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The smile on the face of Mary, mother of Christ.

Swedish globalisation advocate Johan Norberg looks up a picture in a beautiful Italian church, and sees an early sign of where individualism comes from. Nice thoughts, succinctly expressed.

13 comments to The smile on the face of Mary, mother of Christ.

  • Byronic Man

    Maybe I misread the piece but I took him to be saying that this Madonna seems to be an individual. Surely quite a leap to say the painting endorses individualism, which to my mind implies the individual is the basic unit of society and is not dependent on his/her social relations. I would say the Madonna is a prime example of someone who ‘is who she is only in relation to someone else’ (as Hegel puts it), namely the wee guy on her lap. If she had been a paragon of rights and negative liberty (so beloved of right libertarians) rather than a symbol of modesty and love, I doubt we would have got the two thousand year religion that also gave us such artists as Giotto.

  • Nick M

    WTF is “negative liberty”? Byronic Man you lost me when you mentioned that tosser Hegel.

    I think Norberg has an interesting point. Alexander the Great had statues of himself put up all over his empire and they generally inform the modern concept of male sexual attractiveness. I recall John Rohmer going on about that and I think also noting that it represented a rise in the importance of the individual. He contrasted that with the Homeric Greeks. Essentially his idea was that something crossed-over in the West and we became individuals and not just members of the tribe. I thought his argument interesting and almost convincing but I’ve forgotten most of it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Byronic Man, what a strange interpretation of the article you have. I don’t think it is a “leap” at all. What Norberg is noting is that in Renaissance Italy, artists, for the first time in centuries, depicted people as having specific emotions and individual qualities. The Madonna in this and similar pictures is not just an icon, but an actual person. That is where the sense of individualism comes from.

    I don’t see what is so odd about that observation. It seems to be a fairly simple point, in fact.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes. M.J. Oakeshott (amongst others) was fond of pointing at the growth of individual artistic (and other) sprit in Italy from the 13th century onwards (Oakeshott was following the thinking of Burckhardt of course).

    I rather doubt that Petrarch and the others were obsessed with political ideas (libertarian or other), but that is not what is being talked about.

    Of course every person (even an ardent socialist) is an individual – a person is, by defintion, a reasoning “I”.

    So, sorry David Hume, a thought does mean a thinker.

    As for Hegel. How one interprets his thought rather depends on how one understands German – a language I can not speak.

    When certain words he uses are translated as “state” or “government” he seems very collectivist indeed, but when they are translated as “society” or “community” he may not be.

    He may simply be saying that a person who had never met another person (say one brought up by wild dogs or whatever) would not have language or many of the other aspects of culture that other people do.

    Hegel may be overstressing the case, the “wild boy” may still be a person (have a reasoning mind – after all one can think, even sometimes in quite a complex way, without words) and even have moral conceptions (a view of what is right and what is wrong). But it would be folly to deny that someone brought up without contact with other human beings is going to be very different indeed.

    Of course political libertarians are not “individualists” in this sense at all. We believe in voluntary cooperation – civil society, not “atomistic individualism” or state control.

    Indeed, as every good conservative used to know, statists seek to break down such civil society institutions as the family – in order to break up people into “atomised individuals” who can be dominated by the State (which becomes the only source of their “fraternity” and so on).

    Hegel himself had some good things to say about civil scociety, indeed he was not even hostile to “negative” liberty (he could even be quite strong about it – for example he was against rape in marriage).

    Overall he seems to have been neither a libertarian or a collectivist in politics – at least to judge by those little blue Cambridge “Political thought of ……” books that are a nice crib for people who do not have years to study the political thought of every thinker (people like me).

    Hegel seems to grant a larger role for the government than libertarians like myself would – but not nearly as big as it now is.

    I rather doubt that Hegel would be pleased with the level of taxes and regulations that most nations have now. Nor with the fiat credit money that everywhere seems to have.

    Levels of government spending worse than that Wurttemberg had under its worst 18th century Dukes (one of whom was so bad that even the semi dead German Empire sent in people to try and run the bankrupt place) together with the monetary system of the French Revolutionaries are unlikely to have pleased Hegel (however mixed his opinions on the French Revolution were).

    As for regulations, Hegel does seem to have thought that Wurttemberg went a bit far – and many countries now (such as this one) go much further.

    In short, even if one rejects libertarianism one could radically reduce the spending, taxes and regulations of the British government (and many other governments) without great fear of upsetting Hegel.

    And (almost needless to say) such action would reduce “atomisation” and strengthen civil society (rather than the reverse).

  • Nick M

    WTF was that about?

  • Paul Marks

    A close up of the face of the Mother of Christ in the picture would have been nice. My eyes (“and the rest of you Paul”) are clearly not as good as they were when I was young. However, I like to think that Mary was indeed smileing.

  • Paul Marks

    I do not even know what “WTF” stands for Nick – sadly I am not a computer person.

    However, I can help with “negative liberty” the gentleman who was replying to brought this up, so I assumed he knew what it meant and did not define it (I forgot that other people would read what I typed – I apologize).

    “Negative liberty” means not being aggressed against, no other people saying “do this [or do not do this] or we punch your face in”. Such violation of “negative” liberty can come from goverments or from private individuals or groups (such as “the Mafia”).

    “Postitive” liberty is a little harder to follow.

    It used to mean control of reason over the passions. In that a person would struggle to control his brute instincts and (in so far as he managed it) he was free. A civil person, a person in control of himself – not out raping and so on.

    In this way even a slave could be “free” in the sense that he was the true master of himself (hense self mastery, the development of the moral character and so on).

    Some people have claimed that government can aid people in their struggle for moral self improvment (hence, for example, the quote from Aristotle that the Polis is partly about trying to help people be “just and good” with “Polis” being translated as “state” which may, or may not, be correct in the context). And other people (such as myself) hold such a view to be utterly absurd. Holding that government efforts to promote virture (whether one calls it “true liberty”, “positive liberty” or whatever) are far more likely to lead to very nasty consequences.

    However, at some point (long after Hegel’s time – just as the idea of “positive liberty” goes back thousands of years before him) “positive liberty” came to mean goods and services.

    This is how the American “Pragmatists” viewed “liberty” or (as to use the word they normally did) “freedom”.

    Their (government interventionist policies) would produce higher living standards, thus giving people more choices and making them more “free”.

    This is nothing much to do with Hegel. And the political economy of the American Pragmatists was a lot of dingo’s kidneys anyway (in that government interventionism reduces living standards, it does not increase them over what they otherwise would have been). But the philosophy of the Pragmatists was (and is) also a load of rubbish, and not just their definition of liberty.

    “the right is only the expendient in our way of thinking” (William James).

    Libertarians should be as angry (perhaps more angry) than the author of the “Philosophy of Right” would have been if had been alive to read those words.

  • Paul Marks

    “The gentleman I was repling to” of course. Sorry for this and all my other errors (which I can not bring myself to look for).

    At least when I speak I do not miss out words.

  • Nick M

    I’m not a sophisticate. I am still at a loss. I only understand liberty straight and simple.

    BTW, it means “what the fuck”.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Negative liberty is normally taken to be freedom from coercion: not being made to do what you don’t want to do. Positive liberty is freedom to achieve certain goals: being granted the means and resources to do what you want to do. A fairly modern distinction developed by Isaiah Berlin.

    I think the second point Byronic Man was trying to make was that perhaps if the Church hadn’t been so authoritarian in restricting people’s behaviour, it wouldn’t have lasted 2000 years and so enabled the art that it is claimed here destroyed its power. I personally think the logic that the Church “gave” us artists like Giotto is a bit strained. True, the Church stole enough money to be able to patronise full-time artists – enough concentrated resources that people could make a living doing art rather than have to farm fields – but without their control, who knows what better alternative might have developed in its place?
    (His first point was that the Madonna was still a symbol of the importance of one’s connection to the Church and its control, and that this symbolism was more significant. Probably so, but then this was described as being an “early sign”.)

    Paul’s discussion of Hegel I think is basically about what Hegel meant when he said culture is a consequence of interactions with the rest of society. If he meant “society” in the sense of friends, neighbours, and family, that sounds quite reasonable. If you translate “society” as the state, Establishment, whatever, Hegel would seem to be saying that only the state saves us from barbarism.
    He’s suggesting Hegel may have been misunderstood.

    Basically, it is about the argument that only society enables culture which is good, and if the society you live in is collectivist, doesn’t that grant the collectivism a tiny sliver of the virtue?

    Apologies if I’m misinterpreting anyone.

  • Paul Marks

    Pa Annoyed gives a reasonable explination of one view of “positive liberty” but although I. B. may have been the first to use the term the American Pramatists were playing this game long before him.

    However, Byranic man was pointing at the older German romantic view of liberty (that goes back to the Greek Stoics and beyond) of liberty as the control of reason over the passions (liberty as the development of moral character).

    This (so Byranic man seems to be saying) leads to the idea that the state should help us develop into true human beings. I hold this to be a false view (at least if we define state as government), but it is rather different from the “more nice things means more freedom” view of modern “liberals”.

    These filth (not too strong a word) remind me of the Roman Empire with “libertas” being under a depiction of a loaf of bread on the coins – i.e. freedom means free food. A more “relevant” freedom that the old liberty of the Republic. “What does freedom of speech matter if you are starving” and all the other nonsense trotted out to justify tyranny. Of course, the very big government held to be needed to provide higher material living standards is the thing which (in reality) undermines material living standards.

    Whatever view of Hegel may be correct (and I am no expert on Hegel) he at least would not have gone along with the “freedom means the government giving you lots of nice things” view.

  • Paul Marks

    To return to the topic of the posting:

    Yesterday I watched a repeat of a television programme (it was on BBC 3 or 4) that I first watched some time ago. “Art for Eternity” (I think that was the title – or close to it) reminded me that a smiling madonna is a tradition in Coptic Christianity, it also reminded me of the connections between the Copts and Christians in Europe, as far north as France.

    I remember as youngster thinking that King Louis (the Saint) of France was a fool to launch a Crusade into Egypt. But, had he won, he would have liberated the Copts and linked up with the Christian Kingdoms of the Sudan – which were then still strong (indeed Christians and non extremist Muslims have not been totally exterminated in the Sudan even today). Thus cutting the Islamic world (and the Islamic threat) in two.

    It is easy for a boy (as I was) to snear at a man who did not know how things would turn out. Being clever centuries after the event is (in reality) smug and stupid.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “I remember as youngster thinking that King Louis (the Saint) of France was a fool to launch a Crusade into Egypt.”

    Wow! You must be older than I thought, Paul! 😉

    A lot of mistakes were made in those times, although often they can be excused if you remember their responsibility was for their present, not the distant future. One big mistake was trying to go it alone – it really needed a concerted push from all of Christendom. Another was many being satisfied with stopping their advance, rather than pushing them all the way back into Arabia. But as we know from today, getting people to make sacrifices in the common need is difficult, wars are expensive, and it has always been easy to think that local problems were more important than “a quarrel in a far-away land between peoples of whom we know nothing.”

    Indeed, I am often amazed by how history repeats (or at least “rhymes”), where bishoprics fell to Islam because they were too busy squabbling amongst themselves over doctrinal trivialities and routinely making accomodations based on simony. Swap ‘liberty’ in for ‘Christianity’ and you can see how little Islamic tactics have changed.

    We have less excuse than they did, because today we have the means to understand the threat far better, and could deal with it at far less cost than at any time in our past. And yet we don’t. But on the other hand, the past also gives hope, in that we always woke up to the danger eventually.