Friday, June 18, 2004

MORE FROM THE OBITUARY PAGES: It’s been a bad week for humanistic socialists. First Stuart Hampshire died; and then, Jacek Kuron. The two men led very different lives; but in their different ways, they represented the same humane, thoughtful, just, and committed spirit.
The life of contemplation leavened with commitment that Hampshire led was not an option for Kuron, born in Poland in 1934. Instead of pursuing an academic career, Kuron became the founder, and one of the most important leaders, of the Polish opposition to Communist repression, first from within the Party, then outside of it. He was one of the founders of KOR, and an architect of Solidarity, which between them forged an unlikely but ultimately triumphant alliance between Catholic workers and secular intellectuals united in their resistance to tyranny. The bible of the movement was The Church and the Left, by Kuron’s sometime disciple and long-term comrade Adam Michnik; but Kuron was the great, innovative strategy of KOR/Solidarity, just as Michnik was its moral and theoretical spokesman, and Lech Walesa its charismatic tribune. Later the movement would become disunited and compromised after its victory by Walesa’s ambition and prejudices; but it earned its place in history as one of the most humane, most lucid, bravest and canniest political movements of the century. Kuron’s passing has, naturally, received far less attention than Ronald Reagan’s. Yet Kuron and his comrades may have been as important to Communism’s fall as Reagan; Solidarity’s revolt in 1980, followed by the declaration, failure, and abandonment of martial law by the authorities, and the ultimate peaceful relinquishment of power by the Communists, constituted one of the first truly significant internal defeats of Communism in Eastern Europe. It both revealed, and accelerated, the rot and collapse of Communism, serving as a model, inspiration, and harbinger of subsequent revolts throughout Eastern Europe. Kuron was not as prominent as Reagan; he didn’t have as much power – or, perhaps it would be better to say, he had a rather different sort of power. But he lived under the Communism, rather than combating it from abroad; his anti-Communist convictions didn’t help him get elected, they landed him in jail. And he committed none of the blunders, enormities, or crimes of which Reagan was guilty. Reagan was a world-historical figure of tremendous importance, and mixed merit. Kuron was a hero.
Kuron did not abandon his principles or his struggle for human rights with the fall of Communism. It has gone unmentioned in most of the otherwise admirable obituaries – in the NY Times, the Guardian, the London Times, and the Telegraph (the last two being the best) -- that in his later years, after the rupture within Solidarity, Kuron was one of the most tireless and devoted opponents of religious and ethnic intolerance in democratic Poland. Himself ethnically Polish, in his later years he was a particular champion of Poland’s Roma, and an opponent of attempts by conservative Catholics to limit the rights of women and others. He was, in Heine’s phrase, a soldier for the cause of the freedom of mankind, and, in his own day, one of the bravest and truest.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

STUART HAMPSHIRE, III: By far the best obituary of Stuart Hampshire, it seems to me, has appeared in the Observer (it's by Alan Ryan). Ryan's account offers by far the most detailed and deft account of Hampshire's thought, and does greater justice to Hampshire's political commitments, without slighting his great critical acumen. It also highlight's one of the most distinctive things about Hampshire's moral vision, in comparison with that of many of his peers: his sharp awareness of the reality of evil as a component of human nature. (One of the main areas where Hampshire seems to me to have been more incisive than his otherwise like-minded friend, Isaiah Berlin)
Ryan rightly notes that Hampshire was never a Marxist; yet his mention of this fact reminds me of a conversation I had with Hampshire a few years ago, during which I asked him about the origins of the value pluralism that both he and Berlin ultimately professed. He surprised me by replying with an explanation of the influence on him and his contemporaries of Marx’s picture of society as dominated by conflict rather than consensus. It was Marx, apparently, who first suggested to Hampshire that justice was not harmony, as the ancients, whom he had read and at first been convinced by, maintained, but conflict. Hampshire, of course, rejected much in Marx – his determinism, his ruthless siding with one class against its rivals, his conviction that class conflict would ultimately produce a final harmony when the last victory had been won. But Marx, whose thought would inspire so much fanatical totalitarianism, also set Hampshire along the path to a radical liberal pluralism, which was thoroughly humane, and which provides a convincing alternative to, and defence against, tyranny and fanaticism.
ADDENDUM: There's a very nice tribute by Steve de Wijze that Norm has posted over at his blog, which gives a very good, as well as moving, picture of Hampshire's personality. Also thanks to Steve for letting us know when the memorial service for Hampshire here in Oxford will be (September).

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

STUART HAMPSHIRE, II: A good obituary of Stuart Hampshire, who (as mentioned below) died this past sunday, has appeared in the Telegraph; it offers a clear, fairly accurate description of his philosophy, as well as an account of his experiences in British Intelligence during and immediately after World War II (experiences which, apparently, continued to preoccupy him much in his last weeks). Thanks to Norm Geras for the link, and to linking to my post below.
Reading about Hampshire's war work, and re-reading accounts of him in various books over the past couple of days, I was reminded of an anecdote, the veracity of which is unclear (especially given the covert nature of his war work). Late in the war, when Hampshire was reputedly in the Foreign Office (in fact, MI6), he is supposed to have shocked his staid, generally conservative colleagues by beginning conversations by saying, 'Now, the first thing to do is to find out if our foreign policy is socialistic.' Related to this, I'd like to add a caveat about one statement made in the Telegraph obit: even if Hampshire did value liberty more than equality -- which is quite possible, and certainly it played a larger part in his philosophy -- his commitment to equality -- a commitment which never tempted him to embrace tyranny or extremism, unlike so many similarly minded members of his generation -- was deep, passionate, and lifelong, and seems to me especially moving and admirable today.
UPDATE: Another obit has appeared in the Times. This seems to me something of a mixed bag. It's more detailed and intimate than the Telegraph obit, and also more critical, noting Hampshire's weaknesses as a thinker and writer as well as his strengths. It emphasises Hampshire's great gifts as a writer on literary topics (indeed, some of his philosophical friends considered him a finer literary essayist than philosopher; it would perhaps be more generous, and at least as true, to say that Hampshire's best philosophical work is infused by a literary flair and sensitivity, while his literary criticism is marked by often penetrating insight into the ideas and visions of those about whom he wrote.) The obit also nicely conveys the young Hampshire's personality:
His mental gifts, personal distinction and striking good looks marked him out from the beginning; he was one of the most admired Oxford undergraduates of the day, at once a leading intellectual, and a man of exceptional charm, natural goodness, and a degree of moral integrity that gave him a good deal of natural authority among his contemporaries.
On the other side, the piece is far less good than the Telegraph's obit at giving an idea of Hampshire's work, particularly the moral and political theory to which he devoted his later (and, to me, most provocative and moving) works, as well as the connection between this aspect of his thought and his earlier writings on Spinoza and free will. And the Times, like the Telegraph, doesn't do justice to Hampshire's political commitments and beliefs; I suppose we'll have to wait fro the non-Murdoch/Black press to chime in for that...
UPDATE: The obituary in the Guardian does indeed go some way to redressing the failings of the Times and Telegraph, going into some greater detail about Hampshire's political loyalties and actions, as well as those of his two successive wives, Renee and Nancy Cartwright; it also mentions, as the Times and Telegraph discreetly don't, Hampshire's affair with Renee while she was married to A.J. Ayer (the obituary was written by Jane O'Grady, who, interestingly, at one point co-edited a book with, and I believe was once a student of, Ayer). It also does somewhat greater justice to Hampshire's ethical thought, though still not full justice I think. I'm not sure what to make of the comments about Hampshire's 'femininity', though.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

This post may mark a return to blogging; while I've been busy the past few months trying to do some proper work, I have accumulated a certain amount of things to say about recent events, in Iraq and elsewhere. And lately, I've been feeling the blogging itch particularly, with the death of Ronald Reagan, and the profusion of praise, and the occassional dissonant voice, that this has caused.
But I've been prompted to return, for the moment, to blogging by the very sad news of the death of Stuart Hampshire this weekend.
Hampshire, born in 1914, was among the last members of a remarkable generation of Oxford philosophers -- a generation that included J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, and Isaiah Berlin, as well as slightly younger thinkers such as R.M. Hare, Philipa Foot, Iris Murdoch, David Pears, Peter Strawson, Geoffrey and Mary Warnock, Bernard Williams, and Richard Wollheim; Williams and Wollheim, particularly close to Hampshire in their combination of rigorous philosophical analysis with broad cultural interests and passionate and humane political commitments, have both died over the past year.
I've just heard the news, and have not yet been able to gather together my thoughts about Hampshire's life and work. But I remember Hampshire -- whom I met once, nearly three years ago -- as a courteous, graceful, kind, mentally quick, curious man, clearly devoted to his old, and for the most part dead, friends, to his family, and to the life of the mind -- and unfailingly generous to a shy, stammering young scholar of no great distinction whom he had never before met. His approval of my work was exhilerating and heartening, and I'm still grateful to him for it.
But Hampshire should be allowed to speak for himself; it is his work for which he will be remembered, and his own words convey the vision of life he sought to communicate in his later writings, devoted to ethics (after earlier writings on aesthetics, Spinoza, and freedom of the will), better than mine could. Below are the concluding paragraphs for his lecture 'Justice is Strife', Hampshire's Address as President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1991, and the basis for his most recent book, Justice is Conflict (a book of interviews between Hampshire and the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, as well as a final, long essay on Spinoza, will be published in the near future).

To speak of a smart compromise, as opposed to the usual shabby one, is half serious. A smart compromise is one where the tension between contrary forces and impulses, pulling against each other, is perceptible and vivid and both forces and impulses have been kept at full strength: the tension of the Heraclitean bow. An example would be a singer's effort to hold together in her singing complete technical control with complete spontaneity of expression. This tension of opposites is felt in all excellent musical performances and in most great works of art and literature. But we do not normally live like this, with such sustained and undiminished tension, whether as individuals or as communities. We are not masterpieces in our lives, I hope, and the lives of communities are not master classes. We look for some relaxation of tension, but, until death, we do not look for the disappearance of tension, whether in the soul or in society. The notion of procedural justice demands that men and women, whatever their religion or their moral convictions, should rank political activities second or third among the most important of all humanities, whatever their different moralities put first or second. This proposal is an inversion of the Protestant and Kantian moralities; it puts the protection of just political procedures in competition with the pursuit of substantial justice, and balances against the other. In the liberal tradition the moral values of the individual person have usually been taken to override public commitments. I have been arguing that this must be wrong, if moral conflicts are not a contingent and, in principle, alterable phenomenon but rather are a permanent distinguishing feature of humanity.

Let us keep the supposed superior faculty of the mind, reason, with its long aristocratic history, in its proper place as an equal alongside the other thoughtful activities assigned to the imagination. Let there be no philosopher-kings, and no substantial principles of justice which are to be permanently acceptable to all rational agents, seeking harmony and unanimous agreement. Rather political prudence, recognized as a high virtue, must expect a perpetual contest between hostile conceptions of justice and must develop acceptable procedures for regulating and refereeing the contest. The contests are unending if only because what is generally thought substantially just and fair today will not be thought just and fair tomorrow. This is as it should be, always provided that the old and new moral claims can expect finally to be given a hearing. The rock-bottom justice is in the contests themselves, in the tension of open opposition, always renewed.

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