Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Depravity According to Nature": Herman Melville and the Anthropology of Naturalistic Determinism in Billy Budd

"For what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound, such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself? ...In a list of definitions included in the authentic translation of Plato, a list attributed to him, occurs this: "Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature." A definition which tho' savoring of Calvinism, by no means involves Calvin's dogmas as to total mankind. Evidently its intent makes it applicable but to individuals. Not many are the examples of this depravity which the gallows and jail supply. At any rate for notable instances, since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality, one must go elsewhere. Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability. It has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxiliaries. It never allows wine to get within its guard. It is not going too far to say that it is without vices or small sins. There is a phenomenal pride in it that excludes them from anything mercenary or avaricious. In short the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual. It is serious, but free from acerbity. Though no flatterer of mankind it never speaks ill of it. " -Billy Budd , in Chp 11 and 12 (by some divisions) by Herman Melville

Here Melville, if my interpretation is correct, enters on an interesting tangential discussion of a naturalistic anthropology which appears to have its counterpart in current beliefs in genetic determinism. Melville makes the obvious parallel between Calvinistic and naturalistic moral determinism but departs from them by suggesting that it is the case only with certain individuals, specifically in reference to a right understanding of their particular depraved or wicked behavior. He suggests that some people's actions can be understood to have the veneer of rationality while finding their true sources in irrational and natural springs of action. I think he is correct to bring to bear critical light on those who would too easily dismiss naturalistic causes of behavior. Many who favor naturalistic determinism quickly and correctly point out pertinent cases where genetic or physical disturbances in the body clearly exert a compelling force on an individual's behavior, which qualify our attribution of evil to the behavior where elsewhere it would be considered evil without qualification. Melville points out, in the text quoted below, that the out of hand dismissal of "natural depravity" by some is not in harmony with the Biblical understanding of the evil in its references to the mysteries of evil. The Biblical account of human nature here seems most clearly to be the most realistic. There is still the moral tone in the reference to evil but there is also the sophisticated recognition of mystery. As far as Melville remains in speculation and does not assert with certainty the naturalistically determined "evil" he is correct but he errs as far as he may assert the certain knowledge of the wellspring of the human behavior as being naturalistically determined. Certainly in specific cases we can see that a person has been compelled perhaps by brain damage so that his violence has an an apparent mitigating factor. But are we free in all honesty to think of such persons as incapable of moral decision-making at some level perhaps remote from our perception? Neither freewill or nature are adequate in themselves to explain the mystery of lawlessness.

"But the thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound. These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be -- and the aim is never declared -- the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational. Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity according to nature." By the way, can it be the phenomenon, disowned or at least concealed, that in some criminal cases puzzles the courts? For this cause have our juries at times not only to endure the prolonged contentions of lawyers with their fees, but also the yet more perplexing strife of the medical experts with theirs? -- But why leave it to them? Why not subpoena as well the clerical proficients? Their vocation bringing them into peculiar contact with so many human beings, and sometimes in their least guarded hour, in interviews very much more confidential than those of physician and patient; this would seem to qualify them to know something about those intricacies involved in the question of moral responsibility; whether in a given case, say, the crime proceeded from mania in the brain or rabies of the heart. As to any differences among themselves these clerical proficients might develop on the stand, these could hardly be greater than the direct contradictions exchanged between the remunerated medical experts." -Billy Budd , in Chp 11 and 12

Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett suggest that all rational behavior is a mask for subrational behavior, that we are merely colonized by memes in service to genes, mere vehicles for naturalistically determined behavior. Melville describes the naturalistic determinism as rare and applying only to individuals but they take it to apply to all human beings. They appear to be less astute observers of mankind than Melville, applying the doctrines of their worldview systematically and dogmatically to corral the empirical, rather than deriving them from a keen and practical apprehension of human behavior which seems to have been a marked trait of Melville's genius. But Melville seems to be playing with the naturalistic notion speculatively close to the time of the inception of Darwinian theory. Dawkins and Dennett and Wilson and other moderns however are not marked by the speculative tone in their naturalistic anthropologies, a speculative tone that still permeated Darwin's Origin of Species to some extent. Rather, theirs is a priestly dogmatism that broaches no primal assessment of human nature but rather assimilates everything to the narrative without questioning the foundations.

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