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Thursday, October 18, 2018

On Nietzsche’s Call for Renewed Aristocratic Sensibility

I am now reading the new translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, by R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (Penguin Classics, 2017). Here’s an excerpt from Kevin Hill’s Introduction to the book:
...in the fourth book, “Discipline and Cultivation’, Nietzsche hints at a practical, perhaps even a political, solution to the crisis of Nihilism. For a part of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity is that centuries of Christian influence have made us so submissive and mediocre that we willingly allow ourselves to become exploited politically and economically; as a result the world has become a kind of vast social machine with human beings as its cogs and wheels. Cultural creativity, ‘joyful fruitfulness’, becomes impossible for people like ourselves, and as a result higher culture begins to die. The principal modes of revolt against these conditions, whether liberal or Socialist, are rooted in levelling doctrines of egalitarianism which are themselves just so much secularized Christianity; only a renewed aristocratic sensibility, a new cultural elitism, can save us. 
In the end, Nietzsche does not seek to turn back the tide of levelling and the reduction of most people to mere social functions, even though he perceives this to be modernity's own form of slavery. Rather, noting that in the past, cultural achievement has always been the product of an aristocracy, and that every aristocracy presupposes some form of exploitation, he embraces this otherwise horrifying development (which in places he claims may culminate in some form of Socialism) as precisely the desired precondition for the emergence of a new cultural elite, an elite which will feed off this great social machine and use it in pursuit of its own ends. In order to do this, these new aristocrats will have to reject the enervating, egalitarian values which have prevailed among the many; for them to recognize that the world is will to power means to recognize that being a part of the dominating and exploiting elite is good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Ortega on What it Takes for Philosophy to Rule

José Ortega y Gasset
José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, (Chapter 13: “The Greatest Danger, The State”), talks about the devastating consequences of Statism.

He notes that instead of enabling people to live better, most states force them to live for the regime. “This is what State intervention leads to: the people are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine which is the State. The skeleton eats up the flesh around it. The scaffolding becomes the owner and tenant of the house.”

According to Ortega, unless philosophy holds sway in society, the state cannot be brought under control. But it is not Plato’s philosopher king that he has in his mind. He writes:

“For philosophy to rule, it is not necessary that philosophers be the rulers—as Plato at first wished—nor even for rulers to be philosophers—as was his later, more modest, wish. Both these things are, strictly speaking, most fatal. For philosophy to rule, it is sufficient for it to exist; that is to say, for the philosophers to be philosophers, For nearly a century past, philosophers have been everything but that—politicians, pedagogues, men of letters, and men of science.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Revolt of the Masses

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy. In his best known book The Revolt of the Masses, he defends the values of meritocratic liberalism against the attacks of communists and fascists. He is critical of the ordinary masses and is horrified by the idea that they may attain political power.

He begins his book by asserting that the rise of the masses is the greatest crisis that Europe faces. “As the masses by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization. Such a crisis has occurred more than once in history. Its characteristics and its consequences are well known. So also is its name. It is called the rebellion of the masses.” (Chapter 1, "The Coming of the Masses")

Ortega upheld “a radically aristocratic interpretation of history.” As he explains in Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Historic Level”: “Radically, because I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What 1 have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.”

In Chapter 7, “Noble Life and Common Life, or Effort and Inertia,” he establishes the difference in the character of the “mass-man” and the “noble man” and reveals his debt to the Ancient Greek thinkers:

"The mass-man would never have accepted authority external to himself had not his surroundings violently forced him to do so. As today his surroundings do not so force him, the everlasting mass-man, true to his character, ceases to appeal to other authority and feels himself lord of his own existence. On the contrary the select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts. Let us recall that at the start we distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he docs not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as a discipline—the noble life, Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us—by obligations, not by rights. Noblesse oblige. “To live as one likes is plebeian; the noble man aspires to order and law ” (Goethe)."

After a few paragraphs, Ortega specifies why the mass-man is not noble: “For me, then, nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling itself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation. In this way the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which reclines statically upon itself, condemned to perpetual immobility, unless an external force compels it to come outside itself. Hence we apply the terms mass to this kind of man—not so much because of his multitude as because of his inertia.”

Ortega blames the rise of mass-men on three factors which came together in the 19th century: “liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism.” His description of the mass man and noble man is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s contrast between the “overman” and the general mass of humanity. He recognizes that the progress of human civilization requires people who are striving to achieve transcendent goals. The noble man, who is motivated by transcendental goals, is, according to Ortega, truly alive, whereas the mass man is decadent and spiritless.

Monday, October 15, 2018

John Keats on the attitude of an artist

Sculpture of John Keats
John Keats was convinced that a man’s instinct to survive and thrive in the natural world is the force that drives his creativity. He has made this point not only in his poetry, but also in prose. As he wrote in his letter (dated: 19 March 1819) to his brother and sister:
The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk. The Hawk wants a Mate, so does the Man — look at them both, they set about it and procure one in the same manner. They want both a nest and they both set about one in the same manner — they get their food in the same manner. The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe — the Hawk balances about the Clouds — that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Life — to a speculative Mind — I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass — the creature hath a purpose, and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along — to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. But then, as Wordsworth says, “we have all one human heart ——” There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify — so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish. I have no doubt that thousands of people never heard of have had hearts completely disinterested: I can remember but two — Socrates and Jesus — Their histories evince it.
Keats goes on to compare his own attitude as an artist (a poet) with the movements of a wild creature whose sole purpose is to live:
Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of, I am, however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive, attitude my mind may fall into as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer? Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel. By a superior Being our reasonings may take the same tone — though erroneous they may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists Poetry, and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy — For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Augustine and the Scepticism of the Platonic Academy

Against Academicians and the Teacher is Augustine’s first writing after his conversion from paganism to christianity. It is a surprising work, because instead of focusing on a study of scripture, as any new convert is expected to, Augustine engages in a purely philosophical discussion in which the name of Christ occurs only once.

The reason for his focus on philosophy can be found in his Confessions, where he has stated that in 384—385, after his Manichaean period, he went through a sceptical crisis. The sceptical crisis was so deep that, after his conversion, he had to try to refute the skeptical philosophers.

In the period when he was working on Against Academicians and the Teacher, Augustine wrote a letter to Hermogenian (Letter 1; The Letters of St. Augustine), in which he offers a surprising meta-argument on Academic Scepticism. He recognizes that he is unable to produce arguments that will bring down scepticism, and as he is unable to defeat people of such authority, he considers it best to imitate them. Here’s the complete text of Augustine’s letter to Hermogenian:
1. I would not presume, even in playful discussion, to attack the philosophers of the Academy; for when could the authority of such eminent men fail to move me, did I not believe their views to be widely different from those commonly ascribed to them? Instead of confuting them, which is beyond my power, I have rather imitated them to the best of my ability. For it seems to me to have been suitable enough to the times in which they flourished, that whatever issued pure from the fountainhead of Platonic philosophy should be rather conducted into dark and thorny thickets for the refreshment of a very few men, than left to flow in open meadow-land, where it would be impossible to keep it clear and pure from the inroads of the vulgar herd. I use the word herd advisedly; for what is more brutish than the opinion that the soul is material? For defense against the men who held this, it appears to me that such an art and method of concealing the truth was wisely contrived by the new Academy. But in this age of ours, when we see none who are philosophers — for I do not consider those who merely wear the cloak of a philosopher to be worthy of that venerable name — it seems to me that men (those, at least, whom the teaching of the Academicians has, through the subtlety of the terms in which it was expressed, deterred from attempting to understand its actual meaning) should be brought back to the hope of discovering the truth, lest that which was then for the time useful in eradicating obstinate error, should begin now to hinder the casting in of the seeds of true knowledge. 
2. In that age the studies of contending schools of philosophers were pursued with such ardour, that the one thing to be feared was the possibility of error being approved. For every one who had been driven by the arguments of the sceptical philosophers from a position which he had supposed to be impregnable, set himself to seek some other in its stead, with a perseverance and caution corresponding to the greater industry which was characteristic of the men of that time, and the strength of the persuasion then prevailing, that truth, though deep and hard to be deciphered, does lie hidden in the nature of things and of the human mind. Now, however, such is the indisposition to strenuous exertion, and the indifference to the liberal arts, that so soon as it is reported abroad that, in the opinion of the most acute philosophers, truth is unattainable, men send their minds to sleep, and cover them up forever. For they presume not, forsooth, to imagine themselves to be so superior in discernment to those great men, that they shall find out what, during his singularly long life, Carneades, with all his diligence, talents, and leisure, besides his extensive and varied learning, failed to discover. And if, contending somewhat against indolence, they rouse themselves so far as to read those books in which it is, as it were, proved that the perception of truth is denied to man, they relapse into lethargy so profound, that not even by the heavenly trumpet can they be aroused. 
3. Wherefore, although I accept with the greatest pleasure your candid estimate of my brief treatise, and esteem you so much as to rely not less on the sagacity of your judgment than on the sincerity of your friendship, I beg you to give more particular attention to one point, and to write me again concerning it — namely, whether you approve of that which, in the end of the third book, I have given as my opinion, in a tone perhaps of hesitation rather than of certainty, but in statements, as I think, more likely to be found useful than to be rejected as incredible. But whatever be the value of those treatises [the books against the Academicians], what I most rejoice in is, not that I have vanquished the Academicians, as you express it (using the language rather of friendly partiality than of truth), but that I have broken and cast away from me the odious bonds by which I was kept back from the nourishing breasts of philosophy, through despair of attaining that truth which is the food of the soul.
It is noteworthy that Augustine says in his letter that if he had let the sceptical image of the Academy persist, he would have encouraged his contemporaries to believe that they could not discover what Carneades (the great sceptic philosopher of the Platonic Academy) himself had been unable to discover. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus

Most of the works of Sextus Empiricus have come down to us in more or less the complete form in which he composed them, but we know very little about his life. What we know is that he was a Greek philosopher who lived in the second or third century CE. He himself tells us in his Medical Treatises that he is a doctor. We know from Diogenes Laertius that Sextus was the penultimate head of the skeptical school.

His most important work Outlines of Pyrrhonism (commonly abbreviated as PH) is a sort of summary of the Pyrrhonian sceptical doctrine (a kind of skepticism named after Pyrrho). The book is divided in three parts: Book I is a general introduction to the sceptical philosophy. The two other books are devoted to attacking the “dogmatic” systems of thought. Book 2 deals with the “logical” part of philosophy, Book 3 with the physical and ethical parts.

Here’s the opening paragraph in Outlines of Pyrrhonism:
Those who investigate any subject are likely either to make a discovery, or to deny the possibility of discovery and agree that nothing can be apprehended, or else to persist in their investigations. That, no doubt, is why of those who undertake philosophical investigations some say that they have discovered the truth, others deny the possibility of apprehending it, and others are still pursuing their investigations. Those who are properly called dogmatists - such as the Aristotelians and the Epicureans and the Stoics and others - think they have discovered the truth; Clitomachus and Carneades and other Academic philosophers have said that the truth cannot be apprehended; and the sceptics persist in their investigations. 
According to Sextus, the sceptics are students or researchers who ‘persist in their investigations’. The sceptic students or researchers must persist in their investigations because they have not discovered the object that they are searching for and they have not reached the conclusion that what they search for is beyond their powers of investigation. They have no opinion on the matter and they keep investigating. So the sceptics are the ones who have suspended judgement, they neither believe nor disbelieve, neither affirm or deny. They doubt everything and there is no end to their doubt. The Greek term “skeptikos” means “to inquire” or “to consider”.

Pyrrhonian skepticism can be seen as a reaction to the schools that Sextus calls dogmatic: ‘Aristotelians and the Epicureans and the Stoics’. He accuses them of making claims that cannot be verified through actual observations. During the time of Sextus, the word “dogmatic” did not have the pejorative tone that it has today—in that period a dogmatic was someone who was stickler for dogmas or doctrines.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Decline and End of the Platonic Academy

Carneades of Cyrene
In Richard Bett’s The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism, there are three essays which analyze the skeptical period of the Platonic Academy. The first essay (chapter 3), “Arcesilaus and Carneades,” is by Harald Thorsrud; the second essay (chapter 4), “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” is by Carlos Levy; and the third essay (chapter 5), “Aenesidemus and the rebirth of Pyrrhonism,” is by R. J. Hankinson.

The Platonic Academy became a fountainhead of sceptic ideas in the ancient world when Arcesilaus became its head in 268 BCE. By his innovative reading of the Platonic dialogues, it appears, Arcesilaus discovered the arguments which show that knowledge is not possible. It is also possible that he was impressed by the fact that various interlocutors of Socrates were unable to justify their beliefs. However, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the stoic school, had found a different Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. Arcesilaus probably saw Zeno’s stoicism as a threat to his own sceptic interpretation of Plato and Socrates, and throughout his life he made considerable efforts for refuting the ideas of the Stoic School.

Academic skeptic thought started making lot of progress after Carneades of Cyrene became the head of the Platonic Academy. He was sent to Rome in 156-155 BCE where he caused consternation among the politicians by his way of lecturing on a certain conception of justice on one day and refuting his own arguments the next day. He believed that justice is impossible to achieve. The Roman politician, Cato the Elder, was appalled by Carneades’s skepticism. He thought that Carneades would have a corrupting influence on the youth, and he requested the Roman senate to send him back to Athens. Carneades returned to Athens and resumed his work as the head of the Platonic Academy. He dedicated his life to refuting the stoic doctrines and also argued against epicureanism.

Clitomachus, who had studied philosophy under Carneades and was a skeptic, became the head of the Academy after Carneades left voluntarily in 137 BCE. There are no written records of Clitomachus teachings. According to Cicero, Clitomachus's life was dedicated to preaching the views of Carneades. Philo of Larissa, the pupil of Clitomachus, was the next head of the Academy. Initially, Philo was an ardent defender of skepticism and a staunch opponent of stoicism, but his views evolved after he left Athens at the time of the war against Mithradates and arrived in Rome (around 88 BC). He was soon teaching a moderate view of skepticism, and was permitting provisional beliefs without certainty.

The process of decline of the Platonic Academy began after the departure of Carneades. Carlos Levy, in his essay, “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” notes that the decline of the Academy may have something to do with the method that Arcesilaus and Carneades used for preaching their ideas. Neither of them wrote any philosophical work. But the thing is that oral teachings are susceptible to contradictory interpretations, which can fuel differences and schisms. The problem was worsened by the fact that Carneades, as is befitting for a good skeptic, would not allow the skeptic Academic thought to be elevated into a doctrine.

The contrasting interpretations of the utterances of Platonic masters led to acrimonious debate among the Platonic academics. After the death of Philo of Larissa, the Academy broke into several factions which eventually sank into oblivion. Carlos Levy points out in his essay that “the demise of the institution allowed the autonomous development of two modes of thought that were undoubtedly already present in Philo’s Roman books. Fidelity to Plato became Middle Platonism, mitigated skepticism was radicalized into neoPyrrhonism. Aspects of the new academy survived in both of them, to the considerable enrichment of Western thought.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Arendt on The Dreyfus Affair

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt notes that the Dreyfus Affair was much more than a bizarre imperfectly solved crime; it contributed to the rise of antisemitism in France and eventually gave brith to the Zionist movement, which, she says, is the “only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”

Here’s an excerpt from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Chapter 4, “The Dreyfus Affair”:
While the Dreyfus Affair in its broader political aspects belongs to the twentieth century, the Dreyfus case, the various trials of the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, are quite typical of the nineteenth century, when men followed legal proceedings so keenly because each instance afforded a test of the century's greatest achievement, the complete impartiality of the law. It is characteristic of the period that a miscarriage of justice could arouse such political passions and inspire such an endless succession of trials and retrials, not to speak of duels and fisticuffs. The doctrine of equality before the law was still so firmly implanted in the conscience of the civilized world that a single miscarriage of justice could provoke public indignation from Moscow to New York. Nor was anyone, except in France itself, so "modern" as to associate the matter with political issues.6 The wrong done to a single Jewish officer in France was able to draw from the rest of the world a more vehement and united reaction than all the persecutions of German Jews a generation later. Even Czarist Russia could accuse France of barbarism while in Germany members of the Kaiser's entourage would openly express an indignation matched only by the radical press of the 1930’s. 
The dramatis personae of tile case might have stepped out of the pages of Balzac: on the one hand, the class-conscious generals frantically covering up for the members of their own clique and, on the other, their antagonist, Picquart, with his calm, clear-eyed and slightly ironical honesty. Beside them stand the nondescript crowd of the men in Parliament, each terrified of what his neighbor might know; the President of the Republic, notorious patron of the Paris brothels, and the examining magistrates, living solely for the sake of social contacts. Then there is Dreyfus himself, actually a parvenu, continually boasting to his colleagues of his family fortune which he spent on women; his brothers, pathetically offering their entire fortune, and then reducing the offer to 150,000 francs, for the release of their kinsman, never quite sure whether they wished to make a sacrifice or simply to suborn the General Staff; and the lawyer Démange, really convinced of his client's innocence but basing the defense on an issue of doubt so as to save himself from attacks and injury to his personal interests. Lastly, there is the adventurer Esterhazy, he of the ancient escutcheon, so utterly bored by this bourgeois world as to seek relief equally in heroism and knavery.
According to Arendt, the Dreyfus Affair received such great attention from the politicians, intellectuals, and the public, and continues to be relevant after two World Wars, because of two elements which grew in importance during the twentieth century: “The first is hatred of the Jews; the second, suspicion of the republic itself, of Parliament, and the state machine.”

Arendt connects the Dreyfus Affair with the Panama Scandal, which broke out a few years before Alfred Dreyfus was accused and convicted of espionage for Germany. The Panama Scandal exposed several French politicians and civil servants who were using Jewish middlemen to accept bribes for keeping quiet about the financial woes of a shady company engaged in building a canal in Panama. The involvement of the Jews contributed to the rise of French antisemitism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Nazi Nationalism and Soviet Communism

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, shows that the conditions that led to the rise of Nazi Nationalism and Soviet Communism are essentially the same.  There is also similarity in the global ambitions of these regimes and the political methods that they deployed to subdue the masses. Here’s an excerpt:
Nazis were not simple nationalists. Their nationalist propaganda was directed toward their fellow-travelers and not their convinced members; the latter, on the contrary, were never allowed to lose sight of a consistently supranational approach to politics. Nazi "nationalism" had more than one aspect in common with the recent nationalistic propaganda in the Soviet Union, which is also used only to feed the prejudices of the masses. The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation-state, and they repeated time and again that their "movement," international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory. And not only the Nazis, but fifty years of antisemitic history, stand as evidence against the identification of antisemitism with nationalism. The first antisemitic parties in the last decades of the nineteenth century were also among the first that banded together internationally. From the very beginning, they called international congresses and were concerned with a co-ordination of international, or at least inter-European, activities. 
In the following passage, Arendt is reflecting on the use of arbitrary terror by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union:
A fundamental difference between modem dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient. Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the persecutor. This was the case in Nazi Germany when full terror was directed against Jews, i.e., against people with certain common characteristics which were independent of their specific behavior. In Soviet Russia the situation is more confused, but the facts, unfortunately, are only too obvious. On the one hand, the Bolshevik system, unlike the Nazi, never admitted theoretically that it could practice terror against innocent people, and though in view of certain practices this may look like hypocrisy, it makes quite a difference. Russian practice, on the other hand, is even more "advanced" than the German in one respect: arbitrariness of terror is not even limited by racial differentiation, while the old class categories have long since been discarded, so that anybody in Russia may suddenly become a victim of the police terror. We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free of fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, and for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.
The Soviets and the Nazis weaponized their ideologies for indoctrinating large sections of their population. Their ultimate goal was not limited to coercing the masses; they wanted to instill complete obedience.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Immanuel Kant on Space and Time

In his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, Immanuel Kant denies the realty of time and space and of temporal and spatial form. He writes:
Time is not something objective and real, neither a substance, nor an accident, nor a relation. It is the subjective condition necessary by the nature of the human mind for coordinating any sensible objects among themselves by a certain law; time is a pure intuition.  
Space is not something objective and real, neither substance, nor accident, nor relation; but subjective and ideal, arising by fixed law from the nature of the mind like an outline for the mutual co-ordination of all external sensations whatsoever.
It is noteworthy that Kant is not implying that the existence of objects perceived in space and time is dependent on the nature of the human mind. Rather he is saying that the existence of mind-dependent forms like time and space make it possible for the human mind to precisely observe the mind-independent objects.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Of Experience by Michel de Montaigne

Portrait of Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in his final essay, “Of Experience,” (The Essays of Michel de Montaigne; Chapter 13), talks about his lifelong quest for self knowledge through life’s experiences. He begins his essay with these lines: “There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience.”

In the last paragraph of the essay, he writes:
The pretty inscription wherewith the Athenians honoured the entry of Pompey into their city is conformable to my sense: “By so much thou art a god, as thou confessest thee a man.” ’Tis an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how there to reside. ’Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech. The fairest lives, in my opinion, are those which regularly accommodate themselves to the common and human model without miracle, without extravagance. Old age stands a little in need of a more gentle treatment. 
What he is essentially saying in the above paragraph is that no matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs; and on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Who Should Be The Judge?

In Metaphysics 4.6, Aristotle summarizes the arguments from his skeptic opponents in this paragraph:
There are, both among those who have these convictions and among those who merely profess these views, some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything; for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not demonstration.
According to Aristotle, when anyone inquires about who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions, he is seeking to cast doubt on opinions of one’s preferred experts and authorities. If you say that you prefer the beliefs of X to that of Y, the skeptic will undermine the grounds for which you are preferring X. The question is do we accept that we are justified in believing a particular issue only by appealing to some further principle—if such a condition to accepted then nothing can be judged because every principle will need a further justification.

Therefore Aristotle says that it is futile to appeal to the authority of any figure—the analysis should begin with what requires proof and what does not, and in case something requires proof, then what kind proof is required. I think these arguments from Aristotle have implications for modern politics. Today there is too much of focus on who should be allowed to handle political power, when what is required is a careful consideration of what kind of governance and jurisprudence is required for well-being of society.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Was Charles Darwin a Teleologist?

An 1871 caricature of Darwin
published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine
It is generally believed that Charles Darwin has provided a non-teleological theory of evolution through adaptation, but James G. Lennox, in his article, “Darwin was a Teleologist,” shows that there is a teleological element in Darwin’s explanations of adaptations. In his works, Darwin uses terms like 'final Cause,’ ‘purpose,' 'end for which,’ and 'good for which’ quite frequently.

According to Lennox, Darwin was acquainted with the concept of teleology, and while at Cambridge, he admired the argument from design in Paley’s work. Lennox says that Darwin was “apparently ready to accept creation by design as the most reasonable explanation for adaptation when the Beagle sailed. Less than ten years later he was confident of the main outlines of a theory which explained adaptation, and the creation of new species, by references to natural causes, and was an avowed agnostic.”

In his article, Lennox looks at Darwin’s two explanations of adaptations. The first explanation of adaptation is of the species of Primula which have been observed to be adopting a particular strategy, by means of particular structures. The second explanation of adaptation is of Orchids about which Darwin has commented in his Various Contrivances.

In his conclusion to the article, Lennox provides a summary of his key arguments:
By carefully examining Darwin's actual use of teleological explanation, one finds an explanatory structure which is at once irreducibly teleological, and at the same time unlike any of the standard forms of teleology in the nineteenth century. Indeed it is only rather recently that there is a model of teleological explanation to which Darwin's reasoning conforms. Moreover, though Darwin occasionally endorses his own teleology, to my knowledge he never provides a philosophical commentary on it.  
This last fact is closely related to the puzzle of Darwin's public silence on how he intends his readers to understand his use of terms such as 'Final Cause', 'purpose', 'end for which', 'good for which'. After all, his letters and notebooks indicate that he thought about it a good deal. Puzzling as this is, however, it is not a special puzzle about his teleology. The same sources show that he thought deeply about the nature of inductive support for theories, but his published books and papers leave such issues alone. Darwin read and thought much on the philosophy of biology — he published nothing at all on the subject. There is no reason to think he would deal with the question of final causation any differently. A skilled rhetorician knows when to speak, but more importantly, when to be silent. That followers as different as T.H. Huxley and Asa Gray could both find a teleology that they could live with in Darwin's explanatory practice indicates that, as usual, Darwin was a skilled rhetorician. 
Lennox notes that while Darwin’s explanatory practices are not in line with the dominant philosophical justifications of teleology at his time, they are in conformity with the recent defenses of the teleological character of selection explanation.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Tune of Music of Time is a challenging journey, because it is too long—spanning across 12 volumes. But I have now started reading the first volume, A Question of Upbringing.

Nicholas Jenkins is the narrator of the entire 12 volume series. In volume one the focus is on his life as a student in a nameless public school. In the opening scene, Jenkins witnesses a group of workmen in the street and is reminded of Poussin’s famous painting A Dance to the Music of Time. This excerpt gives a taste of Powell’s writing style:
For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world — legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea — scattered, uncoordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear. 
As Jenkins points out in the last sentence of the above excerpt, the thought of Poussin’s painting makes his mind go back in time to his final year at an unnamed public school, and he finds himself contemplating the instant when he first set eyes on a fellow student Kenneth Widmerpool, who he regards as a muddled and unpopular figure. He also thinks of a visit from Uncle Giles and the practical joke that Stringham played on school’s housemaster.

Jenkins’s penchant for indulging in long reminiscences of past events brings a Marcel Proust like feeling to the novel. But Powell’s writing style is not Proustian; his sentences are shorter and easier to read.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Anaximander’s Theory of Evolution

A 3rd century mosaic showing
Anaximander holding a sundial
2500 years before Charles Darwin, people were wondering where human beings came from. Anaximander, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia, was the first to come up with the idea that living organisms evolve through time from other living organisms.

He claimed that life sprang from the sea, and that human beings were initially hatched from a race of fish-people. He talks about the fish-people rearing human babies.

Censorinus, the 3rd century Roman thinker, says in his De Die Natali: “Anaximander of Miletus considered that from warmed up water and earth emerged either fish or entirely fishlike animals. Inside these animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.”

Anaximander probably had some kind of an experience with human fetuses in early stages of development. To him, the earliest stage of the fetus must have seemed like a fish and this could have led him to conjecture that the fish-people were the ancestors of the human race in the evolutionary chain.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

When Darwin Got Sick of Peacock’s Tail

Darwin's Caricature
Vanity Fair (Sept 30, 1871)
On April 3, 1866, about a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray, a professor of natural history in Harvard University, said: “It is curious that I remember well time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”

The colorful panoply of feathers in a peacock’s tail are a challenge to the fundamental principles of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. These feathers are expensive to grow, requiring large amounts of energy which the peacock can deploy more fruitfully elsewhere. Encumbered with the weight of the feathers, the peacock moves at a much slower speed, and the dazzling design on the feathers makes it visible to a range of predators, thus vastly reducing its chances of survival in the Asian habitats where it has evolved.

The process of natural selection ought to have freed the peacock from the colorful tail feathers; in fact, the peacock should never have had such a tail. Later on Darwin came up with a theory of sexual selection by which he tried to explain what his theory of natural selection could not. While natural selection is the “struggle for existence,” sexual selection is the “struggle for mates”. He asserted that the tail is there in a peacock because the peahen admires it.

In a letter to Alfred R. Wallace, (dated March 24, 1968), Darwin wrote: “In regard to sexual selection. A girl sees a handsome man and without observing whether his nose or his whiskers are the tenth of an inch longer or shorter than in some other man, admires his appearance and says she will marry him. So I suppose with the peahen; and the tail has been increased in length merely by on the whole presenting a more gorgeous appearance.”

However, this means that, according to Darwin, man is not the only creature with an aesthetic sense—other creatures too have a sense of beauty.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Hume’s Retelling of an Anecdote from Don Quixote

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, by Gustave Doré 
David Hume, in his Of the Standard of Taste, retells an anecdote from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to bring clarity to his definition of delicacy of taste.

In Part II, Chapter XIII, of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza narrates to Don Quixote an anecdote about his two kinsmen, who, he brags, are such sensitive judges of wine that they can detect the taint of iron and leather imparted to a hogshead by the presence in it of a key on a thong. Here’s Hume’s retelling of Sancho Panza’s anecdote:
It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.
There are several differences between Hume’s retelling of the anecdote and what Cervantes has originally written. For instance, whereas Hume has the two tasters deliberating over their wine pronouncing it good, except for the slight taste of leather or iron, Cervantes says that the first only tried it with the tip of his tongue and the second sniffed it, without tasting any at all. Also, Hume says, “both were ridiculed for their judgement,” but this reaction is not there in the original. Finally, Hume refers to the cause of the taint as the “old key,” whereas Cervantes calls it the “little.”

Hume goes on to make the point that “sweet and bitter” are bodily tastes which refer to bodily experience, whereas “beauty and ugliness” are mental tastes, which can only be appreciated by those who possess a delicate and practiced sensibility.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Evolutionary Psychology and Art

I am now reading Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. In this book, Dutton is endorsing the view that evolutionary psychology has a significant role to play in modern man’s responses to works of art. He is suggesting that literature, music, and paintings have been influenced by the evolutionary adaptations that mankind has undergone since the Pleistocene era.

Dutton attacks cultural constructivism by providing evidence to show that people in all kinds of cultures, including those which have developed in isolation, show some kind of similarities in their artistic tastes. He argues that the cultural influences are subordinate to the much broader similarities in human psychology. According to his evolutionary aesthetics, mankind’s responses to art are limited by the nature of the human mind.

In the first chapter, “Landscape and Longing,” Dutton emphasizes the length of time that mankind spent in the Pleistocene era. Here’s an excerpt:
From the viewpoint of our ancestors, this way of life had no conceivable beginning or end. From our day back to the time of Socrates and Plato is a mere 120 generations. If we go further back from their Athens to the invention of writing, agriculture and the first cities, it is a lot longer: another 380 generations. But the Pleistocene itself—the evolutionary theatre in which we acquired the tastes, intellectual features, emotional dispositions, and personality traits that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors and make us what we are—was eighty thousand generations long. 
I am currently in the third chapter, “What is Art?” The book is interesting, but it is preaching the controversial thesis that the process of evolution has determined not just man’s biological makeup, but also the character of his mind. I think lot of scientific evidence is needed for establishing this kind of a theory of the mind, and of art. I am not sure that Charles Darwin would have endorsed Dutton’s theory. But, as I said, I am currently at the chapter three, and despite my doubts about Dutton’s theory, I look forward to seeing what he has to offer in rest of the chapters.

Friday, September 28, 2018

On The Art of NOT Reading

When it comes to my reading, I have a rule—I avoid books that are being overhyped by the mainstream media. I never consult the bestseller lists for making my reading choices, and I don’t own any book written by a major politician, bureaucrat, film star or sportsman. My bookrack is a boring place, it is free of bestsellers, but I like it that way.

I am in agreement with the view on the art of not reading that Arthur Schopenhauer offers in his popular essay, “On Books and Writing,” (Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms; Edited by R. J. Hollingdale; Pages 198–211). Here’s an excerpt:
The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. — A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
Schopenhauer begins his essay by pointing out that here are three category of writers:
Writers can be divided into meteors, planets, and fixed stars.  The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up, cry: ‘Look!’—and then they vanish forever.  The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer.  By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistake them for.  But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travelers (their contemporaries).  The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light and influence all ages equally.
I would rather read the works of “fixed star” category of writers. But they are usually not to be found in the bestseller lists; you have to do your own research to identify them.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Short Stories of Honoré de Balzac

I read Honoré de Balzac’s novel Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) several years ago. Today I had my second innings with Balzac—I have been reading The Human Comedy, Peter Brooks’s selection of nine short stories by Blazac. The first two stories in the collection, “Facino Cane,” and “Another Study of Womankind,” that I have finished reading give me the impression that Balzac was a much better short story writer than a novelist.

In his Introduction to the book, Brook quotes Oscar Wilde: “the 19th century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac’s.” According to Brooks, “Balzac “Invents” the new century by being the first writer to represent its emerging urban agglomerations, its nascent capitalist dynamics, its rampant cult of the individual personality.”  Balzac has several literary disciples, from Dostoyevsky and Henry James to Marcel Proust.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer has a bleak worldview, his writings illustrate the nature of pessimism, but he is still a delight to read. He writes so nicely and wisely that you look forward to having a tour through his world in which he finds nothing except suffering and boredom.  

In his essay, “On the Vanity of Existence,” (Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms; Edited by R. J. Hollingdale; Page 51–54), Schopenhauer notes that suffering is the inescapable condition and the only recourse is acceptance of annihilation. Here’s an excerpt:
That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is noting other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom; mere existence would fitful and satisfy us. 
Here’s another excerpt:
Yet what a difference there is between our beginning and our end! We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses. And the road from one to the other too goes, in regard to our well-being and enjoyment of life, steadily downhill: happily dreaming childhood, exultant youth, toil-filled years of manhood, infirm and often wretched old age, the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death — does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?
He is of the view that everything that happens to men is calculated to produce disillusionment at some point in life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Schopenhauer’s Daily Routine

Arthur Schopenhauer
R. J. Hollingdale, in his Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, has a section titled, “An Immovable Mind,” in which, through five pieces of biographical information, each only a paragraph long, he illustrates Schopenhauer’s most pronounced characteristics. Here’s the piece number 5 in which Hollingdale offers an insight Schopenhauer’s daily routine:
From the age of 45 until his death 27 years later Schopenhauer lived in Frankfurt-am-Main. He lived alone, in ‘rooms’, and every day for 27 years he followed an identical routine. He rose every morning a seven and had a bath but no breakfast: he drank a cup of strong coffee before sitting down at his desk and writing until noon. At noon he ceased work for the day and spent half-an-hour practicing the flute, on which he became quite a skilled performer. Then he went out for lunch at the Englischer Hof. After lunch he returned home and read until four, when he left for his daily walk: he walked for two hours no matter what the weather. At six o’clock he visited the reading room of the library and read The Times. In the evening he attended the theatre or a concert, after which he had dinner at a hotel or restaurant. He got back home between nine and ten and went early to bed. He was willing to deviate from this routine in order to receive visitors; but with this exception he carried it through for 27 years. 
Hollingdale notes that such a fixed routine is indicative of inertia or immovability—Schopenhauer was incapable of abandoning or modifying an attitude of mind once adopted. A man of fixed habits, he would obstinately stick to his routine which included going out for a two hour daily walk no matter what the weather.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Theory and Practice

In theory, a theory is abstracted practice, and a practice is applied theory. But, in practice, that is not the case. Most intellectuals are unable to reconcile their theories with practice, which is why much of philosophy appears impractical.

In the book that I am currently reading, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, I found the following comment on theory and practice (Part 1, “Conclusion”):
It is, I own, not uncommon to be wrong in theory, and right in practice: and we are happy that it is so. Men often act right from their feelings, who afterwards reason but ill on them from principle; but as it is impossible to avoid an attempt at such reasoning, and equally impossible to prevent its having some influence on our practice, surely it is worth taking some pains to have it just, and founded on the basis of sure experience.
Burke is essentially suggesting that he does not really care about the Ivory Tower intellectual stuff. Like most conservatives, he will be happy if things work out in practice.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

My Personal Philosophy

People often ask me, what is the name my personal philosophy? But I don’t think it is possible for me to describe my personal philosophy by a single word.

The definition of labels like liberal, conservative, individualist, libertarian, capitalist, individualist, Aristotelian, epicurean, stoic, objectivist, etc., is open to question. These labels can mean different things to different people. So I have written the following note which gives an approximate description of my personal philosophy:
I am a liberal of the classical kind; a conservative of the constitutionalist kind; a libertarian of the moral kind; a capitalist of the radical kind; an individualist of the social kind; an Aristotelian of the epicurean and stoic kind; an objectivist of the Kantian kind.
This is the closest that I can come to describing my personal philosophy.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Burke’s Discussion of Sublime and Beautiful

Immanuel Kant, writing his Critique of Judgement more than three decades after Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful first appeared, criticizes Burke for not going far enough and of offering an ‘extremely fine’ but ‘merely empirical’ and ‘psychological’ analysis.

In his Critique of Judgement, Kant writes: “To make psychological observations, as Burke did in his treatise on the beautiful and the sublime, thus to assemble material for the systematic connection of empirical rules in the future without aiming to understand them, is probably the sole true duty of empirical psychology, which can hardly even aspire to rank as a philosophical science.”

However, Kant accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism, which entails the reduction of aesthetic categories to the two chief qualities of beauty and sublimity. Moses Mendelssohn has also criticized Burke’s Enquiry, but he judged that it offered philosophical ideas which could give a systematic mind an opportunity for reflection. Burke's Enquiry was translated into German by Christian Garve in 1773.

The subsequent aestheticians like Arthur Schopenhauer and even Friedrich Nietzsche also accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism. Nietzsche’s distinction between the ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ in The Birth of Tragedy is in essence a treatment of the distinction that was first originated by Burke. So despite the criticism that Burke’s Enquiry has received, the book has been enormously influential.

In Part I, Section VII of the Enquiry titled “Of The Sublime,” Burke writes:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.
In the passage, “Of Beauty” (Part I, Section X), he says:
The passion which belongs to generation, merely as such, is lust only. This is evident in brutes, whose passions are more unmixed, and which pursue their purposes more directly than ours. The only distinction they observe with regard to their mates, is that of sex. It is true, that they stick severally to their own species in preference to all others. But this preference, I imagine, does not arise from any sense of beauty which they find in their species, as Mr. Addison supposes, but from a law of some other kind, to which they are subject; and this we may fairly conclude, from their apparent want of choice amongst those objects to which the barriers of their species have confined them. But man, who is a creature adapted to a greater variety and intricacy of relation, connects with the general passion the idea of some social qualities, which direct and heighten the appetite which he has in common with all other animals; and as he is not designed like them to live at large, it is fit that he should have something to create a preference, and fix his choice; and this in general should be some sensible quality; as no other can so quickly, so powerfully, or so surely produce its effect. The object therefore of this mixed passion, which we call love, is the beauty of the sex. Men are carried to the sex in general, as it is the sex, and by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty. I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary. But to what end, in many cases, this was designed, I am unable to discover; for I see no greater reason for a connexion between man and several animals who are attired in so engaging a manner, than between him and some others who entirely want this attraction, or possess it in a far weaker degree. But it is probable, that Providence did not make even this distinction, but with a view to some great end; though we cannot perceive distinctly what it is, as his wisdom is not our wisdom, nor our ways his ways.
In his Introduction to Burke’s Enquiry, Paul Guyer says that although Burke is regarded as a conservative defender of tradition, in his Enquiry he has argued vigorously against the entire tradition of Western aesthetics. He notes that Burke has attempted to overthrow the entire system of thought “about beautiful and sublime going back to Plato, Aristotle, and the first-century CE Greek critic known as Longinus.” 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Immanuel Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis

Immanuel Kant’s writing on lying to a murder at the door seems to suggest that he believed that it is always wrong to lie and that one must not lie even to a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his victim. After the Second World War, some scholars replaced the murderer at the door with a Nazi officer looking for Jews hidden in people’s homes, thus making an even grimmer interpretation of the Kantian position.

In her essay, “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . . One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis,” Helga Varden shows that the traditional interpretation of Kant offers a seriously mistaken analysis of his view on lying to the murderer at the door.

Kant makes his statements on this issue in response to a challenge posed by Benjamin Constant in 1797. In his response, Kant is answering two questions: “the first question is whether a man — in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yes or No — has the right to be untruthful. The second question is whether he is not, indeed, bound to be untruthful in a certain statement which he is compelled to make by an unjust constraint, in order to prevent a threatened misdeed to himself or to another.”

Verden points out that the traditional reading of Kant’s position on the issue is developed by considering his account of the moral law in Groundwork. Verden writes;

“In [Groundwork], we learn that all moral actions must be based on a maxim that can be universalized and that we must do the right thing because it is the right thing to do—or from duty. When viewed this way the “Supposed Right to Lie,” including passages like the one quoted above, is seen as accomplishing two goals: it simply repeats how one ought never to lie as the maxim of lying cannot be universalized, and it cashes out the implications of this moral principle with regard to people’s enforceable rights and duties against one another. Because lying is not a universalizable maxim, Kant is seen as saying, lying to the murderer is a crime. And of course, it is continued, this must mean not only that one cannot lie to a run of the mill murderer at the door, but also not to the worst of murderers, such as the Nazis. Lying to Nazis is therefore also a crime.”

Verden says that the readers should be skeptical about ascribing to Kant such a flat-footed position as the traditional interpretation seems to suggest.  She says that traditional interpretations have given insufficient attention to the conception of rightful, external freedom that Kant offers in Doctrine of Right. “It is in the Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world.”

According to Verden, the Groundwork is not the right work for analyzing Kant’s response to constant. This is because Kant is looking at the issue of lying to the murderer at the door from the point of view of justice or right and not from that of ethics or virtue. Therefore Doctrine of Right is fundamental to clarifying his position on this issue.

Kant is talking about cases in which someone is unjustly coerced into saying something to avoid wrongdoing to oneself or someone else, and cases in which the person answering the door does not have the option of asking the murderer to go away. His aim is to establish how a pubic court should judge cases where a person is forced to tell the truth about the victim’s hiding place to a potential murderer.

Verden notes in her essay that “Kant’s focus is not to unravel complicated scenarios such as those involving Nazis and other unjust regimes, but on how a just state’s legal system should handle cases involving an innocent private person’s imparting of information about a victim to a potential wrongdoer. His basic claim is that if a person chooses to stay out of the interaction between the murderer and his potential victim by telling the truth to the potential murderer, then a public court of justice cannot punish her for having done so. In these situations, only the murderer can be punished because the entire action is traceable only to him. In contrast, when a person lies to someone, she deliberately deceives another person (the potential murderer) with regard to his perception of the empirical world, and in this way she becomes a co-author of the action undertaken. The liar, therefore, is punishable for the bad consequences of the lie.”

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Stendhal’s Passages on Battle of Waterloo

The passages on the battle of Waterloo, narrated from the perspective of the young Italian aristocrat Fabrizio Del Dongo who is in search of his life’s purpose, are the most interesting elements in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. Fabrizio is an idealist, he is inspired by Napoleon, but he is untrained in the arts of war. He tries to be brave in the front, but instead of displaying valor he ends up getting drunk and sleeping through much of the battle.

Here’s an excerpt from Stendhal’s battle of Waterloo scene:

But the din at that moment became so terrific that Fabrizio could not answer him. We must admit that our hero was very little of a hero at that moment. However, fear came to him only as a secondary consideration; he was principally shocked by the noise, which hurt his ears. The escort broke into a gallop; they crossed a large batch of tilled land which lay beyond the canal. And this field was strewn with dead.

“Red-coats! red-coats!” the hussars of the escort exclaimed joyfully, and at first Fabrizio did not understand; then he noticed that as a matter of fact almost all these bodies wore red uniforms. One detail made him shudder with horror; he observed that many of these unfortunate red-coats were still alive; they were calling out, evidently asking for help, and no one stopped to give it them. Our hero, being most humane, took every possible care that his horse should not tread upon any of the red-coats. The escort halted; Fabrizio, who was not paying sufficient attention to his military duty, galloped on, his eyes fixed on a wounded wretch in front of him.

“Will you halt, you young fool!” the serjeant shouted after him. Fabrizio discovered that he was twenty paces on the generals’ right front, and precisely in the direction in which they were gazing through their glasses. As he came back to take his place behind the other hussars, who had halted a few paces in rear of them, he noticed the biggest of these generals, who was speaking to his neighbour, a general also, in a tone of authority and almost of reprimand; he was swearing. Fabrizio could not contain his curiosity; and, in spite of the warning not to speak, given him by his friend the gaoler’s wife, he composed a short sentence in good French, quite correct, and said to his neighbour:

“Who is that general who is chewing up the one next to him?”

“Gad, it’s the Marshal!”

“What Marshal?”

“Marshal Ney, you fool! I say, where have you been serving?”

Fabrizio, although highly susceptible, had no thought of resenting this insult; he was studying, lost in childish admiration, the famous Prince de la Moskowa, the “Bravest of the Brave.”

Suddenly they all moved off at full gallop. A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him, a ploughed field the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. The furrows were full of water and the soil, very damp, which formed the ridges between these furrows kept flying off in little black lumps three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed as he passed this curious effect; then his thoughts turned to dreaming of the Marshal and his glory. He heard a sharp cry close to him; two hussars fell struck by shot; and, when he looked back at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort. What seemed to him horrible was a horse streaming with blood that was struggling on the ploughed land, its hooves caught in its own entrails; it was trying to follow the others: its blood ran down into the mire.

“Ah! So I am under fire at last!” he said to himself. “I have seen shots fired!” he repeated with a sense of satisfaction. “Now I am a real soldier.” At that moment, the escort began to go hell for leather, and our hero realised that it was shot from the guns that was making the earth fly up all round him. He looked vainly in the direction from which the balls were coming, he saw the white smoke of the battery at an enormous distance, and, in the thick of the steady and continuous rumble produced by the artillery fire, he seemed to hear shots discharged much closer at hand: he could not understand in the least what was happening.