conservatives in their own countries- Wesley dismissed Robertson as boring, viewed Hume as an ignoramus and the clerical response to the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire echoes yet. But the response of Bruke and Gibbon and Montesquieu and Hume to reform was to suggest that it was both possible and desirable for existing institutions to change quickly, rather than for change to be revolutionary and bloody.

The key point here that Trevor Roper draws out is that these beliefs were linked to historical circumstance. Voltaire operated in the 1770s in France, Gibbon and Hume operated against a very different context. In this sense Trevor Roper's enlightenment distinction is a situational one:: showing that political thought is dependant not upon a priori principles but upon empirical observations. Gibbon from his study and seat in the House of Commons could afford to wait, Voltaire living perilously under the ancien regime could not. Lots has changed about this view of the situation in which both operated: Jonathan Clarke for instance demonstrating that Britain had an ancien regime- but the overall point that Gibbon's context was the gentlemen rulers of the country and Voltaire's the philosophic elite of Paris is one reinforced by Pocock's recent study of Gibbon. The key point here is that situations drove these two enlightenment views to different understandings of time: whether we agree with the history or not, the insight that political attitudes are not only about politics but about history- not just about what should happen but about what should happen when, is accurate.

The history here is that of a pioneer. I think few historians would endorse everyone of Dacre's conclusions about the enlightenment here: a short essay that was designed to provoke has been superceded by larger works by Robertson, Isreal, Pocock and others. What is interesting though is that Trevor Roper, later Lord Dacre, reminds us that politics has more dimensions than simple political objectives. The principles behind his approach- that the situation in which intellectuals function and their attitude to history matter- are useful even if later scholars have refined or even refuted some of the history involved in the essay.