Monday, 10 October 2011

The Monstrous State and the Grotesque Empire

Doubting Castle

As an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, I was taught Philosophy of Religion by John Haldane. It was 1986. The Philosophy departments were divided between Moral Philosophy in one half of the Gothic building, Logical and Metaphysics in the other. The building known as Edgecliffe was perched on the Cliff facing the Scores, on one side, and the North Sea on the other. There was the sense of being part of a long and venerable tradition of Scottish philosophy. But there was a sense also of the urgency of moral questions and life and death situations.

I recollect that Dr Haldane (now Professor) used to hang precariously out of a high window in the Moral Philosophy Department and ask us to spot errors in logic, urging us to construct arguments against suicide or war, or any other moral topic of the hour, as he bit voraciously into his 'final' apple. He's now a Professor of Philosophy and Papal Advisor to the Vatican.

The renowned Haldane family apparently includes J.B.S. Haldane, the Marxist, geneticist and evolutionary biologist. (He also appears in a disturbing 1940 film that records the successful experiments in the resuscitation of life to dead animals (dogs), as conducted by Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, Voronezh, U.S.S.R.).

My research on J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) suggests an artful, intriguing and entertaining fusion of theology, teratology and politics. The following quotations hint at his ability to range across multiple domains. On his view, small is beautiful. It's an argument that he extends to a debate about the future of socialism. Empires are monsters that are unable to function well in reality. Politically systems are more effect when they main a due proportionality; when they avoid gigantically over-reaching themselves.

J. B. S. Haldane's discussion begins with a recollection of the Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress (1678):

"Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high-about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim’s Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer."

[...] "To the biologist the problem of socialism appears largely as a problem of size. The extreme socialists desire to run every nation as a single business concern. I do not suppose that Henry Ford would find much difficulty in running Andorra or Luxembourg on a socialistic basis. He has already more men on his pay-roll than their population. It is conceivable that a syndicate of Fords, if we could find them, would make Belgium Ltd or Denmark Inc. pay their way. But while nationalization of certain industries is an obvious possibility in the largest of states, I find it no easier to picture a completely socialized British Empire or United States than an elephant turning somersaults or a hippopotamus jumping a hedge."

From J.B.S. Haldane On Being the Right Size [1928]

On Being the Right Size and Other Essays (Oxford University Press 1985)

Political Teratology is a common topic in satirical prints and illustrations as this example shows:

"The Hydra of Socialism. You Beat Them Down in Vain; They Always Grow Back."

It shows Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) with the Club of Common Sense trying to destroy the hydra-headed socialist monster.

Clearly, theological /allegorical monsters have become more ideological, compared to those of Bunyan.

"So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold: he was clothed with scales like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question him."

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress

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