Social contract theory is most often associated with the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and, especially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose major work was titled The Social Contract. But while the 17th and 18th-centuries were the hey-day of the theory, original work on “the social contract” is still being written in the 21st.
Perhaps the most prominent modern social contract theorist was the late Harvard professor John Rawls.* His most famous work is the 1971 book A Theory of Justice. In it, Rawls devised the famous thought experiment involving the “veil of ignorance.” Ask yourself, Rawls proposed, what you think the best political system would look like. Should there be “big government” or a decentralized state? Large welfare programs or pure market capitalism? Then, ask the same question again. But this time imagine that you have no idea what your social standing, income or talent level are going to be in the new state. What do you think should be done now?
This was certainly original, but what sets it apart most clearly from earlier theories is how abstract it is. When Hobbes wrote that the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” he was experiencing something very similar: the English Civil War, which was raging while he wrote the Leviathan. For Hobbes, then, nature was very much “red in tooth and claw,” as the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in the 1850 poem “In Memoriam.” This is why his social contract theory is founded on the inevitability of violence and struggle. For Rawls, looking out on the greenery of Harvard Square, the social contract is founded on open discussion and honest self-reflection. Even in the purest works of philosophy, it seems, circumstances matter.
Stem cell research is developing constantly, and there’s always an exciting new development to report. One of these was announced just this morning: the derivation of embryonic stem cells from unfertilized eggs.
As mentioned in today’s entry of The Intellectual Devotional, “stem cells have the unique ability to differentiate themselves into other specialized cells.” As a result, they can be used to harvest replacement tissue for a variety of medical purposes: new organs can potentially be created; damaged spinal cords can be repaired; regions of the brain damaged by stroke can be regenerated. But, as with any graft or transplant, there is danger of rejection: rather than being integrated into the body, alien tissue would be attacked by its immune system. Today’s announcement solves this problem, at least for women. Embryonic stem cells harvested from unfertilized eggs would be a perfect genetic match for the donor.
The use of unfertilized eggs also sidesteps a significant ethical dilemma. Because the eggs aren’t fertilized by human sperm, there is no question of their developing into mature human beings. The debate over embryonic stem cells certainly isn’t over, but a significant (and ethically neutral) avenue of research has just been opened.
Read about this new research in the journal Cloning and Stem Cellshere.
At the end of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab finally encounters his White Whale. In the years before and since, marine biologists have pursued the same species, and usually with better luck. Sperm whales have been photographed and filmed, and they’ve even had cameras attached to their heads to gain a “whale’s-eye view.” This research has been conducted for years, and with greater and greater success. The true prize for marine biologists has been to observe a living specimen of the sperm whale’s great antagonist and rival: the giant squid.
Almost twenty years after Melville published Moby-Dick, the French author Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a book that did for the giant squid what Melville had done for the sperm whale. Sailors had reported sightings of the great beast, but scientists had never been able to photograph or film a living specimen. The filmmaker Errol Morris devoted an episode of his series First Person to Clyde Roper, an invertebrate zoologist who has has sought, with Ahab’s tenacity, to be the first person to see a living giant squid. Unfortunately for Clyde, he didn’t achieve that goal. But, fortunately for us, the Japanese scientists who did finally see a giant squid caught it on film.
The first photographs of a giant squid were captured in September 2004. It wasn’t until late last year, though, that a living giant squid was captured on film by the same team of researchers. You can watch the video, not yet a year old, right here:
Watch First Person, a television series by Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris, here.
You’d think that works by artists recognized as “great” would be easy enough to track down, but that’s not always the case. Would it shock you to know that the majority of Orson Welles’ films are not available on DVD? Many people think Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, but it was only Welles’ first film and it’s often difficult to track down his later ones. The same can be said of Ludwig van Beethoven. He is considered one of the great masters of classical music, along with Bach, Brahms, Mozart and very few others. He was also a prodigious artist, composing over 380 catalogued works. Remarkably, there are also hundreds of works that have never been recorded, and some that haven’t even been published.
Well, as familiar with the web as The Devoted Intellectual has become over the years, there are still shocking little discoveries to be had. One of these was “The Unheard Beethoven,” a website started by Willem Holsbergen and Mark S. Zimmer. Holsbergen, a Dutch composer, and Zimmer, a tax attorney from Wisconsin, met online in a Beethoven chat room in 1997. Eventually, they moved from trading sheet music of rare Beethoven works to converting those works into MIDI files. This simple, no-frills format doesn’t approach the work of a trained orchestra but it allowed two amateur enthusiasts to do what the professional music establishment couldn’t: make every last work by Beethoven available for fans to hear.
As it happened, the professionals listened too. In 1999, Holsbergen posted a MIDI of Beethoven’s “Macbeth Overture,” an eight minute recording pieced together from various incomplete works. One of the people who heard it was Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. The National Symphony performed the work, for the first time ever, in 2001.
One of the great pleasures of studying art history is watching the conversations that take place, across continents and centuries, between the great artists. Painters themselves are deeply aware of their predecessors’ work. Once an iconic image has been created no future artist can ignore it. One of the great iconic images of all Western art is Francisco de Goya’s Third of May 1808 (above), a depiction of Spanish peasants being massacred by Napoleon’s soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, the French painter Éduoard Manet (considered by some an Impressionist and by others a Post-Impressionist*) wanted to depict another firing squad. In many ways, his paintings were a direct response to Goya’s earlier work.
In the early 1860′s, the United States was fully occupied by its Civil War. This was one of the bloodiest wars in history up until that point, and the Union Army could not possibly engage in another conflict. Aware of this distraction, Napoleon III of France took the opportunity to increase his influence in North America. In 1861, President Benito Juárez of Mexico passed a law that ended the repayment of Mexican debts to European nations. Napoleon III responded by invading Mexico and installing the Austrian noble Maximilian von Habsburg as Emperor.
The intervention was a disaster. By 1865, the French military was on the retreat, and the end of the American Civil War meant that the United States might intervene on Mexico’s behalf. In February of 1867, Napoleon III withdrew all the remaining French troops. Maximilian was stranded. He was tried for treason by the Mexican government, found guilty, and executed on June 19, 1867.
Manet was deeply moved by these events and made five works depicting them. The most complete existing work is Death of Maximilian (below) which Manet completed in February 1869. It is one of Manet’s greatest works, but he still felt a need to respond to his Spanish predecessor. In Goya’s painting, the central Spanish peasant is a paragon of innocence: his hands are outstretched in a pose that recalls Christ on the cross, and his shirt is a shock of white on an otherwise dark canvas. Manet was much more ambivalent about his subject: Maximilian is robed in black, a point emphasized by the white shirts of his collaborators.
But the clearest response to the Third of May is in the depiction of the executioners. Like Goya, Manet depicts his executioners as an undifferentiated mass. The soldiers are nearly indistinguishable one from the other, unlike the uniquely traced victims. But Manet complicates this picture. He sets one of the executioners off to the side, holding a rifle that will administer the “coup de grâce” if it is needed. Like Maximilian, this soldier wears an expression of complete equanimity. What did Manet mean by this? Maybe another artist will shed some light in a great work to come.
In 2006, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited five of Manet’s works depicting the execution of Maximilian. View the “Online Exhibition” here.
Before publishing his general Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, Leon Festinger documented a particularly elaborate instance of the phenomenon: a Chicago housewife named Marion Keech received a message that the world was going to end in a gigantic flood on December 21, 1955 and convinced a large group that she was right. They gathered on the evening of December 20 to await a UFO that would fly them to safety. Midnight came. The deluge didn’t.
A group of researchers infiltrated the group of believers to observe how they would respond to this disappointment. (They rightly assumed that the flood wouldn’t occur.) According to the theory that he would formulate the following year, the participants would more readily come up with an alternative explanation than admit their mistake and act accordingly. That is exactly what occurred. Mrs. Keech received another message at 4:45 a.m. on December 21: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their vigil was not in vain: it had saved the world.
Festinger described this experiment in a 1956 book titled When Prophecy Fails. It was a uniquely rigorous study of the phenomena, but it certainly wasn’t the first time that a time a widely publicized prophecy didn’t come true. In 1844, for instance, an American divine named William Miller and his followers convened on the mountaintops of America to await a flood that was meant to arrive on October 22. It didn’t. (Miller called this “The Great Disappointment.”) Of course, not all failed prophecies are so apocalyptic. After all, didn’t you avoid elevators on Y2K?
Modern adaptations of “classic” works are common enough, especially at the movies. But, whether it’s a straight adaptation (like O, an Othello with Josh Hartnett) or a comedy (like Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen’s brilliant spoof on Greek drama) these movies are obviously serving up something other than the usual Hollywood fare. Every once in a while, though, a classic is so “modern” that it’s hard to believe the story you’re watching is centuries old. How many fans of Clueless are shocked to learn that it’s based on a Jane Austen novel?* Austen may have been born in the eighteenth century, but few novelists have such a modern perspective.
Another 19th-century writer with a 21st-century outlook is Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of the short story and the stage. His play Uncle Vanya was itself an adaptation of The Wood Demon, a play that Chekhov wrote nearly a decade earlier. Over a century after that play was written, the French director Louis Malle adapted Chekhov’s adaptation into one of the most original films of the 90′s: Vanya on 42nd Street.
The film began when director Louis Malle went to a humble New York City performance of Uncle Vanya. Wallace Shawn, the actor who worked with Malle on My Dinner with Andre, gathered some friends to perform Uncle Vanya at the smallest venues they could find. (They even performed it at friends’ apartments!) Malle saw one of these performances and convinced Shawn that they should film it. After rounding out the cast with George Gaynes, Brooke Smith and Julianne Moore, they set out to work.
The movie is actually about the rehearsal for a performance of Uncle Vanya. There are no costumes or sets: just New Yorkers chatting at a plain table in an empty theater. The relevance of Chekhov’s themes – and filmmaker David Mamet’s modern translation – makes it hard to remember the play’s original setting: a 19th-century Russian estate. It could have taken place the day the movie was filmed, or centuries earlier.