Monday, February 28, 2005

Evil aesthetes

The critic Terry Eagleton once wrote something to the effect that the fact that many Nazi death camp officers spent their time reading Goethe and listening to Mozart put a bit of a dent in the old assumption that consuming beautiful art was morally improving. It is arguable that the Nazi regime was one of the most "aesthetic" in history and, perhaps partly because of that, one of the most evil.

Anyway, Eagleton's observation was brought to mind in the second chapter of Hochschild's book:

"Oswald, as he appears in protraits had a long, determined face, intense eyes, and a proudly bowed-out chest. His contemporaries saw him as a wise, thoughtful man who embodied Scottish virtues of frugality, sobriety, and hard work, and who spent all of his spare time reading, often far into the night. He supervised the construction of a home library with sliding glass panels that contained more than two thousand books fo theology, philosophy, literature and history. His art collection included works by Rubens and Rembrandt, and a friend called him a 'man of Great Knowledge and Ready Conversation'. Among those who shared that conversation at his London dinner table, or could hunt pheasants while visiting his 100,000 acre estate in Auchincruive, Scotland were Benjamin Franklin and the writers Laurence Sterne and James Boswell. Oswald played a major role in Scottish road building, gave to charity and, as we shall see, would represent his country on a crucial diplomatic mission"

He was also one of the most successful slave traders of his time.

The other major character in Hochschild's chapter is John Newton, a slave boat captain who spent half his life chucking dead people off his boat during the immensely cruel voyage from Africa to the Americas and the other half as a self-professed religious man, chafing at the immorality (by which he meant licentiousness) of his fellows. Newton spends much of his journal thanking God for miraculous interventions in his life and for signs showing the way to conduct himself and yet:

"...during the better part of a decade in the slave trade, and for some thrity years afterwards, John Newton seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery."

In my piece in "Big Questions in Science" I was asked to look at the science of aggression. At the end of my research, it became apparent that the most destructive forms of man's inhumanity to man could not be explained in terms of our innate aggressive drives. Phenomena like the Holocaust, the slave trade and 9/11 have really rather little to do with man's violent or aggressive feelings, but much more to do with our incredible ability to disengage our moral faculties and, more fundamentally, our sympathetic/empathetic feelings when it suits us. Perhaps art/religion serves as a way of filling the gap sometimes.

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