Saturday, 21 May 2011

John Fowles: The Aristos (1964, revised 1980)

The title may suggest "À la lanterne les aristos!", the cry of the French revolutionary mob in The Scarlet Pimpernel. But in fact Fowles is using the Greek word aristos, meaning "the best" without the reference to hereditary privilege it now has in its best known English descendant, aristocracy, or being restricted in application to people, as the same word has it. This is a book which describes Fowles' personal philosophy, which is all about the best (in his view) relative to each particular situation. Most of The Aristos originated when Fowles was in his twenties, but the material was revised for its initial publication and again for this edition.

In the introduction, Fowles - who studied French at university - cites his models as French, particularly Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and Chamfort (and also mentioning Montaigne). Having only read Pascal and Montaigne from this list, I can see the relationship, but what The Aristos really reminds me of is André Gide's The Fruits of the Earth, also the product of a university student of great literary ability who was a left-leaning amateur philosopher.

Not that literary quality is particularly apparent here - The Aristos is written in note form. Note form is not unknown in philosophy, obviously, and, true to his influences, The Aristos is much more like Pascal's Pensées than, say, Witgennstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The latter is much harder to read, perhaps because it is even more compressed than the other works. Fowles explains to the reader that the form is used so that it acts as a bald statement of a philosophy, not as an attempt to persuade anyone else through its artistry. This is somewhat disingenuous, as he then almost immediately slips in a rhetorical metaphor, which is perhaps more artistically pleasing than illuminating of his meaning. He says that life is like being adrift on a raft in the middle of an ocean, the point of the image being that there is no way to know the shores beyond the horizon might be like, so likewise there is no real way to be sure about what happened before birth or will happen after death.

Fowles' basic argument in The Aristos is based on his reaction to one of the most famous ideas in Pascal's Pensées. This idea is known as "Pascal's Wager", that the rational man should believe in God, because there is nothing to lose in the next life if he is wrong, and everything to gain if he is right. (This doesn't work for me personally, as I don't see belief as something I can turn on and off as this suggests is necessary; but that is off the topic.) But, Fowles says, in the second half of the twentieth century, after the horrors of the two world wars, to choose to believe in a Christian God is no longer as reasonable, as it is harder to accept the concept of a God who loves his creation, making the choice between belief and atheism less balanced than it was in the seventeenth century. Thus the rational person should assume that this life is all there is; and this in turn means that we have a moral duty to make this life as good as possible for as many as possible, which we can do by aiming to reduce social injustice and inequality.

This may not be convincing (it is rather more so in its full form than summarised as drastically as I have done here). The intention is not so much to convert as to give an alternative to both capitalism and communism, neither of which, in Fowles' opinion, provide both "equal access to the chief sources of happiness" and "the maximum freedom [to the individual] to decide what these sources should be". Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that one or other of the two ideologies will collapse in 1989 if they fail to bring greater equality (picking the date as the two hundredth anniversary of the French revolution): a remarkably prescient prediction, as it turned out.

It could be argued that this philosophy seems rather glib for a writer from a comparatively privileged background: born in the West, well educated (at a time when class distinctions mattered more in British universities than they do today, despite all the fuss about the Oxbridge intake from private schools), well respected in his chosen profession, and so on - a "champagne Socialist". Fowles himself recognises this potential problem, and argues that for the good of society, socialism cannot be left as the province of the poorest workers. His response is to call for us to seek to promote greater equality of opportunity (which he carefully differentiates from equality of innate talent); if we don't do so, he says, we are just selfish and ultimately living futile lives.

The inspiration for The Aristos is explicitly the ideas of Heraclitus, one of the earliest Greek philosophers, whose work survives solely in quotations and descriptions in the writing of others; it is his use of the word aristos which Fowles has followed. Fowles ends his book with an appendix containing the major Heraclitan material, in his own translations: four pages in all but a useful background for the philosophically inclined reader (and I am pretty sure that this is a book which will not attract any other kind).

Is Fowles convincing? Overall, not really, though most people will agree with at least some part of what he has to say. There is much food for thought, and the whole of The Aristos is interesting and readable: the layout may look like the Tractatus, but Fowles is much more easily comprehensible. Clearly an important document for deeper understanding of his fiction, The Aristos is more, as an intelligent person's reaction to the modern wold, it is a fascinating byway in twentieth century philosophy. My rating: 7/10.

Edition: Triad/Granada, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1422

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