Pages

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s fascinating novel A Canticle for Leibowitz has profound philosophical and psychological insights, and it offers a bitter description of the ultimate fate of mankind.

The novels opens 600 years after the civilization as we know it has been destroyed in a global thermonuclear war. The few survivors have very little knowledge of the cause of the conflict, or its history. They are not even sure who started it. The worse thing is that they don’t have the knowledge of the scientific advancements that civilization had made before the great war destroyed everything—theirs is a world of candles, horses and mules. There are no computers and all record keeping is through quill pens, and their wars are fought with arrows, knives, and swords.

As the centuries go by, new philosophical, political, and scientific knowledge is discovered—once again there is progress. Eventually thermonuclear weapons are discovered and then there is another great thermonuclear war, and once again all the gains that mankind has made is wiped out. Here’s an excerpt from Page 245 (chapter 25):
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. 
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? 
This time, it will swing us to oblivion, he thought.
However, the novel ends on a bright note. Mankind does not give up after the devastation. Hope rides among the survivors. They once again make an attempt to develop knowledge and improve the condition of life on earth.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

MacIntyre’s Critique of Liberalism

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. In his Prologue titled “After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century,” he offers a critique of liberalism:
My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. 
But in the following paragraph, he notes that his critique of liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on his part for contemporary conservatism. He writes: “That conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. And, where liberalism by permissive legal enactments has tried to use the power of the modem state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactments now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes.”

Saturday, April 20, 2019

On Rewriting the Past

Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten." (Part I; "Lost Letters"; Page 22)
Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting deals with the theme of the Czechoslovakians opposing the communist regime in different ways. He shows that to laugh and to forget are political acts, as the angels and devils are the embodiment of political beings.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Hobbes and Origins of Modernity

Thomas Hobbes
Leo Strauss notes that Thomas Hobbes cannot be ignored with impunity because he is the originator of modernity. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “On the Basis of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy,” (Chapter 7; What is Political Philosophy? by Leo Strauss):
Nietzsche, who abhorred the modern ideas, saw very clearly that those ideas are of British origin. The admirer of Schopenhauer thought it equitable to look down with contempt on the British philosophers, in particular on Bacon and on Hobbes. Yet Bacon and Hobbes were the first philosophers of power, and Nietzsche’s own philosophy is philosophy of power. Was not “the will to power” so appealing because its true ancestry was ignored? Only Nietzsche’s successors restored the connection, which he had blurred, between the will to power and technology. But this connection is clearly visible in the origins of that philosophic tradition which Nietzsche continued or competed: the British tradition.  
It has become necessary to study Hobbes as the originator of modernity, i.e., to take his claim seriously. That is to say, if we understand ourselves correctly, we see that our perspective is identical with Hobbes’s perspective. Modern philosophy emerged in express opposition to classical philosophy. Only in the light of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns can modernity be understood. By rediscovering the urgency of this quarrel, we return to the beginnings of modernity. Our perspective becomes identical with that of Hobbes, in so far as his perspective is not limited by his answer, the acceptance of the modern principle, but extends to his question, which is the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.
According to Strauss, Hobbes broke completely with the pre-modern heritage and ushered in a new type of social doctrine: the modern type.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

On Reason

Brand Blanshard begins his book Reason & Analysis with the following perspective on the concept of ‘reason’:

"Unfortunately it means many things. For the philosopher it commonly denotes the faculty and function of grasping necessary connections. The function is seen in its most obvious form in
reasoning, in the deductions, for example, of the logician and the mathematician. This may be taken as the narrowest and nuclear meaning of the term. But there radiate out from it a large number of subsidiary meanings. Reason for many writers shows itself not only in the linkage of propositions, but also in the grasp of single truths, provided these are necessary truths; the insight that two straight lines cannot enclose a space would be as truly an insight of reason as any demonstration in Euclid. Sometimes the meaning of reason and cognate terms is further extended to include reasonings that are less than necessary, such as inferences from past to future. Mr Ayer writes: ‘for us, “being rational" entails being guided in a particular way by past experience’; and Mr. Feigl goes as far as to say: the procedure of induction, therefore, far from being irrational, defines the very essence of rationality.’ Sometimes reason is broadened again to describe the sceptical and reflective turn of mind generally. For Hobhouse it is ‘that which requires proofs for assertions, causes for effects, purposes for action, principles for conduct, or, to put it generally, thinks in terms of grounds and consequences. Reason in the widest sense of all, says Thomas Whittaker, is the relational element in intelligence, in distinction from the element of content, sensational or emotional,' and he points out that both the Greek term [Greek] and the Latin ratio, from which reason has largely drawn its meaning, were sometimes used to denote simply ‘relation or ‘order’."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Maimonides’ Statement on Political Science

Bas Relief of Maimonides
Leo Strauss has commented extensively on the work of the 13th-century philosopher, Moses Maimonides. He found great inspiration in Maimonides’ book The Guide for the Perplexed.

I recently read Strauss’ 1953 essay, “Maimonides’ Statement on Political Science” (Chapter 6; What is Political Philosophy? by Leo Strauss). In this essay, Strauss is primarily looking at the work in which Maimonides has discussed the subject matter as well as the function of political science, the Treatise on the Art of Logic.

Strauss notes three difficulties in the study of Maimonides’ Treatise: “Maimonides rejects the books of the philosophers on politics proper as useless for “us” “in these times.” Also, he divides politics proper in an unusual manner. And finally, while assigning the study of the virtues to ethics, he assigns the understanding of happiness, not to ethics, the first part of practical philosophy, but to politics proper, the last part of the practical philosophy.”

The important points that Strauss notes in the Treatise are: “Maimonides directs our attention first to the difference between political societies in regard to size. He then directs our attention to the their differences in regard to religion. He finally directs our attention to their differences in regard to the presence or absence of laws. He thus forces us to consider the effects produced upon the character of laws by the change from paganism to revealed religion.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Utopianism and The Doctrine of Perfectibility

The idea of transforming the nature of human beings to create a utopia has been in disrepute for a long time now. Gertrude Himmelfarb makes some interesting comments on utopianism in Chapter 9, “History and the Idea of Progress,” of her book The New History and the Old. Here’s an excerpt:
The ideal of a utopia not only belittles any kind of progress that can be achieved short of utopia, making anything less than perfection seem radically evil, but the pursuit of that idea—whether in the form of absolute reason, absolute liberty, absolute virtue, or any combination of these—makes it all too easy to justify the use of absolute power. 
The only kind of utopia that escapes this fatal perversion is a religious one that is avowedly otherworldly. This suggests that it is not utopianism itself that is dangerous; what is dangerous is a utopianism that locates its ultimate ideal, its dream of perfection, in this world. The religious imagination at its best is able to retain the spark of divinity, the transcendent vision of perfection, without seeking to realize it on earth.

Monday, April 15, 2019

On A Philosopher’s World

Leo Strauss believed that a Socratic philosopher rigorously stakes out and maintains a position of detachment from human beings, but his detachment is compatible with his attachment to human beings because philosophy is motivated and continuously renewed by the human experience. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” (Chapter 4; What is Political Philosophy And Other Studies by Leo Strauss):
But if the philosopher is radically detached from human beings as human beings, why does he communicate his knowledge, or his questionings, to others? Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher does not even know the way to the market place, almost constantly in the market place? Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher barely knows whether his neighbor is a human being, so well informed about so many trivial details regarding his neighbors? The philosopher's radical detachment from human beings must then be compatible with an attachment to human beings. While trying to transcend humanity (for wisdom is divine) or while trying to make it his sole business to die and to be dead to all human things, the philosopher cannot help living as a human being who as such cannot be dead to human concerns, although his soul will not be in these concerns. The philosopher cannot devote his life to his own work if other people do not take care of the needs of his body. Philosophy is possible only in a society in which there is "division of labor." The philosopher needs the services of other human beings and has to pay for them with services of his own if he does not want to be reproved as a thief or fraud.
Strauss points out that a philosopher has to go to the marketplace because he needs to fish for potential philosophers with whom he can discuss his ideas. Preaching and discussing philosophy is a philosopher's most basic need.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

On Marxist Historians

Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Marxist history is a continuation of politics by other means. Here’s an excerpt from her book The New History and the Old (Page 88-89):
It is this idea of history more than anything else—more than the specific ideas about class and class struggle, consciousness and culture, mode of production and social relations—that is the common denominator of Marxist history. Marxist historians can be revisionist about almost everything else in the Marxist canon, but they cannot separate politics from history. They cannot abandon, or even hold in abeyance, their political agenda of changing the world while engaged in the historical task of interpreting it. 
The Marxist historians are so assured of their thesis that they tend to invoke arguments that they already know to be correct. By the same token, the Marxists avoid invoking arguments and facts that they know to be true because they don't want to undermine the orthodox Marxist doctrine or divert from their polemical agenda.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Dandies and Drudges

Photo of Carlyle (1860)
In his novel Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle describes two sects, Dandies and Drudges, the first worshipping money and the trappings of gentlemanliness, and the second slaving to keep barely clothed and fed:
“Such are the two Sects which, at this moment, divide the more unsettled portion of the British People; and agitate that ever-vexed country. To the eye of the political Seer, their mutual relation, pregnant with the elements of discord and hostility, is far from consoling. These two principles of Dandiacal Self-worship or Demon-worship, and Poor–Slavish or Drudgical Earth-worship, or whatever that same Drudgism may be, do as yet indeed manifest themselves under distant and nowise considerable shapes: nevertheless, in their roots and subterranean ramifications, they extend through the entire structure of Society, and work unweariedly in the secret depths of English national Existence; striving to separate and isolate it into two contradictory, uncommunicating masses. 
“In numbers, and even individual strength, the Poor–Slaves or Drudges, it would seem, are hourly increasing. The Dandiacal, again, is by nature no proselytizing Sect; but it boasts of great hereditary resources, and is strong by union; whereas the Drudges, split into parties, have as yet no rallying-point; or at best only co-operate by means of partial secret affiliations. If, indeed, there were to arise a Communion of Drudges, as there is already a Communion of Saints, what strangest effects would follow therefrom! Dandyism as yet affects to look down on Drudgism: but perhaps the hour of trial, when it will be practically seen which ought to look down, and which up, is not so distant. 
“To me it seems probable that the two Sects will one day part England between them; each recruiting itself from the intermediate ranks, till there be none left to enlist on either side. Those Dandiacal Manicheans, with the host of Dandyizing Christians, will form one body: the Drudges, gathering round them whosoever is Drudgical, be he Christian or Infidel Pagan; sweeping up likewise all manner of Utilitarians, Radicals, refractory Pot-wallopers, and so forth, into their general mass, will form another. I could liken Dandyism and Drudgism to two bottomless boiling Whirlpools that had broken out on opposite quarters of the firm land: as yet they appear only disquieted, foolishly bubbling wells, which man’s art might cover in; yet mark them, their diameter is daily widening: they are hollow Cones that boil up from the infinite Deep, over which your firm land is but a thin crust or rind! Thus daily is the intermediate land crumbling in, daily the empire of the two Buchan–Bullers extending; till now there is but a foot-plank, a mere film of Land between them; this too is washed away: and then — we have the true Hell of Waters, and Noah’s Deluge is out-deluged!”
I think Carlyle sounds like Karl Marx in these lines. He is predicting a polarization of classes—concentration of wealth in the hands of the dandies and the pauperization of the drudges.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Natural Right and Teleology

Leo Strauss, in his Introduction to his book Natural Right and History, suggests that a study of teleology in nature is important because the idea of natural right depends on it. Here’s an excerpt:
Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the nonteleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved.
This means that, according to Strauss, there are two options—first, we take a nonteleological view of both natural science and the science of man, and the second is that we become dualists, which means a teleological view of the science of man, and a nonteleological view other natural sciences.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Translation of ‘The Upanishads’

I am reading Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the thirteen principal Upanishads, published by Penguin under the title The Upanisads. I have finished the first chapter, which is a translation of the Isa Upanishad. I think this is overall a fine translation—it reads better than the two translations by other scholars that I had read earlier.

Here’s an excerpt from the Roebuck’s Introduction to the book:
The Upanishads are surely among the world’s most influential creative works. Not only did they play a large part in shaping Hinduism as it is today, but the debates that they helped to initiate also influenced, either directly or by reaction, the development of the other South Asian religious traditions, including Buddhism. In the last two centuries they have also begun to influence religious and philosophical thought outside Asian cultural areas. Probably at least half the people in the world have been affected in some way by the ideas of the Upanisads. 
I have always spelled the word as “Upanishads,” but Roebuck is using “Upanisads”.

Firefly Theme Song: The Ballad of Serenity

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me.

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain't comin back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can't take the sky from me.

There's no place, I can be,
Since I've found Serenity.
But you can't take the sky from me.

~ Written by Joss Whedon and performed by Sonny Rhodes

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

On Ayn Rand’s Clean Shaven Acolytes

I don’t know of any major scholar of Ayn Rand’s objectivist school who is bearded or even has a mustache. Isn’t it strange that from 1958 (when Rand founded objectivism) till today, not a single man with facial hair has gained prominence in objectivism? In her book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jennifer Burns links the anti-facial hair trend in objectivist scholars to Rand’s personal preferences:
Striving to become good Objectivists, Rand’s followers tried to conform to her every dictate, even those that were little more than personal preferences. Rand harbored a dislike of facial hair, and accordingly her followers were all clean shaven. (Chapter 8: “Love is Exception Making”)
Rand’s literature is highly individualistic and yet she founded a philosophical school which thrives on group thinking and does not tolerate any kind of dissent. If Burns is right then the objectivists defer to Rand not only on philosophical issues but even in matters of personal appearance. They can’t think for themselves.

In his book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Chris Matthew Sciabarra suggests that there is a cultural reason behind Rand's dislike for facial hair:
29. On Rand’s attitudes toward facial hair as symptomatic of “a spiritual defect,” see B. Branden 1986, 208. Though one might dismiss Rand’s dislike of facial hair as a matter of personal taste, it is interesting to note that the wearing of the beard had deep significance in Russian cultural history. Modeled after the icons of the saints, the wearing of the beard was a traditional practice of Orthodox religious ritual. When Peter the Great ushered in an era of Westernization, he introduced laws against such Orthodox beards. In 1705 Peter imposed taxes and license fees on those who chose to remain unshaven. The cultural battle between the “beards” and the “non-beards” was a battle between the Orthodox-Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Willis 1977, 686; Wallace 1967, 156, 161. Rand’s preference for a clean-shaven appearance may have reflected her general esteem for the Westernizers. (Page 404, n29)
The irony is that Aristotle, the only philosopher to whom Rand has acknowledged a philosophical debt, supports a thick beard, whereas Immanuel Kant, condemned by Rand as the most evil man in mankind’s history, is clean shaven.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Gnosticism and The Nature of Modernity

Eric Voegelin defines Gnosticism as a type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery over reality—it relies on a claim to gnosis and considers its knowledge not subject to criticism.

In the modern world, Gnosticism takes immanentizing forms as in the case of Marxism. Voegelin notes that while the Gnostics tend to make a claim to special knowledge through intuitions of an intellectual kind, their claims can also take emotional or volitional forms. For instance, an emotional gnostic can make a claim that he has grasped the truth through the feelings of his heart, or a volitional gnostic may assert that his own will in perfectly attuned to the will of God and therefore his insights and wishes are a revelation of God’s will.

Here’s an excerpt from Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics:
The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. This expansion will engage the various human faculties; and, hence, it is possible to distinguish a range of Gnostic varieties according to the faculty which predominates in the operation of getting this grip on God.  Gnosis may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling.  Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. (Page 124) 
According to Voegelin, the gnostic feels a sense of alienation from his present world and pines for a deliverance from it. The deliverance can only come from a transformation of the aspirant or of his world.

Monday, April 8, 2019

On Race and Culture

Thomas Sowell
In Race and Culture: A World View, Thomas Sowell offers a different perspective on ethnic and race related issues. He begins the book by noting that “the history of cultural differences among peoples enables us to understand not only how particular peoples differ but also how cultural patterns in general effect the economic and social advancement of the human race.” He rejects the conventional social science wisdom that environment plays a role in molding peoples minds:
A particular people usually has its own particular set of skills for dealing with the economic and social necessities of life—and also its own particular set of values as to what are the higher and lower purposes of life. These sets of skills and values typically follow them wherever they go. Despite prevailing “social science” approaches which depict people as creatures of their surrounding environment, or as victims of social institutions immediately impinging on them, both emigrants and conquerers have carried their own patterns of skills and behavior—their cultures—to the farthest regions of the planet, in the most radically different societies, and these patterns have often persisted for generations or even centuries.
In the book’s chapters there is an examination of issues such as migration, slavery, economic behavior, intelligence and political participation. Sowell says that the normative consequences of slavery, subjugation and imperialism have not been as negative as what the historians and social scientists have been suggesting. However, his focus in the book is primarily on those aspects of culture which provide the material requirements of life. In the Preface, he defines culture as the “specific skills, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes toward education and entrepreneurship—in short, what economists call ‘human capital”. On the term “race,” he says that it is a biological concept and a social reality, even though genetics is not destiny.

According to Sowell, cultures are not erased by crossing a political border, or even an ocean, nor do they necessarily disappear in later generations which adopt the language, dress, and outward lifestyle of a country. I think, he does not have the answers to all the questions, but this is an interesting book and its ideas need to be examined closely.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Waiting for Godot

In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, endless 'waiting' is projected as a type of action. The opening sequence shows two aging and weary characters, Vladimir and Estragon, at a country road waiting for someone called Godot whose status is not clear. Here’s an exchange between them:

Estragon: Let's go.
Vladimir: We can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.
Estragon: (despairingly). Ah!

At the end of Act I, the appearance of the boy sums up the uncertainties of waiting. The boy has a message from Godot, but the message is meaningless:

Boy: (in a rush). Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow.
Vladimir: Is that all?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Silence.
Vladimir: You work for Mr. Godot?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: What do you do?
Boy: I mind the goats, sir.
Vladimir: Is he good to you?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: He doesn't beat you?
Boy: No, sir, not me.
Vladimir: Whom does he beat?
Boy: He beats my brother, sir.
Vladimir: Ah, you have a brother?
Boy: Yes, sir.
Vladimir: What does he do?
Boy: He minds the sheep, sir.
Vladimir: And why doesn't he beat you?
Boy: I don't know, sir.
Vladimir: He must be fond of you.
Boy: I don't know, sir.

In Act II, Vladimir explicitly boasts, “We have kept our appointment, and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?” From some of the lines that they speak, it seems that Vladimir may have the potential to be a thinker and Estragon could have been a poet, but while they wait for Godot, their energies and passions are ebbing and they are decaying at a physical and psychological level.

But they keep waiting for Godot because it gives them something to do. The waiting brings some kind of a meaning to their life. Till the end of the play, the status of Godot remains uncertain, implying that the identity of Godot is not as important as the act of waiting for him. Perhaps Vladimir and Estragon have imagined Godot so that they may wait for him. In the final lines of the play, they are thinking of hanging themselves but they can’t because they don’t have a rope.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Does Truth Prevail?

Leo Strauss
In his discussion of the connection between historical knowledge and political philosophy, Leo Strauss says:
If, however, we do not worship “success” as such, we cannot maintain that the victorious cause is necessarily the cause of truth. For even if we grant that truth will prevail in the end, we cannot be certain that the end has already come. ~ (What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies by Leo Strauss; Page 61) 
I think this is a good point—history has no beginning or an end and therefore the old cliche that truth will prevail in the end has no meaning.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Leaving the Yellow House

Saul Bellow
An elderly and self-destructive dipsomaniac lives in a yellow house. She is lonely, prone to self-deception, and incapable of talking care of herself. Some of her neighbors tell her that they will care for her if she leaves her house to them. But she does not want to give them the house.

When her condition worsens after an accident, she is forced to look back into her past and examine the key events. She thinks of many people but she is unable to remember anyone to whom she can leave the house. Finally, she decides to leave the house to the only person that she cares for—herself.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that she writes to her lawyer:

“It is too soon! Too soon! Because I do not find it in my heart to care for anyone as I would wish. Being cast off and lonely, and doing no harm where I am. Why should it be? This breaks my heart. In addition to everything else, why must I worry about this, which I must leave? I am tormented out of my mind. Even though by my own fault I have put myself into this position. And I am not ready to give up on this. No, not yet. And so I’ll tell you what, I leave this property, land, house, garden and water rights, to Hattie Simmons Waggoner. Me! I realize this is bad and wrong. It cannot happen. Yet it is the only thing I really wish to do, so may God have mercy on my soul.”

After writing the letter to her lawyer, she goes to bed. Her last thoughts, before she falls asleep: “But I won’t be selfish from the grave. I’ll think again tomorrow.” Saul Bellow’s Leaving the Yellow House is a pessimistic story, but I think most readers can empathize with the protagonist Hattie Simmons Waggoner.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Allan Bloom, Gilbert Ryle, and Plato’s Republic

Allan Bloom
I have found an interesting war of words between Gilbert Ryle and Allan Bloom. Ryle did a nasty review (titled “If Plato Only Knew,” November 6, 1969, NYT) of Bloom’s book The Republic of Plato. On Bloom’s interpretive essay, Ryle says in his review:

“Bloom also provides 130 pages of an “Interpretive (sic) Essay.” This Essay is not a bit satisfactory. It has the outward appearance of a running précis of the Republic, but it constantly slides, without signals, into speculative elucidations, into objections, and into expressions of Bloom’s own sentiments, including some understandably anti-utopian ones. He ought to warn the student that it is not in Plato’s but in Bloom’s mind that “Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we call utopianism…”

Bloom responded to Ryle’s attack with an article titled “Plato,” (April 9, 1970, NYT). Calling Ryle’s review of his book frivolous, Bloom says: “In themselves Ryle’s opinions are beneath consideration, but they do deserve diagnosis as a symptom of a sickness which is corrupting our understanding of old writers and depriving a generation of their liberating influence.”

He goes on to deliver a coup de grace to Ryle’s review with this observation:

“The usual criticism of men of Ryle’s persuasion is that they are dry and unable to deal with important problems. Although this is largely an accurate description, the decisive objection to them is that they lack that very precision on which they pride themselves. They do so because they lack a sufficient motive for care: they do not hope to find the truth in the books they read.”

I am currently reading Bloom’s interpretive essay on Plato’s Republic and I find his perspective quite interesting.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

On The Philosophic Desire, or Eros

The title essay in Leo Strauss’s book What is Political Philosophy: And Other Studies must rank among one of the most important essays on political philosophy. Strauss is not a utopian and his vision of political philosophy is based on an unorthodox understanding of history and culture. In this essay, he displays more classical liberal spirit than the liberals and libertarians who dislike him. There are several quoteworthy passages in the essay, but in this post I will put this one:

“Men are constantly attracted and deluded by two opposite charms: the charm of competence which is engendered by mathematics and everything akin to mathematics, and the charm of humble awe, which is engendered by meditation on the human soul and its experiences. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to succumb to either charm. It is the highest form of the mating of courage and moderation. In spite of its highness or nobility, it could appear as Sisyphean or ugly, when one contrasts its achievement with its goal. Yet it is necessarily accompanied, sustained and elevated by eros. It is graced by nature's grace.” (“What is Political Philosophy?”; Page 40)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

On Totalitarian Liberalism

Lord Acton
Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville rejected the utopian dreams of the eighteenth century philosophers. They understood that a project for creating heaven on earth will always lead to the creation of a hell. Here’s an excerpt from her Introduction to Essays on Freedom and Power by Lord Acton:

"Acton's political ideas have been compared with those of Burke and Tocqueville. All three were concerned with the practical conditions favoring liberty, and were suspicious of the rationalist frame of mind which desired to impose liberty, as a ready-made set of doctrines, upon a supposedly compliant and reasonable society. They feared men's power more than they trusted men's ideals. They anticipated no miracle of happiness on earth, no "heavenly city" such as the eighteenth century philosophers dreamt of. Instead they distrusted these dreams. For if the heavenly city was a utopian vision, a hell on earth was not, and in the excesses of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, they saw the inevitable judgment on the sin of pride. They appreciated the enormous complexity of society, feared the destructive and despotic temper of impatient reformers, and preferred instead the multiplicity of forces and ideas represented in the existing constitutions—the distinctions of class, the distribution of political power, personal loyalty divided among family, province and nation, the traditions and idiosyncrasies perpetuated by history."

In the next paragraph, Himmelfarb talks about the great problem of “totalitarian liberalism”:

"A phrase has gained currency in recent years, "totalitarian liberalism," to describe the habit liberals have fallen into of calling upon the state to undertake all the reforms they desire—to protect the rights of labor, enforce the rights of suffrage, extend the privilege of education, provide insurance and social relief, prohibit the dissemination of racist doctrines and bigoted opinions—to control, in short, the welfare of society. However urgent each of these reforms is, it is nevertheless true that the tendency to look upon the state as a vast social-work agency has its dangers, for it invests the state with a formidable power, and makes liberty dependent not upon the rights of autonomous groups and corporations but upon the generosity of an omnipotent government."

Monday, April 1, 2019

Leo Strauss On Political Action

Leo Strauss
I am reading What is Political Philosophy: And Other Studies which is a collection of ten essays and sixteen book reviews by Leo Strauss, written between 1943 and 1957. He begins the first chapter, “What is Political Philosophy?” by clarifying all the basic concepts. Here’s his initial discussion of “political action”:

"All political action aims at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change to the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is, then, guided by some thought of better or worse. But thought of better or worse implies thought of the good. The awareness of the good which guides all our actions, has the character of opinion: it is no longer questioned but, on reflection, it proves to be questionable. The very fact that we can question it, directs us towards such a thought of the good as is no longer questionable — towards a thought which is no longer opinion but knowledge. All political action has then in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or the good society. For the good society is the complete political good."

This book is full of quotable lines.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Tramp Meets the Marxist

Portrait of Samuel Beckett 
Samuel Beckett had a bleak and nihilistic view of the world. In his novels and short stories, he describes the absurdity of human existence. But his accounts of the absurd are masterful and you end up empathizing with his dumb, decrepit, and decaying characters.

Recently I reread a few of Beckett’s short stories, among them was The End, the story of an old, unnamed tramp who is thrown out of a public institution. The tramp has a little bit of capacity to survive but he cannot stop the decay and slowly drifts towards death. Here’s an excerpt in which Beckett is describing the tramp’s encounter with a Marxist:
For some time I had thought I heard an unwonted sound. I did not investigate the cause. For I said to myself, It's going to stop. But as it did not stop I had no choice but to find out the cause, and so be rid of it. Its cause was a man perched on the roof of a car, haranguing the passersby, of whom many stopped, the better to see and hear. That at least was the way I looked at it. He was bellowing so loud that snatches of his oration reached my ears: injustice… union… brothers… Marx… capital… bread… love… right to live. It was all Greek to me. The car was drawn up against the curb, just in front of me, and I saw the orator, from behind. All of a sudden he turned around towards me, as to a specimen. Look at this down and out, he vociferated, this leftover. If he doesn't go down on four paws, it's for fear of being impounded. Old, lousy, rotten, in the garbage heap. And there are a thousand like him, worse than him, ten thousand, twenty thousand. A voice. Thirty thousand. In your plutocratic Sodom, resumed the orator, every day of your life you pass them by, and when you have won at the races you fling them a farthing. Do you ever think? The voice, No. No, indeed, resumed the orator, you find that normal, the way of the world. A penny, tuppence. The voice. Thruppence. It never enters your head, resumed the orator, that your charity is a crime, that you are subscribing to enslavement, stultification and organized murder. Take a good look at this living corpse. You may tell me it's his own fault. The voice, After you. Then he bent down towards me and flung me a phrase I did not understand. I had perfected my board. It now consisted of two boards hinged together, which enabled me, when my work was done, to fold it and carry it under my arm. So I took off the rag, as I always did when my work was done, pocketed the few coins remaining on the board, untied the board, folded it and put it under my arm. Do you hear me, you crucified bastard! the orator cried. Then I went away, although it was still light. 
There is no political motivation in Beckett’s writing. He was too much of a pessimist to have faith in any political ideology, and he was too much of a nihilist and solipsist to think of humanity in terms of society and culture. He was revolted by the human condition, but he is not preaching revolt in his stories.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

On Leibniz’s Hairstyle

Portrait of Leibniz
The pictures of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz show him with an abundance of hair, but the great philosopher and mathematician was actually bald. He used to wear a long, flowing wig because he wanted to present a sparkling personality. Here’s an excerpt from Matthew Stewart’s book The Courtier and the Heretic:
It was one of those ages in which the men dressed far better than the women. Men of quality sported feathered hats, long jackets, silk cravats, ornamented vests, culottes or breeches ending at the knee and tried by a ribbon, silk stockings, leather boots, liberal doses of perfume, and elaborate gauntlets truly worthy of being thrown down. In the early 1670s, just as Louis XIV began to lose his hair, wigs came into high fashion, and soon no head of any standing was complete without false curls extending to the shoulders or below. Leibniz delighted in the whole costume. He became recognizable for the exceptionally long, black wig that always warmed his prematurely bald dome. (Page 136) 
Stewart points out that Leibniz “had a protrusion on his head about the size of a quail’s egg, and it may well be that he took to the luxurious coif as a means of hiding his deformity.”

Friday, March 29, 2019

On the Publication of Spinoza’s Ethics

In late July 1675 Spinoza traveled to Amsterdam with the intention of overseeing the publication of his Ethics. In his letter to Henry Oldenburgh, he talks about the problem that he was facing in having his book published:
Distinguished and Illustrious Sir, 
When I received your letter of the 22nd July, I had set out to Amsterdam for the purpose of publishing the book I had mentioned to you. While I was negotiating, a rumor gained currency that I had in the press a book concerning God, wherein I endeavored to show that there is no God. This report was believed by many. Hence certain theologians, perhaps the authors of the rumor, took occasion to complain of me before the prince and the magistrates; moreover, the stupid Cartesians, being suspected of favoring me, endeavored to remove the aspersion by abusing everywhere my opinions and writings, a course which they still pursue. When I became aware of this through trustworthy men, who also assured me that the theologians were everywhere lying in wait for me, I determined to put off publishing till I saw how things were going, and I proposed to inform you of my intentions. But matters seem to get worse and worse, and I am still uncertain what to do.
(Source: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart; Page 129)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Voegelin’s Thought as an Open System

In Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, Eugene Webb notes that Voegelin’s thought is not a closed system and it must be seen as a beginning and not an end. Here’s an excerpt from Page 273 in Webb's book:
Because it is not a closed system, Voegelin's thought is not an end but a beginning. As was said, it is an avenue of entry into the study of historical particulars. Much of Voegelin’s own writing has been the beginning of such study, but vast as his historical coverage has been—for a single historian—it remains only a beginning. There are important areas of inquiry he has scarcely touched upon, but which can profit greatly from study in the light of his principles. 
Webb lists several areas where Voegelin’s thought is in need of further development, among them is the area of practical political implications. He points out that “although [Voegelin] is primarily a political philosopher, his political thought has been almost entirely theoretical, and on the highly abstract level of first principles, at that. There is little in his writings to indicate even sketchily what practical political paths might best be followed in the confusion of our time.” (Page 274-275)

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Karl Jaspers On Real Philosophy

Karl Jaspers
Karl Jaspers came to philosophy from the vantage point of another discipline, psychology, because his research into psychology exposed him to the searching questions which could only be answered by philosophy. Here’s his description of the philosophical scene of the 1920s and his feelings about it:
"It seemed to me that the philosophy of the academicians was not really philosophy; instead, with its claims to be a science, it seemed to be entirely a discussion of things which are not essential for the basic questions of our existence. In my own consciousness I myself was not originally a philosopher. But when the intellectual world is empty of philosophy, it becomes the task at least to bear witness to philosophy, to direct the attention to the great philosophers, to try to stop confusion, and to encourage in our youth the interest in real philosophy." ~ The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers; Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp; Page 34
Jaspers never made philosophy his main profession even though he wrote several books on it and believed that philosophy could be regarded as the supreme, and even the sole, concern of man.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Orwell’s Homage to the Proles

George Orwell
I think George Orwell has paid a great homage to the proles in his book 1984. The book’s protagonist Winston Smith makes an entry in his diary: “If there is hope… it lies in the proles.”

Winston realizes that the proles constitute 85% of the population in Oceania. He notes in his dairy that “the proles, if they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet— —!”

In another entry in his diary, Winston writes: “Until [the proles] become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

But the proles do not become conscious of their own strength—Winston is unable to awaken them. The proles do not rebel and the Party continues to be in power in Oceania. There are several thought provoking passages on proles in 1984.

Monday, March 25, 2019

On The Ending of David Copperfield

Charles Dickens
In the last lines of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens offers an emotional resolution in his protagonist’s personal life:
And now, as I close my task, subduing my desire to linger yet, these faces fade away. But one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all. And that remains. 
I turn my head, and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me. 
My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence, without which I were nothing, bears me company. 
O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!
I think that this is a rather good note to end the book.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History

Eugene Webb’s book Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History is divided into three parts:



“The first is theoretical; it seeks to elucidate Voegelin's philosophical principles and concepts and to explain how he developed them, both with reference to contemporary philosophical discourse and through the study of the history of thought. The second part briefly summarizes the main lines of Voegelin's study of history as he has interpreted it in the light of those theoretical principles. The third part focuses on the two themes most central to Voegelin's concern: the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of history.”

In his Introduction, Webb observes that "as a political philosopher, Voegelin defies classification according to the language of political struggle: he is not left, right, or center, but is engaged in the critical study of politics.” Webb goes on to note that there exists a similar difficulty in classifying Voegelin philosophically:

“he is not in any sense an ideological thinker. He does not present a system of ideas that could be labeled according to any of the traditional designations—such as "materialist," "idealist," “empiricist," "realist," and so on—and, what must be still more disconcerting to many, he does not even present a standard philosophical argument of the sort that leads the reader from premises to a conclusion through the force of formal logic.”

Here’s Webb’s initial description of Voegelin's philosophy of history:

“For Voegelin the philosophy of history is the analysis of human life in its historical dimension, that is, of human life as a process in which choices are made and in which, through the values that are served or not served, one may or may not live up to the calling of one's potential humanity. History is an enterprise, in other words, in which one may succeed or fail, and what the philosophy of history must offer is criteria by which that success or failure may be measured.”