… the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’
“Le style c’est l’homme,” “Le style c’est l’homme même.” The first expression has cheap epigrammatic brevity. The second, correct version opens up quite a different perspective. It says that a man’s style is a picture of him.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
The history of western philosophy is one of both plain-speaking and obfuscation. The conflict between them appears right at the beginning of this history in an encounter Plato dramatizes in a short dialogue called the Meno. Meno, a handsome teenaged visitor to Athens, gets into conversation with Socrates, a man whose reputation for wisdom precedes him. Can people be taught to be good, the younger man asks the older.
Meno’s expectations for this kind of conversation have been set by his years at the feet of Gorgias, a popular (and well-paid) teacher of rhetoric. Socrates’ style is new to Meno: short sentences, everyday words, and quick rounds of question-and-answer with no scope for impressively long speeches. Strangest of all, not once does Socrates claim to know the answer himself.
The term for people like Gorgias is ‘sophist’. This word is not, originally, a pejorative at all. It is Plato who makes it so. In its vulnerable early years, Plato’s greatest invention – a discipline called ‘philosophy’ – must be distinguished sharply from its greatest enemy: sophistry.
The Meno is a staple of first-year undergraduate courses and even today a popular option at Oxford and Cambridge, not least because the philosophy dons there have tended – not without a certain arrogance – to see something of Socrates in themselves: ironic, quick, and impatient with anything that smacks of sophistry (a category they take to include most putative philosophy written in French).
Philosophical style continues to evolve in Europe over the millennium and a half after Plato: from Plato’s dialogues to Aristotle’s treatises, through the world of medieval monks debating (for instance) what it means for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be one person and three, all the way to the man who writes the first truly modern work of philosophy: René Descartes. In the Meditations, he finds a style that comes to serve as a model to philosophers across Europe: personal yet detached, open-minded but never rambling.
Something of the Cartesian spirit of unpretentious, untechnical clarity finds its away across the Channel into Britain: John Locke in England, and a century later, David Hume in Scotland, and yet another century later, John Stuart Mill, all recognizably belong to the same tradition of writing philosophy. They want nothing more than to be clear, even at the cost of exposing their own confusions and vulnerabilities. Their straight-talking style, once a French innovation, for better or worse, comes to mark the distinctively British way of writing philosophy. Significantly, all these figures have a difficult and ambivalent relationship with the universities of their day.
At the same time as Hume is writing his chatty, humane treatises on human nature, all the while denied an academic position in Edinburgh because of his well-known unbelief, a university man in Germany is pursuing a project more ambitious than anything since Aristotle, to create the foundations for a new philosophy, and searching for a style to match it. This is Immanuel Kant, and he finds that nothing he writes will ever be, in the usual sense, readable: ‘I have often been reproached for writing in a philosophical style that is obscure,’ he once ruefully remarks, ‘indeed, I have even been charged with intentionally cultivating and affecting unclarity in order to give the appearance of having had deep insights.’
Alas, he continues, his writing is only as difficult as his subject matter demands: ‘we have to insist on scholastic precision…, even if it is denounced as meticulosity.’ Kant is precise, but not always clear, and never easy. He is the first significant philosopher in western history to be a creature of the university, giving lectures in the day while working away at his books in the evenings.
The German philosophers who come after him are just as deeply invested in the universities where they spent much of their lives. And like Kant, they are famously difficult: in the 19th century, GWF Hegel, and in the 20th century, most notoriously of all, Martin Heidegger. Neither uses a small, familiar word if he can invent a long one instead. Like other features of the British character, plain-speaking needs a foreigner to provide counterpoint, and this time, Germany is happy to oblige.
Cut to the fin-de-siècle. We begin at a funeral in an Essex churchyard in the late summer of 1900. The man being buried is Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), a clergyman’s son who lost his inherited faith but spent his life trying to argue himself back into it. He has vacillated between writing books on philosophy and hunting ghosts, in the hope of finding scientific evidence of an afterlife to satisfy the most hardened rationalist. A Victorian and an insomniac, this still leaves him time to teach, take part in scholarly polemics and struggle vainly to get his university, Cambridge, to accept the equal value of women’s education. All the while, he hovers nervously on the edges of the homoerotic subculture of the late 19th century, but far too straitlaced to dare any actual sex. At his funeral, by his instruction, only these words are spoken: ‘We commend to the love of God with silent prayer the soul of a sinful man who partly tried to do his duty.’
The same week in 1900, another philosopher is being buried in another small churchyard, in the small German village of Röcken, south of Leipzig. This is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who has played as a boy in this churchyard, been elevated at a young age to a fellowship in classical studies, but gradually gets obsessed with a bigger question: what might give life meaning after (as he infamously puts it) the death of God? Some of his work seems poised on the verge of despair, but other parts have all the gaiety and sense of frolic and possibility he perceived in the songs of the troubadours of medieval Europe.
Over twenty years of frenzied thought and writing, he begins to take apart the consciousness of Christian civilization to see what dark facts of human psychology lie beneath, asking if there is a way to affirm human life without turning our backs on the uncomfortable truth about it. The lonely, beleaguered life he leads drives him to madness. He dies a broken man, uncertain if he should ever be understood, alienated from the academic world where he had once shown such promise.
Sidgwick and Nietzsche, the Englishman and the German, the rationalist and the madman, the sinner and the troubadour: neither seems to have known of the other’s existence or writing, even though their lives and concerns were so intertwined. Both of them sons of clergymen, both trained as classical scholars, both preoccupied with questions of faith and doubt and the fate of civilization after the decline of Christianity: as the French thinker Michel Foucault puts it, ‘so many authors who know or do not know one another, criticize one another, invalidate one another, pillage one another, meet without knowing it’. But what a difference there is in their styles, between Sidgwick’s judicious, restrained prose, weighed down by its lawyerly sub- clauses, and Nietzsche’s flamboyant, acerbic, fragmented remarks, alternating between sphinx-like obscurity and lacerating clarity.
Nietzsche’s eccentric first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was structured around an unusual distinction between ‘Apollo’ and ‘Dionysus’. Apollo was civilization, order, determinacy; Dionysus was nature, rapture, and the dissolving of individual identity. Every piece of art, Nietzsche thought, was an attempt to balance these two forces, though very few succeeded. The same might be said of philosophy: Sidgwick was Apollo, trying to bring order to what he once called the ‘chaos’ of our thoughts, Nietzsche Dionysus, insisting on what was chaotic, anarchic and non-rational.
The philosophy of the twentieth century is a series of negotiations between these tendencies. Between pedantry and sloppiness, pomposity and blandness, which is the vice on the right side? Shall I be clear or shall I be deep? (The correct answer, as the old logician’s joke goes, is yes.)
In the course of the twentieth century, the center of the philosophical world moves slowly west, from Germany, through France, through Cambridge, and then, for a few decades after the second world war, to Oxford. Like so much else, the westward movement doesn’t simply stop at the Cotswolds. The combination of money, political power and the influence of émigré intellectuals eventually makes the east (and later, the west) coast of the USA the new centers of philosophical energy, which they still remain. But this book is about the years when the questions first raised by the ancient Greeks were alive in Britain, the years when Socrates wore tweed.