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Conformism-Rebellion Spectrum

The True Believer : Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Eric Hoffer / Paperback / Published 1989
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Heroes & Heretics A Political History of Western Thought
by Barrows Dunham

Durant's book is still in print. You can find new copies in Borders, as well as used ones everywhere, from yellowing, 1970's Pocket Book editions, to well-underlined student copies. He, along with his wife Ariel, also put out a Story of Civilization in 11 volumes that is gathering dust over at Thrasher Books. What an undertaking that would be.

Dunham, on the other hand, is unknown to us these days. He a socialist/communist, was persecuted by the McCarthy hearings in the late '50s, and subsequently lost his professorial position at Temple due to it. (Twenty-six years after a federal court dismissed the charges Temple restored his pension, which they had blocked all that time). All his major works are out of print--including "A Giant in Chains" and "Thinkers and Treasurers"--but during his day he was a big friend of the left, and wrote poetry in his early days, as well as corresponding with Dashiell Hammett among others).

I read these books parallel to each other, with a chapter in Durant on Voltaire being followed by Dunham's take on the man. There wasn't an exact one-to-one correspondence, and often I was with Dunham for a long period before Durant was even in the same century.
Let's have a closer comparison, and break down these books:

Will Durant focuses on philosophy, and just the philosophy, ma'am. He doesn't have any time for Christianity, which he sees as a sort of Orientalist philosophy of resignation brought in around the downward spiral of the Roman Empire. Christianity, to Durant, is all about giving up making a change in this world and pinning all your hopes on the next. Not any way to live, he thinks.

Here's Durant's TOC:
Plato. Aristotle. Bacon. Spinoza. Voltaire. Kant. Schopenhauer. Spencer. Nietzsche. Henri Bergson. Benedetto Croce. Bertrand Russell. George Santayana. William James. John Dewey.

Notice that little jump of, say, 2,000 years between chapters 2 and 3. Hegel gets a look in at the end of the chapter on Kant (mostly to point out that if you think Kant is unreadable, wait until you get a load of this guy.) The last 6 are Durant's choice of modern European and American philosophers, of which probably Russell and Bergson continue to pull some weight. Durant wrote this book in the aftermath of World War One, and doesn't hint at the war to come.

Interestingly, he ends with a oblique critique of American consumerism:

No doubt we have grown faster than nations usually have grown; and the disorder of our souls is due to the rapidity of our development. We are like youths disturbed and unbalanced, for a time, by the sudden growth and experiences of puberty. But soon our maturity will come; our minds will catch up with our bodies, our culture with our possessions. Perhaps there are greater souls than Shakespeare's, and greater minds than Plato's, waiting to be born. When we have learned to reverence liberty as well as wealth, we too shall have our Renaissance.

If you've been to Wal-Mart recently, or up to Rodeo Drive, we haven't matured yet. In fact, we're probably regressing.

Of all the philosophers in the book, I believe it's Voltaire that's closest to his heart. Building on Francis Bacon's thrill of coming out into the Renaissance light and wanting to write about everything, Voltaire not only does that, but carouses with the low- and the high-lifes of his time, is in and out of prison, falls in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman, and ends his days returning to Paris as a celebrity of sorts. What's not to love? After that philosophy becomes a game for miserable academics like Schopenhauer, who thought women were out to get him, and loonies like Nietzsche. Only Russell and Dewey come off as sensible in the last couple of chapters. He certainly isn't too fond of Kant, and tries not to quote him at all, using the excuse, "Kant is the last person in the world that we should read on Kant." (Though he's probably right).

Closest to Dunham's heart is the pre-Christian Jesus--"the leader of an armed movement for national liberation" as he refers to him --- and Joan of Arc, who saved the ass of the King of France and the country itself, led the people to battle, and then ran rings around the Inquisition before being burned at the stake sometime around her 19th birthday. Quite tough competition for any high schooler.

Dunham, who faced the Inquisition of McCarthy, obviously sees a kindred spirit in her, and his writing does her justice. His chapter on her is as good as his chapter on Jesus, at that is one of the best, as an atheist, I've ever read.

But let's step back and look at Dunham's list of "Heroes and Heretics," for as you see, Joan was no philosopher, but she changed the world.

Akhnaton. Socrates. Amos. Jesus. Paul. Marcion. Arius. Athanasius. Pelagius. Zosimus. Vincent. Abelard. Arnold of Brescia. The Cathari. The Waldo. Duns Scotus. John Wyclif. William Tyndale. Joan of Arc. Erasmus. Luther. Calvin. Marc Antonio de Dominis. Copernicus. Bruno. Descartes. Spinoza. Hobbes. Locke. Voltaire. Diderot. De Prades. Kant. Cardinal Newman. John William Colenso. Darwin. Marx. Lincoln. Eugene Debs.

Some of these names will be familiar, some are terrifically obscure. Compiling this list (because it is not determined by chapter headings) I came across some I had completely forgotten. Some heretics disappear in time. Other heretics change the world.

I can't say I was too interested in the section after Paul up to the Enlightenment, for men arguing over the minutiae of a text that was never meant to undergo any sort of logical scrutiny has little worth in my eyes. It is surprising that Dunham dwells on this part of history (the part Durant ignores) after proclaiming himself an agnostic. But he is studying a system and needs the evidence.

This is a book that is not just a history of heresy, but a book that examines the process of heresy and orthodoxy. Philosophy is usually heresy because it is responding to an unjust orthodoxy.

Dunham's writing soars and plunges where Durant's just coasts. He's also quotable. Take this section from his chapter on Luther:

But there are two ways of judging ideology to be important, and they differ as excuse differs from justification. You can invent a doctrine as a public cover for policy, the policy and its motives being of main concern; or, having accepted doctrine as true, you can deduce policy from it. In the first case, doctrine is something specious and ad hoc: the normal relation of theory and practice is reversed, and instead of theory's giving rise to practice, practice gives rise to theory in the form of apologetics. In the second case, doctrine behaves honestly: it is theory enlightening practice by supplying the means to know and the wisdom to choose.

He is writing about Luther here (an example of the second case), but he is also talking about the two types of government. It's something Chomsky would write; it certainly describes the Neo-cons and their policies.

Sections like this as scattered throughout, as are fabulous epigram-like sentences. "Government is legalized violence, and science is peaceful understanding," is one of them.

Of America (the focus of his last chapter) he paints the country as a land created entirely by heretics, but also one that oscillates between the Bill of Rights and the Witch Hunt. The pragmatism in the middle is our strength and our weakness. "...whether [Americans] are dispossessing a slave owner or putting a socialist in jail, it is all on behalf of liberty." Indeed.

Dunham published this in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis. Staring death in the face along with the rest of the world, as well as having stared down the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dunham passes into an optimism that many "survivors" have. In a way, "Heroes and Heretics" is Dunham's "survivor's tale."

He ends with this:

...I do not share the existentialist pessimism which advocates surrender before attempt. We know our future to be uncertain, but more than this we do not know. Where nothing is certain, nothing is doomed, and accordingly we may explore with some confidence certain very attractive possibilities: an abundant life, a peaceful world, all blessings shared with all men. If such tasks seem above our powers, why, so seemed the tasks of every age to the people of it. They grew, however, equal to their tasks--and so can we. While friends are warm and grandsons are glorious, I cannot think the growth will fail. For we are to become (it will be remembered) 'lords and possessors of nature'--lords also and possessors of ourselves.
This is a terrific book. It should be back in print, even if he is a heretic.

(Thanks to Mr. C for the long loaner! I hope I've done the book justice.)

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The Social Psychology of Organizing
Karl E. Weick / Paperback / Published 1979
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Ken Gelder(Editor), Sarah Thornton (Editor) / Paperback / Published 1997
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When Society Becomes an Addict ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
Ann Wilson Scheaf, Anne Schaef / Paperback / Published 1988
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Achieving Society
David C. McClelland(Preface) / Paperback / Published 1985
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The Adoring Audience : Fan Culture and Popular Media
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