Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 1

'Man Goes Mad' is included in this collection


The following quotes are taken from an essay written by R. G. Collingwood in 1936 entitled “Man Goes Mad.” This manuscript was not published during Collingwood’s lifetime and only came to light by the good offices of the editors and Collingwood’s daughter some decades later (as with other selections in the book). Collingwood’s thoughts, as always, are cogent and insightful. It’s a pity that they remained hidden so long, but a joy that they have come to light. The pithy political analysis contained in “Man Goes Mad” shows a profound understanding of the increasingly perilous political and cultural situation at the time Collingwood wrote, a time that our own time in some ways mirrors. I recommend the essay as a whole, of course, but to my knowledge, it’s only available in this book and perhaps one other (i.e., it's not available online). This entry will be the first of several blog posts that will share parts of Collingwood’s essay with some commentary by me.

            Since then [a generation ago] we have lived through a revolution in human thought: a revolution not so much caused, as precipitated and symbolized, by the war of 1914-1918. To the generation that has passed through that experience, those old forecasts of man’s future, and the whole system of ideas on which they rested, seem strangely perverse. For they all assumed that the road which nineteenth-century man was treading led uphill to infinity: whereas we now have seen that it led to the brink of a precipice. Over that brink millions of highly civilized men marched, in the course of a few years, to destruction; and now the whole civilized world trembles upon its edge, doubtful whether to continue the mass-suicide, to retrace its steps, or to find means of staying where it is. [305]

I include this quote because I don’t believe that we can appreciate any social and political critique from Collingwood’s era without appreciating the scars left by the Great War (WWI). But of course, it was not only a matter of looking back upon that catastrophic event (the centenary of which we are now in the midst of) but also a matter of looking at the world around him. Hitler and Mussolini were both ensconced in power, as was Stalin, who was already well into his course of genocide and personal paranoia. Japan had already initiated its wars of expansion into China. America had returned to isolationism as it dealt with the Great Depression, while Britain and France were not prepared to enter into a fight against hostile powers. Fascism and Communisim, not Liberal Democracy, were ascendent in the eyes of many, if not most.  But in addition to this political analysis, we have a cultural shift that continued to reflect a growing unease, a sea-change that began before the Great War, going back even to the late nineteenth-century, and that the War accelerated. Collingwood was not alone in perceiving this as a most unhappy time.

1.       Marks of Madness 
If a man of great intelligence, great bodily strength, and great mental energy, were found working out elaborate schemes for the betterment of his own condition, and throwing all his powers into their realization; and if it were seen, even by himself, that these schemes when realized involved his own impoverishment, misery, and ultimate destruction, and yet he was unable to stop inventing them and carrying them out, psychological medicine would call him the prey of a neurosis, and ordinary people would call him mad. 
That is the condition of civilized man today.
 From this point, Collingwood begins to specify his indictment. He begins with war and how war has changed over the course of time into its (then) current state of totality and destruction. (Of course, with the advent of nuclear weapons and the nearly continual state of war in which the U.S. places itself, imagine what Collingwood would say today.) Collingwood notes that war was once primarily a matter of greed: conquer and take. But now it’s changed:
The modern nation is in the condition of a man who spends every penny that his safe containes in making it burglar-prooof. Modern war is the mutual attempt to burgle these formidable but empty safes. And so obvious has their emptiness become, that a new motive for war has to be invented and fostered by the modern national spriit: no longer greed but fear. In a modern war, no one stands to gain; but every combatant loses, and the defeated nation loses most: it loses the very thing that makes it a nation, namely its power to make war; and therefore any nation, to avoid this ultimate impoverishment, has the right to attack any other of which it is afraid, before it is itself attacked at a time favourable to its enemy. [307]

For instance, in the U.S., Garry Wills demonstrated in his book Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010) how atomic weapons, theirs and ours, have warped many of our government institutions and our political discourse. In other words, what Collingwood identifies has not abated, but increased. And what would be more futile and self-destructive than nuclear war? Consider this as the U.S. (at least in the guise of its president) and North Korea continue to rattle nuclear sabers at one another. 

To be continued . . . .