Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View. Things fall apart and apart and apart…

Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View.

Things fall apart and apart and apart…

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”

Bob Dylan

Burton Weltman

A. Prologue and Warning.

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is one of the most highly regarded novels that is least read.  This is a dubious distinction that it shares with such novels as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Each of these novels is long, with a complicated narrative structure, lengthy descriptions of scenes and things, and abstract philosophical interludes. Each is full of soliloquys, speechifying, and long internal monologues that can seem stilted and unrealistic.  They are challenging reads.

First published in 1904, Nostromo has been called “a novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before.”[1]  It is chock full of characters, and the plot would be complex enough if it was narrated in a linear fashion, which it isn’t.  Conrad repeatedly switches from the novel’s present to the past and then to the future, and he gives the reader little clue when he has done so.  He also repeatedly switches the perspective on events, with different narrators presenting differing pictures of the same events.  There is no clear master narrative to the book, and not even common ground among the narrators or between the narrators and other characters.  The result is that the reader can never find a secure footing.  Staying with the book is an effort.  Many have questioned whether it is worth the effort, and decided that it isn’t.

I first read Nostromo some forty years ago.  I remember finding it exciting but disconcerting, and I wasn’t sure why.  I recently read Maya Jasanoff’s new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World,[2] which inspired me to reread Nostromo.  Once again, I found it exciting and exacting, but still disconcerting.  I think, however, that I now know why the book disturbs me.  I have also concluded that it is well worth the effort.  It is a beautiful, inciteful and haunting book about ideals, idealism, and ideas that forces you to rethink your own principles.  But I must add the warning that taking this book out of context could be hazardous to your mental health, and to your political and intellectual will.  I hope, herein, to explain what I mean.

B. The Plot: Making a Long Story as Short as I Can.

Nostromo is the story of a political revolution in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana (coast of bird dung).  The country is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of violent upheavals in which brutal dictatorships alternate with inept republics, over and over again, so that nothing ever really changes.  The current disorders revolve around a silver mine which is coveted by both would-be dictators and erstwhile republicans.  The republicans are portrayed in the book as the good guys, the dictators as bad guys.

In my reading, Nostromo is a story about the futility and fatality of idealism.  Jasanoff claims that Conrad believed that “force will crush ideals – and that ideals have victims,” a theme that “recurred throughout his writing” and particularly in Nostromo.[3]  The story is full of idealists, the bad guys as well as the good, who idealize all sorts of things that they think will make for a better world, but whose dreams invariably become nightmares.

The conflicts and contradictions among the characters’ ideals, and the egoism that lies behind them and pushes them forward, is the substance of the story.  It is not an uplifting tale. Conrad opines in his own voice that “A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.  He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice.”[4]  Idealism, according to Conrad, is a form of egoism, and idealists are pitiless in pursuit of their respective ideals. That is what repeatedly happens in the book.

Nostromo, the book’s namesake, is an ostensibly incorruptible employee of the shipping company that serves the silver mine.  He idealizes himself and lives only for the purity of his reputation.  He is a sympathetic character, but one who is clearly defined by egoism, and it is his egoism that leads to his downfall.  Other characters are not so openly egoistic, but egoism still underlies Conrad’s descriptions of their idealism.

Charles Gould is the owner of the mine.  He is an upright and universally respected man, whose materialism – his belief that money makes the world go around – is the basis for his idealism.  He believes his mine will provide the material foundation for a peaceful Costaguanan republic, and he openly speaks of himself as the savior of the country.  His efforts to develop the mine are backed by an American financier who also seeks to do good, so long as it is profitable.

Don Jose Avellanos is an aristocratic republican who was tortured almost to death by the previous dictator.  He upholds the ideal of noblesse oblige.  Antonia, his daughter, idealizes and supports her father.  Martin Decoud idealizes and pursues Antonia.  Giorgio Viola is a former follower of Garibaldi in Italy who idealizes heroic leaders, including Gould and Nostromo.

Mrs. Gould, Charles Gould’s wife, is a self-consciously saintly woman who idealizes humanity, and cares for the misfits and outcasts of Costaguanan society.  She is the exception that seemingly proves the rule in the book, as she is the one idealist who is not an egotist.

There are many other good guys in the book, and variations on the idealist theme.  There are also bad guys who are idealists, albeit idealists of evil.  They are exemplified by Guzman Bento, the previous tyrant who had tortured Don Jose Avellanos, and by General Montero and his brother Pedro Montero, would-be dictators in the current crisis.

In Conrad’s view, evil can be idealized.  He says, for example, of Guzman Bento that “The power of Supreme Government had been in his dull mind an object of strange worship, as if it were some cruel deity and it was incarnated in himself.”[5]  Bento is an idealist.  Each of these bad guys has an ideal of an orderly society in which he is the dictator.  And the fact is that the dictatorship of Guzman Bento brought peace to Costaguana, even if it was temporary and bought at a high cost in human suffering and death.

In the midst of the competing egos and ideals of the would-be saviors of Costaguana, the masses of ordinary people are rarely in evidence and invariably described in disparaging terms by the various narrators, including the voice of Conrad himself.  Conrad is no democrat.  The people are “the mob,” and victims of their own “mental darkness.”  He opines that “The popular mind is incapable of skepticism; and that incapacity delivers their helpless strength to the wiles of swindlers and to the pitiless enthusiasm of leaders inspired by visions of a high destiny” which, in turn, leads invariably to violence, brutality and oppression.[6]

None of the idealistic hopes of any of the characters is fulfilled, and this outcome is foredoomed by the fact that the idealism of each is essentially a form of egoism.  Each holds fast to an idea of an ideal world in which he/she rules and his/her ideas reign.  There is very little connection between and among these people or their ideas.  To each of them, it is “my way or the gallows.”

The book ends with the defeat of the Monteros and the installation of a weak and seemingly temporary republican regime.  More upheavals are inevitably in the offing.  The conclusion of most of the characters, and the book itself, is disillusionment.  Mrs. Gould speaks for most of the characters, and seemingly for Conrad, when she bemoans “Is it this we worked for, then?”[7]  Symbolizing the moral of the story, Nostromo performs heroically and righteously on behalf of the republican forces throughout three quarters of the book but dies ignominiously at the end after having compromised his integrity by stealing a consignment of silver from the mine.

C. Interpretations: Capitalist, Socialist, Imperialist, Anti-Imperialist, Racist, Humanist, Nihilist…You name it.

Nostromo has almost as many differing interpretations as it has interpreters. Commenting on this, Jasanoff says that “Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists,” just to name a few.[8]  I think this diversity of interpretation is largely a function of there being so many narrators with different perspectives in the book.  They all take turns in being the voice of the book, even the bad guys.  Depending on which narrator you think that Conrad is favoring, you are likely to come up with an interpretation along the lines of that narrator’s perspective.

Some critics, for example, claim that the central message of the book is Gould’s argument that “material interests” will be the means of civilizing Costaguana, specifically in the form of his silver mine.  This ostensibly makes the book an encomium to capitalism.  Others claim that Nostromo’s affiliation with the workers in the book and his support for their wage and other claims makes the book an argument in favor of socialism.[9]

Some argue that the book is an apology for imperialism because the main voices in the book are those of Gould, Mrs. Gould, Decoud, and Nostromo, all of whom grew up and lived in Europe and who, thereby, represent a Western imperialist view of Costaguana.  These Europeans plus some European engineers and seamen are also the only competent people in the book.  Native Costaguanans are almost invariably portrayed as incompetent.  This argument is bolstered by the fact that Gould’s mine is dependent on the investment of an American financier who openly proclaims that America will one day rule Costaguana.  At the same time, other interpreters claim the book is effectively an anti-imperialist story because it portrays the futility of these Europeans to establish their republican government and civil society in Costaguana.  Costaguana is, after all, in as big a mess at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.[10]

Since native Costaguanans in the book are invariably portrayed as ignorant, incompetent, and irrational, mostly appearing in the form of rioting mobs, Nostromo has been condemned as racist.  At the same time, since the book repeatedly portrays ordinary Costaguanans as being exploited and oppressed by elites from all political parties, European and Costaguanan alike, the book has been praised as humanistic and humanitarian.  Finally, with all of the confusion and contradiction among the characters and their points of view, and with an overall picture of Costaguana as a worst of all possible worlds, Nostromo has been characterized as an exposition of nihilism and an example of post-modernism before its time.[11]

I think that each of these interpretations is plausible.  But their differences leave us readers as confused as the characters in the book.  What are we to think?  I think we can safely say that Conrad’s descriptions of things in the book are beautiful, even stunning.  His characters are brilliantly etched, and his transcriptions of their internal monologues are moving and convincing.  His portrayal of the action is riveting.  And Conrad’s discussion of social and political issues is incisive. Finally, I think we can say that the book is disconcerting.  This is in part because the book’s characters are uniformly depressed and the plot is thoroughly depressing.  But, even more, I think it is disconcerting because Conrad’s view of the world is a contradiction in terms.

D. The Dangers of a Disillusioned Idealist.

Conrad’s world views, according to Jasanoff, were derived from his personal experiences which were filled with hardships and disappointments.  Conrad was a Polish refugee from Russian oppression who had difficulty finding a country in which to settle.  He was from a self-styled aristocratic family but had to work as a young man in menial jobs and as an ordinary seaman.  He began his literary career writing popular sea stories, and had trouble being taken seriously when he began writing more serious fiction.[12]  He also suffered most of his life from clinical depression.  Jasanoff opines that Conrad had a “blighted childhood” that “inspired a fatalistic sense of the world as a realm where, no matter how hard you tried to make your own way, you might never slip the tracks of destiny.”[13]

Conrad’s parents were idealistic activists for Polish independence from Russia.  His antipathy to idealism seemingly was initially derived from the futility of their idealism.  His parents fought, and they and he suffered, as the Russians persecuted his parents for their activism.  Conrad’s anti-idealism also stemmed from his disappointment that what he remembered as the brotherly community of seamen on the ships on which he sailed did not prevail on land.  Conrad idealized merchant ships as cooperative societies in which superior authority was respected.  Based on his shipboard memories, Jasanoff claims, “he treasured a misty ideal of personal honor, commitment to duty, a community of people willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger.”[14] Conrad’s dismay that he did not find this ideal being honored on land, especially among erstwhile idealists, was acute.

As a result, Conrad disdained idealism and saw himself as a realist.  Most critics have agreed, but I do not.[15]  I think that in Nostromo he is a disillusioned idealist who has become a pessimist but is still an idealist.  Conrad rejects idealism but still judges the world in idealistic terms.  What he is really condemning is idealism that takes the form of ideology, as opposed to idealism that stems from an ethical ideal.  While condemning idealism in toto, he applies an ethical ideal to those he is condemning.  This contradiction between what he preaches about the world and what he practices in his judgments of the world leads him to a view that is solipsistic, dystopian, and hopeless.  It is a view that is unrealistic, unhelpful, and unnecessarily demoralizing.  It is inherently inconsistent, and I think Conrad does not really believe in it.  Its inconsistencies undermine the book’s credibility, and they are disconcerting to readers trying to make sense of it.

I will elaborate on this argument and make some comparisons of Nostromo with Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart which, like Nostromo, is a story about a third-world society in crisis.  In Achebe’s book, what had been a fairly stable and well-functioning African peasant society is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by an invasion of Europeans, many of whom are idealists of one sort or another intent on civilizing the natives according to Western standards.[16]

E. Idealism as Ideology and Ethics: Give Peace a Chance.

Conrad makes a sustained attack on idealism in Nostromo, blaming the mess in Costaguana primarily on idealistic politicians blinded by egoism.  He then, however, applies to the behavior of these misguided idealists an ethical ideal even as he condemns the idealism in them.  This contradiction between what Conrad preaches and what he practices is disconcerting.

Idealism is commonly defined as the pursuit of perfection.  “Pursuit” is the operative term in the definition.  Perfection is to be perpetually sought after but is never expected to be achieved.  One can, however, distinguish between conceiving idealism ideologically and conceiving it ethically.

An ideology is a body of doctrines, a set of fixed ideas with definite meanings and boundaries.  It is something to be followed and tends to be exclusive.  It defines right versus wrong, and good versus bad.  Those who don’t agree with your ideas become the opposition, and even the enemy.  In Nostromo, Conrad portrays ideals as ideologies and idealists as people who seek to impose their fixed ideas on the world.  These people all too easily become fanatics in their single-minded idealism, and it is a fanaticism rooted in egoism.  The ideologue insists that reality must fit into the Procrustean bed of his/her ideas.

Idealistic ideologies in Nostromo include Charles Gould’s ideal of a capitalist society in which peace and prosperity would be ensured by the mutual interests of all people in the free flow of commerce.  This was a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Western Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Guzman Bento’s ideal was an authoritarian society in which peace and prosperity were ensured by the iron fist of a dictator, himself.  This was, and still is, a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Eastern Europe, among other places.

Idealism is for Conrad the insanity of the man with a fixed idea who will destroy anything in the way of his ideal of perfection, and who will slaughter people to save the world from their imperfections.  In this conception, idealism almost invariably generates the fear, hatred and vengeance it is supposed to eliminate.[17]

An ethic can be described as a set of principles and a process of applying those principles.  An ethic can be seen as an image of perfection which has core values but can be fuzzy around the edges.  Images can be more flexible in form and substance than ideas. An ethic can be more inclusive than an ideology, and an image can be seen as overlapping with those of others, or at least not inconsistent with them.  People’s ethical principles don’t have to match exactly for them to cooperate with each other, and the way ethical principles are applied can depend on the situation.  Idealism can then respond creatively to changes in circumstances, rather than ignore or deny them.  It can be pragmatically inclusive, rather than ideologically exclusive.

The Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were in their situation” is an example of such an ideal.  The Golden Rule is flexible, inclusive, and its operation depends on the circumstances in which it is applied.  And it is the antithesis of egoism, requiring empathy, the acceptance of differences among people, and cooperation with others in devising the solution to a problem.  There is a version of the Golden Rule in almost every religious and philosophical system in the world, which makes it a potentially unifying ethic.

The Golden Rule is the sort of “one for all and all for one” ethic that often arises spontaneously among people working on a project together.  If Conrad had been interested in exploring the ways of life of ordinary people in Costaguana, he could probably have conceived it in operation, at least to some extent, among the Costaguanan peasants and workers.  Chinua Achebe portrays this sort of cooperation among ordinary people in Things Fall Apart and it cushions some of the pessimism in his book.

With the exception of Mrs. Gould, Conrad does not explore this concept of idealism in Nostromo or imagine how it might have played out among ordinary people.  If he had, the book might have had a different outlook.  Of course, it is not for a reader to tell an author what book to write.  The author gets to make that choice.  It is ironic, however, that the Golden Rule ethic exemplified by Mrs. Gould is the ideal to which I think Conrad himself holds, and by which he judges the book’s characters.  With the exception of Mrs. Gould, they all fail to be empathetic, inclusive, cooperative or pragmatic.  Each and every one of them runs off on his own tangent, insisting on his way is the only way.  And Conrad condemns them for failing to practice what I am describing as the Golden Rule ideal.  This generates a disconcerting contradiction between the anti-idealism he preaches in his narrative and the idealism he practices in his judgments.

Bob Dylan expressed something of the Golden Rule ethical ideal in his “Talking World War III Blues.”  The song is a dystopian dream of the world following a nuclear war.  In his dream, the narrator of the song sees himself as the only person left in the world.  He is lonely and does not see the purpose in living.  The narrator then goes on to say that he is finding more and more people who are having dreams of nuclear war in which they are the only ones left.  So, he concludes his song with a proposal to everyone who is having such dreams that he will let them be in his dream if he can be in theirs.  The song is an ironic expression of hope in the midst of dystopian fears.  It is a minimalist hope, but still something to build upon.

F. A Fall from Grace without Grace: Humpty Dumpty at least had a wall.

The society Conrad portrays in Nostromo is ostensibly a fallen world of the sort we would today call a dystopia.  Almost everything that can go wrong in the book goes wrong.  There are no good options from which characters can choose.  They are continuously faced with trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, making that choice, and then having the greater evil come to pass.  Things fall apart and apart in an endless dissolution.

The problem with this picture is that you cannot fall if there is nowhere to fall from, and things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  That is what is missing from the story.  There is no starting point or reference point in the book that is not dystopian, and seemingly no time when things were not dystopian.  There is, therefore, no benchmark by which you could say that society has fallen.  This is not merely an analytical problem — about how to measure the amount the society has fallen – it is a disqualifier.  You cannot describe a situation as a mess if you have no conception of what a non-messy situation would be like, or from whence the mess derived.

In Things Fall Apart, for example, Achebe begins the book with a description of Nigerian society before the Europeans arrived, and then proceeds to describe how the advent of the Europeans brought down the hero of the book and his society.  One thing led to another, and things fell apart.  This is the way most stories work, even those that like Nostromo begin in media res, that is, in the middle of things.  Things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  A story either begins with a “Once upon a time” description of an original status quo or refers to some prior time and situation that constitutes a reference point for the story’s action.

Not so with Nostromo.  We are apparently supposed to believe that chaos reigned eternally in Costaguana.  That cannot be, and Conrad knows it.  He also knows that his readers will inevitably try to make sense of the Costaguanan situation by imagining some sort of normalcy that preceded the cycle of crises in which Costaguana is caught.  In failing to provide an explicit normalcy reference point, Conrad is, in effect, cheating.  He is counting on the fact that humans will instinctively and intuitively fill in the gaps in a story, so that we readers will imagine a benchmark with which to describe Costaguanan society as fallen.

Conrad seemingly does not want to admit that ordinary Costaguanans were ever able to exist peaceably and productively.  Conrad thinks the masses are irrationally emotional   He is not a democrat, and the word democrat is repeatedly used disparagingly in the book.  In Nostromo, brutes who disguise themselves as populist leaders mesmerize the masses.  Claiming to idealize “the People,” they sell dictatorship as democracy, and this ersatz democracy inevitably succumbs to “Caeserism.”[18]  Conrad prefers an aristocratic republic for Costaguana, but he cannot see how such a government can survive the idiocy of the masses and the malevolence of the demagogues.  The result is the vicious cycle of crises that he describes in the book.

But the reality is that the current state of chaos in Costaguana that Conrad describes could not exist without there having been some past state of relative normality, some functioning society of ordinary people, that underlies the present crisis and sustains the country even in the midst of the chaos. And Conrad knows this and knows better than he is letting on.  Conrad’s unwillingness to describe a past state of normality seems to be a function of his disdain for the Costaguanan natives who would, after all, be the ones who created and supported any such state of normalcy, and who he repeatedly describes as ignorant, incompetent and idiotic.

Conrad’s disdain of native Costaguanans in Nostromo, and his disregard of natives in his other books as well, has been described as racism by Chinua Achebe, among others.  I do not agree.  I think his disparagement of native peoples is primarily a function of Conrad’s class-ism, his disdain for the working classes.  Conrad was himself from an aristocratic family that fell on hard times.  His elitism and ignorance of how ordinary people live is evident in Nostromo.

Conrad is unwilling or unable to recognize that normality is a result of ordinary people doing ordinary things – growing food, making things, transporting stuff around, and providing necessary services, which are the foundation of any society.  Without this foundation, the elite classes could not engage in the shenanigans that he portrays in his book.  And as a reader, it is disconcerting trying to figure out how a society can be fallen from nowhere, and how an elite class can exist without a functioning underclass and a social system that supports it.

G. Solipsism without Sincerity: You talkin’ to me?

The world Conrad portrays in Nostromo is peopled with characters who are unable to make meaningful intellectual and emotional contact with each other.  It is a solipsistic world in which people essentially talk to themselves even as they talk to others, without making a real impression on each other.  Conrad seems to be saying that people cannot meaningfully understand each other, even if they try very hard.

In Nostromo, the Europeanized political elite, both the good guys and the bad, talk past each other, caught up in their respective egoistic ideals.  They also talk over the heads of the masses and there is nothing the ordinary people have to say to them.  In contrast, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the European colonists often talk past each other, and there is very little meaningful contact between the Europeans and the Nigerian natives, but there is meaningful communication among the natives.  Conrad does not portray this sort of thing and, so, we are left with a picture of almost complete dysfunctionality.

The problem with this view is that in writing and publishing this book, Conrad seems to be assuming that he and his readers can make meaningful contact.  As such, he seemingly contradicts his book’s thesis in writing the book.  We have become used over the last century or so to writers who are intent on expressing themselves irrespective of their legibility to the reader.  But this was not the case with Conrad.  Nostromo is not a book that he just tossed off without caring if anyone read it or understood it.  Conrad was not a proponent of art for art’s sake, or an expressionist writer.  Nostromo is a complex book, but it is essentially a conventional narrative.  It is also a passionately written book, and Conrad cared very much about reviews of the book and readers’ responses to it.[19]

As such, Conrad’s conclusion that people cannot make meaningful contact seems to be contradicted by his premise in writing the book, and Conrad’s message does not seem consistent with his medium.  It can be disconcerting for readers to try to understand a complex narrative that seems to be saying that we cannot understand each other anyway.

H. The Moral of the Story: What can we say and do?

Nostromo is a depressing book that almost saps the reader’s will to work for progressive social change.  Conrad would seemingly have us believe that the situation in Costaguana, and seemingly in the world at large, is hopeless, what with inevitably egotistic people invariably talking past each other, and unable to act in meaningful consort.  But I don’t think he believes it.

Conrad refused to find hope or to imagine hopeful choices in the Costaguanan situation.  He proclaimed a reign of hopelessness.  But in so doing he contradicted himself.  For despite their depressing circumstances, the surviving characters in Nostromo were all planning for what they hoped would be a better future as the book ended. So, there must be at least some hope.

To be hopeless is to be without future prospects.  No one but a dead person is without future prospects.  You may feel hopeless, but it is instinctive to be continuously looking forward to the next moment.  That’s just part of the psychology and physiology of life.  Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, whose philosophy of hopelessness depressed generations of Germans during the nineteenth century, was something of a gourmet who, despite his philosophy, had no problem with looking forward to his next meal. That was a man with hope.

Since hope is inevitable, the better part of wisdom would seem to be to seek the best of all possible choices even in a worst of all possible worlds.  It does no harm to a truthful picture of a grim reality to look for possibilities of change for the better, even if they are slight.  We have no choice but to choose, so the reasonable thing is to choose what looks better, rather than pretend to give up but still go on looking forward to your next good meal, as Schopenhauer did, or your next book, as Conrad did.

Idealism is not necessarily a vehicle for egoism.  Mrs. Gould exemplifies this point, and while she is portrayed as an exception in Nostromo, this is not inevitably the case.  In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the main character is an egotistical idealist, whose egoism brings him down and significantly harms his community.  But Achebe also credibly portrays many people whose idealism is combined with a form of communitarianism, and who subordinate their egos to the needs of the community.  That idealism is a hopeful point in an otherwise dystopian picture.

Conrad described in Nostromo a situation in which political regimes rapidly succeeded each other and tried to overturn whatever the previous regime had done.  This scenario led him to despair of progressive social change.   But social change is a long-term game, and while progressives need to survive short term reversals of fortune, progress depends on long-term cultural and demographic changes, especially among ordinary people.

Conrad refused to focus on the ordinary people, and so he missed the underlying foundation of Costaguanan society.  In turn, he missed an opportunity to imaginatively explore the possibilities for long-term cultural and demographic changes in a country like Costaguana that might support progressive social changes.  In focusing his story solely on elite politicians whose primary goal was to overthrow each other and impose their own will on the world, Conrad, not surprisingly, came to a pessimistic conclusion about the possibilities of social reform.

We are seeing this sort of short-term political reversal in the United States today under the Trump presidency and with right-wing Republican ascendancy in Congress and on the Supreme Court.  These right-wing politicians are trying to overturn whatever had been achieved by the progressive presidency of Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional majorities.  A short-term focus on politicians and politics might lead progressives today to a pessimistic conclusion like Conrad’s.  But I think that would be a mistake.

As I write this essay in March, 2018, long-term underlying cultural and demographic changes seem to favor progressives in the United States, which perhaps helps explain the extremism and seeming desperation of the regressives in charge of our federal government and some of our so-called red-state governments.  Using something like the Golden Rule as our image of the ideal, and keeping our eyes and efforts on the long-term while seizing whatever short-term possibilities that present themselves, we can rescue hope from despair.  And while realizing what is missing from Nostromo – interest in ordinary people and on how things get done in everyday life – we can read the book for the beauty and insights it affords without losing our political and intellectual will.

[1] Kenneth Ligda. “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab at

[2] Maya Jasanoff.  The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

[3] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. pp.82, 283.

[4] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[5] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.160.  Also p.357.

[6] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.231, 357, 384.

[7] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.453.

[8] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.9.

[9] Matthew Waller. “The Allegorical Nostromo.”

[10] Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.   Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.           M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014.

[11] Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.  Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.

[12] Ironically, Conrad disdained Herman Melville as merely a writer of popular sea stories. The irony is that Melville faced the same prejudice as Conrad when Melville turned from writing adventure sea stories to more serious fiction such as Moby Dick. See Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.11.

[13] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.53.

[14] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.149.

[15] M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014

[16] Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

[17] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[18] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.372, 384.

[19] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.305.


Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty. Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty.

Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Burton Weltman

Prologue: An Argument on behalf of the Dreamers.

I am writing this in early February, 2016 in the midst of the national debate about what should be done with the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children who were illegally brought to the United States by their parents and who have grown up as Americans.  Depending on how you define Dreamers, there are between some 800,000 and two million of them.  I present herein an argument on their behalf.

Illegal is not Dishonest.

One of the talking points of the xenophobes who are opposed to allowing so-called Dreamers to remain in the United States is that allowing the Dreamers to stay would be giving them and their parents a reward for illegal behavior.  Xenophobes have couched the debate in terms of amnesty versus honesty, denigrating those who support the Dreamers’ right to stay as favoring an ignominious amnesty, and congratulating those who oppose the Dreamers as upholding the principles of honesty.  The debate is portrayed by the xenophobes as dishonest law breakers versus honest law supporters.

I think the xenophobes have got it right that the debate is about honesty versus amnesty.  I just think they have it the wrong way around.  Honesty is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as being fair and straight-forward.  By this definition, the Dreamers are the honest ones.  They have not done anything underhanded or unfair.  The overwhelming majority of them have lived upright and productive lives in the United States.  They may be illegal, but they are not being dishonest.

It is their xenophobic predators who are being dishonest.  And I think the debate is better seen as between faith breakers and faith makers, a matter of honesty is as honesty does.  It’s the Dreamers who are the honest faith makers and their opponents the dishonest and dishonorable faith breakers.  The Dreamers were brought here as children, are in this country on good faith, and are just doing what most good young people here do to be successful.  It is the xenophobes who are breaking faith with the Dreamers.  In turn, I do not think the Dreamers should be seen as needing amnesty.  They just need a fair construction of the law.

Illegal is not a Crime.

There is a fundamental distinction in our legal system, going back to the Middle Ages, between what is termed malum in se and malum prohibitum.  Something that is malum in se is considered evil in itself and is deemed illegal because it is evil.  Something that is malum prohibitum is considered inconsistent with the public welfare or disruptive of the public welfare, and is deemed illegal essentially because it is inconvenient.

There is also a fundamental legal principle going back to the Middle Ages that considers something as your right if you have been doing it continually and it is not harmful in itself, i.e., is not a malum in se.  That means if something is merely a malum prohibitum, you can gain the right to do that thing if you have been continually doing it.  If something is illegal, that is, it is not authorized by the law, it does not necessarily make that thing a crime.  And it may even become legal under the appropriate circumstances.

Trespassing on somebody’s land is the classic example of a malum prohibitum that becomes a legal right if you do it continuously.  If you regularly walk or drive across someone’s land for long enough with at least the implied acquiescence of the landowner, the landowner will eventually no longer be able to prohibit you from entering and traversing his land.  You have gained the right to cross his land by what is called adverse possession.  It takes years to gain this right, but it is an example of turning something illegal into something lawful.

For most of American history, there were no prohibitions against immigration.  Anyone could come into this land and after a period of years could apply for citizenship.  With the exception of a short and shameful period during the 1790’s when the Alien and Sedition Acts provided for the deportation of immigrants on political grounds, there was virtually no regulation of immigration until the late nineteenth century, and no immigration quotas until the early twentieth century.

Most citizens of the United States today are the descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was either totally or almost completely free.  In the early 1900’s, laws were enacted which changed things, and essentially required you to get authorization from the federal government to immigrate into the United States. These laws made unauthorized entry into the country illegal.

What is called illegal immigration under current law is really two different things: unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States and unlawful entry into the United States.  Unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States is not defined as a crime.  Dreamers who were brought by their parents to this country as children may be present unlawfully, but they did nothing wrong and they have not committed a crime.  Under the law, they can be deported but not otherwise punished.  Their only offense is living, and theirs is a genuinely pro-life defense.

Unlawful entry is a crime.  The Dreamers’ parents may be guilty of unlawful entry and, therefore, guilty of a crime.  But it is only a malum prohibitum.  There is nothing inherently evil about what they did.  And both the unlawful presence of the Dreamers and the illegal entry of their parents are essentially forms of trespassing.  As a consequence, continual residence in the United States especially by the Dreamers, but also by their parents and most other illegal immigrants of longstanding presence in the country, ought to lead to the right to remain here, especially if they have otherwise been lawful residents.  The Dreamers, their parents and most illegal immigrants ought to benefit from the principle of adverse possession.

Honesty should not be a Crime.

Amnesty is for people who have committed crimes.  The Dreamers should not need amnesty because their status is not criminal.  Not a felony, not a misdemeanor, not even an infraction.  The idea that allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States and possibly become citizens is a form of amnesty is contrary to the fundamental principles of our legal system.  It is dishonest to treat them as offenders when they have committed no offense.  Unfortunately, dishonesty is not a crime in this country.  If it was, it is those who oppose the Dreamers who would be the offenders, not the Dreamers.  But if dishonesty is not a crime, honesty should certainly not be considered one. For this reason, the Dreamers should not need amnesty.

It is ironic that most of the people who are objecting to the Dreamers’ presence in the United State are descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was essentially free, and who occupied this country in what could only charitably be called adverse possession against the real owners of the country, the Native Americans.  The occupation of the country by Europeans was actually more like breaking-and-entering with murderous force, a highest level of felony in our criminal code.  But, at this point, the Europeans’ continued appropriation of the land is justified as a so-called fact-on-the-ground, a fait accompli that represents the right of their adverse possession.

The Dreamers have done nothing so egregious as the Europeans who took this country by force and fraud from the Native Americans.  Nonetheless, since this country essentially justifies its existence on the grounds of adverse possession and continues to operate under that principle to the present day, Dreamers and other ostensibly illegal immigrants of longstanding should not need a charitable act of amnesty to be able to stay here.  The honest thing to do would be to recognize their continued residence in the United States as a matter of right.

BW 2/6/18


Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Just how dead are they? A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Just how dead are they?  A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

 Burton Weltman

 “We cannot choose our circumstances,

but we can always choose how we respond to them.”



1.Prologue: Existentialist Nightmares.

“We are our choices.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

We have all had this nightmare.  You are trapped in a scary place that you can’t get out of, or you are being chased by someone or something that you can’t get away from.  You almost get free, but then not.  You are baffled and can’t figure out what to do.  But, just before you are done in by whatever is threatening you, you wake up, shaking, but free of the danger.

That is essentially the experience of two minor characters from Hamlet as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s comic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Caught in what appears to them, and to us in the audience, as a nightmare, they stumble about, futilely trying to figure out what is going on, and how to get out of whatever it is.  The dreamlike quality of their existence is exemplified by their frequent inability to remember things, including the events of their own lives before they were caught up in Hamlet’s story.  They also repeatedly find themselves in scenes of Hamlet and not remembering how they got there.  It is like a nightmare.  Only they don’t wake up.  And they are done in at the end.[1]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play set inside another play, Hamlet, and it runs in tandem with the other play.  Whatever happens in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is bounded and limited by what happened in Hamlet.  That is, nothing can occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that would conflict with or contradict the script of Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must work out their own fates within the confines of Hamlet’s tragedy.

Stoppard is generally considered to be an existentialist playwright.  Existentialism is generally considered to be a philosophy of choices.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard has created a situation of severely constricted choices.  He has, thereby, pushed the existential situation to its extremes.  Since Hamlet ends with an announcement of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we the audience watch the humorous antics of the two bumbling characters in Stoppard’s play with muted horror because we already know the ending of Hamlet.  But we still hope against hope that they will wake up to their situation and escape what seems to be their fatal fate.  They don’t wake up from their nightmare and they don’t escape, but could they have?  I think this is the crucial question of the play.

Were there options that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have taken within the confines of Hamlet that would have allowed them to survive, despite the announcement of their deaths at the end of that play?  Were there choices that Stoppard could have had them make that would have enabled them to survive, despite being constrained by the terms of Hamlet.  I say “Yes,” there were.  They could have survived, and that is the main point of Stoppard’s play.

2.The Plot: Such as it is.

“Man is conditioned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two young Danes, apparently Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends and classmates at Wittenberg University in Germany.  They have been summoned by the newly installed Danish King Claudius to the King’s castle to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet has recently returned from Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the late King Hamlet.  Prince Hamlet is behaving in suspicious ways, which is of concern to the new King since he had secretly murdered Hamlet’s father in order to gain the throne, and he would not want the Prince digging up the dirt on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seeming to have no real option but to obey the command of their King, agree to watch Hamlet and report on him.

The two characters spend the rest of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wandering around inside Hamlet’s play.  They show up at key dramatic moments of Hamlet, openly appearing in the action of Hamlet where they have been written into the script of that play, secretly behind the scenes of Hamlet where they are not in the Hamlet script.  They observe the action in Hamlet, but play no active role in the course of either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are passive actors in both plays.  But, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were by the terms of their play unable to alter the course of Hamlet’s play, that does not mean they were without options and choices.

3. A story inside a story: An existentialist dilemma.

“I rebel; therefore, I exist.” The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus.

Every story, whether factual or fictional, begins with some sort of “Once upon a time” scenario.  “Once upon a time” creates the existential situation within which the characters in the story will make their way.  It provides the background and the setup of the story, that is, the status quo from which the story proceeds.  The story’s plotline will then disrupt the status quo – that is the gist of the story – and the story will generally end with some new ordering of things.

The opening is critically important to a story because the opening usually portends the story’s ending.  The setup of a story generally indicates who and what is important, and inclines events in a certain direction.  The options allowed to the characters, and the existential choices they can make, are defined and constrained by the opening setup.  It is like setting up a debate.  Whoever gets to set the terms of the debate is most likely to win, and if you join the debate on someone else’s terms, you are most likely to lose.

It is often the case in a fictional story that if you are not there at the beginning, you are likely to meet a bad end.  That is one of the problems facing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their play.  They are there at the beginning of their own play, but they are almost an afterthought in Hamlet’s story and, as such, they were expendable to Hamlet.  But that does not mean they weren’t important to themselves, or that they were expendable to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard did something quite unusual in this play, for which there isn’t even a name.  He told a story about two minor characters in Hamlet, and did so within the confines of that play.  It is a story inside a story, which is different than a play within a play, such as the one Shakespeare included in Hamlet.  The play within Hamlet was part of the plot.  It was a device used by young Hamlet to further his goal of unmasking Claudius as a murderer.  But Stoppard’s play is not part of the plot of Hamlet.  It occurs in, but is not of, Hamlet.  

It is not uncommon for an author to piggyback his work onto an existing popular story, either a story by another author or by him/herself.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  There are prequels that tell the backstory of the original work; interquels that fill in happenings taking place between events in the original story; sidequels that tell of things taking place at the same time as the original story; and sequels that tell of what happened after the end of the story.

In the case of Hamlet, a prequel might have described young Hamlet’s childhood. An interquel might have described what Laertes did while he was away from Denmark during the middle of the play.  A sidequel might have described what Fortinbras was doing before he appeared at the end of the playAnd a sequel might have described what happened in Denmark after all the main characters in the play were dead and Fortinbras had taken over.  In composing each of these types of “quels,” an author must be consistent with the original story, but he/she is essentially operating outside of that story and has a good deal of latitude in composing his/her own plot.

But Stoppard did something else.  He placed his story directly inside the story of Hamlet and, thereby, narrowly limited the scope of his invention and his characters’ options.  His two main characters must repeatedly come up to the mark of their roles in Hamlet.  Whatever they do or wherever they go, they must be back to make their scheduled appearances in Hamlet, and nothing they do can conflict with their roles in that play.

But that does not mean that Stoppard had no latitude within which to play, or that his characters could not act on their own behalf in their own play.  There was wiggle room in Hamlet within which he could create and they could react.  So, how could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have escaped their seemingly fated deaths, and why didn’t they?

4. Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism: Finding Existential Wiggle Room.

“Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a philosophic play that raises many questions, including questions about whether people are capable of willing freely what they choose, or are bound by deterministic chains of cause and effect.  Most critics claim that the play is intended to illustrate the randomness of the universe as it appears to us and the determinism of the universe as it is in reality.  The play, they say, emphasizes the contradiction between the way in which we experience the world as freedom and the way in which the world really is.

Stoppard, these critics argue, portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “moving towards an inescapable fate,” despite what they experience as “the randomness of life.”  The two characters are chronically befuddled, and have no real options or choices.[2]  The play shows people “at the mercy of external forces,” and “unable to make any significant choices.”[3]  It is “a play about the tricks of fate” which render Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “incapable of helping themselves,” and make them symbols of  a helpless and hopeless humanity.[4]  In this view, Stoppard portrays the world as “absurd” and “uncertain,” and the “hapless” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify humanity’s inability to make significant choices and take meaningful action.[5]  In sum, the moral of the story is the futility of free will and the fatality of determinism.

In support of this reading, critics point to views in the play expressed by the Player and seconded by Guildenstern.  Stoppard identifies the Player as the chief of the actors hired by Hamlet to enact the play within his play.  These actors play a small role in Hamlet but a big role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of discussions between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about life and living.  Consistent with his vocation as an actor, the Player holds that all of life is scripted for us, and that our role in life is to follow the script.  “We have no control,” he declaims. “Wheels have been set in motion,” and “Events must play themselves out,” he insists.[6]

The Player’s is essentially a deterministic view of life.  It is a view, however, that relegates most of us to playing subordinate roles in scripts written by and for others, putting ourselves in the service of others, and without any say-so.  The actors in the Player’s troupe are, in fact, willing to perform any script and any action for anyone.  They don’t even need to be paid money.  They merely need an audience.  Significantly, they apparently moonlight as male prostitutes.  Guildenstern buys into the Player’s rationale, and it is on this basis he and Rosencrantz act.

Many critics claim that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent anti-existentialist characters because they repeatedly refuse to choose, and just meander along within Hamlet’s play.  The play, in this view, is a refutation of existentialism.  But that is not accurate.  Existentialism claims that we cannot refuse to choose.  We are choosing all the time, even when we refuse to choose.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially Guildenstern, may not want to choose, but they are choosing anyway.

While the setup of the play mitigates against the idea of free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must perform their roles in Hamlet and are not free to choose otherwise – there is a third way of looking at the human condition that encompasses both free will and determinism.  And it is a way that is consistent with the existentialist point of view with which Stoppard is usually associated.  It is called compatibilism, and I think it is what the play is mainly about.  Compatibilism proposes that “My action is free, because the event which immediately precedes it is an act of will; it is necessitated because it comes at the end of a series each of whose items is a necessary consequence of its predecessor.”[7]

That is, in retrospect, we can look at a result and see how a chain of causes and effects led to the result.  But, we can also see the choices that were made in creating that chain of events, and we can see that if different choices had been made, the chain would have been changed and the result would have been different.  In turn, we can prospectively see the options we have and choices we must make, which will be the beginning of another chain of events.  We have free will, but it operates within the constraints of our context which consists of chains of events that we cannot change.  For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their context is the play Hamlet, but they are free to move about within the constraints of that play.

Compatibilism essentially encompasses what existentialists describe as the facticity and anxiety of the human situation.  The facticity is that we find ourselves in a universe that we didn’t make or choose, that we don’t control, and that is essentially indifferent to our existence.  The anxiety stems from the fact that we must choose what to do, and how to make our way.  Refusing to choose, which we are free to do, is still choosing.  And we can’t make choices or make our way on our own.  We must do what we can with what we have, and do it with others.  Others are part of our context.  The stories of our lives are inevitably intertwined with others, and we can do nothing without the cooperation of others.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if you’ll let me be in yours,” intones Bob Dylan in a song about surviving the nightmare of nuclear war.  No one’s survival is secure without the survival of the others.[8]  Hamlet tried to compose and enact his story on his own, not trusting to include even his best friend Horatio in his plans, and Hamlet failed badly.  His story became a bloody nightmare that none of the principles escaped.  If only he had confided to Horatio about his interactions with the Ghost, the play may have ended very differently, and he might have survived.  So might have Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes, who were innocent bystanders to Hamlet’s story, as were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a similar choice to spin out their tale on their own, without confiding in Hamlet or anyone else, and they, too, did not survive.  But they could have.

5. In for a penny, in for a pounding: Rationale vs. Rationalization.

“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

Literature is full of twosome heroes and heroines.  The pairs can take different forms and serve different functions within the stories in which they appear.  Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the dominant character is the smarter of the two and comes up with the answers to their problems.  Other times, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is the subordinate character who is smarter and has the answers.  Quixote is a scholar while Panza is illiterate, but Quixote is also a fool and Panza is clever.  In the play Waiting for Godot, to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is often compared, the dominant character, Vladimir, is the more intellectual of the two.  He frequently philosophizes and rationalizes about the predicament in which he and his sidekick, Estragon, find themselves.  And his conclusions generally help.  So, the two of them are able to work through their crises, and make their situation bearable.[9]

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the dominant character, Guildenstern, is the more intellectual of the two, but his rationalizations of their situation only lead the two of them into deeper trouble.  Rosencrantz is intellectually feeble, but intuitively a genius.  In the 1990 movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard, Rosencrantz repeatedly stumbles into inventing all sorts of modern devices.  He also repeatedly tells Guildenstern that something is dreadfully wrong with the situation they are in and that they should get out of there fast.  Guildenstern, however, dismisses Rosencrantz’s inventions in the movie as silly and, in both the movie and in the script for the play, he dismisses Rosencrantz’s rationales for leaving as foolish.  Guildenstern, instead, constructs rationalizations for their staying the course.  So, they stay.

Guildenstern’s rationalizations essentially take the form of what in scientific circles during Shakespeare’s time were known as “saving the appearances.”  “Saving the appearances” was a phrase that from ancient times through the seventeenth century was applied to the attempts of astronomers to make sense of the geo-centered Ptolemaic model of the universe.  The Ptolemaic model put the Earth at the center of the universe and portrayed the other planets and the stars as revolving around the Earth.  Over the course of the centuries, however, astronomers discovered new planets and stars that did not fit within the original geo-centered model.  So, they adduced increasingly weird orbits for these planets and stars – epicycles and other wrinkles – in order to save the appearances of the model.  It was a brilliant construction that occupied some of the best minds for two millenniums, but it became very complicated and convoluted.

The Ptolemaic system was finally rejected by Copernicus and his followers during the sixteenth century in favor of a simpler helio-centric model that encompassed all of the observations of the planets and stars without all of the complications of the geo-centered model.  Conservatives, including the Catholic Church, resisted the new model on the grounds that it demoted the place of humanity within God’s creation and conflicted with passages in the Bible.  For the Catholic Church of that time, science was supposed to serve dogma, and facts were supposed to be massaged to uphold what was considered Gospel.  Willingness to go along with saving the appearances in astronomy and other scientific fields became a life and death issue for scientists in some Catholic countries, as Galileo, among others, found out.[10]

The Copernican system was, however, readily accepted in Protestant countries such as Shakespeare’s England, where the practice of saving the appearances of preconceived notions through rationalizing away inconsistent evidence was rejected by empiricists such as Frances Bacon.  For many Protestants, science was a means of discovering God’s word as it was embodied in the physical universe.  So, facts mattered, even in the study of alchemy, magic and ghosts, which were important subjects of study for scientists such as Bacon and, later, Newton.  And theories must conform to the facts.

The conflict between facts and preconceived notions, and the problems that arise when people try to save the appearances of preconceived notions, is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  This includes Hamlet, as when Hamlet adjures Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Facts count, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, even if they don’t fit our cherished theories.  The problem with trying to save the appearances is also a main theme in Stoppard’s plays, as exemplified in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Guildenstern’s rationalizations of his and Rosencrantz’s situation.

Guildenstern seems unable to think outside the box, to use the current terminology for the problem of trying to save appearances.  He has been caught up within the Hamlet story and cannot think his way out.  He is brilliant and knowledgeable, but terminally narrow-minded.  “We are presented with alternatives,” he intones, “But not choice.”  “We’ve been caught up” in Hamlet’s story, he explains, and “there is a logic at work.”  So, he concludes, he and Rosencrantz should just relax and “be taken in hand and led, like being a child again.”[11]

Rosencrantz is slow-witted and ignorant, and doesn’t even seem to know there is a box.  But that enables him to be inventive (look at all the things he unwittingly contrives) and intuitive.  He can think outside the story, and can think pragmatically rather than dogmatically.  He knows trouble when he senses it.  Rosencrantz is a wise fool, a type that is a favorite of Stoppard.[12]

6. What is to be done?

 “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Given that they are caught in Hamlet and can’t contravene that script, there are still things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have done in their own play that might have saved them from the death announced in Hamlet.  Built into Stoppard’s play are opportunities for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make choices that could have changed things for them.  They were not fated to act as they did, even if they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that Stoppard provides for them.   They could, for example, have confided in Hamlet at various points of their play.  Shakespeare provides a perfect opening for such a confidence in Hamlet when Hamlet first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

After welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as old friends, Hamlet asks “Were you not sent for?…Come, come deal justly with me.”  Hamlet wants to know whether the King has set them to spy on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivocate.  Hamlet repeatedly presses them, conjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the constancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love.”  Prompted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern finally admits “My lord, we were sent for.”  The three of them then engage in desultory conversation, ending in the coming of the actors whom Hamlet will hire for his play.

This was a perfect opportunity within the context of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to consult with Hamlet in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Having admitted that the King had sent for them to spy on Hamlet, they could reasonably have followed up that admission with a discussion with their old friend about what was going on.  This is particularly the case since in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two of them quickly come to their own conclusion that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.  Once they have reached that conclusion, it is unreasonable of them not to open up with Hamlet.  But they choose not to.

There were many opportunities within both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for them to consult with Hamlet.  But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hem and haw throughout the play, saying to themselves that they want to talk with Hamlet, but unable to get themselves to do it.  They even practice various ways in which to begin conversations with Hamlet, but never carry them out.  In any case, Guildenstern’s rationalizations in defense of doing nothing keep them from saying or doing anything that might change their situation.  That was their choice.

Their rationalizing and equivocating come to a head when the two of them discover in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the letter from Claudius that they are carrying to England requests that the King of England kill Hamlet.  At that point, Rosencrantz has had enough.  He wants to confide in Hamlet.  “We’re his friends,” Rosencrantz insists.  How can they be accomplices to the murder of Hamlet?

But Rosencrantz’s humanity is overridden by Guildenstern’s callousness and cowardice, as he once again rationalizes in favor of doing nothing.  Death isn’t so bad, he claims, and Hamlet’s death would be just one man dying so, “from the social point of view…the loss would be well within reason and convenience.”  Besides, Guildenstern concludes, “there are wheels within wheels,” and who are they to try to change things.  It is bad faith rationalization at its worst, and it is that which leads to their own deaths.[13]

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had confided in Hamlet at any point in the play, the three of them could have worked out a joint plan for saving all of their lives.  Since Hamlet was explicitly doomed by the script of Hamlet – he dies onstage in full view of the audience – such a plan would not have saved him.  But it could have worked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Their deaths are only announced in Hamlet, not actually seen by the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could, for example, have colluded with Hamlet to change Claudius’ letter as Hamlet does in Hamlet. They could then have faked the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so as to avoid any blame and punishment that Claudius might hit them with because his scheme for Hamlet’s death had failed.  Hamlet’s later comment to Horatio in Hamlet that he cared not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be dead could then be part of this joint plot.  Stoppard could have written something like this into his play – the key is faking the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – without contradicting Hamlet.  He didn’t.  Why not?

7. Comedy, Tragedy, and a Good Conscience.

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

“The play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the king,” Hamlet proclaims.  So, too, the play may be the thing to capture the consciences of the audience for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe touch their vanity.  Hamlet is a tragedy.  A tragedy has been described as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy generally involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.[14]

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her personal limits, and to reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society.[15]  In the case of Hamlet, it is arguably his hubris combined with his gullibility toward the ghost who, I think, is an agent of the Devil, that leads almost inevitably to disaster.[16]  In any case, a tragedy may contain humor, but it is not expected to be funny.

In contrast with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy.  It is expected to be funny.  A comedy has been described as a humorous conflict between folly and wisdom, foolish people and wise people, with a happy ending that results from the wise peacefully overcoming the fools and their foolishness.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools.”  The solution is for the fools either to be corrected or constrained.[17]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both fools.  Much of their story is also very funny.  But the play ends with their being hanged.  That’s not funny.  And while they don’t know what’s in store for them as they wander through their play, we do.  How can an audience in good conscience laugh at the high jinks and foolishness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing that the play will end after the somber line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?”

I don’t think an audience can in good conscience laugh at the thought of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  I think that either members of the audience must be people of bad conscience, smug in their superior knowledge to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and callous at the death of two fools – losers in the parlance of Donald Trump – or audience members must believe that somehow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.  And maybe they aren’t.

8. Epilogue: Life after reported death?

Estragon: “I can’t go on.” 

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” 

Waiting for Godot.  Samuel Beckett.

When his demise was wrongly reported in the newspapers of his day, Mark Twain quipped “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Might the same be true of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  In his last speech before seemingly being executed, Guildenstern muses that “Well, we’ll know better next time.”  Next time?  What’s with this “next time?”

In the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the actors that Hamlet has hired show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to fake being hanged.  At the end of the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown being hanged.  But are they?  Maybe it’s a fake hanging.  In the play, they merely disappear at the end, and it is not clear how they died.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make farewell speeches, but maybe they are just fooling everyone, including us in the audience.  Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually dead?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full of trickery and slight-of-hand, starting with the opening scene in which a flipped coin repeatedly comes up heads, seeming to contradict the laws of probability.  Then there are the numerous inventions that Rosencrantz stumbles onto in the movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard.  In the movie version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also repeatedly saved by chance or random choice from discovery or death.  Faking their deaths at the end of the play could be Stoppard’s last bit of trickery, a trick played on the audience.

In any case, dead or alive, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, I think, ultimately a hopeful play.  Despite operating within an extremely narrow range of options, being tied into and almost tied up by the script of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still had options to survive the demise announced for them in that play.  If they didn’t survive, it was a result of their own lack of imagination and their own choices.  In his farewell speech, Guildenstern muses that they should have just said “No” when they were summoned by the King.  And they should have.  A moral of their story is that you don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s story in which you are just a throwaway bystander.

So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a fateful misstep into Hamlet’s story.  But that fateful misstep need not have become a fatal mistake.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern implies that in even the tightest and direst situations, there still may be leeway and hope.  And just when you may seem to be without options, there may still be choices you can make.

B.W. 12/17

[1] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.16, 38.

[2] Evar Johnson. “Characters in search of a purpose: Meaning in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

[3] “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes.” The Stanford Freedom Project. Fall, 2015.

[4] Peter Travers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Rolling Stone. 2/18/91.

[5] Shmuel Ben-Gad. “A Semi-Existentialist Comedy: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’” American Culture. 5/20/15.

[6] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp..25, 63, 79.

[7] Anthony Kennedy. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.666.

[8] Bob Dylan. Talkin’ World War III Blues.

[9] For an analysis of the play as a love story, see my post on this blog “Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.”                       

[10] Thomas B. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

[11] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.39- 40.

[12] For an analysis of Arcadia that discusses this theme, see my essay on this blog entitled “Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?”

[13] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. p.110.

[14] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. pp.35, 172.

[15] Kenneth Burke Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p.37.  Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. p.81-83.

[16] For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the Devil, see my post at this blog website “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[17] Aristotle 1961, 59.  Burke 1961, 41.  Goodman 1954, 82-100.

Whatever happened to socialism? Axel Honneth tries to revive the socialist ideal in “The Idea of Socialism.” Is it an idea whose time has come, gone, and maybe come again? Maybe.

Whatever happened to socialism?

Axel Honneth tries to revive the socialist ideal in The Idea of Socialism.

Is it an idea whose time has come, gone, and maybe come again?  Maybe.

Burton Weltman

“We can be together.”

Jefferson Airplane.

Introduction: Whatever happened to socialism?

One of the more perplexing political developments over the last forty years or so has been the disappearance of the idea of socialism from public conversation.  For the previous 150 years, socialism was an idea, ideal and political movement that had to be contended with, whatever one thought of it.  It is no longer.  What happened and what, if anything, can or should be done about it?  And does the recent emergence of socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to prominence (I am writing this in October 2017) signal a renewal of the idea of socialism in the United States?

Axel Honneth is a German philosopher and the author of The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.[1]  He contends socialism is the last best hope for mankind, and the alternatives are grim.  He is, thus, heavily committed to reviving socialism.  Honneth thinks he knows why socialism has faded, and how to revive it.  His book is only 120 pages long, but the arguments are dense and intense.  Honneth’s exposition relies heavily on John Dewey, an American philosopher, educational reformer, and social activist who flourished during the first half of the twentieth century.

Dewey is considered one of the founders of pragmatism, along with C.S. Peirce and William James.  Pragmatism is generally considered America’s major contribution to world philosophy, as well as America’s own philosophy, because its emphasis on practicality reflects American culture.  Pragmatism holds that the meaning of a thing is how it works, and the value of a thing is the extent to which it works, that is, how well it fits in with the best available evidence.  Pragmatism is a broad-based philosophy upon which Dewey based his progressive educational reforms and his socialist theories.  Dewey’s idea of socialism is particularly American.  For this reason, I think Honneth’s book has particular relevance for Americans.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the questions raised by Honneth, and his answers.  As a self-styled socialist, I, too, think these are important questions.  My conclusions about Honneth’s book are that his theoretical discussion of socialism, and his proposal that socialists go forward through building on grass roots organizations, are excellent.  But I think his historical argument, that socialism faded because of foolish mistakes made by early socialists that were then foolishly perpetuated by socialists thereafter, is faulty.  And I believe that the prevalence of this historical argument among socialists today is itself a part of the problem with socialism.

Questions: How can that be?

Socialism was an idea and an ideal that animated most American reform movements from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century.  Ideas derived from socialism underlay the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, reforms which became the foundation of America’s social welfare programs, health and safety regulations, economic controls, and environmental protections.  How is it that in the United States today socialism is positively regarded by almost no one?[2]

John Dewey was widely regarded as the most influential thinker in America from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century.  He was “universally acknowledged as his country’s intellectual voice.”[3]  His opinions on almost every social and political issue were regularly reported in the mass media, such that “it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”[4]  How is it that in the United States today Dewey is known by almost no one?[5]

Donald Trump exemplifies most of the worst in American society, and embodies the lowest forms of racism and misogyny, ethnic intolerance and religious bigotry, selfishness and self-centeredness, bullying and cowardice, and nothing of the humanitarian ideas and ideals of John Dewey or the socialists.  How can it be that in the United States today he is the duly elected President?

Scenarios: Socialism in everyday life.

Six people are on a basketball court.  They have not been previously acquainted.  They split into two teams of three people each, and begin a half-court game of basketball.  Within five minutes, the players on each team have bonded with each other.  They are positioning themselves to play to their teammates’ strengths, passing to each other, blocking for each other, compensating for each other’s weaknesses, each finding a role that plays to his/her strengths while helping the team, and each subordinating his/her ego to promote the success of the team.

Six people in a family are sitting around a kitchen table, two parents and four children of various ages.  The family has limited financial resources.  They are discussing how to manage their finances so as to maximize the opportunities of each person and promote the success of the whole family.  All see themselves in the same boat, and each is looking out for the other.

Six workers in a workshop are standing around a machine.  They are discussing how to organize a project so as to complete it most efficiently and effectively.  They dole out assignments based on the relative skills of each worker, so as to play to the strengths of each and promote the success of the group.  The joint project is the center of everyone’s attention.

Six children are playing a game in a schoolyard, with each of them taking a turn, until one of them, the biggest, tries to bully the smallest out of a turn.  The others band together in refusing to let the bully do that, defending the rights of the smallest child and, thereby, upholding the integrity of the game and promoting rapport within the group.

Each of these scenarios exemplifies the socialist maxim of Karl Marx that “the self-development of each is the basis for the development of all,” that is, in the words of The Three Musketeers, it is “one for all, and all for one.”  These scenarios are only a few of the millions of similar situations that play out every day in the United States.  And they represent socialism in practice.  That is, most people, including most Americans, are instinctively socialists.  So, why is it that the idea of socialism is so little accepted here?

Definitions: Socialism, Capitalism, Individualism, Social Darwinism.

The word “socialism” was first used as a political term around 1830.  Consistent with the usage of those first socialists and most socialists since that time, “socialism” will be defined herein as an ideology which holds that “the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all” (Karl Marx), that one should act according to the maxim of “all for one, and one for all” (The Three Musketeers), and that one should “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Jesus Christ).  It is an ideology that promotes individuality through mutualism and cooperation.  This is the idea of socialism that John Dewey promoted and that Honneth seeks to revive.

Socialism is a pro-social philosophy.  When you add “ism” to a word, you identify an ideology or a cause that promotes what the word represents.  Socialism asserts that individual freedom is a result of social interaction.  Individuality means freely cultivating your talents within a social context, and finding a place in which you can make your unique contribution to society.  Individuality is not merely freedom from the oppression of others, but also freedom to participate equally with others.  It is the idea that my freedom depends on yours, and we are nothing without each other.

Socialism arose in opposition to individualism, a term that first emerged around 1810, and capitalism, a term that emerged in the 1850’s.  Capitalism can be defined as an ideology of individual investment that promotes an economic system based on the presumption that businesses will be privately owned and operated without government interference, unless that presumption is overcome by evidence that government involvement is necessary to preserve the capitalist system.  In a capitalist system, the goal of businesses is to make profits, based on the assumption that maximizing profits will result in maximum benefits to the public.  Capitalism as an economic system is supported by individualism as a social theory.

Individualism is an ideology that promotes a cult of the individual, and that describes the individual as in constant opposition to society.  Individualism asserts “me” and “mine” over “we” and “ours.”  It promotes the individual over society, for fear that society will suppress the individual.  It promotes competition among people rather than cooperation, based on the ideas that competition makes people stronger and more productive, and that competition keeps people isolated from each other so that they cannot form social coalitions that might suppress individuals.  Society is to be mistrusted.

Individualism is, therefore, an ideology of liberation, but also of insecurity.  It encourages people to be themselves, free from the constraints of others, and be all that they can individually be.  But it bases that self-fulfillment on competing for supremacy against others.  In an individualist world, a person can never be sure whether his/her position is strong enough to withstand the whims of lady luck or the winds of change.

Individualism, in turn, can function as an ideological rationalization for the selfish and self-centered bully, who climbs over others in a vain attempt to be king of the hill, vain because there is inevitably someone stronger or smarter coming up that hill.  Individualism reinforces the free enterprise capitalist economic system that has predominated in the United States since the early nineteenth century.  Individualism gradually became the dominant ideology in the country in the nineteenth century and, despite inroads from socialist ideas, has largely reigned as such since.

Unlike individualism, socialism asserts the compatibility and indivisibility of the individual and society.  Socialism claims that individuals and individuality stem from interacting with others and with society.  For socialists, “One for all and all for one” is a fact, not merely an aspiration.  You are nothing without others, and you are what you do with others.  Likewise, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, for socialists, a fact and not merely an aspiration.  If you think well of yourself, you will likely treat others well.  If you treat others poorly, competing to defeat and dominate them, you will likely think poorly of yourself.  Socialism opposes individualism as self-defeating.

Socialism especially opposes the so-called Social Darwinian principle of “each against all, and the winners take all” that has animated most right-wing political and social thinking since the late nineteenth century, including right-wing self-styled Christians who abominate Darwinian evolutionary theories.  I speak of “so-called” Social Darwinism because this principle is a perversion of Darwin’s ideas, and of “self-styled” Christians because Jesus’ defining Golden Rule seldom informs this group’s theories or practices.  Social Darwinism is an ideology of selfish individualism and cutthroat competition.  It promotes the zero-sum idea that if you get more, I will get less, and that the only way for me to get and keep mine is to keep you from getting yours.  It is an ideology that promotes distrust and fear of others.[6]

Although few right-wingers today acknowledge Social Darwinism as a source of their ideology, Social Darwinism is the principle that underscores most of the thinking of Donald Trump and the political right-wing in the United States today.  Unlike conservatives who oppose dramatic social change and big government, but are generally willing to accept small reforms and government programs when necessary to avoid disaster, right-wingers are radicals who want to dramatically change society and virtually eliminate government and the public sector.[7]

Unlike right-wing ideology, socialism is not a radical idea.  By definition, radicals want to get to the roots of what they see as a wicked society, tear up those roots, and plant something entirely new.  Socialism does not reject the foundations of American society.  The idea of socialism builds on the social ideals that most Americans already hold, and on social instincts that most Americans already display.  This was a key to John Dewey’s socialism.  He claimed that socialism was basically democracy taken to the next level, and he did not think that socialists had to start from scratch.  They could build on the democratic institutions and ideas that already exist in capitalist America, and thereby move toward a socialist political, economic, and social system.

A socialist political democracy could be described as a system of majority rule with minority rights, the most important of which is the right of the minority to possibly become the majority someday.  That last clause is the most important in the definition.  Implicit in the definition are freedoms of speech, assembly, and political organization; the rule of law along with due process and equal protection under the law; and all of the other political rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  But the definition also requires social equality and economic equity so that individuals and minority groups can effectively exercise their political rights.  That is where the socialism comes in.  Political democracy can be effective only to the extent that social equality and economic equity prevail.

In economics, the idea of socialism is economic democracy.  The economic goal of most socialists could be summarized as a system based on the presumption of public ownership or control of businesses, unless it is in the public interest for businesses to be privately owned and/or controlled, and with an assumption that small businesses would be privately owned and operated.  A mixed economy of public and private business is the idea of socialism, with government involvement to ensure economic equity.

Implicit in that definition are such things as a public health system along with health and safety regulations, a public insurance system along with a social safety net, minimum and maximum wage regulations along with a progressive income tax, and other provisions to make for a cooperative, stable, and relatively egalitarian economy.  Socialism promotes the public interest in economics, and opposes a capitalism in which everyone and everything is valued in monetary rather than human terms.  It builds on American ideals of fairness and practices of generosity.

In social relations, the idea of socialism is social democracy.  Socialism promotes the dignity of all people, and opposes discrimination against people based on invidious prejudices.  A socialist conception of personal relations could be summarized as support for everyone who respects others, and opposition to anyone to the extent the person disrespects others.  Implicit in that conception is opposition to racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and bigotry in all its forms, and support for diversity coupled with cooperation.  That is the American ideal of E pluribus unum.  

Distinctions: Socialism in the eyes of socialists and anti-socialists.

The idea of socialism held by socialists is very different than that held by opponents of socialism.  As part of their political liturgy, conservatives and right-wingers have tried to make socialism a dirty word, and to represent socialism as the enemy of individuality and freedom.   The success with which anti-socialists were able to tarnish the idea of socialism led John Dewey to sometimes consider abandoning the term.  Dewey was not finicky about what things were called.  He was willing to call his political proposals a “new liberalism” or even “a new individualism,” so long as these terms encompassed the idea of socialism.  In his view, there was no future for liberalism or individuality in modern society without socialism.[8]

The idea of socialism is often mischaracterized by its opponents, even by some self-styled socialists, mostly those who identify as Communists, as promoting government ownership or control over all businesses and, maybe, even over everything else.  The idea of socialism is also misidentified with oppressive Communist regimes that have existed in some countries around the world.  But, neither of these is consistent with the idea of socialism nor what most socialists have believed in.

This misconception has its roots in the claim that socialism reifies society as an entity over-and-above the individual, as an idol to which individuals can be sacrificed.  Reifying society is a core idea of totalitarianism. Some self-styled socialists, mainly those who identify as Communists, hold to this view.  It is anathema to individualists, and is a reason they see society as the enemy of the individual.  But reifying and idolizing society is also contrary to the idea of socialism.  Most socialists see society as an association of individuals which can and should be a vehicle for individuality, and oppose the totalitarianism implied in seeing society as a hegemonic entity.

Socialists are often portrayed as violent revolutionaries, but the overwhelming majority of socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present day have favored peaceful evolution toward socialism.  They have generally tried to establish islands of socialism within the existing capitalist society that would one-by-one gradually move society toward the socialist goal.

Socialists have, for example, established communes, like those of the nineteenth century utopian socialists and the twentieth century hippies, some of which have been successful.  Socialists have also encouraged the establishment of cooperatives, an idea which has been quite successful.  Farming co-ops, housing co-ops, shopping co-ops, and co-ops of all sorts have flourished over the last one hundred years.  The hope is that the cooperative idea will catch on with ever more people, so that communes and co-ops, islands of socialism, will gradually form a new mainland.

Socialists operating within the existing economic and political system have also developed ideas for social reforms and social programs that have been adopted over the years.  Most of the social programs proposed in the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party have, in fact, become law in the United States.  The hope is that by adopting regulations that promote the health and safety of the public, promote economic equity and efficiency, protect the environment, and care for those who need help, the country will gradually become more socialized and socialist.

Most people, liberals, conservatives and socialists alike, would describe these social reforms and programs positively in humanistic terms.  There is, however, a disagreement as to their long-term effect on society.  Many people see the reforms as a means of stabilizing the existing capitalist society, and making it more acceptable.  This includes liberals and conservatives alike.  Right-wingers, however, decry the reforms as “creeping socialism.”  Socialists hope they are right.[9]

John Dewey and the Evolution of Democratic Socialism.

In The Idea of Socialism, Axel Honneth relies substantially on ideas he has adopted from John Dewey, especially Dewey’s The Public and its Problems.  Honneth seems to be coupling his effort to revive the idea of socialism with an effort to revive the social ideas of Dewey.  I think he makes a good case.  American social thinking in general, and socialist thinking in particular, have suffered from the absence of Dewey’s voice in recent years.

Although Dewey’s influence on American social thinking and educational policy during the first half of the twentieth century was unparalleled, right-wingers mounted a sustained attack on him and his ideas after his death in 1952.  In the context of the Cold War Red Scare, during which socialism was equated with Communism and Communism was equated with treason, Dewey’s socialist ideas and progressive educational methods were labeled subversive.  When the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, right-wingers widely and wackily blamed the American school system for putting the United States at peril from the Red Menace.  Dewey and his progressive educational methods were targeted as the cause, thereby putting the cap on the decline and fall of Dewey’s influence.[10]

Although Dewey is generally classified as a pragmatist philosopher, he usually called himself an experimentalist or transactional philosopher.  As an experimentalist, he promoted what he described as the scientific method.  He was not promoting an ideology, but was looking for solutions to problems or, rather, ways of solving problems.  Dewey claimed that the scientific method was the way in which valid conclusions were reached in any field of inquiry and in everyday life, and is not confined merely to the physical sciences to which it is generally attributed.  Dewey identified this method of decision-making with his idea of socialism.  The scientific method, according to Dewey, consists of several steps that can be described as follows:

  • A flaw in some generally held conclusion is found, which presents itself as a problem needing solution.  The problem could be anything big or small, a matter of war and peace, a question about quantum mechanics, the best way to avoid a traffic jam, or anything else that disrupted people’s usual course of reacting.
  • A hypothesis is formed as to what might be the solution to the problem. A hypothesis is a guess based on the best arguments and evidence that are immediately available.
  • Consideration is given to the hypothesis, and evidence and arguments for and against it are sought. It is important that this be an objective search, albeit not impartial.  It is not impartial because you are looking to solve a problem in which you have an interest, but it must objectively seek both to verify and falsify the hypothesis.
  • A conclusion is reached based on the best available arguments and evidence, and the proposed solution is put to the test.
  • The process and the results of the process are made public so that they can be examined and replicated by others. This publication of the proceedings and the results was crucial for Dewey, and was the key to his identifying socialism with the scientific method.  Truth was, for Dewey, a collective process, and nothing could be considered valid unless it was open to verification by the whole of the interested community.[11]

Socialism evolves, according to Dewey, through people collectively solving social problems with social solutions.   A scientific community of scholars, working together to solve problems and get at the truth, was an example of socialism for Dewey.  This was a model that any group of people could follow.  The scientific method was also Dewey’s alternative to class conflict as a means of dealing with social injustice and moving toward socialism.  Dewey acknowledged the existence of antagonistic social classes, but insisted that solving practical social problems was the way in which society would evolve toward socialism.[12]

Solving social problems would entail the establishment of public agencies.  Dewey envisioned the establishment of government agencies that guaranteed the public well-being at the national level, but operated with maximum public participation at the local level.  In this way, democratic social experiments could be conducted, socialism would grow within capitalist society, and it would grow with grass-roots support.[13]  Honneth  adopts Dewey’s method of socialist experimentalism, and I think this is a strength of his book.

Dewey’s description of himself as a transactional philosopher stemmed from his Darwinian belief that all things either were or could be interconnected, and that progress could be best attained through furthering the breadth and depth of transactions among things.  Dewey’s philosophy was deeply imbued with Darwin’s evolutionary theory.  Life, Dewey contended, consists of solving problems through adapting to and transforming one’s circumstances, and successful adaptations and transformations were the result of making connections among things.[14]   In this context, the connection between Darwinian evolution and socialism was, for Dewey, a self-evident conclusion.  His reasoning could be summarized as follows:

  • All things, whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral, survive because they fit in with their environments, including the creatures and things around them, and are not destroyed by them. This is the meaning of the phrase “survival of the fittest” that was misused by the so-called Social Darwinians to claim that the most powerful and richest people in human society, those who defeated their competitors in the battle for supremacy, were the fittest.  In fact, the ability of beings to cooperate, rather than their strength, is a better indicator of fitness for survival.
  • All things constantly strive either to transform their environments so that they better fit those environments or, when their environments change in ways that are disadvantageous to them, they try to adapt to the change. Transformation and adaptation are the keys to survival.
  • Things are more likely to survive and thrive if they can peacefully acclimate, transform, and cooperate with their environments than if they are constantly battling with the things around them. Hostile and repressive relations are inherently unstable, and cooperative arrangements are eminently preferable.  This is especially the case for humans, whose survival as a species has depended on their ability to cooperate.  Core human instincts are inherently social, and even socialist.  The real Social Darwinism is a Socialist Darwinism.

The case for socialism was obvious to Dewey, as it seems to be for Honneth.  The means for achieving it was the problem for Dewey, and this is what he struggled with in The Public and its Problems.  Published in 1929, the book was specifically a response by Dewey to two books by Walter Lippman, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925).[15]  Lippmann had been a democratic socialist in his youth, but had become a technocratic conservative as a result of what he saw as the way in which public opinion was being manufactured and manipulated in the age of modern mass media.  Lippmann claimed that a democratic public was no longer possible.  His attack on the idea of the public and the possibility of a socialist public is the problem that Dewey dealt with in his book.  Dewey’s conclusions were positive, but not optimistic.  A weakness of Honneth’s book is that it does not fully recognize the context of Dewey’s book or the conditional nature of Dewey’s proposals.

Throughout American history, even as the economy went from local to regional to national in orientation during the nineteenth century, the formation of public opinion had largely remained local.  Small towns and big-city neighborhoods had predominated in the formation of public opinion and, in turn, in the nature of politics.  But by the 1920’s, that had changed, largely because of the advent of radio and the invention of modern advertising campaigns.

Lippmann warned that public opinion could now be expertly formed to favor almost anything the powers that controlled the mass media might want.  And the mass media invariably appealed to the lowest common denominator among people, to their prejudices, fears and hatreds.  The media, thereby, reduced people to what Lippmann claimed was a “mass of absolutely illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals,” primed for manipulation.  There was no more genuine public, Lippmann lamented, only a manufactured public opinion.  In addition, Lippmann claimed, the problems of modern society had become too complicated and arcane for ordinary people to understand.  Ordinary people looked for simple and simple-minded solutions to complex problems.[16]

Given the idiocy of public opinion and the complexity of modern-day social problems, Lippmann concluded that the public could not be trusted with the control of society.  Society could be saved from pillaging by plutocrats and demagoguery from politicians only if the public were excluded from policymaking, and the country entrusted to technocratic experts.  Democracy needed to be redefined as a system in which the public was limited merely to rejecting policies that had clearly failed.  Lippmann essentially proposed a combination of a technocracy and a plebiscitary system, without any of the elements of participatory democracy that socialists like Dewey promoted.[17]

In responding to Lippmann, Dewey conceded that public opinion at large was largely manufactured by the mass media, and that many of the problems of modern society were too complex to be solved by appeals to public opinion.  But, Dewey argued, that did not warrant giving up on public participation in a democratic process.  At the very least, within Lippmann’s own proposed system, there needed to be a public with sufficient expertise to understand the experts who would manage the more complex aspects of modern society and evaluate their policies.  This meant an expanded and upgraded public educational system, something which Dewey promoted during his whole career.[18]

But Dewey did not stop there.  Although public opinion at large and in general was at the present time neither independent nor well-informed, and was largely manufactured and manipulated, that did not mean that public opinion writ small and on specific issues was untrustworthy.  In addition, although specialized expertise was necessary to solve many social problems, that did not mean that the knowledge and experience of ordinary people was not necessary and useful.

Expertise was not something abstract and impartial for Dewey.  Expertise was invariably specific, because it was developed out of the experience of solving specific problems.  Expertise was also inherently biased, because it was developed to solve problems in which people had an interest.  Experts could connect the solution of one problem to another — that is the way knowledge developed — but problems were always specific and always involved the disruption of things in which people were interested.

In turn, solving problems inevitably furthered some people’s interests, and slighted, ignored or abandoned other people’s interests.  Problem-solving should, therefore, take into consideration the ideas and interests of all those who were affected by a problem and its solution.  That was only fair, and was the most effective way to resolve a problem.  As such, solving social problems and making social policy required grass roots communications and consultations, because they were key to both democracy and the scientific method.   Honneth buys into this idea completely, and is very effective in conveying his arguments on its behalf.  I think it is the biggest and best strength of his book.

Dewey also was not ready to write-off the role of small towns and urban neighborhoods, especially given their historical role in American life.  “Democracy must begin at home,” he argued, “and its home is the neighborly community.”[19]  Dewey was an evolutionist who wanted to build on the past, not reject it and try to start all over from scratch.  Dewey essentially applied his ideas about the evolutionary process of adaptation and transformation to the problem of the public.  Honneth does not buy into this idea, and I think it is the weakest aspect of the book.

Just as Dewey had adapted the terms “individualism” and “liberalism” to the new reality of modern society, and transformed them into the idea of socialism, so he attempted to adapt the idea of the neighborly community to the changing conditions of modern society, and thereby to resurrect an idea of the public that Lippmann had buried.  Dewey’s method was to define a public as those people who were significantly affected by something.  He then argued that it was possible to form a large-scale public through connecting together many smaller-scale publics, and to democratically solve large-scale and complex social problems in this way.[20]

The question was how to arrange this.  Dewey was not very specific about this in The Public and its Problems.  His answer was a combination of education, grass-roots organizing, and the scientific method.  Dewey was himself involved with a number of grass-roots socialist political groups.  He was also a founding member of the NAACP and the ACLU, organizations that fought for civil rights and civil liberties, predominantly at the local grass-roots level.  Dewey was involved in teachers’ unions, and promoted labor unions for all workers.[21]  Schools were, however, Dewey’s favorite grass-roots organizations.

Much of Dewey’s career was spent developing and promoting progressive educational methods in which teaching and learning revolved around solving social, economic, political, and personal problems.  Learning, according to Dewey, was a process of intellectual adaptation and transformation by students toward the goal of adapting to and transforming the world in which they lived.  Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, progressive educational methods became “the conventional wisdom” among educators and schools of education.[22]  The methods involved a mixture of cooperative learning and social problem-solving.  These methods were not always practiced in school classrooms, but studies from the 1920’s to the present day have shown that pedagogy of this sort makes for the best results with students, whether on standardized tests or real-life tasks.  The methods also taught students the benefits of cooperation which, it was hoped, they would transfer to life outside of school.

For Dewey the school should be a cooperative community, a model of democracy in which the scientific method and collegial relations would appertain.  Dewey particularly liked the seminar model of teaching, which he promoted for students of all ages.  In this model, students and teachers interacted like master craftspeople and their apprentices, striving to learn the skill of whatever subjects and problems they were studying.  This was Dewey’s response to Lippmann’s assertion that experts alone must rule the world.  Experts were master-craftspeople in complex problems, but ordinary people could always be at least apprentices who had sufficient knowledge and experience of the problems to participate cooperatively in the solutions.[23]

Dewey also promoted the school as a community center for adult education, community health and welfare services, and local political activities.  Schools should, and in some localities, they did and still do, function as centers for social services, cultural and political activities, adult education programs, and, even, employment agencies.  Schools would, thereby, function as agents of socialization.  They would, in effect, be socialist colonies, reaching out to the future through the education of young people and to the present through working with parents and other adults in the school district.

Dewey did not consider his methods to be an improper politicization of the schools, or a devious means of propagandizing of students and their parents.  Rather, he viewed schools as merely adapting to the best methods of teaching students and to the needs of the adults in their area.  It just so happened that socialism was the best way.  It was all a matter of fitting in with evolution, and surviving because you are fit.  Evolution was about solving problems collectively, and social change was the same.  The education that enabled students to do best in school and in their lives thereafter was serendipitously the education that prepared them to make cooperative social change. [24]

Dewey’s hope for the future stemmed from his underlying belief that most people are socialists most of the time, even if they don’t know it.  It is that evolutionary fact that socialists needed to build upon.  The method of progressive education was to start where students were and go from there, encouraging them to go further.  Similarly, Dewey’s political strategy was to start with whatever collectivities and socialization people already had, and build on them.  As part of this strategy, socialists should focus on people’s actions, not their professed ideologies, but should also invest their actions with ideal implications.  That was Dewey’s idea of socialism.[25]

Axel Honneth: Socialism as Social Freedom.

The presenting problem in Axel Honneth’s book is the fact that socialism has lost its place in the world and, along with that, its vision.  Honneth claims that from the early nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, it had been assumed by one and all, both socialists and their opponents, that “the intellectual challenge socialism represented would permanently accompany capitalism.”  Much to Honneth’s chagrin, that is no longer the case.

The result, Honneth laments, is that most people in the world are bereft of any ideas about what might be an ideal society.  They are adrift in a world of more, with only the scantiest idea of better and no idea of best.  Without ideas of better and best, which used to be embodied in the idea and ideal of socialism, people have no basis on which to come together, and they fall easy prey to demagogues of fear, hate, and division.[26]

Honneth’s goals in his book are twofold.  First, he wants to recreate a socialist vision, to “extract its core idea,” and, thereby help provide a positive “sense of direction” for the discontent that he sees as permeating Western societies in the present day.  Second, he wants to present a history of the development of socialism that would explain its demise.  I think he substantially succeeds with his first goal, but not with the second goal, and that failure undermines the first.[27]

The idea and ideal of socialism, says Honneth, is that people “not only act with each other; but also for each other.”  People should not merely supplement each other, like workers on an assembly line, but act with each other, like players on a team.  In a socialist society, people would not only be treated fairly and equally, but would cooperate with each other.  In socialism, the individual does not get swallowed up by the collective, but is helped toward the “realization of individual freedom,” or what Honneth calls “social freedom.”[28]

Following Dewey, Honneth claims that social freedom requires small communities in which people can know each other, but also can personally care for people they don’t know.  He cites Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace as examples of the sorts of organizations that he has in mind.  They are organizations that have national and international reach, but that operate largely at the local level.

Citing Dewey, Honneth calls for making connections among people, and removing the barriers to communication between groups of people.  Like Dewey, he takes an evolutionary view of social development, and claims that socialism is not merely an ideal but an historical tendency.  Evolution is a process of wider and deeper associations, and socialism is the next step that humans should logically and realistically take in that process.[29]

Toward this end, Honneth says, socialists must build upon social changes, not on social movements.  It is not who you are with, but what you are doing that counts.  Citing Dewey, Honneth argues that socialists should look for paths of social change, not for agents of social change.  Whoever is with you is with you, whether they be industrial workers or industrial capitalists.  He rejects the idea that socialism is only for the so-called working class.

Honneth insists in this regard that socialists should envision economics, politics, and personal relations as separate, albeit often overlapping, spheres.  The fact that you may oppose someone in the economic sphere does not mean you cannot work with that person for change within the spheres of politics and personal relations.  A capitalist may oppose racism and sexism even though he/she opposes labor unions.

Working toward socialism, Honneth explains, means solving social problems and making changes where you can with whoever is with you.  It means working to “uncover potentials for stronger cooperation concealed in the existing social order.”  And, like Dewey, Honneth calls for an experimental method of trying different forms of socialistic organization and operation, seeing what works best and what does not.[30]

In his historical analysis of why socialism has faded, Honneth focuses on what he calls the “three birth defects of the socialist project.”  The first defect, he claims, was seeing all social problems as a function of capitalist economics, so that sexism, racism, civil rights and civil liberties did not have to be specifically addressed, and would simply disappear when capitalism was overthrown.  The second was believing that industrial workers were naturally and inevitably opposed to capitalism and in favor of socialism, if only they could be shown the truth.  And the third was believing that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct, and that the workers would then automatically take over and create socialism.[31]

Honneth repeatedly berates socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present-day for ostensibly being unwilling or unable to overcome these defects.  He is especially critical of what he claims was the indifference of early socialists to political organizing, and it “remains a theoretical mystery,” he says, that this was the case.  “For reasons that are hard to understand,” he complains, “early socialists simply ignored the entire sphere of political deliberation,” and that has crippled socialists ever since.[32]

Honneth claims that early socialists believed that politics was merely an extension of the economic system, and that capitalists would inevitably control the political system in a capitalist society for their own ends.  In turn, they believed that if you gained control of the corporations, you thereby gained control of the government. So, socialists focused on organizing labor unions that would contest the power of the capitalists, and take over the management of society after capitalism inevitably collapsed.[33]

Socialists, Honneth charges, have continuously demonstrated a “characteristic blindness to the importance of political rights,” and “failed to grasp” the importance of civil rights as differentiated from economic power.  In the same vein, he complains, socialists were “blind” to family issues, and failed to pursue women’s rights even though, he asserts, “It would have been easy” to do so.[34]

The bottom line for Honneth is that socialists will seemingly have to start almost from scratch if they are to renew socialism.  History provides little to work from in his opinion.  Pretty much all that socialists can seemingly learn from history is what not to do.  And, apparently, the best that socialists can do with the theories and practices of their forbears is to throw them into the dust bin of history.  I don’t agree and neither, I think, would Dewey.

Socialist History as People Making Choices.

The Idea of Socialism has received mixed reviews, with some reviewers concerned that it is too radical in its proposals, others that it is too conservative.  As an example of the former, Martin Jay rejects Honneth’s call to restore the idea of socialism as the ideal of progressives. He thinks the idea of socialism is too off-putting to too many people.  Seemingly spooked by the ascension of Donald Trump and the right-wing Republicans, Jay wants progressives to pull in their horns in an effort to save the welfare state and social programs in the United States.[35]

On the other side of the political spectrum, Peter Schwarz, in an article entitled “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort,” which pretty much sums up Schwarz’s assessment of the book, decries Honneth’s rejection of class conflict, Marxist scientific socialism, and the proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change.  He sees Honneth as effectively an agent of the capitalist enemy.[36]

Taking a position in between, Tomas Stolen and Jacob Hanburger in their respective reviews of the book complain that Honneth’s proposals are vague and impractical.  “His is a philosopher’s socialism,” Hanburger complains of Honneth, which seems like an unnecessary complaint since Honneth is admittedly a philosopher.  Stolen complains that Honneth is a Frankfurt School advocate of “Critical Theory,” which is all theory and no practice.  I think there is some merit to that complaint.[37]

Honneth has, I think, outlined a vision of socialism as an idea and an ideal that is valuable for erstwhile socialists, even if they aren’t philosophers.  He has, however, misunderstood the history of socialism in a way that contradicts his own evolutionary theory of social development and socialist change.  In focusing almost solely on socialist theories and theoreticians, his critique of past socialism has something of an armchair and Ivory Tower perspective, and misses most of what ordinary socialists were doing.  I don’t think Dewey would approve.

Historically, socialists of the next generation have always tended to completely reject the efforts of the last generation, and proclaimed the necessity of starting over.  Their rationale has generally been that since the previous generation did not succeed in completely socializing society, they were failures and something completely new must be tried.  This tendency has been as endemic in evolutionary socialists, such as Honneth, as in revolutionary socialists.  It is a tendency and an intention that an evolutionist such as Honneth should be able to see as false.  In fact, whatever their intentions, the new generation does not start de novo.  No one can.  People always build on the past, whether they like it or not.  And the extent to which they repudiate the reforms and the efforts of the past, they almost invariably hinder their own efforts in the present.

Honneth’s history of socialism begins in the early nineteenth century when the word “socialism” was first used in its modern way.  From that fact, he claims that “The idea of socialism is an intellectual product of capitalist industrialization.”[38]  This is where, I think, he first goes wrong.  The roots of socialism go back at least to the first millennium BCE, and the roots of modern socialism derive from the urban guilds and rural peasant villages of the European Middle Ages.

Guilds were associations of master craftsmen and merchants that regulated the various trades in medieval cities.  They were in the nature of a trade union for the masters who, in turn, took in apprentice workers that could learn the trade, and possibly aspire to full membership as a master.  Medieval cities essentially existed as places in which the guilds could function.  And the guilds essentially ran the government of the cities, choosing government officials from their members.  The guilds also provided the social life of the cities, organizing religious and cultural events.

In sum, there was no separation in medieval cities of econo3mic organization and activities from political activities and personal relations.  There were no separate spheres of politics and social relations of the sort that Honneth wants socialists to recognize.  The idea of socialism that derived from the medieval cities was essentially an egalitarian guild without masters.  This was the model that most socialists in the nineteenth century initially adopted as a form of guild socialism, and that persists to the present day in the form of syndicalism.

An alternative model for socialism was provided by peasant villages.  Medieval peasant villages essentially operated like farming cooperatives run by the village elders, a clergyman, and/or a representative of the nobleman whose land the peasants farmed.  Villages were essentially an economic organization to support the nobleman’s social and military functions.  Land was generally allocated among the peasants each year on an equitable basis, with each peasant getting a chance at the best land.  A portion of the peasants’ time and produce went to the noblemen.

There were no separate realms of politics and social relations in these villages.  All of life, from birth to death to the hereafter, was dealt with within the economic organization of the village.  The idea of socialism that derived from these villages was a farming cooperative without the nobleman.  This was the model that was adopted in the early nineteenth century by most of the so-called utopian socialists, including the followers of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, and that has persisted to the present day in the form of the cooperative movement.

Contrary to Honneth’s repeated statements of surprise and chagrin that early nineteenth century socialists did not recognize and organize around separate economic, political, and social spheres, it would have been a surprise if they had.  This is especially the case since politics as a separate sphere of activity arose during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries essentially as a movement of capitalists and the middle classes against the authority of the kings and noblemen.  The goal was to carve out a political realm for themselves.  Workers and peasants might have naturally seen this movement as alien and possibly even hostile to their interests.  They might have reasonably preferred their guilds and villages, albeit shorn of the rulers who oppressed them.

Organizing society around socialist guilds and farming villages was not implausible in the early nineteenth century.  In most of Europe and the United States, the population overwhelmingly lived and worked in small towns, even long after the industrial revolution began. Small-scale socialist farming and manufacturing communities were common in America from the early 1600’s through the early twentieth century, and still exist today.  They were taken seriously in the early nineteenth century as an option for American development.  When Robert Owen visited the country in 1824 and 1825 to promote his utopian socialist vision and establish a socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, he was well-received personally by President John Quincy Adams and former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and he twice addressed Congress promoting his ideas.[39]

Industrialization in America began in small New England towns, and could conceivably have continued on a small-town basis.  There was no economic reason for industrialization to have spawned the massive cities that it did, other than for the advantage of the capitalist businessmen who promoted it.  Industrialists repeatedly found during the nineteenth century that in a contest between workers and bosses, the populace of a small town was likely to back the workers.  That was much less likely to happen in a big city, in which workers in any given factory would be spread around into different neighborhoods, and in which scab workers to replace striking workers would be more conveniently available.  Smaller scale production in smaller towns was actually more cost efficient to society, but less convenient for business owners.[40]

In sum, the commitment of early socialists to models of socialism based on guilds and villages, and their failure to envision politics and personal relations as separate spheres from economics, was neither surprising nor foolish as Honneth insists it was.  Nor did early socialists ignore politics and personal relations in their guilds, communes, and labor unions, which were more than just economic units.  They were also political and social organizations, providing social services, cultural events and educational opportunities for their members.

Honneth also is not accurate in claiming that early socialists did not pursue political and civil rights.  Marx proclaimed winning “the battle of democracy” as the first priority of socialists in The Communist Manifesto, and he vehemently supported movements for civil liberties, freedoms of speech, and the rights to vote and politically organize.   “Early socialism,” Michael Harrington noted, “was concerned with morality, community, and feminism.”  Socialists in America and Europe were continuously engaged in battles for democratic suffrage, civil rights, and the rights of women.  Socialist leaders also regularly worked in coalitions with people who were not members of the working classes.[41]

The point of my argument with Honneth’s take on socialist history is to suggest that a revival of socialism does not have to begin from scratch, and that there is a historical record of struggle and success on which socialists can build.  That is the evolutionary method that Dewey advocated.  There are lots of reasons why socialism has faded.  Among other reasons is the fact that the opposition has powerful social, economic and political positions.  They also have powerful emotional weapons.[42]

That the idea of socialism has faded from the public’s consciousness does not mean that socialists have somehow failed.  One can do the right things and still get the wrong result.   Sometimes the other guys are just too strong for you.  Socialists deal mainly in hope.  Right-wingers deal in fear.  Unless the proponents of hope are very well organized and well positioned, fear will usually trump hope.

The fading of socialism from the public consciousness also does not mean that socialism has disappeared from public life, or that right-wingers will inevitably win.  Dewey’s underlying point is that humans are essentially socialist beings, most of whom practice socialism even when they theoretically reject it.  The goal of socialists is to appeal to the socialist underpinnings of human society, and advance the cause of socialism on that basis.  This cannot be accomplished by merely holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but it is possible to successfully appeal to people’s better natures.

It has, for example, been the case over the last one hundred years, ever since the invention of public opinion polling, that when Americans are asked concrete and practical questions about whether specific individuals or groups of people should be afforded help from the government, or whether specific economic or environmental practices should be regulated, at least two-thirds of the public responds with a “Yes.”

But when Americans are asked abstract and ideological questions about the desirability of welfare programs, environmental regulations, or economic controls, some two-thirds say “No.”  Americans seem, as such, instinctively to be a generous, cooperative, and socially conscious people, who have been called “socialists of the heart,” even though ideologically they have been taught opposite.  The question is how to appeal to their socialist side with an idea of socialism.

A Socialist Appeal: Renewal and Revival.

Given that most Americans seem instinctively to practice socialism in their daily lives, and to opt for socialistic remedies when people are harmed, how can the idea of socialism be conveyed to people who ideologically reject it?  Like Honneth, I believe that future of American society, and much of the world, depends on whether people come to see idea of socialism as their ideal.  “Keep hope alive,” Jesse Jackson has intoned over the years.

But it is hard to ward off the fear-mongering and misanthropy of the Trumps and other right-wingers, and to keep hope alive, if you don’t have a vision of where hope might lead.  Socialism could and should be that vision.  But how to help people see that?  Not by starting from scratch, as Honneth would have us do, but through building on our common history of cooperative theories and practices, as Dewey encouraged.

After working for many decades as a lawyer and a professor, I can testify that you can almost never change anyone’s mind by arguing with the person.  That is especially the case when you are arguing about ideology.  What you can do, however, is gain agreement with the person on specific, practical matters.  If these practical agreements pragmatically work, you may be able to broaden your agreement to ideology and find a common vision.  There are many possible bases for a socialist appeal.

For the religious, there are the socialist implications of the Golden Rule, which was the mantra of a significant Christian Socialist movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  For the scientific, there are the cooperative implications of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is consistent with the Golden Rule and, notwithstanding the vocal and influential opposition from some religious fundamentalists, has been accepted by the Catholic Church and most other religions ever since Darwin first proposed it.

For the domestic, there are the socialist implications of the human family, which has historically been a pillar of most religions and a key to human evolution.  For the practical, there is the cooperative nature of everyday work and life, which has been a key to human survival.  For the philosophical, there is Dewey’s pragmatism, which combines the Golden Rule, evolutionary theory, domesticity, and the work-a-day world, and essentially demonstrates that no one is free unless everyone is free and equal.  That is the idea of socialism.

Finally, for the patriotic, there is the Declaration of Independence, which effectively enshrines socialism as part and parcel of who we are as a nation.  This is a claim that should (but won’t) especially appeal to right-wingers who insist on an “originalist” interpretation of the founding documents of the United States, that is, reading the Declaration and the Constitution as they were originally meant by their authors.  The key to this claim is the Declaration’s proclamation that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right of humankind.

That phrase was invented by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as a counterpoint to John Locke’s claim that “life, liberty, and property” were man’s natural rights.  Locke claimed that the ownership of property is what enables men to fulfill themselves.  Hutcheson disagreed.  He held that people are most happy when they are helping others.  It is in helping others that we pursue our own happiness.  That is, as Marx later said, the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was an intellectual descendent of Hutcheson, having been educated by a student of Hutcheson.  In using Hutcheson’s phrase in the Declaration, rather than Locke’s, Jefferson explicitly made a choice in favor of mutualism over individualism, and implicitly made socialism a founding principle of the United States.

Can socialism make a comeback?  For most people, it never really went away, as they work, play and live together cooperatively, even if the idea of socialism has not been in their minds or part of the public conversation.  For some people, of course, that may not be the case.  Donald Trump, for example, apparently approaches every human relationship and personal encounter as a battle for supremacy and domination.

Trump’s world is a zero-sum game in which he is continually struggling to beat everyone around him.  He represents individualism taken to its logically illogical extreme.  He cannot stand being dependent or even co-dependent with others.  He is so pathetically insecure that he even destroys his own supporters.  His life must be a living hell, and I would feel sorry for him if he was not doing so much harm to others.  So, we must not let the Trumps of the world get us down and out.  There is no better argument for socialism than people like them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       B.W.            October 2017.


[1] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017.

[2] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.

[3] Alan Ryan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.19.

[4] Henry Steele Commager. Quoted in John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.XV.

[5] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. p.542.

[6] Richard Hoftstadter.  Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

[7] For a discussion of the evolution of conservatism and right-wing Social Darwinism in America, I have an essay on this historyaschoice blog entitled “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump and the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[8] John Dewey. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935. pp.62, 74, 80, 85, 88.    John Dewey. “The Meaning of Liberalism.” The Social Frontier, Vol.II, #3.1935. pp.74, 76.  Merle Curti. The Social Ideas of American Educators. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1959. pp.507-519.

[9] George Lichtheim. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Praeger, 1969.

[10]  Alan Ryan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.22..

[11] John Dewey. How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath, 1933.

[12] John Dewey. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, pp.74, 80.

[13] John Dewey. Individualism Old and New. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962. pp.81, 154.

[14] John Dewey. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1965. pp.10-11, 19.

[15] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.178, 182.

[16] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion.  New York: The Free Press, 1922. p. 48.

[17] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion.  New York: The Free Press, 1922. pp.34, 138, 148.   Walter Lippmann. The Phantom Public. New York: MacMillan & Co., 1925. p.190.

[18] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.208-209.

[19] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. p.213.

[20] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.12-16.

[21] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. pp.167, 278.

[22] Lawrence Cremin. The Transformation of the School. New York: Vintage Books, 1961. p.328.

[23] John Dewey. “Can Education Share in Social Reconstruction?” The Social Frontier, Vol. I, #1. 1934. p.12.    Merle Curti. The Social Ideas of American Educators. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1959. pp.512, 523, 535.

[24] John Dewey. “Toward Administrative Statesmanship.” The Social Frontier, Vol. I, #6. 1935. p.10.

[25] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. pp.306, 312.

[26] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.

[27] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p. 14.

[28] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p. 25, 38, 65-66.

[29] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.39, 65, 68-69, 99.

[30] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.63, 74, 78, 91, 100, 102.

[31] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.34, 81.

[32] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.29.

[33] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.33-34.

[34] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp. 30, 42, 81, 84, 86, 88

[35] Martin Jay. “Positive Freedom.” The Nation, 6/28/17.

[36] Peter Schwarz. “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort.” World Socialist Web Site, 7/11/16.

[37] Thomas Stolen. “Die Idee des Sozialismus.” Marx & Philosophy, 9/6/16.  Jacob Hanburger. “Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris.” Journal of History of Ideas Blog.

[38] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.19.

[39] Arthur Bestor, Jr. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.     Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Religious Communities, 1732-2000. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2003.   Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824-2000. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2004.

[40] Ralph Borsodi. Prosperity and Security.  New York: Harper & Row, 1938. pp.168, 218.  Harry Braverman. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974. p.275.

[41] Michael Harrington. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Little Brown & Co.,1989. pp6, 29, 32, 45, 7, 48.  George Lichtheim. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Praeger, 1969.    David Shannon. The Socialist Party in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1955.

[42] Eric Foner. “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” in Who Owns History. New York: Hill & Wang, 2002. pp.11-145.

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Burton Weltman

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”    Karl Marx.  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Prologue: Dancing in and out of time.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia is the story of a family and some of the family’s friends that takes place in two different time periods, the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  The play is billed as a dramatization of the theories of entropy in physics and Chaos in math.  The characters and events of the later period appear to be pale reflections of those in the earlier period.  Their seeming insipidity could arguably be a result of entropy, that is, the eventual decline of the universe from vividness and order into blandness and disorder, as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  But, maybe not.  Arcadia is a funny play, full of witty byplay and intellectual conundrums.  It challenges our minds, hearts and funny-bones, and leaves us much to ponder.

At the end of the play, two couples, one from each time, are dancing.  The first couple consists of a sparkling intellectual in his early twenties and a brilliant girl of sixteen from the 1800’s.  They are waltzing gracefully in time to the music.  We know that the girl will tragically die in a fire later that evening, and that the man will then spend the rest of his life as a hermit.  The second couple consists of a run-of-the-mill scholar in her late thirties and a mute boy of fifteen from the 1990’s.  They are dancing awkwardly, and they are often out of time to the music.  The difference in the ages of the people in this second couple, along with their clumsiness, makes them look almost farcical.  We don’t know what will become of them in their futures.

So, is this a funny but depressing play about human history repeating itself in cycles that descend toward decrepitude?  Are we supposed to perceive the moral of the story as the inevitability of entropy in human affairs?  In this context, must we see the waltzing of the first couple as a symbolic evocation of Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” as one critic has suggested?  Is their dancing an omen of the end of things, and a warning that we must stoically resign ourselves to it?[1]

Or might we instead focus on the efforts of the second couple, and maybe see their stumbling about as the first tentative steps toward a new way of dancing, something less formal than a waltz, but perhaps more energetic. Something like “rock & roll,” not as graceful as a waltz, but reeking with negentropy, the opposite of entropy.  In sum, does this last scene foreshadow the inevitable decline of humanity, or might it be a sign and source of hope for the future?  The conventional view of the play takes the former view.  I take the latter, and I think it matters.

Fractals, Feedback Loops, Self-Similarity, and Strange Attractors: Chaos in Action.

Stoppard has said that Arcadia was inspired by James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science in which Gleick explains the origins and evolution of Chaos Theory in mathematics.  It is a relatively new theory because it requires an immense number of calculations to apply it, and it is only recently that computers have been developed that can effectively perform those calculations.  The play discusses Chaos Theory, but also exemplifies it in many ways.

Chaos Theory (capital “C”) is an attempt to find order in what seems to be disorder and, as such, is not the same as chaos (small “c”), which is actual disorder.  Chaos Theory is an antidote to the helplessness and hopelessness of what seems to be chaos in those cases where order actually prevails beneath apparent disorder.  It is also, thereby, arguably a counter to theories of entropy that take every appearance of disorder as an instance of the descent of the universe into universal randomness, blandness, and disarray.  The moral of Chaos Theory seems to be that all may not be as bad as it seems.

Gleick says that while “the Second Law [of Thermodynamics] is a rule from which there appears no appeal,” it is still the case that “Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.”  It is the goal of Chaos Theory to identify patterns where they least seem to exist.[2]  In the course of the play Arcadia, the waltzing teenage girl from the early 1800’s, whose name is Thomasina, ostensibly discovers the basic ideas of both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chaos Theory.  Lacking computers, she is unable to fully develop her ideas.  It remains for later generations with adequate technology to rediscover these theories and be able to develop them.

The development of Chaos Theory was inspired in recent years in large part by the inability of meteorologists to reliably predict the weather more than two days in advance, despite having computers and algorithms that can accommodate a myriad of factors that make up the weather.  Beyond two days, the algorithms go wild and chaos ensues in the calculations.  This apparent chaos in the weather, and in other systems that are similarly unpredictable, seems to be a function of two main factors.[3]

First, systems that do not have strong foundations and/or built-in inertia are liable to undergo big changes in their behavior as a consequence of small changes in their surrounding conditions, and long-range predictions thereby become precarious.  Since most systems inevitably experience at least some small changes in their operating conditions, long range predictions about those systems will be thrown off unless they have strong foundations and/or inertia.  This is the problem with predicting the weather.  A host of volatile elements determines the weather, and small changes in any of those elements can throw off weather forecasting.  The oft cited example is that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil leading to a typhoon in Asia.

Chaos Theory seemingly has democratic implications.  It claims that the smallest actions can initiate the biggest results, such as the flapping of a butterfly resulting in a typhoon.  It is, thereby, bottom-up in its implications.  It stresses the importance of little guys and factors that are often considered too unimportant to be respected.  In this regard, Chaos Theory can be regarded as a cautionary tale, akin to the warning sounded by Cinderella in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, “You move just a finger, Say the slightest word, Something’s bound to linger, Be heard.”  But it can also be taken as a hopeful idea, as in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, in which the slightest squeak by the smallest Who is enough the save the universe of the Whos.  So, when Gus and Hannah dance at the end of the play, maybe the song is “This Could Be the Start of Something Big?”

A second factor involved in creating chaos is the feedback that a system encounters.  If the feedback that results from a system’s operations is stronger than the system’s foundations and/or inertia, then the system’s patterns and predictions will be thrown off.  This is the case with weather.  A strong wind can literally blow a weather system in a different direction.[4]  At the same time, implicit in this theory is the hope that if you build a strong enough foundation, your system or structure may withstand the whirlwinds of change.  And that foundation may be democratically made up of many small individuals or things, as represented in the political slogan “The people united cannot be defeated.”

It is not the case, however, that chaos is always disorderly.  Chaos theorists claim that one can often find orderly patterns underneath the superficial disorder of many systems, albeit they are likely to be patterns that are unstable and cannot be predicted in advance.  Chaos Theory holds that systems may behave in logical and deterministic ways, even though their patterns can only be discerned in retrospect.   And the patterns may change in an instant.  Gleick notes that Chaos (capital “C”) is “a delicate balance between forces of stability and forces of instability.”[5]

Two of the main types of Chaos patterns are fractals and attractors, which can exist separately or can combine to make what is called a strange attractor.  It is not possible to predict the behavior of either fractals or attractors in advance, but they can be seen in retrospect as orderly and deterministic.  A fractal is a shape that reproduces itself through self-similarity.  A fractal can be successively subdivided, with each iteration essentially the same as the previous one, albeit slightly different and smaller than the last.

Fractals can be fitted together like pieces of a puzzle so that an infinite number of ever smaller replications can be fitted within a delimited space.  Fractals are, thereby, the most efficient way to maximize the coverage of the surface of a space with shapes.  Fractals are also the most efficient way to create a complex orderly pattern because all that needs to be done is to replicate the initial shape in decreasing sizes that fit in with the rest.  Blood vessels in a human body are spaced in a fractal pattern, thereby most efficiently distributing blood throughout the body.  Veins in a leaf are also spaced in a fractal pattern, as are many other natural systems.

A formula for producing fractals is to take the solution of an “X & Y” equation, plug the “Y” back into the equation as the new “X” and repeat the equation, then do this again and again ad infinitum.  When you plot the results of the equation on a graph, you get new shapes that are similar but not the same as the previous ones, thereby adding a new layer of complexity to the system.  This is the formula that Thomasina ostensibly discovered during the early 1800’s.  In the case of fractals, smaller does not mean lesser.  The new shapes are as complex as the previous ones.  And there are an increasing number of the new shapes as they decrease in size.  Fractals can seemingly, therefore, function as agents of negentropy, as they energetically reproduce themselves in an ongoing and orderly complexity toward infinity.

An attractor is the locus of another form of Chaotic pattern.  It is a point around which successive iterations of a loop swirl.  It represents a form of topology, which is the twisting and stretching of a loop into an everchanging series of shapes.  The loops that swirl around an attractor can take on weird shapes that seem unrelated except that they focus on the attractor point.  The loops may or may not decrease in diameter as they replicate, and may or may not descend toward the point.  Weather patterns apparently swirl around attractors.  Finally, there are strange attractors that combine a swirling motion with a fractal structure.[6]

So, what does all this have to do with Arcadia?  The question is whether the plot of the play might be interpreted as exemplifying entropy theory, Chaos Theory, or both.   And if the plot exemplifies Chaos Theory, is it in the form of an attractor, a fractal, or both as a strange attractor?  I think the answer to both questions is “both” and, again, it matters.

The Plot: Back to the Future, Back to the Past, Again and Again.

Arcadia is set in a mansion on the English country estate of Sidley Park.  All of the action takes place in one room, and cycles back and forth in that room between the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  There are four main human characters in each period.  The estate of Sidley Park also functions as a major character in the play, in that it is, I think, the strange attractor around which the play revolves.  It is a place of civility that fosters intellectual curiosity and honest, if sometimes heated, debate.  It is also a locus of romance and amorous adventures.  The two different time periods are like loops that whirl around an attractor, and the human characters and events are like fractals, that is, iterations which are similar but still significantly different.

The main character from the early 1800’s, and for the entire play, is Thomasina, a precocious teenager who critiques the conventional Newtonian physics of her time by asking why when she stirs jam into her pudding, she cannot then unstir it.  Likewise, when a pudding has cooled down, why won’t it ever spontaneously heat back up.  “Newton’s equations,” Thomasina contends, “go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way.  But the heat equation cares very much, it only goes one way.”  Based on her pudding question, and speculations on why steam engines run down, she ostensibly discovers what was later known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Similarly, based on her critique of conventional geometry, which focuses on simple shapes such as squares that go through predicable changes, Thomasina develops the formula described above for creating self-replicating fractals. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that go through unpredictable changes based on repeatedly taking the “Y” from an “X & Y” equation and plugging it back into the equation as the new “X.”  Thomasina takes a leaf and proposes to graph it using her new ideas.  The formula she ostensibly developed is a mainstay of Chaos Theory.

The second key character from that time is Septimus, who is Thomasina’s tutor.  He is a genial Enlightenment intellectual and a friend of the poet Byron, who is himself an unseen visitor at Sidley Park.  A third character is Chater, a second-rate poet with whose wife Septimus has been sleeping.  He provides a frequent target for Septimus’ wit.  The fourth main character is Noakes, a landscape architect who is transforming the Sidley Park terraces from a Classical formal garden into a Romantic wilderness, complete with an ersatz hermitage.  This change is taken by characters in both the earlier and later periods to symbolize the decline of reason and orderliness and the rise of emotional and intellectual disorder.

The main characters in the later period are similar to those in the earlier, almost fractal-like, but with different genders and roles.  The central character is Hannah, a second-rate historian who has written a biography of one of Byron’s mistresses.  She is doing research on a hermit who might have lived in the hermitage in the Sidley Park gardens during the early nineteenth century.  She is a mundane but solid thinker, and is intellectually similar to Septimus but less brilliant.

Hannah’s main foil is Bernard, a second-rate literary critic who is doing research on the poet Chater, and is trying to prove that Byron killed Chater at Sidley Park in a duel over Chater’s wife.  He is a bold thinker, like Thomasina, but a cad and usually wrong in his speculations.  He is an egotistical and cynical proponent of the idea that nothing ever really changes.

Valentine is a graduate student in zoology and a computer geek, who is trying to apply Chaos Theory to the reproductive cycles of grouse.  He comes to realize that Thomasina developed the basic ideas of entropy and Chaos Theory before her time, and before there were computers that could do the complex mathematics required to fully explicate and apply those theories.  Valentine explains the theories to Hannah and to the audience.  He is a proponent of the idea that things really do change, and that science makes a positive intellectual difference.

Gus is a mute teenage member of the Sidley Park family.  He gives Hannah an apple that she puts down on a table, and that is eaten by Septimus later in the play, albeit earlier in time, which is a paradox.  The apple incident seems to be an instance of time working backwards as well as forwards which, in turn, seems consistent with Newtonian physics and contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Gus does not talk, but his actions provide a link between the two periods, and they are perhaps vehicles of energy and a symbol of negentropy.

The main action in the earlier period centers around Thomasina’s scientific discoveries and Septimus’ amorous adventures.  Septimus is repeatedly confronted by Chater for having slept with Mrs. Chater, and for having written a scathing review of Chater’s poetry.  Septimus also later sleeps with Thomasina’s mother before finally falling in love with Thomasina.  There is a lot of witty dialogue among the characters in this earlier period, full of high cultural references.

The main action in the second period centers around Bernard’s researches and theories as to Byron and Chater, and Hannah’s researches on the alleged hermit.  Bernard makes some shrewd initial deductions about Byron being at Sidley Park in 1809, but then his thinking goes awry as conflicting evidence overwhelms him, and he repeatedly misconstrues the evidence.  His theories about Byron killing Chater prove to be nonsense.  It is much like what happens to weather forecasting when you try to extend your predictions too far.  Under persistent challenging from Hannah, he is finally forced begrudgingly to admit the failure of his theories.

Meanwhile, Hannah comes to the correct conclusion that Septimus was the hermit who was reported to have lived in the garden, and that a mass of papers covered with odd scribblings that had been discovered in the hermitage were his futile attempts to work out Thomasina’s theories by hand.  Hannah’s work is conducted in a less speculative way than Bernard’s, and she gets assistance from Valentine in explaining entropy and Chaos Theory.

Much of the dialogue in the later period consists of insulting repartee between Hannah and Bernard, civil but biting.  Hannah wins that battle.  There is also some unconsummated sexual tension between Hannah and Bernard, and a pervasive sextual tension among the other characters, with an occasional offstage consummation.  This keeps things lively in the house and in the play despite all the talking.

But the brilliance of the characters and conversation in the earlier period are in sharp contrast with the more desultory dialogue in the later period.  The earlier period is filled with poets and innovators.  They are creators.  The second period is dominated by historians and critics who merely study the work of past creators, and a guy who is studying the mating habits of grouse.

The play ends with the characters in the earlier period having a formal ball, and the characters in the later period having a costume ball in which they dress up as imitations of people in the earlier period.  Characters from both periods are on stage at the same time, but are seemingly unaware of each other.  The universe of the play seems to be winding down until, I contend, Gus asks Hannah to dance.

Conventional Interpretations: Facing the Music.

“Soon, we’ll be without the moon…So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”  Irving Berlin.  Let’s Face the Music and Dance.  [7]

Arcadia is widely considered to be “a masterpiece.”[8]   It has been hailed as “the finest play written in my lifetime” by Brad Leithauser[9] and “the greatest play of our age” by Johann Hari.[10]  Like Hari, most critics see the play as “a laugh-filled tragedy”[11] with a depressingly resigned conclusion about life, the universe, and everything.  Entropy is the reason for this.

Early in the play, when Thomasina explains her theory of entropy to Septimus, he complains “So we are all doomed!”, to which Thomasina replies “Yes.”  Similarly, later in the play, after Valentine has explained entropy to Hannah, she asks him “Do you see the world as saved after all?” and he replies “No, it’s still doomed.”  Thomasina’s and Valentine’s replies have been taken by most critics as reflecting the viewpoint of the play that entropy is unstoppable and irreversible.  The play, says Leithauser, is “a sort of dance to the music of time,” and the song is Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”[12]  “The elegance of the past is gone,” was similarly the summary of the play by another reviewer.[13]  “Ergo, the future is disorder,” concluded yet another.[14]  The play, in this view, is all about entropy, and about history repeating itself in cycles that spiral downward, with each iteration duller and deader than the last.

The moral of the story according to these critics is that since entropy is humanity’s fate, the play’s main message is a challenge to our courage.  The play forces us to face the question of “How should we live with the knowledge that extinction is certain – not just of ourselves, but of our species?”[15]  In this conventional view, the play’s answer is contained in Hannah’s stoical statement that “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter,” even if we are doomed.  For most critics, the play confronts us with the tragedy of knowing our fate and being unable to do anything about it.  I don’t agree.  I think these critics missed the point that the play is not only about entropy, but is also about Chaos.

An Alternative Interpretation: Dancing in the Streets.

  “Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?”                        Marvin Gaye.  Dancing in the Streets.[16]

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”  This is the opening line of the play, spoken by thirteen-year-old Thomasina to her tutor Septimus.  She goes on to say that she had heard the butler saying that Mrs. Chater had been discovered in a carnal embrace in the gazebo, and she wants to know what that means.  Septimus is nonplussed.  He has set Thomasina the task of finding a solution to Fermat’s famous Last Equation, which was still unsolved in the early 1800’s.  It is clearly not a problem that he expects her to solve, and the task is merely intended to keep her busy while he is doing other things.  But Thomasina finds questions about sex more interesting.

Sex and sexual tension play a big role in this play.  There is a lot of sexual attraction and action.  It keeps the characters in motion, and keeps up the audience’s interest, in the midst of all the mathematical, historical and philosophical discussions that are the meat of the play.  In turn, while sex is a source of confusion and disorder in the play, and in human society generally, it is also a vehicle for bringing couples together and a means of fractal-like human reproduction.

Thomasina’s opening question, therefore, introduces the basic themes of entropy and negentropy, and order and disorder, that the play explores.  The subsequent dialogue between Thomasina and Septimus is itself like a Chaos pattern spiraling toward an attractor.  Septimus wants to avoid her question about carnal embrace, but Thomasina persists.  Their discussion circles around and around the definition of sex, and around what Septimus has been up to with Mrs. Chater.  It homes in eventually on the point to which it has been tending, a biological explanation by Septimus of sexual intercourse and an admission by him that he has had sexual intercourse with Mrs. Chater in the gazebo.

Sex is an attractor in this instance and throughout the play.  It is an unpredictable wildcard that can disrupt the most orderly patterns of life.  But it is also follows a pattern, especially in the case of Mrs. Chater, who will seemingly sleep with any male in sight.  There is an underlying order and a negentropic energy to life with her around.  But the same is the case with the others in the play, as the characters buzz around each other like bees in a Sidley Park flower bed.

Entropy in the universe seems to be accepted as a universal law in and by the play but, I would contend, entropy in society and human affairs is not.  While the characters in the later period of the play are less interesting than those in the earlier period, people of that later time have computers that can deal with the mathematics of Chaos and entropy that people in the earlier time couldn’t.  Valentine can do computations in a minute that Septimus apparently could not do in a lifetime.  And women like Hannah in the later period do not have to hide their lights under a bushel, as did Thomasina in the earlier period.  This addition of women to full equal status might make for greater social chaos in the 1990’s, but also for complexity in the play that is energizing.

I think that Septimus’ message to Thomasina about things that are seemingly lost in history trumps Hannah’s resignation to historical entropy. When Thomasina laments that so many of the great books in the ancient Library of Alexandria have been lost to us because of the destruction of the Library, Septimus says that nothing is lost in the long course of history.  “The missing plays by Sophocles will turn up piece by piece,” he says, “or be written again in another language,” as will everything else that makes life interesting.  Things come and go, and come again, just as good and maybe even better.  This is exactly what happens in the course of the play as Thomasina’s lost copy books that contained her ideas turn up, and it turns out that her lost ideas had been perfected by subsequent generations.

Chaos Theory is two sided as to the ability of humans to predict and plan.  On the one hand, it introduces uncertainty in planning by telling us that many things tend to fall apart at the slightest touch and then seemingly become chaotic.  On the other hand, it provides us with some measure of comfort by telling us that what seems like chaos may in fact be orderly, albeit unpredictable. That things can’t be exactly predicted does not mean they can’t be planned and prepared for.  And a way to avoid chaos in the first place is to construct systems that have foundations strong enough to withstand changes in conditions and blowback, whether they be social systems, computer programs, political organizations, healthcare plans, or whatever.  In the play, this seems to be the case with Sidley Park, despite periodic changes to the gardens.

I think the moral of the play may be that just when things looked bleak, in the midst of a costume party in which characters from the 1990’s were dressed up as pale imitations of characters from the early 1800’s, a mute boy gets up and dances with a pretty woman.  And maybe, you get yet another rebirth of an even better rock ‘n roll.  That, I think, is a better interpretation of the play.

So why does it matter?  It is not appropriate to read things into a play that are not there.  But when one can interpret the play as proposing either that the glass is half empty, which is the conventional view of Arcadia, or that it is half full, which is mine, I think it is important to at least recognize the plausibility of the latter interpretation.  It matters because we live in an age that seems to have abolished utopian ideals, big dreams of social justice, and theories of universal harmony that energized people during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  We no long hear much about fulfilling the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, or the ethical ideal of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the social ideal that the self-development of each should be the basis of the self-development of all.

As exemplified by the conventional interpretations of the play Arcadia, we seem to be overwhelmed with weltschmerz and demoralized by the idea of entropy.  But Arcadia seems to say that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The big ideals that we think we have left behind, that we think we are too mature to entertain any longer, are promoted and practiced in the play by the characters at Sidley Park and by the place itself as an institution.

Marshall McCluhan used to claim that the medium was the message, and I think that is the basic message in this play.  Underneath all of the swirling and the cyclical recurrences that characterize the people and events in Arcadia, the hopefulness of the place, Sidley Park, is the underlying message of the play.  And it is the sort of place that can perhaps be replicated on ever larger scales, so that the great ideals and the big negentropic dreams of the past might in the future be resurrected and implemented.

Postscript: Karl Marx and Historical Cycles.

Karl Marx is more commonly known for his economic theories of capitalism, and for having his name misappropriated in support of oppressive Communist regimes, than for the historical and political writings for which he was better known during his own day.  Marx was for many years a highly regarded foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper, and was well known in the United States for his analyses of political events in Europe.[17]

Marx’s famous comment that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy and then as farce, was directed at the ascension of Napoleon III to the title of Emperor of France in 1851, a title previously held by his Uncle Napoleon I during the early 1800’s.[18]  The tragedy to which Marx was referring was the overthrow of the first French Republic in the early 1800’s by Napoleon I.  That republic had emerged out of the French Revolution against King Louis XVI in the early 1790’s, and had reflected the hopes of the revolutionaries for a society based on the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  Napoleon I was a villain, but he was a great villain who did enormous things, until he was himself overthrown as a result of losing the Napoleonic Wars (he even had a twenty-year series of wars named after him), and he was replaced by a new King.

Napoleon III became emperor by overthrowing the second French Republic that had emerged after a second French Revolution, this time against King Louis Philippe.  The second republic had projected even greater social goals than the first, with economic justice as well as political democracy as one of its aims.  Napoleon III was a villain, but a pale and paltry replica of his uncle.  Marx, with his comment about history repeating itself, was mocking this cycle of kings, republics, and emperors, that had resulted in the poltroon Emperor Napoleon III.

In proposing that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, then as farce, Marx did not suggest what the third, fourth and subsequent cycles of history would be like.  When he wrote about the ascension of Napoleon III in 1852, he could not have foreseen the way in which the cycles would continue in France.  What actually happened was that Napoleon III was overthrown in 1871 as the result of losing a war with Prussia.  He was followed by another French Republic, which was itself overthrown by the Nazis and the dictatorial Petain government during World War II.

The Nazi and Petain regimes were, themselves, then overthrown as a consequence of losing the war, and were replaced by yet another French Republic.  This republic extended its goals even further than the previous republics to encompass religious, ethnic and gender justice, but it has wavered between more and less democratic forms to the present day.

Marx’s comment about history repeating itself came at only the beginning of this cyclical series of absolutist and republican, authoritarian and democratic, progressive and reactionary regimes in France.  Similar cycles ran their courses in other parts of the world.  Do these cycles represent entropy, with the later regimes invariably paler and farcical reflections of the earlier.  Are these cycles evidence of an entropic decline of society into lameness and listlessness?

If one looks at the stature of the leading characters involved in these changes, one might answer this question with a “Yes.”  With respect to France, comparing Napoleon I with Napoleon III, or Charles de Gaulle with Emmanuel Macron, the differences seem obvious.  But if one looks at the lot of ordinary French citizens, comparing the lives of most people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the lives of most French people today, I think one must conclude with a “No.”  As part of each cycle, republican governments have become socially and politically more progressive.  And this has been the case in most places around the world, despite problems of poverty, oppression and warfare that many people in many countries are still forced to endure.

Life is less oppressive today, and living standards are higher, for a higher percentage of the world’s population than in the past, and life is also more complex.[19]  While the physical universe may be falling prey to entropy, the social universe seems to be subject to negentropy.  The relatively simple order of a slow-moving agricultural society has been replaced in most parts of the world by the complex structures and the high-powered energy of urban, industrial and post-industrial societies.  The setting of Arcadia in Sidley Park exemplifies this change.  In the early 1800’s, places like Sidley Park were at the economic, social and political center of English society.  In the 1990’s, Sidley Park is merely a resort for recreation and reflection, surviving on the fringes of an urban society.

This is by no means to say that life has become the best in the best of all possible worlds, or that things might not get much worse rather than better.  The political cycle in the United States that has given us the horrendous farce of President Donald Trump following close upon the tragedy of President George W. Bush, with the decency of President Barack Obama as an interlude, is proof of this.  The problem we most urgently face today, however, is not the entropic death of a cooling universe, but the negentropic heat-death of a nuclear war or global warming.  It is the catastrophic danger of too much heat, not too little, that is the problem.

When facing the possibility of disaster, finding hope where it can be sighted is an important part of trying to avoid catastrophe.  In this context, conventional interpretations of Acardia that pessimistically focus on the inevitability of entropy seem not only wrong but wrongheaded in contributing to the disaster the critics bemoan.  Even if history is sometimes tragical and sometimes farcical, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Arcadia seems to support the conclusion that as unpredictable as historical comings and goings may be, there is hope for a better future.  So long as the music plays on and people continue to dance.

[1] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[2] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.308.

[3] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.20.

[4] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.284.

[5] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.309.

[6] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. pp.103-105, 109, 139, 227.

[7] Irving Berlin. Let’s Face the Music and Dance. 1936.

[8] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[9] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[10] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[11] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[12] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[13] Sharon Kilarski. “Theater Review: ‘Arcadia.’” Epoch Times. 8/31/16.

[14] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[15] Ben Brantley. “The 180-year Itch, Metaphysically Speaking.” The New York Times. 3/17/11.”

Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[16] Marvin Gaye. Dancing in the Streets. 1964.

[17] Isaiah Berlin. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. pp.184-185.

[18] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.

[19] Richard Easterlin. “The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.14, #1. Winter, 2000. pp.7-26.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or As You Will. A Masquerade of Fools, Fooling and Con(wo)men.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or As You Will.

A Masquerade of Fools, Fooling and Con(wo)men.

 Burton Weltman

“The silliest woman can manage a clever man;

But it needs a clever woman to manage a fool.”

Rudyard Kipling

Prologue: First Impressions.

What to make of a character, such as Duke Orsino, who opens the first scene of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night with the beautiful lines “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die,” who continues to wax poetically about listening to music until he sickens of love, but then almost immediately tells the musicians to stop playing because he is sick of the music, not of love?  Would we say he is (a) a romantic soul; (b) a melancholy lover; or, (c) a narcissistic fool?  Most interpreters of the play say something like (a) or (b).  I would suggest (c).

What to make of a character, such as Viola who, having been shipwrecked on the shores of Orsino’s dukedom at the beginning of the second scene of the play, asks whether the Duke is still unmarried and then, having heard that he is still a bachelor, proposes to make her fortune in Illyria by insinuating herself in disguise in the Duke’s household?  Would we say she is (a) a naively pure soul; (b) a goddess of good; or, (c) an adventuress on the make?  Virtually all interpreters of the play say something like (a) or (b).  I would suggest (c).

What to make of a play so full of high jinks and tomfoolery, that is set in such a comfortable country as Illyria, and that has happy endings in marriage all around?  Interpreters invariably see it as a mere entertainment, a brilliant distraction, full of sound and festivity, but signifying nothing.  I would not agree.  I think that Shakespeare intended the play as a dire warning to his countrymen about the future of their country, a message that may be relevant to us today.

These are my first impressions of Twelfth Night.  They run counter to most conventional interpretations of the play.  The purpose of this essay is to elaborate on these first impressions, and offer an alternative perspective on the work that sees it as both more serious and more fun.

A.  The Title: A Double Name and a Triple-Entendre.

What’s in a play’s title?  With Shakespeare, it is often more than seems at first glance.  The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is named after the young man who carries on and acts up throughout the play, but his ghostly father who initiates and encourages the young man’s antics is also named Hamlet.  Is that important?  Or take Henry IV, which is really about the future Henry V.  What’s with that?  Or the play Twelfth Night, or As You Will, which seems an odd coupling of phrases.

The title of Twelfth Night is a reference to the last day of the Christmas holidays as they were celebrated in Shakespeare’s day.  The Twelfth Night of Christmas was a time of revelry and masks.  Since the play involves multiple masquerades, connecting it with the Twelfth Night of the Christmas holidays seems appropriate.  In turn, the subtitle “As You Will” complements the reference to the Twelfth Night festivities if you take the phrase as meaning “anything goes.”  The phrase indicates that all sorts of unconventional things are going to happen in this play.

But “As You Will” is a triple-entendre.  It can also mean “getting your own way,” that is, getting what you want and getting it any way you can.  In this sense, the subtitle seems to be saying that this is a play about people using masks and tomfoolery to get what they want.  That is, it is a play about cons and con(wo)men, and about fools and fooling.  Finally, it can mean “a bequest,” that is, what you leave to your descendants.  In this sense, the subtitle seems to be saying that this is a play about the sorts of inheritance that people leave for the future.  These are meanings that conventional directors and other interpreters don’t get.  And that is the main theme of this essay.

B.  The Plot: What a Tangled Web.

Twelfth Night is a comedy that follows two main plotlines that overlap at key points, and that have an upstairs/downstairs quality to them.  Each plotline is filled with coincidences and surprises.  The upstairs or upper nobility plotline involves the efforts of a duke named Orsino to woo a countess named Olivia, using as his go-between a young woman named Viola who has disguised herself as a man named Cesario.  The outcome of this plot is that Orsino ends up marrying Viola, and Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother Sebastian.

The downstairs or lower nobility plotline involves the efforts of Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch to con money out of his gull Sir Andrew Aguecheek by promising to help Sir Andrew court Olivia, and using Olivia’s waiting woman Maria as his go-between.  The result of this plot is that Toby ends up marrying Maria, and Andrew sustains a beating at the hands of Sebastian.

In the first plotline, Viola and her twin brother Sebastian have been sailing from their homes in some unnamed someplace for some unspecified reason to some unnamed someplace else, and they have been shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria in the Adriatic Sea.  Each thinks the other has been drowned.  In fact, Viola has been saved by a sea captain and comes ashore in Illyria.  Uncertain about her reception there, she decides to dress up in men’s clothing, pretend to be a eunuch named Cesario, and find employment in the household of Duke Orsino.  The Duke, who is seemingly taken with the good looks and manners of Cesario, employs Cesario as a go-between to help Orsino woo the reluctant Countess Olivia.

Olivia, her mother apparently long dead, has recently lost her father and brother, and insists that she will not entertain any marriage proposals for seven years.  No sooner, however, does Cesario/Viola speak words of love to Olivia on behalf of Orsino, than Olivia falls madly in love with what she thinks is a beautiful young man, and wants to marry him.   Cesario/Viola has meanwhile fallen for Orsino, and wants to marry him.

Although it is clear from their first meeting that Olivia has no interest in what Cesario/Viola has to say on behalf of Orsino, and that Olivia wants Cesario/Viola to make return visits only so that she can woo the ostensible go-between, Cesario/Viola keeps going back, which only increases Olivia’s desire for Cesario/Viola.  Many humorous exchanges ensue between Cesario/Viola and Olivia, and between Cesario/Viola and Orsino, as Cesario/Viola tries to negotiate the three-way relationship, while maintaining her masquerade as a man.

As the play winds down, it turns out that Viola’s twin brother Sebastian has also been saved by a sea captain from drowning.  He shows up in Illyria, where Olivia mistakes him for Cesario and rushes him off to the alter to be married.  Thanking his lucky stars for the chance to be wedded to a good-looking and very wealthy woman, Sebastian blithely goes off to be married to Olivia, a woman he has never met or even seen before.  This leaves the door open for Viola to come out of the closet as a heterosexual woman and be married to Orsino, who is immediately cured of his passion for Olivia and sees that he is really in love with Cesario, that is, Viola.

In the second plotline, Toby Belch is a sluggard and a drunkard, who is living high off the hog at the expense of his niece Olivia.  Toby is also using the money he is conning out of Andrew to drink Andrew under table.  Olivia tries using her Puritanical steward Malvolio to keep Toby in line, but Maria devises a scheme to humiliate Malvolio, and get him off Toby’s back.  The scheme works, and Malvolio eventually runs off as a consequence of his mistreatment.  Toby marries Maria in seeming gratitude for ridding him of Malvolio.

There are several humorous interactions in which Cesario/Viola and Sebastian are mistaken for each other by various characters.  One results in a fight between Andrew and the virile Sebastian, whom Andrew has mistaken for the weak Cesario/Viola, and during which Andrew gets a beating.  Another such mistake results in a violent outburst by Orsino against Cesario/Viola which leads to the unmasking of Cesario/Viola and the various reconciliations that conclude the play.

In the ostensibly happy ending, the dimwitted Orsino marries a conniving woman who he thought was a man, the volatile Olivia marries an opportunistic man whom she has never met, and the sluggard Toby weds a shrewish woman who is his intellectual superior.  Whether and how these relationships will work out after the play has ended seems to me very much in doubt.  Significantly, the action of the play closes with Olivia and Orsino sending couriers after Malvolio to make peace with him and have him return to service.  Olivia’s clown Feste then recites a poem about the ways in which foolish self-indulgence and complacency can get one in trouble.  The audience is left with these words of warning from a clown.

C.  The Setting: Feudalism, Capitalism, and a Once Upon a Time Kingdom.

The historical setting of Twelfth Night is significant for both the location of the story and the social conflicts portrayed in the play.  Once upon a time, there actually was an Illyria.  It was for many centuries a prosperous center of shipbuilding and trade on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.  As a part of the Roman Empire in Ancient times, it was the birthplace of several of the greatest Roman emperors, including Diocletian, Constantine, and Justinian.

Illyria was still prosperous during the Middle Ages, largely because of its strategic location. It had become, however, socially and politically passive, and it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks during the fifteenth century.  The Ottomans were at that time an economically and intellectually more productive society, and one of the world’s major empires.  At that point, Illyria disappeared as a corporate entity.  Illyria emerged again as a political entity during the seventeenth century, but not until after Shakespeare had written Twelfth Night.  For Shakespeare and his audience, Illyria was history.

Twelfth Night is set in medieval Illyria, when peace and prosperity would have seemed to the ruling Christian nobility in the play to be assured in perpetuity.  Shakespeare and his audience would have known better.  They knew that the Turks were coming, and that the Illyrian characters in the play were essentially luxuriating in a fool’s paradise.  This historical fact, that the Illyria of the play had been destroyed soon after the setting of the play, was, I think, intended by Shakespeare as part of the background for the play.  Why else would he have chosen such an odd and out-of-the-way location for his play, a place so different from the sorts of locations he chose for his other plays?  It adds an eerie air to the Marx Brothers atmosphere of the play and the frivolous behavior of the main characters.

The play portrays significant social conflicts among social classes, and between traditionalists and modernists in Illyria, social conflicts that concerned Shakespeare about his own time and place.  When I was a graduate student in history at Rutgers University during the late 1960’s, Professor Warren Susman told those of us in his graduate seminar that if we were ever called upon to give a lecture on any time and any place, especially one about which we knew nothing, all we had to do was say “It was a time of trouble.  It was a time of turmoil.  The old order was failing.  A new order was struggling into existence.  And the middle class was rising.”  One could, he said, go on about any time and place for at least an hour with that as one’s theme.

Notwithstanding the irony of Professor Susman’s advice, I think that one can apply his theme to Twelfth Night and to most of Shakespeare’s plays.  In turn, I think Shakespeare himself used that theme in Twelfth Night and in most of his plays.  Shakespeare was writing at a time when the feudal system of Medieval England was almost gone.  Remnants of the feudal nobility and feudal customs remained, but the English peasants were free, and both free enterprise and freer thought were steadily encroaching on traditional practices.  Capitalism and a middle class were rising.

Shakespeare was aware of these facts, and they concerned him.  Political collisions between a declining old ruling class and a rising new upstart class, social conflicts between the privileges of an inherited elite and the rights of ordinary people, religious battles among Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholics, and moral tensions between the pull of personal loyalties and the push of cutthroat competition, underlie most of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night.  These were the same contests that divided England in his day.  Shakespeare generally portrays the contending parties and contending ideas in his plays with a relatively even hand, sometimes tilting in favor of traditional practices and civilities, other times toward new ways, means and moralities.

In Twelfth Night, Illyrian society represents an old aristocratic order, one that seems to be wallowing in wealth and indolence.  Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia seem to be overcivilized idlers of the upper nobility, with nothing but time on their hands.  Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are under-civilized members of the lower nobility, with nothing but decadence on their minds.  These people do not seem to do anything productive, or know how to.

Malvolio, who is described as a Puritan, seems, on the other hand, to represent a new order of people, one that is sober, stern and efficient.  These are qualities that are missing in the aristocrats.  Olivia apparently has the wit to recognize this, and that is one reason she is upset about possibly losing Malvolio at the end of the play.  She realizes that people like her need people like Malvolio, no matter how much her sort may find Malvolio’s ilk distasteful.  The aristocrats’ sense of their own incompetence, and the degrading fact of their reliance on people such as Malvolio, may account for much of the melancholy that pervades the nobility in the play.  It also may explain their enthusiastic welcome of Viola and Sebastian as potentially new genteel blood that might invigorate their society.

D. Conventional Interpretations: An Idyll.

Twelfth Night is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.  Michael Billington, the dean of Britain’s theater critics, calls it “the most perfect comedy ever written.”[1]  Harold Goddard has said it is “one of the most effective theater pieces Shakespeare ever wrote.”[2]  Michael Wood enthuses that “Twelfth Night represents the peak of Shakespeare’s festive comedy.”[3]  I think, nonetheless, that these critics and most other interpreters miss much of the fun in the play because they overlook much of the complexity in the central character of Viola.

Viola is a woman pretending to be a man, which is wonderfully and comedically complex.  And in Shakespeare’s day, Viola would have been played by a boy, who was playing a woman pretending to be a man.  O, what a tangled gender web.  But I think most interpreters miss the point that Viola and Sebastian seemingly begin the play as adventurers wandering around Mediterranean societies, looking for opportunities to make their fortunes.  And they find those opportunities in Illyria.  Viola is, in this view, essentially a hustler who sees her opportunity with Orsino, and makes the most of it.  Sebastian is a smoothie who seizes his opportunity when it comes knocking with Olivia.  Their opportunism is an angle that is missed in conventional interpretations of the play.

Conventional interpretations of the play tend to follow one of two main lines, depending on whether the interpreters sympathize most with the aristocratic representatives of Merry Olde England or with the criticism of that regime represented by the Puritan Malvolio.  Interpretations also differ in whether they emphasize the melancholy atmosphere of Illyrian society represented by Orsino and Olivia or its antic and anarchic tendencies represented by Toby and Maria.  But all describe Viola as a maiden of virtuous intention, even as they leave unexplained Sebastian’s willingness to wed a wealthy woman he has never met.

Harold Goddard takes a melancholy view of the play, as Shakespeare’s “farewell to comedy,” that allegorically portrays “the end of Merry England” and “an intimation of the Puritan revolution” that was to come not long after Shakespeare’s death.  Goddard claims that Shakespeare was not wholly on the side of the old ways, as they could be cruel and feeble, and Orsino and Olivia are idle, sentimental and self-centered.  Shakespeare, in turn, portrays the Puritan Malvolio as “a man of principle.”  But Viola is the star of the show.  She is, Goddard exclaims, “sincere, modest, sweet, gentle, generous, tender, true,” and deeply devoted to Orsino.  He says that he cannot understand how Viola “should have fallen in love with such a spineless creature as the Duke,” but he thinks we are supposed to believe that she will purify Illyrian society “toward a more spiritual level.”[4]

Mark Van Doren sees Illyria as an ideal “world [built] out of music and melancholy,” but the idyll is “threatened by an alien voice,” the voice of the Puritanical Malvolio.  Melancholy in Illyria, according to Van Doren, is not a function of the idleness and vapidity of the ruling classes, as Goddard sees it, but is result of the threat represented by Malvolio, who is “ambitious, self-contained, cold and intelligent.”  Van Doren enthuses that “The household of Olivia is old-world, it is Merry England.”  Malvolio, he laments, is the new world, and not a very pretty one.  Most tellingly, Van Doren says, “Malvolio hates music.”  As a result, Van Doren claims, “The drama in the play is between his [Malvolio’s] mind and the music of old manners.”  Van Doren concludes that despite the “greatness” of Viola, Shakespeare intends to warn his audience that the Malvolios of the world will likely triumph.[5]

In a performance of the play that I recently saw at the Stratford Theater Festival, the downstairs plot involving Toby, Andrew and Maria was played for a maximum of laughs, including lots of slapstick and pratfalls.  But the upstairs plot involving Orsino, Olivia and Viola was played with a restrained, almost dignified humor, perhaps befitting the higher social status of the characters.  Melancholy was the dominant mood in Illyria in this production.  The production also treated the actions and transactions of the transgender Viola as seriously and sincerely romantic.  She is pure and purely good.  And we are seemingly supposed to admire the society into which she and her brother are marrying.[6]

Professor Humphry Tonkin echoes Van Doren’s idyllic view of Illyria as a “magical region.”  Like Van Doren, he sees Malvolio as “the enemy of love,” as opposed to Viola who is “the spirit of love.”  One of the questions that interpreters of the play should have to answer, but almost never do, is why Cesario/Viola keeps going back to see Olivia when their visits can only have the effect of confirming Olivia’s desire for Cesario/Viola and dissatisfaction with Orsino.  Tonkin attempts to answer this question by saying that Cesario/Viola has compassion for Olivia.[7]  But that answer does not make sense.  The only answer that makes sense is that Cesario/Viola wants to undermine any possible attachment between Olivia and Orsino, so the field will be open for Viola to gain Orsino for herself.  And that is the key to my interpretation of the play.

E.  An Unconventional Interpretation: A Sting.

The opening lines of a Shakespeare play often tell much of the tale, and the way they are interpreted and performed can set the tone for much that comes next.  The ghost scene that opens Hamlet,[8] Orlando’s opening speech in As You Like It,[9] and Antonio’s opening speech in The Merchant of Venice, [10]among others, can be played in different ways that predetermine much of the meaning of the rest of those plays.  It is the same with Twelfth Night.

The opening speech by Orsino, in which he waxes poetically about music as the food of love before sickening of the music but not love, is conventionally played seriously.  Orsino is invariably played by a dignified figure who is surrounded by other dignified figures who look up to him.  The scene sets up the play as some sort of romance in the upstairs plotline, following a burgeoning love between Orsino and Viola, contrasted with the downstairs plotline of Toby and Maria, which is treated as slapstick.  It also sets up Illyria as some sort of idyllic society, a model of an enlightened nobility.  In this context, Viola naturally emerges as an ideal person, finding her way to fit in with this society.

But all is changed if you play Orsino’s speech as the mellifluent, insincere blathering of an overdressed narcissistic fool, surrounded by a bunch of overdressed courtly sycophants, whose words of love are really all about himself.  Orsino’s self-absorption is evident throughout the play.  Who, but either a pompous ass or an insecure idiot, would send someone else to court a woman for himself, let alone send a comely young man to do the wooing?  Playing the opening scene in this way sets the play up as a comedy in both plotlines, and makes much better sense of their intersection.  Just as Toby is ripe to be plucked by Maria, so are Orsino and Olivia easy pickings for Viola and Sebastian.

In this interpretation, Illyria comes off not as an idyll, but as a complacent society ruled by an overindulgent and incompetent nobility.  It is a nobility that relies on the competence of servants (Malvolio, but also Maria) who are more intelligent and competent than their masters, and who are undermining their masters’ rule.  It is a society that ultimately cannot sustain and defend itself, and that is soon to be overrun and overturned by a more vigorous people.  This is the warning that Shakespeare is giving to his audience.

The play is a compendium of deceptions and con jobs.  Viola pretends to be a man, which is the essence of the upstairs plotline.  Feste, the clown, pretends to be a priest in Maria’s plot to torment Malvolio.  And Toby pretends to Andrew that he is working on Andrew’s behalf to induce Olivia to marry Andrew, which is a parallel of Cesario/Viola’s efforts on Orsino’s behalf. Toby is, in fact, just trying to get money from Andrew.  This farce is the substance of the downstairs plotline, and is conventionally well played for laughs.  But there are, I think, two other con jobs that are ignored by conventional interpretations of the play.  Playing up these con jobs would, I think, give greater depth and greater humor to the play.

First, in my view, Olivia is herself conning Orsino by pretending that she won’t marry him because she is in prolonged mourning for her brother.  Conventional interpretations of the play take this excuse at face value, and play her as a serious character.  It seems more plausible, however, that she just does not like the guy, and given his pomposity and self-centeredness that seems very reasonable, but that she does not want to offend such a powerful nobleman by just rejecting him.  That her mourning is a con job is also indicated by how quickly she is willing to forgo her weeds to wed Cesario/Viola/Sebastian.  And her willingness to marry Sebastian without first checking up on his bone fides indicates that she is a fool.  She has, in fact, been fooled by both Cesario/Viola and by Sebastian.  This could be very funny.

Second, and most important in my view, Viola is trying from the start to con Orsino into marrying her.  It is why she gives up on her initial intention to pretend to be a eunuch, and plays the courtier instead.  Her task is to make sure that Olivia does not change her mind about rejecting Orsino, and to get Orsino to eschew Olivia in her favor.  Toward this end, Viola makes herself attractive to Olivia, flirting with her even as Viola is pretending to present Orsino’s case.

This is the reason Viola keeps going back to see Olivia, even after it is clear that her visits are only hurting Orsino’s chances with Olivia.  In this context, Viola’s continually praising Orsino to Olivia only increases Olivia’s respect for what she foolishly sees as Viola/Cesario’s integrity.  At the same time, while Viola is playing the virile man to Olivia, she is playing the docile youth to Orsino, attracting him despite his seeming heterosexuality, confusing him in his affections, and setting him up for Viola’s eventual coming out as a woman.  This back and forth on the part of Viola, sometimes masculine, other times feminine, trying to keep things straight, would be very interesting and very funny. If it were played that way. And the fact that Viola falls for Orsino in the course of her masquerade – she soliloquizes words of intense passion towards him — only adds to irony and humor of the situation.  She has conned herself into falling for her dupe.

By the end of the play, the Illyrian nobility seem happy to welcome into their ranks two people, Viola and Sebastian, who are clearly, even to the dimwitted Illyrians, a couple of clever tricksters, Viola for putting across her imitation of a man, and Sebastian for grabbing at the chance to marry Olivia.  Did the Illyrians somehow see this as a way to invigorate their doldrum society?  In an Elizabethan era in which regular commerce, sharp practices, and piracy often overlapped, did Shakespeare see the addition of con men to the English ruling class as means of invigorating his society?  He portrayed Prince Hal, the future heroic King Henry V, very favorably in Henry IV, and Hal was a trickster.  Or, given the eventual fate of the real-life Illyria, was Shakespeare warning against falling for con-men and con-women.  I am writing this essay in the United States during the month of August in 2017, and we have just endured six months of having a con-man as our President.  It has not been a good experience, and I hope we do not go the way of Illyria.

In sum, I think that playing Orsino and Olivia as fools, Illyrian society as a fool’s paradise, and Viola as a clever con-woman makes better sense of the lines and the plotlines in the play, more sense out of Shakespeare’s intentions for the play, and makes for a more interesting production.  The moral of the story is posed in the opening lines of the poem sung by Feste the clown who closes the play: “When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day.”  But we in the audience are no longer little boys and girls and, as such, our foolishness can have more consequence than mere playthings.  What we will for ourselves and to our descendants makes a difference.

BW  8/23/17

[1] Michael Billington. “Twelfth Night Review.” the guardian. 2/23/17.

[2] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951. p.294.

[3] Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basis Books, 2003. p.231.

[4] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951. pp.295, 296, 299, 300, 304.  See Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basis Books, 2003. p.231. for a similarly somewhat sympathetic treatment of Malvolio.

[5] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. pp.136, 138, 140, 141, 143.  See also Dominick Cavendish. “Twelfth Night, National’s Oliver Theatre Review.” The Telegraph. 2/23/17. For a review of a performance of the play that emphasizes the malevolence of Malvolio.

[6] See J. Kelley Nestruck. “Review: Stratford Festival Kicks off with dreary take on Twelfth Night.” The Globe and Mail. 5/30/17 for a melancholy review of a melancholy interpretation of the play.

[7] Humphrey Tonkin. “Five Lectures on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” University of Hartford. Nov./Dec. 1999.

[8] I have a blog post that deals with this point titled “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England”

[9] I have a blog post that deals with this point titled “The Taming of a Schlemozzle:  As You Like It as you like it.”

[10] I have a blog post that deals with this point titled “Shakespeare and Shylock: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England”



Humility and Humiliation in Timon of Athens. Shakespeare does Schtick. Apemantus Searches for an Honest Man.


Humility and Humiliation in Timon of Athens.

Shakespeare does Schtick.

 Apemantus Searches for an Honest Man.

Burton Weltman

“Modesty is the color of virtue.”

Diogenes the Cynic.

Prologue: The Parties of the First and Second Parts.

Party of the First Part: “Thou art the cap of all fools alive.”

Party of the Second Part: “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!”

Party of the First Part: “A plague upon thee!  Thou art too bad to curse.”

Party of the Second Part: “All villains that stand by thee, are pure [by comparison].”

Party of the First Part: “There is no leprosy but what thou speak’st.”

Party of the Second Part: “If I name thee. I’d beat thee, but I should infect my hands.”

Party of the First Part: “I would my tongue would rot them off.”

Party of the Second Part: “Away thou issue of a mangy dog!”

Question: Is this Groucho and Chico Marx, or Apemantus and Timon of Athens?

For the answer, see the footnote below.[1]

 Mining for Gold in Timon of Athens.

“He has the most who has the least.”

Diogenes the Cynic.

“Rich men sin. I eat roots.”


Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays, frequently maligned and infrequently performed.  It is the story of an impecunious philanthropist, Timon, who becomes a hard-bitten misanthrope.  Shakespeare may have written the play in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, a younger early seventeenth century playwright.  The play is uneven in style and schematic in structure, and its characters border on caricature.  Critics generally cite the difficulties of collaborating in explaining the shortcomings of the play.

The play is, however, highly dramatic, and offers opportunities for inspired acting.  Most interpretations and performances of the play tend to focus narrowly on its dramatic potential, especially the rantings of the disillusioned Timon.  But there is only so much shouting that an audience can take, so most critics dismiss the play as an also-ran in the Shakespeare canon.  I think, however, that the play has possibilities that are usually overlooked.

The play isn’t all shouting.  It includes significant moral controversy among the main characters, and is filled with slyly satirical and cynical repartee.  The text even implies some slapstick among the characters.  Given recognition of the moral issues and comic direction, the play can be thought provoking and very funny.  Most interpreters, however, slide over the moral debates among its characters, and the humorous possibilities in their interactions.  I think this is a mistake, and that the play has more humor and intellectual depth than is usually recognized.

The play is set in late fifth century BCE Athens, a time of political, philosophical, military, and commercial upheaval in the city-state.  This era is commonly called the Golden Age of Classical Greek history, the time of Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, and Aristotle in philosophy, Pericles and the Thirty Tyrants in politics, and Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes in theater.  It was the era in which Western ideas of democracy were first developed, but in which democracy was also threatened by demagogues and strongmen.

Athens was a society that jealously guarded the liberties of the few who were freemen, but kept in thrall the many who were servants and slaves.  Athens was both the center of most of the Greek political and cultural developments that we respect today, but was also a brutal military and imperial power enmeshed in the seemingly endless Peloponnesian War.  It was both a highly cultured society, and a society in which gold was often seen as the measure of a man.

There are four main characters in the play: the philanthropist turned misanthrope Timon, who goes from riches to rags and then back to riches, but not back to good humor; the cynical philosopher Apemantus, who continually criticizes Timon even as he cares about him; the pompous military leader Alcibiadus, whose pride goeth before a fall and then rises again; and Timon’s honest steward Flavius, who sticks with Timon through thick and thin.

Each of the four characters represents, I believe, an important position in the moral and philosophical debates of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece, particularly with respect to the all-important question of “Whom can you trust?”  The positions represented by the characters were also important in the philosophical debates of Shakespeare’s time, which is why, I think, they are represented in the play, and they continue to be important in our debates about morality and society today.

Although most critics think it is a source of weakness in the play that it was the product of a collaboration, I think the likelihood that Shakespeare wrote it with someone else exemplifies a main theme of the play: How can you find honest people, and live collaboratively with people you can trust?  Shakespeare was, in effect, attempting to practice what he was portraying.

The characters of Timon and Alcibiadus represent actual historical figures who lived in fifth century BCE Greece.  Timon of Athens was a former general and one-time wealthy man, who was legendary among contemporaries for his misanthropy.  It has been conjectured that Shakespeare combined in the character of Timon in this play some of the ideas of Timon of Philus, a late fourth century follower of Pyrrho, the father of Skepticism in philosophy.[2]

Skeptics believed in nothing and no one, and that nothing and no one could be shown to be true or good.  They insisted that “all lines of reasoning must be circular or endless” and, thus, intellectually empty.[3]  Skeptics also rejected the very idea of society as well as the company of men.  Whether or not Shakespeare had Timon of Philus in mind when he wrote the play, his Timon seems to represent this Pyrrrhonian philosophy when he turns misanthropic.

Alcibiadus was a well-educated, well-spoken aristocrat and a highly-regarded Athenian general, but was also a notoriously corrupt government official.  He was a turncoat who successfully fought on behalf of Athens several times, but also fought against Athens in the pay of Sparta and Persia.  Alcibiadus was a favorite pupil of Socrates, who ostensibly tried in vain to induce him to mend his ways.  He appears as a philosophical disputant in several of Plato’s dialogues and in the writings of others of that period.  Alcibiadus was arrogant and anti-democratic.  It was said of him that instead of believing that he should conform to the laws of Athens, he felt that Athens ought to conform to his way of life.  The known facts and character of the actual Alcibiadus seem to fit the character of Alcibiadus in the play.[4]

Apemantus is a fictional character, but bears a striking resemblance to Diogenes the Cynic, both in behavior and ideas.  Diogenes was a critic of the commercialism, consumerism, and stale conventions of Greek society.  Unlike the Skeptics, however, he did not reject all men, all society or the possibility of truth and truthfulness.  He claimed to be constantly looking for an honest man, someone who stood up to and apart from the phoniness of the existing society.  Diogenes preached and practiced a simple, and even ascetic, way of life.  He was perhaps the first hippie.

Diogenes was a contemporary and antagonist of Plato.  He had little patience for abstract and ethereal theories such as Plato’s, and he judged things by their effects and people by their actions.  He eschewed parochialism and pride of position or place.  He believed that one should consider oneself “to be a kosmopolites, a citizen of the world.”[5]  The ideas and practices of Diogenes seem to fit the character of Apemantus.  Apemantus is frequently called a dog by other characters in the play.  So was Diogenes in real life.  Cynic is the Greek word for dog, which Diogenes adopted as the name of his philosophy, and Apemantus also accepts in good grace.[6]

Flavius seems to represent the ideal servant as described by Aristotle.  Aristotle believed that some men were made to serve others.  They were natural servants or slaves.  The ideal servant identifies with his master, and gains his being through serving his master.[7]  Without his master, the servant is nothing, like a house elf in the Harry Potter books.  Flavius seems to genuinely care about Timon, but his loyalty also seems more programmed than personal.

Harold Goddard describes Flavius as “the truest man in the play, one of the truest in all of Shakespeare.”[8]  Other critics fault Flavius for failing to stand up to his master when Timon is squandering his fortune.  As Timon’s steward, they say, Flavius should have not merely mentioned Timon’s financial problems to his master, as he repeatedly did, but should have insisted that Timon cease and desist.[9]  I think that both assessments miss the point that Flavius is so true to Timon because he has been brainwashed to be an ideal servant and, in turn, that Flavius’ servant mentality would not permit him to take a critical position toward his master.

Reading the Play as It Is Written.

“There is only a finger’s difference between a wise man and a fool.”

Diogenes the Cynic.

“He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you.  He is an idiot.”

Groucho Marx.

Although the interplay among the four main characters is complex, the plot of the play is simple in structure.  In the first part of the play, Timon is a man of seemingly immense and endless wealth, with gold pieces and golden objects abounding about him.  Despite warnings from his steward Flavius about the precariousness of his financial health, Timon gives away all he has and runs into debt as a result of his overweening generosity.  Timon is then forced to ask for help from his former beneficiaries, but they all refuse him, much to his intense humiliation.

Throughout this first part of the play, Apemantus repeatedly chides Timon for being self-centered and selfish in his excessive generosity, which Apemantus condemns as an egotistical play for flattery.  Meanwhile, Alcibiadus experiences humiliation when the Athenian government refuses to spare the life of one of his soldiers who had murdered someone.  As a great general who had served Athens, he felt that the government owed him that respect.  The officials insist that the law must be followed, and Alcibiadus vows revenge against Athens.

In the second part of the play, Timon rails at the ingratitude and wickedness of humankind in explosive terms.  Flavius stays loyal to Timon through the bad times, even though his help is spurned by Timon.  Apemantus now chides Timon for being self-centered and selfish in his excessive misanthropy, which Apemantus sees as an egotistical play for sympathy.

In a stroke of good fortune, Timon discovers gold which makes him rich again.  But instead of resorting to his generous ways, he uses the wealth to finance what he hopes will be the destruction of Athens.  He gives money to thieves he encourages to plunder the city, pox-ridden prostitutes who will infect the citizens with venereal disease, shyster businessmen who will cheat the Athenians, and Alcibiadus’ army which will destroy the place.  The play closes with Timon’s death and Alcibiadus’ decision to execute only those Athenian officials who had offended him, and not to destroy Athens and kill all of its inhabitants, as he had previously vowed to do.

This a pretty flimsy plot for a Shakespearean play.  In trying to make something substantial of it, critics and directors of the play tend to focus on the woes and woefulness of Timon and, in the hands of a good actor, the character of Timon can easily dominate the play and make for a worthwhile performance.  Timon, who is all sunshine and bonhomie in the first half of the play, and a thunderstorm of vitriol in the second half, offers wide scope for dramatic virtuosity.

In a performance of the play that I recently saw in 2017 at the Stratford Festival, Joseph Ziegler was a terrific Timon.  But I think the production did not mine most of the humor and intellectual depth that is embedded in the play.  A narrow focus on Timon can lead you to miss the underlying subtleties and complexities that can make Timon of Athens a thought and laugh-provoking drama, and not merely an emotional deluge.  It can also lead you astray in interpreting the actual words of the play.

The highly-regarded critic Harold Goddard, for example, made three key claims about the play.  First, that the play has a “central theme of ingratitude.”  Second, that the play ends with a “final note of forgiveness and reconciliation.”  And, third, that the moral of the play is the “idea that misery leads to illumination.”[10]  But, I don’t think this interpretation makes sense of what is said and done in the play.

As to the first claim, while the play is full of ingrates, with whom Timon justifiably has grievances, none of them plays a central role in the drama.  The other three central characters – Apemantus, Alcibiadus and Flavius – are not ingrates.  They are loyal to Timon.  Each also represents a different attitude toward humankind and the world than Timon, which makes for a real moral debate that Goddard does not mention.

As to the second claim, as the play ends, Alcibiadus decides not to destroy Athens as he had vowed.  Goddard claims, in interpreting this scene, that “The play ends with Alcibiadus freely relenting from his plan for revenge and bringing peace rather than war to Athens.”[11]   But this interpretation flies in the face of what Alcibiadus actually says and does.

In the key words in this scene, which are generally overlooked by critics and slurred over by actors, Alcibiadus conditions his clemency with the demand that the Athenians turn over to him those members of the government who had insulted him and, he proclaims, “Those enemies of Timon’s and mine own Whom you will set out for reproof Fall.”  That is, they will die.  The price for Alcibiadus sparring Athens from wholesale slaughter is the summary execution of those Althenians who had ostensibly humiliated him.  Rather than an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, this seems like a final note of vengefulness and revenge on the part of Alcibiadus,

Alcibiadus then closes the play with a statement of what he sees as the moral of the story: “Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each prescribe to the other as each other’s leech.  Let our drums strike.”  Goddard claims that these are words of peace, but they are really words of war.  Alcibiadus says here that peace may only “stint” war, that is, put limits on it, and maybe bring about temporary truces.  But, he is also essentially proclaiming that war is the natural state of things.  And then he has his army march into Athens to the beat of his war drums.

As Goddard’s third claim, about learning from misery being the moral of the story, neither Timon nor anyone else in the play seems to have learned anything from the misery that he and some of the others have suffered.  Timon’s self-composed epitaph reflects the same egotism that he displayed throughout the play, albeit magnified by the bitterness of his misanthropy.  It reads:

Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft.

Seek not my name.  A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!

Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.

Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not thy gait.

Opening the epitaph with a pathetic bout of self-pity, Timon then falsely claims that everyone hated him.  That is patently untrue.  Many people humiliated Timon by refusing to lend him money, but they did not hate him.  And some people, particularly Apemantus, Alcibiadus and Flavius, continued to love him and try to help him, even as he rejected them.  It is he who rejected them, not they who rejected him.  In the midst of this mawkishness, Timon first commands that people not seek his name, and let him rest in anonymous peace, but then tells them his name is Timon.  Timon’s egotism seemingly gets the better of him even in death.

One of the great things about any great playwright is that his/her works can be read, interpreted, and performed in many different legitimate ways, because there is more in a work than meets the eye on a first, second or subsequent glance.  But, the written words are a limiting factor in interpreting any literary work.  In the case of Timon of Athens, I think that in trying to see the play as a melodrama or tragedy, and as a morality tale with Timon and Alcibiadus as the carriers of the moral, even some of the best critics and directors have been led astray.

Interpreting the Play as It Is Written and Unwritten.

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

Diogenes the Cynic.

“O, Apemantus, you are welcome [here]!”

Timon of Athens.

“No. You shall not make me welcome.  I came to have you throw me out of doors.”


Interpreters of Timon of Athens generally agree that it is the story of an unrepentant egotist, who credits himself with his good fortune, and then blames his misfortune on others.[12]  With this I agree.  But critics also almost invariably see the play as a one-dimensional mass of howling, full of sound and fury, and signifying very little.  In this, I disagree.

“There could scarcely be more railing and cursing in five acts than we have here,” complained Charles Van Doren, who claimed the play reflects Shakespeare’s own late-life bitterness unleashed.[13]  Frank Kermode, similarly, dismissed the play as King Lear-light, full of Lear-like ranting about ingratitude, but without the dignity of the original.[14]

John Kelly titled his review of the play as “Feeling Like a Misanthrope? Here’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Swearing Like One.”  Kelley also claimed the play went nowhere.  “Timon remains as egocentric in his misanthropy as he was in his profligate, flattery-seeking munificence,” Kelley complained, so what’s the point of all the shouting?[15]  Michael Wood concluded that the play came off poorly because Shakespeare’s heart was not in it, since the play is about a misanthrope and Shakespeare was not himself a misanthrope.[16]

The foundation of these views is the singular focus of the critics on Timon as the moral, emotional and intellectual center of the play.  It is, after all, named after Timon.  In their focus on Timon, critics also often conflate his views with those of Apemantus.  Frank Kermode claims Apemantus is “repulsive,” and complains that he had set a bad example for Timon.  Peter Leithart calls him “Ape-man,” and claims that Timon merely follows in Apemantus’ footsteps when he becomes a misanthrope.[17]  Another critic complains that Apemantus is “a snarling nasty man who insults everybody he meets without appearing to derive any pleasure from doing so,” and yet another that he is a “churlish cynical philosopher,” who contributes nothing to Timon or society.[18]  Critics also generally dismiss Flavius.  He is totally “hapless” says Kermode.[19]

I disagree with these assessments.  I think that Apemantus and Flavius offer significant moral alternatives to Timon’s misanthropy and Alcibiadus’ militarism.  It is not the case that Timon apes Apemantus when he turns misanthrope, and Apemantus specifically rejects the comparison.  When Timon begins railing in the wilderness about his misfortune, Apemantus accosts Timon and complains that “men report Thou dost affect my manners, and dost use them.”  Apemantus then diagnoses Timon’s condition as “a nature but infected; A poor unmanly melancholy sprung,” and chastises Timon with the question “Art thou proud yet?”  He is saying that Timon’s misanthropy is a form of egoism.  Apemantus’ cynicism is a matter of principle.

I think that Apemantus can be seen as representing what it takes to be an honest freeman in a thoroughly dishonest society.  This was an important question in Shakespeare’s society and in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  With the demise of feudalism and feudal codes of honor, and the rise of capitalism and commercial codes of exchange, questions of honesty and honor were as urgent to Shakespeare and his contemporaries as they had been to Diogenes in Timon’s day.

Apemantus, who values honesty over gold, is, I believe, the moral center of the play.  Flavius is his counterpart among servants.  Both demonstrate a fundamental humility, as opposed to the egotism and arrogance of both Timon and Alcibiadus. Humility is an attitude and a modus operandus in which people put themselves at the service of the other people, without denigrating themselves.  In fact, one can only really put oneself at the service of another if one has a positive sense of oneself and one’s abilities.  Otherwise, one would have nothing to offer the other person.  Humility of necessity incorporates self-awareness and self-confidence.

That is the case with both Apemantus and Flavius.  Apemantus tells all and sundry what he thinks, but does not put on airs.  To the contrary, he appears with high words but in lowly guise, and with no apparent ambition other than to expose the falseness of the fakers around him, to serve them as they deserve in hopes that they might later deserve better.  Likewise, Flavius desires only to serve his master, with no expectation of gain or even gratitude.  And given their humility, neither of Apemantus nor Flavius craves flattery, and neither is humiliated by the scorn and rejection with which they are greeted by most of other characters in the play.  That is not the case with Timon and Alcibiadus, both of whom desperately need to be flattered, and both of whom suffer from humiliation when they don’t get enough of it.

Without claiming that Timon of Athens is Shakespeare at his best, I think that most interpreters and directors get the play wrong when they take Timon’s rantings at face value, and present the play as an odd sort of melodrama, or even a tragedy.  Timon’s are the rantings of an egotistical idiot – idiot from the ancient Greek “idiotes,” meaning someone who is cut off from social reality and completely caught up in himself — and they are funny on their face.  Timon is a fool, and his plight is the stuff of comedy, not melodrama, let alone tragedy.[20]  In sum, I think the play is funnier and more profound than most critics and directors seem to recognize.  What follows are some suggestions as to how the play might be interpreted and performed in that light.

First and foremost, Apemantus should be portrayed as a sort of philosophical Groucho Marx.  He is like the wandering philosopher Jacques in As You Like It, but more humorous and more pointed.  His insults and tirades should be presented as sarcastic jibes at the pretentions and callousness of his fellow citizens.  He should speak with more facetiousness than bitterness.  Although his words are harsh, Apemantus clearly cares for Timon and, by implication, for others in distress.  He keeps returning to Timon, and refuses Timon’s generosity because “if I should be bribed too, there would be none to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster.”

Apemantus should be onstage most of the time, lurking about, and commenting in pantomime on the action, even in scenes in which he has no spoken part.  He should make faces and rude gestures at the pompous and the prosperous, and mockingly mimic them.  In pantomime, Apemantus should occasionally try to trip up some of the Athenians who prey on Timon, but also help up an old lady, and help some poor man with alms from his own small store of coins.

The Athenians who prey upon Timon’s generosity in the first half of the play should be dressed in conventional clothes, but altered to resemble some predator animal.  They should also have some beak-like nose, or long sharp teeth, or claw-like fingers.  The thieves, prostitutes, and soldiers whom Timon encourages to prey upon Athens in the second half of the play should likewise be dressed and made up to look like savage beasts, the thieves like werewolves, the prostitutes like harpies, the soldiers like Black Shirts.

Since this is a play about Greece at the time when dramatic theater was being invented, there should be a chorus on stage, as there would have been in a Greek play of that period.  The chorus might consist of eight people, two hippies, two government officials, two soldiers, and two servants.  The members of the chorus should comment in pantomime throughout the play according to the interests and ideas of the social group they represent.

Apemantus and other characters in the play should silently interact with members of the chorus, chatting, laughing, mocking, and generally making a silent nuisance of themselves.  At the end of the play, the two government officials in the chorus should be led off by the two soldiers in the chorus to be shot personally by Alcibiadus.  The executions should be in view of the audience, and to the visible dismay of Apemantus and the remaining members of the chorus.

Timon’s behavior in both acts should be exaggerated to make him seem outlandish.  Other than Apemantus, Alcibiadus and Flavius, who actually care for Timon, the other Athenians should be seen mocking and laughing at him behind his back.  He should, however, be played as pathetically ridiculous, and thus entitled to some sympathy, whereas the others should be played as pompously and greedily outrageous, gaudily dressed and affected in their mannerisms.

Many of the scenes in the play are ridiculous in their setup, but are not usually played for either their laughs or their moral messages.  The scene in which Timon gives gold to thieves who he hopes will plunder Athens and prostitutes to spread venereal disease among the citizens is an example. This is farce on its face.  But in the performance that I recently saw at Stratford, this scene was played as pathetic serious instead of pathetic farce, as I think it deserves.

The opening scene of the play is another example.  In this opening scene, a poet and a painter are discussing their latest works that they hope to sell to Timon, a poem in his praise and a portrait that makes him look better than he is.  The poet is a predator, but he speaks some truth when he predicts Timon’s downfall when Timon runs out of money, and proclaims that flattery is a better way to win friends than buying them with money.

The poet also justifies his flattering of Timon for gold by claiming that it is morally acceptable to beautify a noble subject, so long as you don’t whitewash an evil or ignoble one.  Since one of the features of Greek art of the Golden Age in which the play is set was its idealization of the human body, his rationale for greed has seemingly some half aesthetic truth to it. It also might reflect the thinking of poets and artists in Shakespeare’s age who produced works-to-order that flattered wealthy patrons.  Apemantus rejects this rationale, and I think this is an early indication in the play that he is speaking for Shakespeare.  Rather than expressing Shakespeare’s late-life bitterness, as Van Doren thought, maybe the play represents a reemergence of youthful rebelliousness in him.

Playing Timon of Athens as schtick not only would make it funnier and fun, it would have the effect of highlighting the moral and philosophical issues embedded in the play.  The key is to reverse the moral light in which the four main characters are seen in conventional interpretations of the play.  Instead of casting Timon’s complaints about ingratitude, and Alcibiadus’ complaints that he doesn’t get any respect, in a positive light, while denigrating Apemantus and Flavius, the latter two characters should be cast in a positive and respectful light, and the former two demeaned.  Timon should be played as a pathetic fool and Alcibiadus as a would-be dictator.  The characters say the same words, but the tone of voice and gestures are different.

For example, in the scene in which Alcibiadus asks the Athenian government to pardon his soldier who has been convicted of murder, Alcibiadus is often played as pleading and heartrending, and the Athenians as cold and rigidly hardhearted.  This is the way it was played in the recent performance that I saw at the Stratford Festival.  The key line uttered by one of the Athenians is “He dies,” and it was declaimed coldly and harshly in the performance that I saw.  It was well played and chilling in its effect.  But, I think that a better way to play the scene is to have Alcibiadus say his lines as self-important demands and thinly-veiled threats, and to have the Athenians respond in sympathetic voice.  The line “He dies” can be said by the official with a tone of reluctance, and a shrug that says: “There is nothing I can do about it. It is the law.”

Reversing the moral light forces you to take seriously the things that Apemantus says and, as a consequence, listen more carefully and critically to what Timon and Alcibiadus say.  I think that many of Shakespeare’s plays work in this way.  The name of a Shakespearean play does not necessarily indicate who is the moral center, or even the main character, and the moral center may not be a perfect person.  In The Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock, not the merchant Antonio, who is the main character and, I think, the imperfect moral center of the play.[21]  In Henry IV, it is Hal who is the main character and an imperfect moral center.   In Hamlet, I think the moral center is Horatio, not Hamlet.[22]  So, too, in Timon of Athens, it is Apemantus who is the imperfect moral center, even though Timon gets the headline and most of the speaking lines.  

The combination of schtick and ironic moral reversal is a time-honored way of dramatically raising moral and philosophical issues, from Aristophanes in Timon’s time, to Moliere in Shakespeare’s day, to the Marx Brothers in our era.  In A Night at the Opera, for example, the cynical and sarcastic Groucho, Chico and Harpo emerge as the moral heroes, despite their incorrigible and inconsiderate misbehavior.  Compared to their opponents, they demonstrate empathy and integrity.  Ridiculing everyone else, as Groucho and Apemnatus do, can leave the ridiculer in the moral driver’s seat.

Timon of Athens does not end happily, and not only because Timon dies alone and unregenerate.  The play ends with Alcibiadus murdering Athenian officials for merely having followed the law and doing their duty, and with Alcibiadus then occupying Athens with his army, and seemingly taking control of the city-state as a military dictator.  At that point, Apemantus should be seen exiting the stage in the opposite direction of Alcibiadus, with a tear in his eye and shaking his head, the chorus standing in place and in visible bewilderment.

BW 7/11/17


[1] It is Apemantus and Timon.  As goofy as the Marx Brothers were, I don’t remember any instances where they used Elizabethanisms such as “thou,” “thee,” and “wert.”  The point of the comparison is that Shakespeare was willing and able to engage in schtick repartee, and that Timon of Athens is a comedic work.  More to come on that.


[3] Anthony Kenny. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.82.  Julian Marias. History of Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. p.96.

[4] Anthony Kenny. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.34.

[5] Julian Marias. History of Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. p.89.

[6] Anthony Kenny. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.80.

[7] Julian Marias. History of Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. p.84.  Jonathan Barnes.  Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. p.129.

[8] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol 2. “Timon of Athens.”  p.179.


[10] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol 2. “Timon of Athens.”  p.174.

[11] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol 2. “Timon of Athens.” p.181.

[12] Lindsay Lichti. Inquirers Journal. “Shakespeare’s Apemantus.” Vol.2, No.83, 2010.  Michael Billington. the guardian. “Timon of Athens.’ 7/17/2010.

[13] Charles Van Doren.   p.253.

[14] Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2005. p.167.

[15] John Kelly. Slate. “Feeling Like a Misanthrope? Here’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Swearing Like One.” 7/19/16.

[16] Michael Wood.  Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. p.291.

[17] Peter J. Leithart. “’Plague All”: Timon of Athens.” First Things.  1/25/05.  John Kelly. Slate. “Feeling Like a Misanthrope? Here’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Swearing Like One.” 7/19/16.  Lindsay Lichti. Inquirers Journal. “Shakespeare’s Apemantus.” Vol.2, No.83, 2010.

[18]Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2005. pp.167, 168.  Peter J. Leithart. “’Plague All”: Timon of Athens.” First Things.  1/25/05. “Timon of Athens Characters. Apemantus.”  John Kelly. Slate. “Feeling Like a Misanthrope? Here’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Swearing Like One.” 7/19/16.  See also, Barbara Mackay. TheaterMania. “Timon of Athens.”

[19] Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2005. pp.167, 168.

[20] Michael Wood.  Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. p.290.

[21] I have written an essay on this which appears on this blog site.  It is called “Shakespeare, Shylock and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England.”

[22] I have written an essay on this blog site that discusses this point.  It is called “Better Dead than Red:  Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”