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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.”

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Jordan Peterson On Revolutions

Jordan B. Peterson
Jordan B. Peterson is against the idea of revolutions. Here’s an excerpt from his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos:
“Even more problematic is the insistence logically stemming from this presumption of social corruption that all individual problems, no matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical. Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.” ~ Page 94
I think Peterson has very good social and political insights. Revolutions have the tendency of unleashing unimaginable monsters and chaos which is why revolutions must be avoided, as far as possible.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Origin of the Italic Type

Aldus Manutius' italic, in a 1501 edition of Virgil
Paul Johnson’s The Renaissance: A Short Story is an insightful and informative book. He has some unique piece of information in every almost paragraph. Here’s a paragraph from the book’s Introduction, in which Johnson talks about the creation of the “italic type”:

"Nicolas Jenson, the master of the Royal Mint at Tours, was sent by King Charles VII of France to Mainz in 1458 to learn the new art of printing. But instead of returning to France, Jenson spent the rest of his life in Venice, where he set up the most famous printing press in the world. He cut superb examples of the Roman types, which were imitated all over Europe. From 1490 his presses were rivaled in Venice by those of Aldus Manutius, who not only designed a survivable Greek type of printing ancient texts in the original, but also designed and popularized a type based on the cursive handwriting used in the fifteenth-century papal chancery. This is characterized by a sharp inclination to the right and exaggerated serifs, and the type based on it became known as italic. Aldus used it first in 1501, uppercase only. Lowercase followed around 1520, and some books were produced entirely in italic. Later it slipped comfortably into its modern role of use for emphasis, contrast and quotation."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy

Ayn Rand
In his article, “Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy,” Roderick T. Long takes a look at Indian philosophical traditions and he finds several affinities between Ayn Rand and ancient Hindu philosophers. He writes:
Rand is also closer to the Hindu thinkers, particularly those in the Nyaya tradition, when it comes to the nature of the world we experience through perception. (Since the similarities between the Nyaya theories and those of Aristotle have often been remarked on by historians of comparative philosophy, it is probably not surprising that Rand, as an Aristotelean herself, should be most closely aligned with Nyaya.)
The idea of Rand being close to ancient Hindu thinkers will come as a surprise to Rand’s acolytes (the objectivists) who believe that in a Goddess Athena like fashion her philosophy sprouted in a fully formed state from her brow. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On Darwin’s Conservative Revolution

In the final chapter of her book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (Chapter 20, “The Conservative Revolution”), Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Charles Darwin led to an intellectual revolution, but this intellectual revolution had an unexpected outcome—it eventually led to the strengthening of the conservative worldview. Drawing a parallel between Darwin’s revolution and the French Revolution, Himmelfarb writes:
As the French Revolution extended, stabilized, and legalized the basic tendencies of the ancien régime; as Napoleon, bringing the Revolution to a halt, at the same time brought it to its fruition; so Darwin, dramatizing and bringing to a climax the ideas, sentiments, and conjectures of his age, may be thought of as the hero of a conservative revolution.
Even in the area of science, the Darwinism led to conservative outcomes:
The Darwinian revolution was conservative, first, as a purely scientific affair. The observations on which it was based were largely familiar, the terms of the problem had been stated, even the crucial idea had been in circulation for half a century. And it influenced the practical work of the sciences less than might be supposed, each discipline assuming that its great import was in some other field. The job of the systematists was affected hardly at all, the “natural system” sought before Darwin’s time being the same as that posited by the theory of evolution. 
Darwinism didn’t prove to be an implacable enemy of religion. According to Himmelfarb, Darwinism’s impact on religion has been meagre.
For Darwinism shared with religion the belief in an objective knowledge of nature. If religion’s belief was based on revelation and Darwinism on science, with good will the two could be—as indeed they were—shown to coincide. The true challenge to orthodox religion came with the denial of the possibility of all objective knowledge, with the skepticism of a Kierkegaard who refused to religion and science alike the claims of knowledge, and forswore the reason of religion equally with the reasons of science. Compared with this radical assertion of an arbitrary, willful faith inaccessible to all reason, the dispute between Darwin and his religious critics was little more than the friendly bickering of old friends. Post-Kant and post-Kierkegaard, Darwinism appears as the citadel of tradition. 
Darwin’s theory is not without problems, his conclusions are still being contested. His theory is not original—this kind of a theory of evolution was being discussed long before he did his work. But Darwinism has been revolutionary in effect. It has played a double role—it’s at once conservative and revolutionary.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

On Charles Darwin and Karl Marx

In her book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that there was a similarity in not only the philosophical intent of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx but also in their practical effect. Here’s an excerpt from her book (Page 421):
When Marx read the Origin, he enthusiastically declared it to be “a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.” In 1873 he sent a copy of the second edition of Das Kapital to Darwin, who politely acknowledged the gift. “Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge; and this, in the long run, is sure to add to the happiness of mankind.” If Darwin had not the least idea of what Marx was up to or what they might have in common, Marx knew precisely what he valued in Darwin. Recommending the Origin to Lassalle, he explained that “despite all deficiencies not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to teleology in natural sciences, but their rational meaning is empirically examined.” The other reason for his interest in the Origin emerged in Das Kapital, where he complained of the abstract materialism of the most natural science, “a materialism that excludes history and its process.” It was his hope that by focussing attention on change and development, the Origin would destroy both the old-fashioned supernaturalism and the equally old-fashioned materialism. 
Himmelfarb points out that there was “truth in Engels’ eulogy on Marx: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.’” She says that “What they both celebrated was the internal rhythm and course of life, the one the life of nature, the other of society, that proceeded by fixed laws, undistracted by the will of God or men. There were no catastrophes in history as there were none in nature. There were no inexplicable acts, no violations in the natural order. God was as powerless as individual men to interfere with the internal, self-adjusting dialectic of change and development.”

Monday, March 18, 2019

Nature and man can never be fast friends

Matthew Arnold
Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau have argued that man can only be happy if he lives in harmony with nature. Matthew Arnold disagreed with this point of view—in his poem, “In Harmony With Nature” (written in the 1840s), he notes that nature is cruel, stubborn, and fickle, and that nature and man can never be fast friends.

Here’s Arnold’s poem, “In Harmony With Nature”:
"In harmony with Nature?" Restless fool,
Who with such heat dost preach what were to thee,
When true, the last impossibility—
To be like Nature strong, like Nature cool! 
Know, man hath all which Nature hath, but more,
And in that more lie all his hopes of good.
Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood;
Nature is stubborn, man would fain adore; 
Nature is fickle, man hath need of rest;
Nature forgives no debt, and fears no grave;
Man would be mild, and with safe conscience blest.
Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends; 
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!
I think Arnold had a better understanding of man’s relationship with nature than any modern environmentalist.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Questions on The Philosophical Impact of Darwinism

Charles Darwin
I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. In her Introduction to the book, she asks a set questions which by themselves are quite thought provoking. Here are the two paragraphs from Introduction in which the questions are asked:

Why was it given to Darwin, less ambitious, less imaginative, and less learned than many of his colleagues, to discover the theory sought after by others so assiduously? How did it come about that one so limited intellectually and insensitive culturally should have devised a theory so massive in structure and sweeping in significance? What were the logic and history of his discovery? Was the new theory inspired by new facts? How did Darwin rise above the antecedents and influences that had shaped him? At what point in his dialectic of discovery did quantity change into quality, the pupil transcend his masters, the past give way to the future? Was Darwin a great revolutionary, and, if so, what was the nature of his revolution?

And what was the later history of the discovery? What happened when the old heresy became the new orthodoxy? Was Darwinism a legitimate heir of Darwin? By what metamorphosis did a scientific treatise, largely devoted to such abstruse matters as the anatomical variations among different breeds of pigeons, become a metaphysics, politics, and economics? How did it come about that a study of the origin of  species could inspire a member of the Austrian Parliament to open a debate on the reconsolidating of the Empire with the words: “The question we have first to consider is whether Charles Darwin is right or no”?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

On Isaiah Berlin’s Essay on Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin
The two concepts of liberty that Isaiah Berlin describes in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” (Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin; Edited by Henry Hardy) are “positive” and “negative.”

Liberty in the negative sense, he says, is involved in answer to the question: “What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” Liberty in the positive sense is involved in the answer to the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference, that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?”

All this is fine, but I think that several of the points that Berlin makes in his essay are not clear. He does not offer enough historical evidence and analysis to prove his assertions.

For instance, he says, “Freedom in this sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties than other regimes, and has been defended as such by libertarians. But there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule. The answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’ is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’”

This might be correct in a certain context, but what is the evidence from history? I think the case can be made that several of the liberties that people enjoy in a society are being safeguarded by the courts and not by the democratically elected governments. But Berlin does not clarify this point in his essay. On liberty in a ‘positive’ sense, Berlin says, “It is that liberty in this sense is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-government.” This is again a confusing statement.

Friday, March 15, 2019

On The Origin of Empirical Science

Eric Voegelin
There are philosophers who insist that philosophy determines the course of history, and that politics, science, art, industry, etc., are the applications of philosophical ideas. But there is no evidence to back such a sweeping claim. The research done by the anthropologists show that human beings have gathered much of their knowledge through observation of nature and experience—philosophical knowledge was developed after lot of progress had already been made in other areas of knowledge.

In Eric Voegelin’s Order and History (Volume 2): The World of the Polis, I have discovered a passage in which he briefly comments on the independence of empirical science from philosophy. Here’s an excerpt (Page 430-431):
Empirical science is an independent factor in intellectual history; and, in particular, its independence from the development of philosophy must be recognized. Unless one has preconceived ideas about the origin of science, the existence of this factor should not be too surprising; for a more or less extended knowledge of causes and effects in the surrounding world is an ineluctable condition of human survival even on primitive levels of civilization. And wherever this knowledge is intensified through specialization of crafts, the basis for systematic elaboration into an empirical science is present. In all civilizations, Western or Eastern, ancient or medieval, empirical science does not originate in philosophy but in the knowledge of craftsmen. When such a body of empirical knowledge falls into the hands of professional theorists, it may flower into a science if the methods (as, for instance, experimentation and mathematization) are suitable; but, obviously, it also may be ruined if the method is a fashion of fallacious speculation.
The craftsmen accumulate their knowledge through experience and observation and that is the root of all empirical science. Philosophers are not the creators of scientists—the craftsmen are.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Buckley on Rothbard’s Fanatical Antistatism

Rothbard; Buckley
William F. Buckley Jr. saw Murray Rothbard as a fanatic who has developed his distrust of the state into a theology of sorts. In his introduction to American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, Buckley writes:

But Dr. Rothbard and his merry anarchists wish to live their fanatical antistatism, and the result is a collision between the basic policies they urge and those urged by conservatives who recognize that the state sometimes is the necessary instrument of our proximate deliverance. The defensive strategic war in which we have been engaged over a number of years on myriad fronts cannot be prosecuted by voluntary associations of soldiers and scientists and diplomats and strategists, and when this obtrusive fact enters into the reckonings of our state-haters, the majority, sighing, yield to reality, whereas the small minority, obsessed by their antagonism to the state, refuse to give it even the powers necessary to safeguard the community.

Buckley notes that while reviewing Rothbard’s book Man, Economy, and State for National Review in 1962, Henry Hazlitt has observed that Rothbard suffers from “extreme apriorism”:

And Mr. Henry Hazlitt, reviewing enthusiastically Dr. Rothbard's magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State for National Review in 1962 paused to comment, sadly, on the author's "extreme apriorism," citing, for instance, Dr. Rothbard's opinion that libel and slander ought not to be illegalized, and that even blackmail, 
"would not be illegal in the free society. For blackmail is the receipt of money in exchange for the service of not publicizing certain information about the other person. No violence or threat of violence to person or property is involved." . . . When Rothbard [Mr. Hazlitt comments] wanders out of the strictly economic realm, in which his scholarship is so rich and his reasoning so rigorous, he is misled by his epistemological doctrine of "extreme apriorism" into trying to substitute his own instant jurisprudence for the common law principles built up through generations of human experience.
"Extreme apriorism"—a generic bullseye. If National Review's experience is central to the growth of contemporary conservatism, extreme apriorists will find it difficult to work with conservatives except as occasional volunteers helping to storm specific objectives. They will not be a part of the standing army, rejecting as they do the burden of reality in the name of a virginal antistatism.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Comparison Between Thucydides and Machiavelli

Bust of Thucydides
Eric Voegelin ends his book Order and History (Volume 2): The World of the Polis with Chapter 12, “Power and History,” which has an interesting analysis of the political, ethical, and cultural aspects of Herodotus’s The Histories and Thucydides’s the History of the Peloponnesian War. He looks at the two historians as the originators of historical consciousness, and in his section on Thucydides, he draws a comparison between Thucydides and the Italian thinker Niccolò Machiavelli:
At this point we touch the limit of Thucydides’ achievement. It is worthwhile to compare his difficulty with the similar one of Machiavelli. Both thinkers were sensitive to the dilemma of power and morality, both were resigned to the necessity of criminal means for what they considered a desirable end. But Machiavelli was supremely conscious that the Prince could realize no more than external order, while genuine order had to be instilled into the community by a spiritual reformer. Thucydides, while moving on the same level of political action as Machiavelli, apparently had no conception of an alternative to his Periclean prince—for which he can hardly be blamed, since he did not have the experience of prototypical saviors which Machiavelli had. This absence of a spiritual reforming personality not only from the reality of Athens, but even from the imagination of a Thucydides, shows clearly that an age of political culture had irrevocably come to its end. The time of the polis was running out; a new epoch of order began with Socrates and Plato. 
Voegelin points out that the critical study of the war between Peloponnesians and Athenians, which we now know as the History of the Peloponnesian War, was inscribed by Thucydides simply as “Syngraphe,” a word that can best be translated by the slang “write-up”.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron has around 2300 words but it gives an explicit account of an egalitarian society where everyone is fully equal and barred by the constitution from being smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. In this dystopian world all values have been sacrificed in the name of “equality.” The exceptionally gifted have either been eliminated or are being controlled via technology.

Here’s an excerpt from the short story:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. 

Some things about living still weren't quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron's fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she'd forgotten for the moment what they were about. (Read More)

Monday, March 11, 2019

On The Political Consequences of Destruction of Language

Eric Voegelin blames the intellectuals and their destruction of language for the rise of National Socialism. Here’s an excerpt from his Autobiographical Reflections:

"It is extremely difficult to engage in a critical discussion of National Socialist ideas, as I found out when I gave my semester course on “Hitler and the Germans” in 1964 in Munich, because in National Socialist and related documents we are still further below the level on which rational argument is possible than in the case of Hegel and Marx. In order to deal with rhetoric of this type, one must first develop a philosophy of language, going into the problems of symbolization on the basis of the philosophers’ experience of humanity and of the perversion of such symbols on the vulgarian level by people who are utterly unable to read a philosopher’s work. A person on this level—which I characterize as the vulgarian and, so far as it becomes socially relevant, as the ochlocratic level—again, is not admissible to the position of a partner in discussion but can only be an object of scientific research. These vulgarian and ochlocratic problems must not be taken lightly; one cannot simply not take notice of them. They are serious problems of life and death because the vulgarians create and dominate the intellectual climate in which the rise to power of figures like Hitler is possible. I would say, therefore, that in the German case the destroyers of the German language on the literary and journalistic level, characterized and analyzed over more than thirty years by Karl Kraus in the volumes of Die Fackel, were the true criminals who were guilty of the National Socialist atrocities, which were possible only when the social environment had been so destroyed by the vulgarians that a person who was truly representative of this vulgarian spirit could rise to power."

He notes that Hitler could come to power because society was intellectually and morally ruined:

"The phenomenon of Hitler is not exhausted by his person. His success must be understood in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society in which personalities who otherwise would be grotesque, marginal figures can come to public power because they superbly represent the people who admire them. This internal destruction of a society was not finished with the Allied victory over the German armies in World War II but still goes on. I should say that the contemporary destruction of German intellectual life, and especially the destruction of the universities, is the aftermath of the destruction that brought Hitler to power and of the destruction worked under his regime. There is yet no end in sight so far as the disintegration of society is concerned, and consequences that may surprise are possible. The study of this period by Karl Kraus, and especially his astute analysis of the dirty detail (that part of it that Hannah Arendt has called the “banality of evil”), is still of the greatest importance because the parallel phenomena are to be found in our Western society, though fortunately not yet with the destructive effect that led to the German catastrophe."

Saturday, March 9, 2019

On the Political Judgment of Scientists

Albert Einstein
Hannah Arendt, in the Prologue to her book The Human Condition, talks about why it may be wise to distrust the political judgement of scientists qua scientists. Here’s an excerpt:
Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being. If we would follow the advice, so frequently urged upon us, to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement, we would in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a "language" of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their lack of "character"—that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons—or their naiveté—that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use—but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power. And whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about. There may be truths beyond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being, whatever else he may be. Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves. 
Arendt has not made direct references to the politics of Albert Einstein, but it is true that Einstein’s political philosophy is atrocious.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?

William James
Today I read William James’s 1904 essay, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” In the early part of his essay, he declares that consciousness “is the name of a nonentity… a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy."

Here’s an excerpt in which James is making the point that consciousness is not a substance:
There is… no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing…if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ’pure experience,’ then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its 'terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known.
He ends his essay by associating consciousness with the act of breathing:
Let the case be what it may in others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The 'I think' which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the 'I breath' which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of 'consciousness,' so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of 'spirit,' breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.
I don’t think James has given much of an explanation of what consciousness is in his 16-page essay, but this is a complicated subject—more than a century after his essay the psychologists and philosophers are still grappling with the subject of consciousness.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Religion as an Embodiment of Reason

George Santayana
George Santayana is not religious, but he is sensitive to man’s spiritual needs and he does not identify as an atheist. He notes that most atheists are in a quest for their own orthodoxy; they yearn for a different kind of religion, a materialistic religion. Here’s an excerpt from his book “Reason in Religion,” (Chapter 1, “How Religion May Be An Embodiment of Reason”):

"Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's, that "a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." In every age the most comprehensive thinkers have found in the religion of their time and country something they could accept, interpreting and illustrating that religion so as to give it depth and universal application. Even the heretics and atheists, if they have had profundity, turn out after a while to be forerunners of some new orthodoxy. What they rebel against is a religion alien to their nature; they are atheists only by accident, and relatively to a convention which inwardly offends them, but they yearn mightily in their own souls after the religious acceptance of a world interpreted in their own fashion. So it appears in the end that their atheism and loud protestation were in fact the hastier part of their thought, since what emboldened them to deny the poor world's faith was that they were too impatient to understand it."

He goes on to suggest that religion can have a bearing on life of reason:

"What relation, then, does this great business of the soul, which we call religion, bear to the Life of Reason? That the relation between the two is close seems clear from several circumstances. The Life of Reason is the seat of all ultimate values. Now the history of mankind will show us that whenever spirits at once lofty and intense have seemed to attain the highest joys, they have envisaged and attained them in religion. Religion would therefore seem to be a vehicle or a factor in rational life, since the ends of rational life are attained by it. Moreover, the Life of Reason is an ideal to which everything in the world should be subordinated; it establishes lines of moral cleavage everywhere and makes right eternally different from wrong. Religion does the same thing. It makes absolute moral decisions. It sanctions, unifies, and transforms ethics. Religion thus exercises a function of the Life of Reason. And a further function which is common to both is that of emancipating man from his personal limitations. In different ways religions promise to transfer the soul to better conditions."

But Santayana accepts that religion may debauch the morality it comes to sanction, and impede the science it ought to fulfill:

"What is the secret of this ineptitude? Why does religion, so near to rationality in its purpose, fall so far short of it in its texture and in its results? The answer is easy: Religion pursues, rationality through the imagination. When it explains events or assigns causes, it gives imaginative substitute for science. When it gives; precepts, insinuates ideals, or remoulds aspiration, it is an imaginative substitute for wisdom—I mean for the deliberate and impartial pursuit of all good. The conditions and the aims of life are both represented in religion poetically, but this poetry tends to arrogate to itself literal truth and moral authority, neither of which it possesses. Hence the depth and importance of religion become intelligible no less than its contradictions and practical disasters. Its object is the same as that of reason, but its method is to proceed by intuition and by unchecked poetical conceits."

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On the Origin of the Label: “The Renaissance”

The School of Athens by Raphael
In his book The Renaissance: A Short History, Paul Johnson talks about the origin of the label “the Renaissance”. Here’s an excerpt:
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp if it can be labeled by a word that epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as "the Renaissance" came into being. Needless to say, it is not those who actually live through the period who coin the term, but later, often much later, writers. The periodization and labeling of history is largely the work of the nineteenth century. The term "Renaissance" was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his great book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. The usage stuck because it turned out to be a convenient way of describing the period of transition between the medieval epoch, when Europe was "Christendom," and the beginning of the modern age. It also had some historical justification because, although the Italian elites of the time never used the words "Renaissance" or "Rinascita," they were conscious that a cultural rebirth of a kind was taking place, and that some of the literary, philosophical and artistic grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome was being recreated. In 1550 the painter Vasari published an ambitious work, The Lives of the Artists, in which he sought to describe how this process had taken place, and was continuing, in painting, sculpture and architecture. In comparing the glories of antiquity with the achievements of the present and recent past in Italy, he referred to the degenerate period in between as "the middle ages." This usage stuck too. (Part One: "Historical and Economical Background")
Thus, the term “Renaissance” was first used by French intellectuals in the nineteenth-century (almost 300 years after the Renaissance was over). Johnson notes that the “connection between the Renaissance and the start of the early modern period is more schematic than chronologically exact” and that there are problems in defining the chronology of the Renaissance itself.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On Voegelin’s Teaching Style

Eric Voegelin
In his Introduction to Autobiographical Introductions: Eric Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz has this to say about Eric Voegelin’s attitude towards his students:
While gentle with undergraduates as a rule, and typically a fairly generous grader, Voegelin was a scourge to slothful ignoramuses whoever he encountered them. He commented: “I have always had to explain to the students at the beginning of my seminars all my life: There is no such thing as a right to be stupid; there is no such thing as a right to be illiterate; there is no such thing as a right to be incompetent.” 
Sandoz summarizes Voegelin’s teaching style in these words:
Voegelin commanded the attention and respect of students, and he presented himself as someone who knew his business. He based on a solid conviction that classical Greek philosophy is the foundation of political science: The lecture materials were presented from this coherent starting point. Devotion to truth and desire to communicate it to students illumined every lecture and discussion, with the exploration of questions constantly reflecting the tension toward the divine ground of reality as the decisive context for exploring the human condition and political issues. A sense of openness to the horizon of reality, and refusal to truncate reality or go along with reductionist construct of any kind whatever, encouraged students to engage resourcefully in the examination of complicated materials as partners in the discussion—rather than as mere spectators absorbing indifferent information. This, in turn, encouraged students sympathetically to involve their own common sense, intellectual, and faith experiences in understanding demanding material in personal reflective consciousness, implicitly somewhat on the pattern of the Socratic “Look and see if this is not the case”—i.e., by validating the analytical discourse through personal understanding and questioning. 
I think the theoretical analysis of politics that Voegelin offers in his book The New Science of Politics is really impressive.

Monday, March 4, 2019

On Spinoza and Leibniz

I am reading Matthew Stewart’s book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Stewart is a good storyteller and the book is interesting, but I am reading it with some amount of skepticism because I am getting the impression that this is not an objective account of the two philosophers. I am currently at page 60 and I have already come across several passages that are very unfair to Leibniz. It appears that Stewart’s aim is to build up Spinoza by attacking Leibniz.

For instance, here’s an excerpt from the first page of Stewart's book:
In a personal letter to… [a] French theologian, Leibniz described Spinoza’s work as “horrible” and “terrifying.” To a famous professor, he called it “intolerably impudent.” To a friend he confided, “I deplore that man of such evident culture should have fallen so low.”  
Yet, in the privacy of his study, Leibniz crammed his notebooks with meticulous commentaries on Spinoza’s writings. He exchanged secret letters with his public nemesis, addressing him as “celebrated doctor and profound philosopher.” Through mutual friends he pleaded for a chance to examine a manuscript copy of the Ethics. And on or around November 18, 1676, he traveled to The Hague and called Spinoza in person. 
Stewart is talking about the November 1676 meeting between the two philosophers in such a manner that he makes Leibniz look like a spineless hypocrite who used to criticize Spinoza in public while admiring him secretly. Other historians of philosophy have given a more balanced account of their meeting.

Nicholas Jolley, in his book Leibniz, writes: “In 1676 Leibniz found a pretext to visit Spinoza in The Hague, having learned that Spinoza was at work on a philosophical treatise of great importance. Spinoza showed Leibniz the manuscript of the Ethics, and the two men discussed philosophy together over several days. Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.” (Page 18)

Sunday, March 3, 2019

On the Theology of the Atheists

Harold J. Laski 
In the last 250 years, there has not been a single atheistic movement that has not developed its own theology. In the 18th century, the French Revolutionaries had their “cult of reason” and “cult of supreme being”; in 19th century, Auguste Comte’s Positivists had their “religion of humanity”; in the 20th century, the Soviet Communists had their own Marxist theology and communist gods.

The atheist thinkers know that you can abolish religion, but theological philosophy cannot be abolished because it is a basic human need—so they operate by replacing religious theology with their own secular theology.

For instance, the Marxist scholar Harold J. Laski offers a completely theological view of Soviet communism in his 1944 book Faith, Reason, and Civilization: An Essay in Historical Analysis. He talks about the Russian project for building a godless communist heaven which is better than any religion because it will bring salvation to the masses in this life itself. Here are some excerpts from his book:

"The power of any supernatural religion to build that tradition has gone; the deposit of scientific enquiry since Descartes has been fatal to its authority. It is therefore difficult to see upon what basis the civilised tradition can be rebuilt save that upon which the idea of the Russian Revolution is founded. It corresponds, its supernatural basis apart, pretty exactly to the mental climate in which Christianity became the official religion of the West." (Page 54)

"It is, indeed, true in a sense to argue that the Russian principle cuts deeper than the Christian, since it seeks salvation for the masses by fulfillment in this life, and, thereby, orders anew the actual world we know." (Page 155)

"Lenin was surely right when the end he sought for was to build his heaven upon earth and to write the precepts of its faith into the inner fabric of a universal humanity. He was surely right, too, when he recognised that the prelude to peace is a war, and that it is futile to suppose that the tradition of countless generations can be changed, as it were, overnight." (Page 200)

In the 1930s, Laski visited the Soviet Union and he was allowed by Josef Stalin to visit some model prisons. Laski was not shocked by prisoners having their teeth smashed out with iron bars. He reported back: “Basically, I did not observe much of a difference between the general character of a trial in Russia and in this country.”

Laski was a communist theologist, and Stalin was his God—he could not see anything wrong in the actions of his God.

Friday, March 1, 2019

On Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr.; Ayn Rand 
Why did William F. Buckley Jr. think that Ayn Rand was not a good inspiration for the conservative movement? He has claimed that when he met Rand for the first time, she greeted him by saying, “You are much too intelligent to believe in God.” In 1957, he published in his National Review a negative review of Atlas Shrugged (written by Whittaker Chambers).

The Whittaker review must have hurt Rand, because after its publication she disavowed conservatism, despite the fact that a majority of the readers of her books are conservatives—in her 1966 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, she published an obituary of conservatism, in a chapter titled, “Conservatism: An Obituary.”

Eric Voegelin's work on political theory offers another way of looking at the hostility between Rand and Buckley. In his book The New Science of Politics, Voegelin takes a stand against the revolutionary mass movements like Marxism, communism, fascism, and national socialism which deny religion and tradition, and win support by promising to create a godless heaven on earth. In Chapter 4, “Gnosticism—The Nature of Modernity,” Voegelin writes:
“The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.”
Inspired by Voegelin’s political theory, Buckley promulgated the political slogan, “Don’t let them immanentize the Eschaton.” This means: “Don’t let them create a heaven on earth.”

It is possible that Buckley didn't like Rand’s Atlas Shrugged because this book makes a case for “immanentizing the eschaton.” The novel’s protagonist John Galt stops the motor of the earth with the conviction that once the society has collapsed, he will create a better world, a new Atlantis or heaven, which will be populated with human beings who stand for reason, science, and individualism. Rand has given an account of what Galt’s Atlantis will be like in her description of Galt’s Gulch where perfect human beings live in perfect happiness.

But entry into Galt’s Gulch is possible only to those who will sever all ties with the imperfect world—they must hold the perfect philosophy and they must sever themselves form everything and everyone that is not perfect. In Atlas Shrugged, Galt says to Dagny Taggart, “You have seen the Atlantis they were seeking, it is here, it exists—but one must enter it naked and alone, with no rags from the falsehoods of centuries, with the purest clarity of mind—not an innocent heart, but that which is much rarer: an intransigent mind—as one's only possession and key.”

What Galt is after when he talks about “stopping the motor of the world,” is not only political change, but a total revolution. He wants to transform everything. He will have nothing to do with traditions; he rejects the family system; he demands rejection of not just religion, but of every religious person— even if the religious person is your best friend or a close relative, you have to reject him in order to qualify for Galt’s utopia; he wants a complete and instantaneous curtailment of the entire government; he wants every human being to be a man of reason, science, and individualism.

Buckley was a conservative and Rand a revolutionary. There was no way that they could have cooperated with each other.