Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight

Bibliography

Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/Bernard-Le-Bovier-sieur-de-Fontenelle  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/aristotle-causality/ ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/John-Toland ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/bayle/ ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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Hume, Aristotle, and Guns

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique firearms at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

As have many Americans, I’ve been mulling over the issue of ‘gun rights’ quite a bit recently. It’s a pressing issue in the United States since more people are injured and killed by citizens wielding guns than in any other state with a stable government and a thriving economy.

It’s also a divisive issue, as it’s generally argued in terms of liberty, a core value in our culture and politics. One side emphasizes the right to self-defense, the other the right to freedom from fear and from the pressure to join the arms race. And whether or not people chose to arm themselves, their fellow citizens feel that they are placed under some kind of obligation or burden as a result.

From the anti-gun perspective: if at least some of your fellow citizens are armed, then you are forced into a position where you must arm yourself too whether you’d like to or not, or remain at their mercy. After all, in a moment of greed, anger, zeal, fear, mental illness, hate, or accident, one person with a gun can permanently remove all freedoms that another could ever enjoy, within seconds, with the simple squeeze of a trigger. When another is armed, they have the potential power to wield complete control as to whether you live or die, and to force you to act according to their will, and against your own.

From the pro-gun perspective: if your fellow citizens choose not to arm themselves, you leave all the work of crime deterrence up to gun owners. Not only that: since a gun is the most effective weapon which can be wielded by a person of nearly any degree of strength, it’s the only available method for many who feel the need to defend themselves and others. In other words, it’s the one real equalizer: anyone with a gun has as much power as any other, so long as they know how and when to use it.

What would help us decide how to settle this, since the freedom to live the life we want, and the freedom to live at all, are in direct conflict here? We’re still figuring it out here in the US. Some nations have chosen in favor of individual gun rights, and others have disarmed their citizens, with varying results. While, generally speaking, nations and states with low gun ownership rates have much lower rates of gun violence, there are some exceptions. The gun rights dilemma, therefore, is not simply and immediately solved through legislation designed in favor of one set of rights issues over another.

Putting the conflicting liberty and rights issues aside for the moment, perhaps it would help to consider the relevant moral issues. Here, we can look beyond local, cultural considerations to a broader source of guidance as to what we should do about guns. What does it mean to be a good person, a virtuous person, and how do we cultivate that in ourselves and in each other? How does a society cultivate that in its citizens? Can these and other considerations help us decide what’s right, morally, when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of owning a gun? What should we do about it? Is it right or good for people to hold so much power over life and death? Permissive gun laws, which make it easy for responsible gun owners to trade in guns, also make it easier for members of drug cartels and other criminals to get their hands on them, too; that being known, are those laws right?

I think two of the greatest thinkers on morality and virtue, David Hume and Aristotle, can do much to help us discover some answers to these questions. Let’s explore their ideas, look for some answers there, and see how they fit with modern discoveries in behavioral science, psychology, and neuroscience.

According to David Hume, morality originates in the ‘passions’, or feelings. We can see ourselves as naturally moral creatures, since we come equipped with those emotions, those motivations, that make morality possible. We demonstrate altruistic, ‘pro-social’ (not Hume’s term, a more modern one), even as children, though we develop our moral character as we grow, through life experience, conversation with other moral beings, and by acquiring and developing the use of reason. For example, from the earliest age, we approve of kindness and disapprove of cruelty. We desire happiness, love, and generosity, and detest pain and avoid selfish people; we crave learning, and enrichment, and the approval of others. Those ‘sentiments’ ennoble us, and are responsible for that which is best in our characters. Yet the emotions we come equipped with are not sufficient, in themselves, for a morally developed person. Reason also plays a key role, enabling us to universalize and expand morals, and to apply these needed in any given situation.

Yet morality cannot be founded on reason alone: as Hume points out, reason is the means to means to link one true proposition with another, but cannot, on its own, show us what to value, or make us care about each other or anything else. It’s moral feeling, the passions, that provide the motivations, and provide reason the materials to work with to develop our morality. So as we grow up, we learn to develop our moral instincts, to ‘expand our moral circle‘ through conversation and the use of reason. By spending time with others, by being exposed to diverse ways of thinking and being, we learn that others have emotions and interests just like we do, that are just as important to them as ours are to us. Emotionally, we empathize with others; rationally, we know that what we expect of others is no more or less than what we must demand of ourselves. A very young person has the instincts for morality, but prior to experience of the world and the use of reason, it’s a very limited morality, or can even be considered a sort of proto-morality. Experience of other moral agents, through discourse with them, reveals there are others whose feelings and interests matter just as much to them as ours do to us, and finally reason shows that there is not particular reason to favor oneself over another when determining moral rules and guides of behavior. A morally good person, then, will seek to be pleasant and generous, to make others happy and improve their well-being, to respect and protect their interests as much as possible, just as we desire and expect they will do for us.

Hume’s account of how morality works, combined with the body of knowledge we’ve discovered since his time, reveals that it’s as much a natural part of the makeup of the human personality as any other, as are creativity, romantic passion, mother love, curiosity, and hunger, as well as (sadly!) rapacity and cruelty. A natural explanation of morality does not require a complex suite of arguments to found its origins in logic and reason, nor does it require some cause outside of ourselves, as traditional explanations claimed. To find out what morality is and how it works, we observe human beings, how they act and how they desire themselves and each other to act; we explain how and why morality developed as a natural adaptation for human beings; and we apply reason to determine what kinds of mindsets, rules, and behaviors lead to their flourishing.

Behavioral, biological, and evolutionary sciences have, over the years, lent support to Hume’s explanation of morality. Rebecca Saxe and Alison Gopnik, among others, has closely observed the behavior of infants and very young children over time, and has gathered a large body of evidence that people demonstrate moral instincts from the very earliest age, recognize that others are moral beings with their own interests and emotions just like us, and make moral judgments accordingly. Evolutionary psychology (Darwin considered Hume one of his great influences), in which morality is considered as much an adaptation as our opposable thumbs and long limbs, inherit much from Hume’s account. In fact, Hume is widely considered a founder of naturalistic moral theory, and a father to modern cognitive science.

Aristotle’s grounds the origin of morality more on reason, though his theory is founded, like Hume’s, from his observation of the world and how people behave. His elegant ‘function argument’ is the centerpiece of his moral theory. When you consider what something is for, and observe what it does and how it functions, you’ll know where to start. The quality of goodness in material things is closely related to the quality of goodness when it comes to actions and moral feelings. A musical instrument is for making music; therefore, an excellent, or good, musical instrument is that which produces the best music. Further, if we consider a case in which we’re deciding who the musical instrument should belong to, it would be the right thing to do to give it to the best musician. Not to the nicest person, or the one who can pay the most for it, or even to the person who made it; those considerations are irrelevant since none of those have anything to do with the proper function of the instrument.

To Aristotle, reason is the one definitive human trait that no other creature on earth possesses. That’s what we do uniquely, and what we’re best at, or at least, that’s what we do when we’re at our best. So what we should do, the moral thing to do, is what’s most reasonable, what’s most in keeping with our nature as reasonable beings. What helps us recognize that, in turn, is called the ‘Golden Mean’: consider all those traits we have, see how they fall on a spectrum, and we will see that the virtue consists of the happy medium between extremes. For example, bravery would be the virtuous golden mean between cowardice and recklessness, love between disdain and fawning or obsession, and so on. (Fun fact: Hume himself placed great importance on moderation, temperance, and fairness, eschewing divisive party politics, for example, as if it was part of his mission to live out the ideal of the Golden Mean!)

Making the leap from the function of a thing which is an artifact of intentional human creation, to the function of a human being itself, is quite a leap. Aristotle recognized this and sought to address it, but did not yet have the modern knowledge of the theory of evolution, and of evolutionary psychology, and how well they account for the origin and development of moral virtues such as kindness, sympathy, generosity, bravery, and so forth. Nor did Hume, but he did not consider it justified to form conclusions by building a logical case as far removed from original observations as many who followed Aristotle later. Hume saw human beings as much a product of the natural world as any other, and their nature as fully explicable in those terms. So leaving the function argument aside for the time being, let’s consider another important contribution of Aristotle’s to moral philosophy: the importance of habit.To Aristotle, habit is essential to the practice of virtue. By emulating virtue, we habituate ourselves to it. Over time, morality, the practice of virtue, becomes second nature. Here, Aristotle proves himself a keen observer of human psychology, and his emphasis on habit as a central driving force behind human thought and behavior, as well as something which can be deliberately instilled through practice, is confirmed by the findings of modern psychologists and neuroscientists. A recent article in Scientific American outlines some of the ways in which habits are formed, and how necessary they are if we wish to improve our behaviors systematically. Cognitive behavioral therapy, now widely considered among the most effective ways to overcome addiction and anxiety-depression, among other disorders, is also founded on these scientific discoveries.

Here’s where I find a link between these two moral theories: Aristotle’s emphasis on habit works hand in hand with Hume’s account of how moral sentiments arise from human psychology. Whether it be from habit or other mental processes we are naturally equipped with when we achieve consciousness, moral behavior is largely a spontaneous reaction to the situation at hand. Early in our development, as Saxe and Gopnik describe, a basic set of moral instincts are included in human consciousness in its earliest stages. As Hume observes, experience and reason help us expand, develop, and perfect our moral characters over time; the moral character, as Aristotle recognizes, is the set of, and relationships between, the virtuous habits we’ve cultivated through practice.

This also consistent with other findings of modern neuroscience and psychology. The way we tend to act in any given situation, the emotions and motivations that arise in us as we respond to stimuli, are formed as we react to circumstances, and by engaging in patterns of action, reactions, thoughts, behavior, we create mental channels, so to speak, or ‘paths of least resistance’, which predict our reactions, our thoughts and behavior, given similar circumstances. We usually act and think in accordance with how we’ve been given to act and think before, and only change when some new consideration(s) arises that makes us stop and consider whether to do something else this time. These considerations, the combination of reason and emotion (how do I act that will make me feel good about it, given the consequences of my actions for myself and others? How did the decisions I made last time the sort of thing came effect me and the world around me? How do others act in these situations, and what are the effects then?) inform how we habituate ourselves to new and improved moral actions and reactions.

Let’s pause for a moment. So far, we have these two thinkers’ descriptions of morality and virtue, supported by the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience.  Hume and Aristotle show us where they think we should look for virtue, how to recognize it, how to describe and explain it, and where it originates. In other words, they are engaged in metaethics. But as you may have noticed, this tells us only how people actually do think and behave; what about telling us what we should do? What are the criteria for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong?

Arete (Virtue)

I think Hume and Aristotle point us in this direction: human beings not only do, but should habituate themselves to those practices which form in us the best moral character. While both men don’t explicitly tell how we can definitely say what’s right and wrong, they go to great lengths to show us what an admirable character looks like, and how they think and behave. I think they do so in order to reveal to us not only how we could be, but how we should be. In his writings as well as by example (he was widely known to have a particularly admiral character), Hume emphasizes such virtuous sentiments as sympathy, sociability, amiability, beneficence, generosity, and so on, and advocates the cultivation of these traits, especially through conversation and spending time in the company of others, especially those who can broaden your understanding of the world, and by avid reading and study of philosophy, literature, and history. Aristotle emphasizes the virtue of moderation in all things, of wisdom, self-control, courage, and nobility. Both men emphasize, to the highest degree, the use of reason, and the value of its careful and consistent application in all matters of life. It appears that they go through all this trouble not only to show us what a good person looks like, but to offer us something to aspire to: the formation of an excellent, moral character, which leads to the best life a person can achieve.

So, finally, we return to the gun issue. What does all this have to do with owning them, and using them? What does this have to do with what we observe in human behavior when people own guns? How about when people value, or even glorify, guns?

Let’s return to the consideration of the evidence, which can reveal how attitudes and practices relating to guns manifest themselves in human behavior; in other words, what habit or habits does a gun-owning society promote?

There are conflicting statistics to when it comes to gun-related behavior. For example, people in the United States own almost twice as many guns per-capita as Canadians and Germans. Canada and Germany, in turn, have a much higher rate of gun ownership compared to most other developed nations. Yet among these three nations, the United States has a far higher gun-related death rate, about four times that of Canada, and about 8 times that of Germany, though the three share many key cultural and political traits: they are democratic, capitalistic, and culturally and historically Christian. There are also examples where lower gun-related death rates correlate with higher per-capita gun ownership. This is the case for some states in the U.S, and for Switzerland, a country that, interestingly, imposes a requirement on all households to own a gun.Yet given such outliers, most states in the US, and most countries in the world, see a strong correlation between lower rates of gun-related death and injury and lower rates of gun ownership. The U.S. ranks near the top in gun-violence rates, just under Mexico’s, a country overrun with trigger-happy drug cartels, and outranked almost entirely by countries with weak, unstable governments, poor human-rights records, and high rates of poverty and income inequality. The very lowest rates of all, by contrast, are enjoyed by those countries who possess a high degree of personal liberty and human-rights protections while at the same time restrictive gun-ownership privileges, or none at all. Even in Switzerland, often cited by gun-rights advocates as an example of how high rates of gun ownership can correlate with low levels of violence, there are 16 times as many gun deaths as in the U.K, and 64 times as many as Japan. The rates are low in Switzerland only as compared with the most violent countries, but not in comparison with the least violent.

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique long guns at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Returning to the liberty issue for a moment, it seems that overall, since you must be alive to enjoy any liberty at all, liberty is best served when there aren’t many guns around. When a fight ensues, or the home is broken into, or a child has figured out how to get into a locked cabinet, or a person goes on a violent rampage due to mental illness, few, if any, people actually end up dying or disabled when there’s no guns nearby to reach for. It’s relatively difficult and messy to kill someone with a knife and other non-gun weapons, and the planning that goes into other kinds of homicide, like poisoning, gives people more time to consider the consequences of their action, decreasing the chance they’ll go through with it, or decreasing the chances of success at homicide.

As we’ve seen, however, the liberty issue can’t be the only determining factor in deciding the gun issue, since liberty considerations conflict so sharply when one’s liberty interests run counter to another’s. There are still compelling arguments to be made that individual liberty requires the right for each person to make their own decision in the matter, from the right to self-protection and self-determination. There’s also the fact that there are some states and countries where higher rates of gun ownership do correlate with low gun violence, especially in places where the population is more homogeneous, ethnically, religiously, racially, economically, and so on, even if they are relatively few. Conversely, there’s the liberty considerations of those who wish to be free from the fear of coercion and bodily harm, ever-present dangers that usually result from a heavily armed population, as the statistics reveal.

This is where the law comes in. One main purpose of the law is to defend the rights and liberties of the citizenry at large, and this involves protecting citizens from each other. A population is always composed of people who have conflicting interests, needs and desires, so to keep a society functioning, prosperous, and harmonious as possible, the law (ideally) is crafted to balance the rights, responsibilities, and interests of each citizen, impartially, with the other.Another purpose of the law is to codify, universalize, and enforce the mores of a given society, or at least those that harmonize with the principles of justice, equality, liberty, and so on that are central to the political system of that society.And last but not least, the law encodes a system of rights, responsibilities, and prohibitions, the practice of which is requisite to being a good citizen. In other words, the law is a society’s (in a democracy, the people’s) way to habituate its citizens to those practices which form a virtuous, a good citizen.

Gun law is no exception. Prior to passing laws relating to gun ownership, there are societal attitudes towards guns that people possess, cultivate, and enforce not only through custom and discourse, but eventually through law. Famously, in the 1990’s, the Australian government, with widespread support from its citizens, collected and destroyed a large proportion of the country’s firearms, and imposed restrictive gun laws. These laws were a direct result of the public’s horrified reaction to a series of gun-related mass murders that had happened in the decade prior. The public’s new attitude towards guns was made manifest in the law. It’s still in debate whether the sharp decline in gun violence that followed the new laws were a result of the laws, or vice-versa. It appears most likely that it’s some combination of the two: after all, as we’ve observed throughout history, there’s a feedback loop between the law and a society’s moral progress.

Consider the history of civil rights legislation in the United States: desegregation and other civil rights protections happened gradually, with each disenfranchised group demanding the full rights of citizenship, despite the current will of the majority to keep those groups subjugated and oppressed. Over time, the use of reason (in these cases, legal reasoning) and consideration of the values underpinning the foundational political philosophy and documents (in this case, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) led to new laws which not only enforced better practices, but habituated citizens to more virtuous thought and behavior, often in spite of themselves. We see this time and time again in American history: the disenfranchisement and oppression of black people, religious minorities, the poor and non-landowners, women, Jews, gay people, and so on, once common practice, came to be looked upon with righteous distaste, worthy of contempt. In so many of these cases, it was the law that changed commonly held attitudes, more than the other way around, and the change in attitudes and behavior often happened far more quickly than it would have otherwise if the practice of virtue wasn’t inculcated through law.

In sum: Considering the lessons of history, the evidence of the current states of affairs in which high gun-ownership rates correlate strongly with destructive attitudes and behavior when the entirety of the evidence is considered, and how the wisdom of two of the greatest moral thinkers is confirmed by the findings of modern science, I think that laws restricting, even eliminating, gun ownership by most individuals help lead to a wiser, more prudent, more beneficent, more amiable, more free society.

What do you think?

A nearly identical version of this article was originally published at Ordinary Philosophy on July 18, 2014

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– I’d especially like to thank Guy Fletcher, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who kindly gave me some of his valuable time (despite it’s being finals week), invaluable insights, and excellent pointers regarding the subjects covered in this essay, especially in reminding me to make clearer the distinctions between meta-ethics, morality, and ethics.

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Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. About 350 BC. 

Boseley, Sarah. ‘High gun ownership makes countries less safe, US study finds‘. The Guardian, Sep 18, 2013.

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist : In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

Gopnik, Alison. The Philosophical Baby, 1998.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, 2013.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Volume III – Of Morals. Printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) Online version: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm

David B. and Stephen D’Andrilli. “What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership.” American Rifleman, Feb 1990

Kraut, Richard, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

Saxe, Rebecca. ‘How We Read Each Other’s Minds‘. TED talk, 2009

Tucker, Abigail. ‘Are Babies Born Good?’ Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2013.

In Memory of Lucrezia Marinella

Young Lady Writing in a Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

Lucrezia Marinella was an Italian Renaissance writer of poetry, devotional literature, and philosophy. She was born in Venice on an unknown date in 1571, and lived a richly intellectual, family-oriented, long life there until her death on October 9th, 1653.

She wrote on a wide range of subjects, including Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Mary and her parents’ life family as she imagined it: happy, virtuous, a model for all families to emulate. She identified Mary closely with her beloved native Venice, that lovely city of elegance and refinement, incubator of knowledge and beauty, and welcome refuge to the traveler and those fleeing hardship and strife, referring to both as ‘La Serenissima’ (the Serene) and ‘Star of the Sea.’ Her Life of the Virgin Mary, Empress of the Universe was written two years after her most famous and influential work The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published in 1600. Her book about the natural and superior virtues of women no doubt inspired her, in turn, to write another about the woman who most exemplified Christian and Renaissance ideals of femininity. Marinella’s conception of feminine virtue included those typical of her religion and culture, such as modesty and dedication to home and family, but went far beyond that, as it did later feminist thinkers and activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Ernestine Rose.

Marinella’s Nobility was a response to Giuseppe Passi’s anti-woman polemic The Defects of Women, published the year before. Anti-woman treatises such as Passi’s had become a literary tradition at that point, but his stood out for its harshness, to the point that he advocated treating women as little better than other animals since they were likewise naturally devoid of reason and self-control. Defenses of womankind against such attacks had, in turn, also become a literary tradition, but Marinella’s stands out for its clarity, systematicity, and intellectual rigor, so much so that it achieved its standing as a foundational work in feminist philosophy.

Title page of 1601 edition of Lucrezia Marinella’s La Nobilita, et L’eccellenza delle Donne

One element of Marinella’s fascinating and innovative defense of femininity that stood out for me was her case for how the female body itself demonstrated the moral and intellectual superiority of women. Many anti-woman polemicists referred to Aristotle for their arguments to demonstrate the natural inferiority of women, and Aristotle bases many of his arguments on women’s supposedly inferior physical makeup. No doubt, such biological arguments stood out for Marinella; she was the daughter, sister, and wife of physicians, and she was an accomplished and virtuous intellectual, a living counterfactual to the negative conceptions of women of Passi, Aristotle, and their anti-woman ilk. So, she was not going to put up with silly arguments based on such demonstrably untrue empirical claims, from Aristotle or from anyone else. She uses Aristotle’s own arguments, invoked by Passi, against both of them, demonstrating how misogynistic ideas about women as the weaker, less rational, and less virtuous component of the human species are both inconsistent with Aristotle’s other arguments and with observable reality.

For example, Aristotle claims that women’s lower average body temperature revealed their weakness and passivity. Yet Aristotle elsewhere associates heat with vices such as anger and rashness. Marinella grants that women’s average temperatures were lower than men’s (we now know that this isn’t necessarily true), but she argues that this doesn’t at all show that women are less virtuous. In fact, according to Aristotle’s own ethical system, that would imply that women are more virtuous: more temperate, moderate, reasonable, and able to control their passions. For another thing, Aristotle argues that financial well-being, physical attractiveness, and other circumstances that promote happiness are important for promoting virtue. Financial security promotes and enables generosity; exterior beauty inspires appreciation of that which is noble, orderly, balanced, good. Well, Marinella replies, women are generally more beautiful than men, as poets and artists attest, and the beauty of their bodies both reflect the natural superiority of their inner natures as expressed by their divine designer, and the love and passion they evoke echo the love and passion of the soul’s for the ultimate Good.

Learn more about the brilliant and fascinating Lucrezia Marinella’s case for the excellence of women, and about her life, ideas, and accomplishments at:

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Marguerite Deslauriers for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Maria Galli Stampino for Oxford Bibliographies

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Lindsay Smith for ProjectContinua.org

Who Is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary ~ by Vittoria Colonna, Chiara Matraini, and Lucrezia Marinella

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More sources and inspiration:

Bodnar, Istvan, ‘Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Normal oral, rectal, tympanic and axillary body temperature in adult men and women: a systematic literature review’, by Märtha Sund-Levander, Christina Forsberg, and Lis Karin Wahren. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, Vol. 16, Issue 2, pages 122–128, June 2002

Parry, Richard, ‘Ancient Ethical Theory‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Price, A W. ‘Moral Theories: Aristotle’s Ethics.’ Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985, Vol. 11, p. 150-152

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Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

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When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No, by Manuel Bermudez

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Essais are the perfect mate to accompany anybody, throughout all stages of life. It’s always interesting to explore Michel de Montaigne‘s life and his marvellous book: the Essais. Within his lifespan, Montaigne was able to find true friendship for himself and record its effects therein. Here we propose to navigate Montaigne’s approach to friendship.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that friendship was “one soul in two bodies.” Montaigne, on the contrary, always thought that friendship was a free exchange between two people.

Montaigne thought that true friendship was rare. He himself acknowledges to have found only one proper friend in his life: Etienne de La Boétie. And he could enjoy this friendship only for a mere four years. They met as adults and death took Montaigne’s soulmate early. An irreplaceable loss. After La Boétie’s death (in 1563), Montaigne didn’t feel the desire to find a substitute for his dead friend. Perhaps the reason was that our French friend knew intuitively that such a profound bond could only happen once in a lifetime.

Is it possible to have many different friends at any given time? According to Montaigne, true friends are not only scarce, but they should be unique, if only for loyalty’s sake.

If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something that was useful to the other, how would you manage?

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

Montaigne-Dumonstier

Portrait of Montaigne by an unknown artist. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dilemma set here finds an easy solution for Montaigne, since the balance will always incline towards one of them. A succession of these choices would lead him to the real friend. Thus, it would be proved that true friendships tend to uniqueness.

When Montaigne talks about friendship, he does so from his own feelings towards a person of flesh and blood: Etienne de La Boétie. He transferred what he felt for his kindred spirit to the Essais. He loved his friend to the point where he felt despondently lost when La Boétie died. Montaigne attempted to find solace in his writing about La Boétie, even though he failed to portray the true nature of their relationship.

We can find a good deal of mystery in a friendship like these two men had. That strange and powerful empathy that Montaigne tried to describe is difficult to understand. Montaigne concludes that: “They are unimaginable facts for those who have not tried them.”

Montaigne distinguished true friendship from ordinary friendship. Ordinary friendships have, in a way or another, self-interest behind their development. It’s an investment made not with money, but with affection. On the other hand, true friendship is described by the author with the following words:

For the rest, which we commonly call friends, and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which, there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls: but in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoyn’d.

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

In an attempt to describe the nature of his friendship with La Boétie, Montaigne concludes with his famous expression: “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I lov’d him; I find it could no otherwise be exprest, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”

We can only add here that in the example of Bordeaux of the Essais, Montaigne wrote first “because it was he.” Later he added “because it was I.”

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Read Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’ here

For more about Montaigne here at O.P., please also see my own essay, published here at Ordinary Philosophy

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

Waverly and University Places at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY, northeast corner

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

I take the E train north from where I’m staying in NYC’s Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to Washington Square. It’s a lovely, warm, and soft day, the sky blue and thickly scattered with puffy, small, wispy clouds like spilled cheap cotton balls.

On March 1, 1926, Margaret Sanger delivered a lecture titled ‘The Need for Birth Control in America’ to New York University’s Liberal Club. It takes a bit of digging to find out where the Liberal Club met at this time, but I finally discover it in a letter written to Sanger’s supporter and sometimes collaborator W.E.B. DuBois. In this letter, dated Nov. 22nd, 1926, the secretary of the Liberal Club, Mary Broger, invited him to address the Club’s open forum on Monday, Dec 6th of that same year. The letter also specified that the Club met at New York University’s Washington Square College ‘at University and Waverly Places’, which is at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. (Pokorski’s ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger’ Google map has it a little wrong, marking the location of this event near the southeast corner of the park).

NYU's Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University at the northeast corner of the park

NYU’s Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University Places at the northeast corner of the park

It’s still unclear exactly where the Club met since there are buildings at the northwest, northeast, and southeast corner of this intersection, and my sources, including the DuBois letter, don’t specify an address. I think it most likely that the Club met in what’s now the New York University Silver Center for Arts and Sciences at the southeast corner of University and Waverly, called American Book Company of the Law Department of New York University in G.W. Bromley & Co’s city atlas of 1923. The buildings that stand at the other corners of this intersection appear to have been all residential, based on that same atlas, just as they appear now. At the southwest corner of this intersection, Washington Square Park pre-dates the 1926 meeting of the Liberal Club by about a century. The Silver Center building was built in 1892.

1926 was a hard year for Sanger. She was long subject to periodic depressions, and some legal setbacks in the birth control movement and the deaths of her sister Mary and her father that year all helped to start the cycles again. But she continued to think, and speak, and write, and plan, and that summer she decided she would present her case for birth control in the context of an international conference. Hoping to make her case to a world audience and influence delegates to the League of Nations, she began planning and organizing a World Population Conference in Geneva which would take place the next fall. It was a great success, and Rockefeller and many other benefactors helped fund the project. Its attendees and speakers included experts from a wide array of scientific fields from around the world, and this would be the first of many more such gatherings where problems of population growth would be studied and addressed.

The soft coolness of the morning has given way to a warm, somewhat humid day.

Webster Hall in October, festooned with pumpkin decorations, New York City

Webster Hall festooned with pumpkin decorations in October, New York City

Two views of Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Above, a Costume Ball probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record 'How to Succeed Without Really Trying' in 1961, public domain via Library of Congress

Two views of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. Above, one of their popular costume balls, probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record ‘How to Succeed Without Really Trying’ in 1961

I continue north (after a little wild goose chase several blocks to the east which turns out to be an out of date or incorrect address), and turn left on E 11th. My destination is Webster Hall at 125 E 11th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. It’s a red brick and brownstone structure, built in 1886-1887, and there’s a deco era small marquee added to the main entryway. The Hall has been restored and rebuilt many times after several major fires, and though its original brickwork, brownstone trim, and terracotta decorations survive, its beautiful old mansard roof is gone. It’s now a nightclub and concert venue. The doors are locked and there’s no one around to let me inside to see its famous Grand Ballroom with its reputed great acoustics. For a time, it was used as a recording studio, which leads to the second accidental Bob Dylan connection I make on this trip. His iconic harmonica backs Harry Belafonte’s 1962 recording of Midnight Special and is Dylan’s first published album recording.

In 1912, Sanger led a march of 119 child refugees from the Lawrence Mills textile strike, from Grand Central Terminal to Webster Hall. It was a difficult and violent strike, and this children’s march was to raise awareness of the plight of the striking families as much as it was to obtain proper shelter, food, and medical care for them. Sanger wrote in her autobiography that these children were underfed and inadequately dressed for the winter weather, and though many were sick, they had still been required to work. When they arrived at Webster Hall, however, they found a banquet all ready and families ready to give these children a caring home until better arrangements could be made for them.

Garment workers, Webster Hall. Bain News Service, P. (ca. 1915) [between and Ca. 1920] [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Garment workers, Webster Hall, ca. 1915-1920. By Bain News Service. Library of Congress

We think of Sanger today primarily as a feminist and birth control activist, yet she was an ardent Socialist and labor rights activist first. She increasingly distanced herself from her radicalist roots over the years because she believed it necessary to court the middle-class and wealthy for the long term success of her cause. Scientific research and development of effective means of birth control cost a lot of money. It also required influence in high places, to attract doctors and scientists willing to take the risk of working in this field as well as lawmakers, litigators, and politicians to push through legal reforms. Nevertheless, what Sanger observed in her early years as a nurse and activist among poor working families horrified, galvanized, and drove her in her cause for ready access to affordable and reliable birth control, especially essential for the health and safety of working class women and children.

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

I zigzag back east to The Brevoort, once Hotel Brevoort at 11 Fifth Avenue at 8th St. The doorman invites me inside when I tell of that I’m on a historical writing tour, and politely inquires about my subject. He utters a noncommittal ‘hmmm’ when I tell him who it’s about. This building dates to the 1950’s but he confirms that it stands on the original hotel site. There’s a photograph of the original hotel in a glass covered niche in the entryway.

Sanger gave many lectures and speeches at the Hotel Brevoort over the decades. The one I’ll focus on here was held the night before her obscenity trial for distributing The Woman Rebel through the mail. In this speech of January 17th, 1916, Sanger reminded her audience that birth control was not a new thing: it had been widely practiced since antiquity. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, arguably also the first scientist, had advocated it. She wrote more extensively about the history of birth control and its methods in her book Woman and the New Race.

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevort lobby

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevoort lobby

She also stressed her conviction that there was nothing anti-life about birth control. In fact, birth control prevented death: it prevented the death of mothers in childbirth, much more dangerous then than it is today, especially if you were poor. It prevented the suffering and death of infants and children born into deprivation and disease. It prevented the death of mothers who resorted to abortion, illegal then but widely available in back alleys if they could scrape together five dollars to pay for it. If they couldn’t, they did it themselves, often rupturing the uterus and causing deadly infections. But even this risk was acceptable to women who found themselves pregnant in circumstances so dire that they couldn’t face the thought of raising another child that way. When it came to abortion, in fact, Sanger opposed Aristotle, who promoted it especially in the early stages of pregnancy to prevent social ills such as poverty, overcrowding, and political unrest. In her Hotel Brevoort speech, as in her book, Sanger also reminded her audience that birth control prevented infanticide, another last but not uncommon resort of desperate women, and another acceptable form of population control to Aristotle in certain circumstances.

In other words, contrary to the opinion of her opponents then and now, Sanger considered herself and her movement radically pro-life, as we’ll recognize from her own words in a moment.

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

My next destinations, just a little ways up Fifth Ave between 10th and 11th Streets, are two buildings which stand shoulder to shoulder, both tall and handsome in their red brick. I especially like the second one, with its beautiful painted terracotta loggia-style embellishments. I’m unable to gain entry to either since they’re now residential buildings not open to the public. These two buildings turn out to have interesting histories.

The first is 35 Fifth Ave, formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, now Rubin Residence Hall of NYU. This 1925 building replaced the earlier 6-story Grosvenor, the first residential hotel in New York City, completed in 1876. Mark Twain lived in the original Grosvenor in 1904 while his new home at 21 Park Ave was being renovated. Another of my favorite novelists, Willa Cather, lived in the building that stands here today, from 1927 to 1932. Sanger stayed here a year earlier, from April to September of 1926, when the new Grosvenor was only a year old. She stayed here again for one month in 1928.

Sanger also lived next door at 39 Fifth Ave for a short time in mid-1923, when this building was also only a year old. It was designed by Emory Roth, whose firm designed many of New York City’s most iconic structures, and built in 1922.

1923 was a significant year for the progress of birth control for many reasons, one of which I’ll cover in the next installment of this story of my Sanger journey. Sanger wrote an article for the journal The Thinker in 1924 in which she summarized the trials and successes of the movement of the year before. In ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Sanger restates and reaffirms the basic tenets of her movement:

‘…[W]e witness [an] appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well-born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

Instead of being a blind and haphazard consequence of uncontrolled instinct, motherhood must be made the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration.’

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

I visit many more sites on this long and adventurous day and will return soon to pick up the tale. To be continued….

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

10th Street.’ From New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

39 Fifth Avenue, Between East 10th Street & East 11th Street, Greenwich Village‘, CityRealty website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 31. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Greenhouse, Steven. ‘New York, Cradle Of Labor History‘, Aug 30th, 1996. The New York Times

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Anchor, 2005

The Lost Grosvenor Hotel — 35 Fifth Avenue‘. From Daytonian in Manhattan blog

New York University. Liberal Club. ‘Letter from New York University Liberal Club to W. E. B. Du Bois, November 22, 1926‘. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Apr 1924. Source: The Thinker, Apr. 1924, pp. 49-51. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Webster Hall‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Webster Hall and Annex, 119-125 East 11th Street, Manhattan‘. Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 18, 2008, Designation List 402, LP-2273