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Archive for July, 2015

Florence Nightingale: Stateswoman or Statist?

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 3, 2015

Florence Nightingale, Stateswoman or Statist?

By M.R. Sunwall


As regards Renan, his tone goes against me, though everything he writes interests me.  It is as if he said, “Jesus was an imposter but a very fine fellow too.  And I am a very fine fellow too, to find it out and to admire him quand meme.  He did it all for the best.”

It was Florence Nightingale, who wrote the above words, but Lytton Strachey’s faint praise of Nightingale in Eminent Victorians might be likened to Renan on Christ.  Faint praise is always suspect when applied to subjects far greater in stature than their authors, albeit Strachey is important in his own field of letters.  With only a tad of anachronism, Lytton Strachey could be described as a “left-wing libertarian” or even a “life-style libertarian” who made it his business to debunk the morality of 19th century British opinion makers, thus bestowing on the term “Victorian” much of its subsequent opprobrium.  Turning his critical pen to the revered founder of modern nursing, the Edwardian “anarchist” might have been expected to scrutinize the involvement of Nightingale with multiple levels and departments of the British government.  Instead we have a snarky peek at a woman who is portrayed as eccentric and ill.

It was not that Strachey would have lacked materials to critique Nightingale from a libertarian perspective.  The “modern” in the modern nursing of which Nightingale took so prominent a part in establishing, is tantamount to “state” as opposed to “church” nursing.  Nightingale was a self-conscious participant in the nineteenth century movement to withdraw oversight of social institutions from ecclesiastical and private to state responsibility.  Worse, these reforms were initiated through support of the war effort in Crimea, where she quarreled with Catholic sisters over issues of jurisdiction.  In short, it was a classic church state imbroglio, in which the state, and Nightingale, emerged both victorious and ostentatiously Victorian.

However this is not the critical approach taken by Strachey.  Rather he snipes at her for having what today would be called an “authoritarian personality.”  Perhaps an economical use of this term, coined by German sociologists subsequent to Strachey, would have deprived the Edwardian biographer of the rambling innuendos he deploys at the expense of the founder of modern nursing.  He ridicules her for being moral, self-sacrificing, and religious, for in Strachey’s variant of left-libertarianism (the ideology of the famous Bloomsbury group) a free society can be, or rather must be, built up without morality, self-sacrifice, or religion.  This was the point of disagreement between Strachey and Nightingale, and indeed with the Victorians in general.  Since 20th and 21st century advances in the cause of liberty over those of the 19th century are dubious at best, one can only wonder if Strachey and his Bloomsbury colleagues (including J.M. Keynes) did not err at some fundamental point.

Over the course of the last decades of the 20th century, Gertrude Himmelfarb came to the defense of the Victorians against several intervening generations of accusers, among whom Lytton Strachey figures prominently.  Her premise was that Victorians had virtues, not values.  Himmelfarb stated correctly that values are subjective and in a continual state of flux.  Anyone familiar with the Austrian school of economics will recognize this as the basis of the market process, in short, it is a very good thing since subjectivity underlies the capacity for all exchange and calculation.  The market-friendly Himmelfarb only censures values when they are mistaken for virtues, these latter being those axiomatic moral truths which provoke the highest human aspirations, and less certainly, attainments.  Before this “virtue” economic science must stand mute, never transgressing beyond its core concept of value.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing beyond value, and if pressed honest economists will refer inquirers to philosophy or religion.

If we try to clarify the Victorian mentality using philosophical monikers, one might say that the Victorian opinion leaders were, by and large, Platonists…whether or not they had read a word of Plato in either Greek or translation.  Furthermore, none of them were more deeply dyed in their Platonism than Florence Nightingale.  Long before she embarked on scholarly investigations into the Dialogues with her friend Benjamin Jowett, she held to the kind of untutored Platonism which is characteristic of thoughtful and sincere Christians.  Now Plato has a very bad reputation among libertarians today, and a correspondingly good one among neoconservatives.  There are valid reasons for this, and Plato’s reputation may have suffered more at the hands of his friends (Strauss and company) than his accusers (Popper et al).  The neocon-ized Plato, when he is not brooding inscrutably on existence a la Heidegger, seems to be cheerfully dishing out advice to would-be tyrants bent on regime change.  Since Himmelfarb herself is well connected with the neoconservative cabal, this is not a completely extraneous consideration.

From a libertarian point of view Nightingales reputation seems dubious at best. Statist, Platonist, and authoritarian personality that she appears to be, surely Lytton Strachey’s intuitions were right when he cut her reputation down to size and pictured her as just another quixotic reformer doomed to entanglement and ultimate assimilation by the bureaucratic machine she set out to oppose.  Yet there is something false and cad-like in such a conclusion.  Perhaps it is normative libertarian theory , not Nightingale, which is wrong, at least normative left-libertarian theory.   What if history has played a cruel joke on the freedom movement?  What if Plato had the right metaphysics and the wrong political practice, while subsequent libertarian practice has been vitiated by miserable metaphysics?  Could it be that both libertarian anti-Platonism and neoconservative philo-Platonism have situated themselves at the wrong end of each other’s ideological battleground?

If so, the life and thought of Florence Nightingale ceases to be an ideological anomaly and more like a test case for intellectual coherence.  The Florence Nightingale that the world knows, if the world knows her at all, was the energetic woman who’s active intervention against gross material suffering was remarkable for its celerity and pragmatism.  Yet spiritually she was at the opposite pole of what came to be known, in and after her time, as “pragmatism.”  In fact, she worshipped not at that altar of that fleshly humanity which she served so compassionately, but rather of the transcendental Absolute.  It matters little whether one calls her attitude Platonic or Christian.  We live in an age which is so antithetical to absolutes that not only the Bible but the Platonic corpus have been reinterpreted as charters for “change agents” either of the left or the right.

But for Florence Nightingale the Bible was still the Bible and Plato was still Plato, and in neither case had eternity yet been expelled from a self-sufficient secular world.  Yes, by contemporary libertarian standards she was a statist.  However her statism was not the statism of today, and her Platonism was not the Platonism of the neoconservatives.  Regarding the latter, certainly there was a Greek pagan man named “Plato” who lived in the 4th century B.C., and he may have been thinking deep Greek racial thoughts with Heidegger-like profundity and indignation. However it must be recognized that Platonism as a world-view has been the common coin of civilization since it was figuratively baptized by Augustine at the end of antiquity.

Therefore, when I call Nightingale a Platonist, I simply mean that she lived at a time when it was still possible, epistemologically and metaphysically, to draw the distinction between tyranny and justice inside the orbit of “statecraft” as an overarching category.  Although she was a contemporary of Herbert Spencer, intellectually she was living at least one generation prior to him.  Thus she escaped the cruel dilemma of a stark social evolutionism where all evolutes are free to gain more freedom than others.  For Nightingale the basis of human rights was the objective value imputed to the human soul by its Creator.  This in no sense implied egalitarianism in respect of social functioning, only equality of life and respect.

To gain this “equality of life and respect” for her patients, Nightingale was quick to use all the advantages that the state, science, and her own good fortunes of birth and celebrity bestowed upon her.  Again, this grasping for opportunities ought not to be interpreted as philosophical pragmatism.  She did everything for a higher cause, which is why she made such a tempting target for the hedonist Strachey.  This applies especially to her appropriation of science, and statistics in particular.  Today we see, quite correctly, that statistics serves mainly as a tool for propaganda systems.  However it would be an anachronism to apply this attitude to Nightingale.  For her, statistics was just a modern extension of the mathematics which Plato had thought were such a useful introduction to logical reasoning.

Thus she read her statistical mentor Quetelet’s work as a vindication of causal determinism.  In Nightingale’s mind the improvement of modernity over antiquity was that the concept of lawfulness had been extended down from the level of universals to particulars.  The new science of statistics represented a triumph of the Logos over the chaos of individual arbitrary wills in all their conflicting machinations. This is not to say that when Nightingale herself used statistics she wasn’t adept at using them to mould and change public opinion.  However she did this in the sincere belief that she was adjusting public opinion to an external standard of goodness which transcended her own private will as well as any putative social will.  She operated as a philosopher-king, not a Leninist commissar.  This is a meaningful distinction, and it was a great blunder when Strachey and similar left-libertarians failed to grasp its importance.

Indeed, Strachey’s insistence that the great Victorians were hypocrites seals the case for making a distinction between the philosopher-king and the commissar as types.  He was right, in so far as the Victorians were indeed hypocrites, and the greatest among them had the candor to admit it, at least to themselves.  In fact, holding oneself to an external and objective standard of perfection makes failure not only possible, but inevitable.  The commissar, in contrast, is incapable of hypocrisy since there is no external standard of truth to fail against.  This “commissar” or whatever we want to call the modern propagandistic type of politician, does not come home from a hard day at the office and say “…I tried to be as devious and cunning as I could be but I failed miserably…and it leaves me burdened with a profound sense of guilt.”  Whereas, as anyone who had read some of her private correspondence will agree, Nightingale “failed” every day of her life.

Today’s left libertarian thinkers are less culpable than Strachey and his generation when they conflate the philosopher-king or queen of yore with the modern tyrant of the, left, right, or center.  The amateur philosopher-king was already becoming rare in the Victorian period and today the type has few if any surviving embodiments vis-à-vis the “commissars” i.e. contemporary state/corporate managers.  None the less, it is an important historical distinction and can’t be avoided without needlessly slandering the reputation of famous policy makers who were trying to do their best according to a higher light.

Florence Nightingale is somewhat of a litmus test in that regard.  One of the effects of her work was the expansion and strengthening of the state, and as Strachey notes, she was a creature of her age, the age of the Victorian empire.  Yet her motivating spirit was quite contrary to that of an expansive nationalism.  She believed in a universal sense of justice and human worth, and felt that the public institutions of her day could be harnessed to that end.  But most importantly, she didn’t believe that this universal justice and human worth was based on any sort of human promulgation.  It was against the promulgation of a new “human religion” either national or international, that she wrote her magnum opus, the privately published and neglected Suggestions for Thought.  In it she countered August Compte’s plans for kind of 19th century “new world order” while agreeing with Compte on many humane and practical measures needed to make the world a better place.  Rather the basis of her ethics lay in an order which was neither old nor new but eternal.  It was an order such as a completely objective philosopher might discover through rigorous abstraction…or more likely, an order gratuitously revealed from above by grace.

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