Friday, November 13, 2015

The most acerbic critic of the man of feeling was Nietzsche

In the 18th century, a new kind of person appeared: the "man of feeling," who could empathize with strangers. This was a striking departure  
In the 18th century, a new kind of person appeared: the “man of feeling,” moved to pity by the spectacle of misery. And it was a startling departure: The great literary historian R.S. Crane called the modern ethic “something new in the world—a doctrine…which a hundred years before 1750 would have been frowned upon, had it ever been presented to them, by representatives of every school of ethical or religious thought.” Soon there were women of feeling too; and sentimentalism, as the movement came to be known, was often understood by its proponents (and detractors) as feminizing the world and making men sensitive, as women were stereotypically thought to be. “Moral weeping is the sign of so noble a passion, that it may be questioned whether those are properly men, who never weep upon any occasion,” one sentimentalist insisted in 1755.

Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith worried that humans needed help imagining distant suffering, because most people only cared about pain that can be seen. In ordinary circumstances, the shattering of a mirror in the next room can elicit more grief than a deadly fire far away, Hume observed. But the new telescopic journalism—by making faraway suffering locally vivid—went a long way toward closing that gap. Empathy toward distant strangers is not absolutely essential to extreme altruism. 
“If there is one place more than any other where do-gooders are set up as enemies of humanness,” MacFarquhar writes, “it is in fiction, particularly modern novels.” This is because novelists would rather portray the inevitability of human imperfection than embark on a quixotic attempt to end it, she argues. 
In a particularly insightful passage, she dwells on George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy, who exchanged art for humanitarianism and then indicted art’s complacency. Both writers bitterly attacked Shakespeare for portraying human frailty so generously—almost novelistically—without proposing to mend it. After his conversion to Christianity, Tolstoy went so far as to rank Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin above the Bard’s plays, because Stowe had transformed art into humanitarian propaganda to spectacular effect. In response to such heresies, MacFar­quhar cites James Baldwin arguing that the price of Tolstoy’s transformation was grave: “The wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart.” And, let’s not forget, his love of bad art.

The most acerbic critic of the man of feeling, as MacFarquhar briefly notes, was Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that the humanitarian impulse swamped the quest for personal distinction. Nietzsche attacked the notion of philosophers defending mediocrities simply because they could suffer, seeking instead to preserve “aristocratic” greatness in a crowd shedding modern tears: “This overestimation of and predilection for pity on the part of modern philosophers is something new: hitherto philosophers have been at one as to the worthlessness of pity.”
Karl Marx didn’t exactly find pity worthless, but he was more (or differently) radical in response to the man of feeling. For Marx, the character of one’s personal devotion didn’t matter much, and he had little patience for the psychology and paradoxes of altruism; instead, he asserted, justice is necessarily institutional. If change you can believe in occurs because of systemic reform (or revolution), the only interesting thing about somebody’s everyday or extreme altruism is whether it contributes to that larger project.
In a laudatory preface to a new pamphlet version of Singer’s essay, to be published in December, Bill and Melinda Gates celebrate it for teaching that “we can work together to prevent very bad things from happening.” But do “we” work together through philanthropy or politics?
MacFarquhar doesn’t focus on this question. She describes one extremist as moving from trying “to help one person” to trying “to change the whole world.” But aside from a few pages on foreign aid, she doesn’t explore the implications of her passing comment that many observers have concluded along the way “that organized politics was a more effective vehicle for human progress than the full hearts of the leisured bourgeois.” Institutionalists might respond, for this very reason, that perhaps singling out the tourist in business class and his potentially inconvenient awareness of justice is more of a problem than a solution.
MacFarquhar’s stories are not directly about suffering and how it could ever end on its own, with or without our help; they are about our private dilemmas over that suffering and how they make us feel. If MacFarquhar were living in an age of widespread faith in God, it would be permissible to stop there. But in an age of humanitarian faith, it is this world and the concrete results within it that count. 

SAMUEL MOYN Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Christian Human Rights.

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