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Friday, May 31, 2019

On the Jewishness of Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Chapter 3: “The Jews and Society"), Hannah Arendt calls attention to Marcel Proust’s perception of his own Jewish heritage.

“When Marcel Proust, himself half Jewish and in emergencies ready to identify himself as a Jew, set out to search for "things past,” he actually wrote what one of his admiring critics has called an apologia pro vita sua. The life of this greatest writer of twentieth-century France was spent exclusively in society; all events appeared to him as they are reflected in society and reconsidered by the individual, so that reflections and reconsiderations constitute the specific reality and texture of Proust's world. Throughout the Remembrance of Things Past, the individual and his reconsiderations belong to society, even when he retires into the mute and uncommunicative solitude in which Proust himself finally disappeared when he had decided to write his work. There his inner life, which insisted on transforming all worldly happenings into inner experience, became like a mirror in whose reflection truth might appear. The contemplator of inner experience resembles the onlooker in society insofar as neither has an immediate approach to life but perceives reality only if it is reflected. Proust, born on the fringe of society, but still rightfully belonging to it though an outsider, enlarged this inner experience until it included the whole range of aspects as they appeared to and were reflected by all members of society.”

There is a famous passage in Remembrance of Things Past in which Proust draws a comparison between two persecuted minorities—Jewish and sexual. Arendt takes note of this passage in her book:

“There is no better witness, indeed, of this period when society had emancipated itself completely from public concerns, and when politics itself was becoming a part of social life. The victory of bourgeois values over the citizen's sense of responsibility meant the decomposition of political issues into their dazzling, fascinating reflections in society. It must be added that Proust himself was a true exponent of this society, for he was involved in both of its most fashionable "vices," which he, "the greatest witness of dejudaized Judaism" interconnected in the "darkest comparison which ever has been made on behalf of Western Judaism": the "vice" of Jewishness and the "vice" of homosexuality, and which in their reflection and individual reconsideration became very much alike indeed.”

Taking into account the description of Jews in Proust’s novels, Arendt talks about the Jewish assimilation into society. She notes that while the Jews were supportive of the bourgeois revolution and they played an important role in financial and industrial growth as well as in politics, journalism, and the military, Jewish integration in society was primarily an upper-class phenomenon. But this does not mean that these well-to-do members were “cleansed of their Jewishness.” She is of the view that Judaism was reduced to a difference, to a strangeness, even to an object of psychic or moral curiosity. By relinquishing Judaism as a religious sign, Jewishness came to be identified with closed clans. She mentions Proust’s quote on Hamlet. Here’s an excerpt:

“Proust's "innate disposition" is nothing but this personal, private obsession, which was so greatly justified by a society where success and failure depended upon the fact of Jewish birth. Proust mistook it for "racial predestination," because he saw and depicted only its social aspect and individual reconsiderations. And it is true that to the recording onlooker the behavior of the Jewish clique showed the same obsession as the behavior patterns followed by inverts. Both felt either superior or inferior, but in any case proudly different from other normal beings; both believed their difference to be a natural fact acquired by birth; both were constantly justifying, not what they did, but what they were; and both, finally, always wavered between such apologetic attitudes and sudden, provocative claims that they were an elite. As though their social position were forever frozen by nature, neither could move from one clique into another. The need to belong existed in other members of society too—"the question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong" "—but not to the same extent. A society disintegrating into cliques and no longer tolerating outsiders, Jews or inverts, as individuals but because of the special circumstances of their admission, looked like the embodiment of this clannishness.”

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Neo-Kantians Versus Materialists

Frederick C. Beiser defines neo-Kantian philosophy as “the movement in 19th-century Germany to rehabilitate Kant’s philosophy”. He sees neo-Kantianism as not merely a doctrine or an approach to philosophical questions, but also a strategy to promote a certain kind of interpretation of the Kantian philosophy.

Beiser gives an interesting account of the conflict between the neo-Kantians and the Materialists. Here’s an excerpt from Beiser's book The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880:
"Materialism had become a powerful intellectual force in Germany during the 1850s in the wake oof the materialism controversy. The writings of Ludwig Buchner (1824—1899), Heinrich Czolbe (1819—1873), Karl Vogt (1817—1895) and Jakob Moleschott (1822—1893) had become popular, spreading the message far and wide that materialism is the new philosophy of the natural sciences. The Kantian counter-attack against materialism, which began in the 1860s in the works of Jurgen Bona Meyer and Friedrich Lange, effectively blocked the materialist advance. The neo-Kantians put forward two powerful arguments against the materialists: first, they could never bridge the chasm between matter and consciousness; and second, they were naive and dogmatic, simply assuming the reality of matter, as if it were a pure given, completely ignoring the physiological and intellectual conditions of knowledge in the world." (Chapter 2: "The Rise of Neo-Kantianism") 
Beiser notes that by the 1870s, the neo-Kantians seem to have triumphed. They had defeated their two main rivals, materialism and speculative idealism.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“Secularization" and The Lowering of The Goals of Human Action

Burke; Rousseau
Leo Strauss is averse to the idea of secularization for a good reason—he thinks that secularization hinders us from understanding the nature of the modern project. He notes that both Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to tame providence in their own way. For Burke, the English constitution was the best constitution, and he viewed the rights of the Englishman as “providentially” given. Rousseau saw his time as being “providentially” enlightened.

In his Natural Right and History, Strauss observes that “Kant has interpreted the teachings of Rousseau’s Second Discourse as a vindication of Providence. Accordingly, the idea of history, precisely like modern political economy, could appear to have emerged through a modification of the traditional belief in Providence. That modification is usually described as “secularization.” (Page 317).

Here’s Strauss’s explanation of the role that the idea of secularization has played in modern thinking (Page 317):
"Secularization" is the "temporalization" of the spiritual or of the eternal. It is the attempt to integrate the eternal into a temporal context. It therefore presupposes that the eternal is no longer understood as eternal. "Secularization," in other words, presupposes a radical change of thought, a transition of thought from one plane to an entirely different plane. This radical change appears in its undisguised form in the emergence of modern philosophy or science; it is not primarily a change within theology. What presents itself as the "secularization" of theological concepts will have to be understood, in the last analysis, as an adaptation of traditional theology to the intellectual climate produced by modern philosophy or science both natural and political. The "secularization'' of the understanding of Providence culminates in the view that the ways of God are scrutable to sufficiently enlightened men. 
The theological tradition used to hold that the designs of God in history are inscrutable to man, but the modern philosophers like Burke and Rousseau thought that they could divine God's Providence. But if the historical process is itself rational then the ground of morality — the distinction between good and evil — loses its meaning. And this kind of thinking leads to the lowering of the goals of human action. Strauss writes:
The theological tradition recognized the mysterious character of Providence especially by the fact that God uses or permits evil for his good ends. It asserted, therefore, that man cannot take his bearings by God's providence but only by God's law, which simply forbids man to do evil. In proportion as the providential order came to be regarded as intelligible to man, and therefore evil came to be regarded as evidently necessary or useful, the prohibition against doing evil lost its evidence. Hence various ways of action which were previously condemned as evil could now be regarded as good. The goals of human action were lowered. But it is precisely a lowering of these goals which modern political philosophy consciously intended from its very beginning.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Fear and Trembling

I am reading Alastair Hannay’s translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard; Translated by Alastair Hannay; Penguin Classics). In the final section of his 30 page Introduction to the book, Hannay suggests that there are parallels between the theme of Fear and Trembling and Kierkegaard’s life. He notes that as an expert psychologist Kierkegaard was quite capable of using the medium of his literary work to reflect on the issues in his life. Here’s an excerpt from Hannay’s Introduction (Page 35):

"Fear and Trembling belongs to the series of works (Either/OrRepetitionStages on Life’s Way) concerned with ‘realizing the universal’, a theme close to Kierkegaard’s heart in view of his decision not to proceed with his marriage. But in Fear and Trembling this theme is set in sharp juxtaposition with two others, faith and sacrifice. The relevance of the latter, and thus also the appeal to Kierkegaard of the story of Abraham and Isaac, is obvious enough. In one respect Kierkegaard was sacrificing Regine, who obviously wanted the marriage; in another he was sacrificing himself, since he obviously wanted Regine; and in yet another he perhaps felt that his whole life had been sacrificed through his father (Abraham?), at least ruined as far as being healthily adapted in mind as well as body to accepting the responsibilities and pleasures of family life and a solid job is concerned, and therefore a preparation for some higher mission. As an expert psychologist Kierkegaard was well able to sort out these possible constructions of his situations for himself, and to question the corresponding motives, as well as his own motives for adopting any of them. Thus, to think of the pain he caused Regine as a sacrifice to a higher mission the pain his father caused him had somehow prepared him, and maybe even specially him, to carry out, could well be a stratagem to conceal some less worthy motive. The ways in which he thought of handling the break with Regine are repeated (from his journal) in the final version he constructs of the legend of Agnete and the merman. So too with faith. In his journals he wrote that if he had had faith — faith for his life — he would have stayed with Regine. But that too would have required sacrifice, at least of his career as a writer and all that his life had seemed to be a preparation for."

Monday, May 27, 2019

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer is an oil-on-canvas painting done by Rembrandt in 1653. The painting was commissioned by Rembrandt’s Sicilian patron named Don Antonio Ruffo, who did not request any particular subject.

The painting shows Aristotle, wearing a gold chain, resting his hand on a bust of blind Homer, a legendary figure from three centuries earlier, and thoughtfully looking at it. The gold chain that Aristotle is wearing is presumed to have an image of Alexander the Great. Some scholars have interpreted the painting as a morality tale—Aristotle, a successful and well-dressed courtier, is envying Homer who was blind but lived like a free spirit and did not have to wear any chain.

The painting was purchased by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1961 for $2.3 million. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

On Rousseau’s View of Man

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Leo Strauss notes that Jean-Jacques Rousseau has to be seen as a modern Epicurean or an atheistic and materialistic thinker. In his book Natural Right and History (Chapter 6: “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”), Strauss offers the following perspective on Rousseau’s Second Discourse (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality):
"The Second Discourse is meant to be a “history” of man. That history is modeled on the account of the fate of the human race which Lucretius gave in the fifth book of his poem. But Rousseau takes that account out of its Epicurean context and puts it into a context supplied by modem natural and social science. Lucretius had described the fate of the human race in order to show that that fate can be perfectly understood without recourse to divine activity. The remedies for the ills which he was forced to mention, he sought in philosophic withdrawal from political life. Rousseau, on the other hand, tells the story of man in order to discover that political order which is in accordance with natural right. Furthermore, at least at the outset, he follows Descartes rather than Epicurus: he assumes that animals are machines and that man transcends the general mechanism, or the dimension of (mechanical) necessity, only by virtue of the spirituality of his soul. Descartes had integrated the "Epicurean" cosmology into a theistic framework: God having created matter and established the laws of its motions, the universe with the exception of man's rational soul has come into being through purely mechanical processes; the rational soul requires special creation because thinking cannot be understood as a modification of moved matter; rationality is the specific difference of man among the animals. Rousseau questions not only the creation of matter but likewise the traditional definition of man. Accepting the view that brutes are machines, he suggests that there is only a difference of degree between men and the brutes in regard to understanding or that the laws of mechanics explain the formation of ideas. It is man's power to choose and his consciousness of his freedom which cannot be explained physically and which proves the spirituality of his soul." 
Like Lucretius, Rousseau regards man as naturally independent, self-sufficient, limited in his desires, and therefore as happy. He sees society as the creator of all the artificial desires and false opinions which give rise to conflict and misery. Both Lucretius and Rousseau have a non-teleological view of man’s passage from nature into history.

Strauss points out that on “reason” Rousseau draws his conclusion from Hobbes’s premises which Hobbes had not drawn. Strauss writes: “For the same reason for which natural man lacks pride, he also lacks understanding or reason and therewith freedom. Reason is coterminous with language, and language presupposes society: being presocial, natural man is prerational… To have reason means to have general ideas. But general ideas, as distinguished from the images of memory or imagination, are not the products of a natural or unconscious process; they presuppose definitions; they owe their being to definition. Hence they presuppose language. Since language is not natural, reason is not natural.”

Saturday, May 25, 2019

On The Unifying Power of Hatred

Eric Hoffer
The True Believer has a section entitled “Unifying Agents,” in which Eric Hoffer talks about the elements that hold a mass movement together. Hatred, he notes, is the most important of these elements. Hoffer writes:
"Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass… Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil."
Hoffer is correct when he says:
"Whence come these unreasonable hatreds, and why their unifying effect? They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. Obviously, the most effective way of doing this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do. Here more than anywhere else we need general consent, and much of our proselytizing consists perhaps in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred."
Every movement or cult which believes that they own “the one and only truth” will try to unify its members by preaching hatred against its ideological or political enemies. Hoffer notes that in the long run hatred comes at a heavy price: “We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend.” I think one should always distrust those who blindly follow someone else, never questioning their own beliefs.

Friday, May 24, 2019

On The Dark Side of Reason

How rational are the people who assert that they are the men of reason? Why do social philosophies that are based on the perfection and application of reason for the solution of society’s problems transform or harden into fascism? Why is it that the pursuit of rationality often leads to an explosion of irrationality?

Such are the questions that Justin E. H. Smith is grappling with in Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. In the Introduction to his book, he points out that the faculty of “rationality” or “reason” was discovered by the Ancient Greeks, but it was elevated to a divine status in the modern period in Europe. Here’s an excerpt:
"For the past few millennia, many human beings have placed their hopes for rising out of the mess we have been born into—the mess of war and violence, the pain of unfulfilled passions or of passions fulfilled to excess, the degradation of living like brutes—in a single faculty, rumored to be had by all and only members of the human species. We call this faculty “rationality,” or “reason.” It is often said to have been discovered in ancient Greece, and was elevated to an almost divine status at the beginning of the modern period in Europe. Perhaps no greater emblem of this modern cult can be found than the “Temples of Reason” that were briefly set up in confiscated Catholic churches in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. This repurposing of the august medieval houses of worship, at the same time, shows what may well be an ineliminable contradiction in the human effort to live our lives in accordance with reason, and to model society on rational principles. There is something absurd, indeed irrational, about giving reason its own temples. What is one supposed to do in them? Pray? Bow down? But aren’t these the very same prostrations that worshippers had previously performed in the churches, from which we were supposed to be liberated?" 
According to Smith, the problem of "reason" or "rationality" is of dialectical nature, “where the thing desired contains its opposite, where every earnest stab at rationally building up society crosses over sooner or later, as if by some natural law, into an eruption of irrational violence. The harder we struggle for reason, it seems, the more we lapse into unreason. The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational, mutates, as a rule, into spectacular outbursts of irrationality. It either triggers romantic irrationalism as a reaction, or it induces in its most ardent promoters the incoherent idea that rationality is something that may be imposed by force or by the rule of the enlightened few over the benighted masses.”

P.S.,  I think that Prof. Justin E. H. Smith is suffering from an acute case of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I got his book yesterday and right now I have read only the Introduction—in the 22 page Introduction he rants against Trump seven times and twice draws a very silly kind of ideological connection between Trump and Putin. I have a feeling that the rest of the book would also be full of such rants. Yikes! Why clutter a book of serious philosophy with such petty political rants? But I still think that Smith has written a good book. I am impressed by his unorthodox approach to the problematic history of reason and enlightenment. I think I will enjoy reading this book.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Ayn Rand Cult

In her novels Ayn Rand introduces us to characters who are heroic, individualistic, moral, intelligent, wise, hardworking, ambitious, and capable of emotional self-control. But the Objectivist philosophical movement that she founded was an antithesis of all the values that she has preached in her fiction — from the beginning Objectivism was an atheistic religion and a cult.

I think Rand was a fine fiction writer, but she didn’t have the knowledge, patience, talent, and the energy for developing a system of philosophy and managing a philosophical movement. That she became convinced that she was the world’s greatest philosopher is by itself a proof of her lack of wisdom.

In his book The Ayn Rand Cult, Jeff Walker exposes objectivism as a classic cult. In his Introduction to the book, Walker says:

“In her fiction Rand portrayed a constellation of values, reality, objectivity, reason, egoism, individual rights, heroism, and laissez faire that underwent severe contortions during their attempted embodiment by a real-life movement. As many government interventions in the economy accomplish precisely the opposite of their intent, so Rand's formative influences made it likely that she would adopt a set of ideas which, if probed deeply enough or if embodied in real people, could be seen as accomplishing precisely the opposite of her intent. That opposite is the ultimate destination of her exclusive concern for the Nietzschean overachiever, who must be protected via absolutized individual rights, which are justified only by Reason.”

On page 17, Walker notes, “The explicit message of Objectivism is optimistic, benevolent, and life-affirming, but Objectivism, beginning with Rand's writings, is actually more preoccupied with contempt and disgust for the real world.” On Page 26, Walker says that the Objectivist movement took on the characteristics of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Almost every member of Rand’s inner circle in the early years of the objectivist movement was a relative or friend of Nathaniel Blumenthal (Branden). Nathaniel didn’t have the knowledge, wisdom, and patience to manage a philosophy movement—Rand probably granted him so much power because she was in a relationship with him. The members of “the Blumenthal bunch,” as Walker calls them in his book, were 25-35 years younger than Rand and they literally worshipped her. Here’s Walker’s description of the Blumenthal bunch (page 26):

“The core of the Collective was largely made up of Canadian Jews, most of them closely related… Leonard Peikoff. initially a lowly member of the Collective, though he was one day to become Rand's heir, hailed from Manitoba, as did Joan Mitchell Blumenthal, Rand's close friend for a quarter-century, and Peikoff’s cousin Barbara Weidman (Barbara Branden). With Toronto natives Nathan Blumenthal (Nathaniel Branden), a Blumenthal sister and her husband, and cousin Allan Blumenthal, Rand’s inner circle was nearly complete.”

It is surprising that Rand, a writer of several bestselling novels, didn’t have the sense or ability to find some competent and wise intellectuals to develop her philosophy and manage her movement—she handed over all the power to a bunch of under-informed, over-enthusiastic, and excessively sycophantic youngsters being led by an extremely rude, unwise, and supercilious man like Nathaniel Branden. According to Walker, the gang of youngsters made it impossible for Rand to continue normal relationship with her own peers. They were “barking at her feet all the time. Nobody wanted to deal with these hangers-on.”

I started reading the book today. Currently I am on page 47 of the 396 page book—I will have more to say on the book once I finish reading it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Hedonism of John Locke

Portrait of John Locke 
In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss characterizes John Locke as a Hobbesian thinker and concludes that Locke is a hedonist. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “Modern Natural Right”:
"Locke is a hedonist: "That which is properly good or bad, is nothing but barely pleasure or pain." But his is a peculiar hedonism: "The greatest happiness consists" not in enjoying the greatest pleasures but "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." It is not altogether an accident that the chapter in which these statements occur, and which happens to be the most extensive chapter of the whole Essay, is entitled "Power." For if, as Hobbes says, "the power of a man ... is his present means, to obtain some future apparent good," Locke says in effect that the greatest happiness consists in the greatest power. Since there are no knowable natures, there is no nature of man with reference to which we could distinguish between pleasures which are according to nature and pleasures which are against nature, or between pleasures which are by nature higher and pleasures which are by nature lower: pleasure and pain are "for different men ... very different things." Therefore, "the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation?" In the absence of a summum bonum, man would lack completely a star and compass for his life if there were no summum malum. "Desire is always moved by evil, to fly it." The strongest desire is the desire for self-preservation. The evil from which the strongest desire recoils is death. Death must then be the greatest evil: Not the natural sweetness of living but the terrors of death make us cling to life. What nature firmly establishes is that from which desire moves away, the point of departure of desire; the goal toward which desire moves is secondary. The primary fact is want. But this want, this lack, is no longer understood as pointing to something complete, perfect, whole. The necessities of life are no longer understood as necessary for the complete life or the good life, but as mere inescapabilities. The satisfaction of wants is therefore no longer limited by the demands of the good life but becomes aimless. The goal of desire is defined by nature only negatively--the denial of pain. It is not pleasure more or less dimly anticipated which elicits human efforts: "the chief, if not only, spur to human industry and action is uneasiness." So powerful is the natural primacy of pain that the active denial of pain is itself painful. The pain which removes pain is labor. It is this pain, and hence a defect, which gives man originally the most important of all rights: sufferings and defects, rather than merits or virtues, originate rights. Hobbes identified the rational life with the life dominated by the fear of fear, by the fear which relieves us from fear. Moved by the same spirit, Locke identifies the rational life with the life dominated by the pain which relieves pain. Labor takes the place of the art which imitates nature; for labor is, in the words of Hegel, a negative attitude toward nature. The starting point of human efforts is misery: the state of nature is a state of wretchedness. The way toward happiness is a movement away from the state of nature, a movement away from nature: the negation of nature is the way toward happiness. And if the movement toward happiness is the actuality of freedom, freedom is negativity. Just like the primary pain itself, the pain which relieves pain "ceaseth only in death." Since there are therefore no pure pleasures, there is no necessary tension between civil society as the mighty leviathan or coercive society, on the one hand, and the good life, on the other: hedonism becomes utilitarianism or political hedonism. The painful relief of pain culminates not so much in the greatest pleasures as "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." Life is the joyless quest for joy."
According to Strauss, Locke’s hedonism is quite pessimistic because it aims at avoiding pain which cannot be avoided, because life is not only without virtue but it is aimless, possessive, hopeless and miserable. The essence of Locke’s ethics is that “life is the joyless quest for joy.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On The Impact Of Language On Sensations

Henri Bergson points out that language gives a fixed form to the fleeting sensations that we experience. Here’s an excerpt from his book Time and Free Will (Chapter 2, “The Idea of Duration”):
Our simple sensations, taken in their natural state, are still more fleeting. Such and such a flavour, such and such a scent, pleased me when I was a child though I dislike them to-day. Yet I still give the same name to the sensation experienced, and I speak as if only my taste had changed, whilst the scent and the flavour have remained the same. Thus I again solidify the sensation; and when its changeableness becomes so obvious that I cannot help recognizing it, I abstract this changeableness to give it a name of its own and solidify it in the shape of a taste. But in reality there are neither identical sensations nor multiple tastes: for sensations and tastes seem to me to be objects as soon as I isolate and name them, and in the human soul there are only processes. What I ought to say is that every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it. This influence of language on sensation is deeper than is usually thought. Not only does language make us believe in the unchangeableness of our sensations, but it will sometimes deceive us as to the nature of the sensation felt. Thus, when I partake of a dish that is supposed to be exquisite, the name which it bears, suggestive of the approval given to it, comes between my sensation and my consciousness; I may believe that the flavour pleases me when a slight effort of attention would prove the contrary. In short, the word with well-defined outlines, the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness. To maintain the struggle on equal terms, the latter ought to express themselves in precise words; but these words, as soon as they were formed, would turn against the sensation which gave birth to them, and, invented to show that the sensation is unstable, they would impose on it their own stability.
According to Bergson, the language that we use to analyze and describe our feelings leads to a distortion of the same feelings. We discern a certain kind of feelings as violent love or a deep melancholy because our immediate consciousness is overwhelmed by our language.

Monday, May 20, 2019

On Political Hedonism and Political Atheism

Leo Strauss notes that Thomas Hobbes is the creator of political hedonism and political atheism. In his book Natural Right and History, (Chapter 5, “Modern Natural Right”; Page 168-169), Strauss writes:
Hobbes rejects the idealistic tradition on the basis of a fundamental agreement with it.  He means to do adequately what the Socratic tradition did in a wholly inadequate manner.  He means to succeed where the Socratic tradition had failed.  He traces the failure of the idealistic tradition to one fundamental mistake: traditional political philosophy assumed that man is by nature a political or social animal.  By rejecting this assumption, Hobbes joins the Epicurean tradition.  He accepts its view that man is by nature or originally an a-political and even an a-social animal, as well as its premise that the good is fundamentally identical with the pleasant.  But he uses that a-political view for a political purpose.  He gives that a-political view a political meaning.  He tries to instill the spirit of political idealism into the hedonistic tradition.  He thus became the creator of political hedonism, a doctrine which has revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching. 
The epoch-making change which we are forced to trace to Hobbes was well understood by Edmund Burke: “Boldness formerly was not the character of atheists as such. They were even of a character nearly the reverse; they were formerly like the old Epicureans, rather an unenterprising race. But of late they are grown active, designing, turbulent, and seditious.” Political atheism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. No pre-modern atheist doubted that social life required belief in, and worship of, God or gods. If we do not permit ourselves to be deceived by ephemeral phenomena, we realize that political atheism and political hedonism belong together. They arose together in the same moment and in the same mind.
According to Strauss, Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy is a typically modern combination of political idealism with a materialistic and atheistic view of the whole.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Road to “Neoconservative” Serfdom

I realized how alarming the political thinking of the neoconservatives is in 2007 when I read George Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft.

You would expect the conservatives to stand for small government, lower taxes, and better rule of law, but the neoconservatives have the overarching agenda of propagating their own brand of morality—like the medieval mystics, they want to whip people (the lesser mortals) into becoming “better” souls. Will is of the view that instead of trying to cut the size of the government, the conservatives should actively use government’s powers to spread “better” values in society.

In his article, “The Road to Conservative Serfdom,” (Published in Reason magazine, December 1983 issue), Prof. Douglas B. Rasmussen has identified the problems in Will’s political thinking. Here’s an excerpt from Rasmussen’s article:
There is for Will only one "first question" of government: "What kind of people do we want our citizens to be?" Ethics and politics are welded together, he maintains; liberal theorists have attempted to separate them, but such attempts are inherently futile. Government necessarily legislates morality—by enacting laws, it not only proscribes and prescribes human behavior; it affects in numerous ways the habits, dispositions, and values of the citizenry. So the idea that government cannot and should not become involved in the so-called inner or private life of its citizens is radically wrong. The essence of government is not coercion, but authority, and its task is to use its authority in ways that will help to develop human excellence. 
Man is, after all, a social and political animal, notes Will, not some isolated individual who begins life in some state of nature. Hence, he argues, "reflection about how the individual should live is inseparable from reflection about the nature of the good society." Moreover, the effects of one's actions are not easily confined. "Society is like a Calder mobile. Touch it here, it trembles over there." Thus, Will believes that statecraft is, by its very nature, soulcraft. It follows, then, that the basic problem with current political philosophy—be it "Manchester or Massachusetts liberalism"—is its failure to recognize the state's true function: developing good human beings.
Rasmussen is correct, when he says:
Trusting politicians will, however, not do. Without a clearly understood basis for distinguishing between what ought to be (moral standards) and what must be (political standards), appealing to a sense of "national purpose" will not provide any principles for government policy. Instead, government policy will be up for grabs. Interest groups from both "left" and "right" will seek to determine policy through various forms of pressure; or, and this is usually worse, the politicians will every now and then "get religion" and seek to force some moral principle, legitimate or not, down the electorate's throats. Principle will be the last thing to guide government policy.
In this article, Rasmussen is calling Will a conservative. But I think most ordinary conservatives have a much better political opinions than people like Will. He is not a conservative—he is a neoconservative. I know that he has ranted against the neoconservatives in a few articles written after 2007, but has always been very close to the neoconservative camp.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Two Sources of Morality and Religion

In his 1932 book Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Henri Bergson notes that the most human societies are “closed” like a hive or an ant-hill. In closed societies, men are motivated by instinct and are indifferent to each other, and they are always ready to attack or defend themselves. In an “open society,” on the other hand, men are motivated by intelligence and are capable of embracing all humanity. From this definition, Bergson draws the analogy between a “closed morality,” which is a social morality that does not extend to all human beings but only to the group, and “open morality,” which embraces all humanity.

On religion, Bergson says that there has never been a society without religion, and he differentiates between a "static" and "dynamic" religion. He also draws a distinction between a “closed soul” and an “open soul” and gives the example of Socrates as an open soul who is concerned about entire humanity. He writes, “There was irony running through Socratic teaching, and outbursts of lyricism were probably rare; but in the measure in which these outbursts cleared the road for a new spirit, they have been decisive for the future of humanity.”

Here’s his description of the relationship between the closed soul and the open soul:

“Between the closed soul and the open soul there is the soul in process of opening. Between the immobility of a man seated and the motion of the same man running there is the act of getting up, the attitude he assumes when he rises. In a word, between the static and the dynamic there is to be observed, in morality too, a transition stage. This intermediate state would pass unnoticed if, when at rest, we could develop the necessary impetus to spring straight into action. But it attracts our attention when we stop short - the usual sign of insufficient impetus. Let us put the same thing in a different way. We have seen that the purely static morality might be called infra-intellectual, and the purely dynamic, supra-intellectual. Nature intended the one, and the other is a contribution of man's genius. The former is characteristic of a whole group of habits which are, in man, the counterpart of certain instincts in animals; it is something less than intelligence. The latter is inspiration, intuition, emotion, susceptible of analysis into ideas which furnish intellectual notations of it and branch out into infinite detail; thus, like a unity which encompasses and transcends a plurality incapable of ever equalling it, it contains any amount of intellectuality; it is more than intelligence. Between the two lies intelligence itself. It is at this point that the human soul would have settled down, had it sprung forward from the one without reaching the other. It would have dominated the morality of the closed soul; it would not have attained to, or rather it would have not have created, that of the open soul. Its attitude, the result of getting up, would have lifted it to the plane of intellectuality.”

Eric Voegelin has criticized Karl Popper for making an ideological rubbish out of the expressions like “Closed Society” and “Open Society,” and also “Static” and “Dynamic Religion” which Bergson had developed. In his April 18, 1950, letter to Leo Strauss, Voegelin said: “Popper’s book [The Open Society and Its Enemies] is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.”

Friday, May 17, 2019

On The Weaponization of Philosophy

Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss condemns the weaponization of philosophy in his book Natural Right and History (The University of Chicago Press; 1953). On page 34, he says, “Originally, philosophy had been the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and hence it had been a pure source of human inspiration and aspiration. Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has become a weapon, and hence an instrument.”

Lending a note of credibility to his argument, Strauss differentiates between the intellectuals and the philosophers, insisting that it is the intellectuals who are responsible for the weaponization of philosophy, and not the philosophers:

“It was this politicization of philosophy that was discerned as the root of our troubles by an intellectual who denounced the treason of the intellectuals. He committed the fatal mistake, however, of ignoring the essential difference between intellectuals and philosophers. In this he remained the dupe of the delusion which he denounced. For the politicization of philosophy consists precisely in this, that the difference between intellectuals and philosophers… becomes blurred and finally disappears.” (Page 34)

But the irony is that Strauss’s own philosophy was politicized and weaponized by his followers. Several years after his death, they established him as the intellectual pope of neoconservatism. I think Strauss is a good philosopher; he is the author of several inspiring and informative books and essays. But neoconservatism was (and is) a great misadventure of political philosophy—it has caused great distortions in conservative thought. The great victim of neoconservatism is genuine conservatism.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Socialism Versus the Family



Edward Feser’s lecture has three parts.  In the first, he explains what socialism is (and what it isn’t), and how it can come in degrees.  In the second, he discusses what the family is, and in particular the core notion of the family that underlies the diverse arrangements that have existed in different societies, the general moral outlook that has traditionally governed it in these different societies, and the way evolutionary psychology and social science support the judgment that the family is a natural rather than artificial institution.  In the third, he explains how socialism and the basic structure of the family are incompatible, and how liberal individualism has eroded the family and paved the way for socialism. He argues that if conservatives are effectively to oppose socialism, they must also oppose the liberal individualism that opens the door to it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Technology and the Possibility of Tyranny

In his discussion of the problems in the historical approach (historicism), Leo Strauss makes the following point on Aristotle’s view that technology should be under moral and political control (Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss; Page 23):
It is obviously untrue to say, for instance, that Aristotle could not have conceived the injustice of slavery, for he did conceive of it. One may say, however, that he could not have conceived of a world state. But why? The world state presupposes such a development of technology as Aristotle could never have dreamed of. That technological development, in its turn, required that science be regarded as essentially in the service of the "conquest of nature" and that technology be emancipated from any moral and political supervision. Aristotle did not conceive of a world state because he was absolutely certain that science is theoretical and that the liberation of technology from moral and political control would lead to disastrous consequences: the fusion of science and the arts together with the unlimited or uncontrolled progress of technology has made universal and perpetual tyranny a serious possibility. Only a rash man would say Aristotle's view—that is, his answers to the question of whether or not science is essentially theoretical and whether or not technological progress is in need of strict moral or political control—has been refuted. But whatever one might think of his answers, certainly the fundamental questions to which they are the answers are identical with the fundamental questions that are of immediate concern to us today. Realizing this, we realize at the same time that the epoch which regarded Aristotle's fundamental questions as obsolete completely lacked clarity about what the fundamental issues are.
Strauss goes on to reject radical historicism by noting that history seems to prove “that all human thought, and certainly all philosophic thought, is concerned with the same fundamental themes or the same fundamental  problems, and therefore that there exists an unchanging framework which persists in all changes of human knowledge of both facts and principles…. If the fundamental problems persist in all historical change, human thought is capable of transcending its historical limitation or of grasping something trans-historical.” This, I think, is a clear articulation of Strauss’s dialectical and skeptical philosophy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Philosopher Must Have a Good Memory

Richard M. Weaver has contributed to the strand of libertarianism that is overtly conservative in nature. He is a great critic of modernity. He equates modernism with provincialism. Here’s an excerpt from his book Ideas Have Consequences (Page 68):

“Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as the countryman may view with suspicion what­ ever lies beyond his county. There is a strong reason to group this with psychopathic phenomena because it in­volves impairment of memory, which is known to be one of the commonest accompaniments of mental pathology. It is apparent, moreover, that those who are in rebellion against memory are the ones who wish to live without knowledge; and we can, in fact, tell from their conduct that they act more than others on instinct and sensation. A frank facing of the past is unpleasant to the tender-minded, teaching as it does sharp lessons of limitation and retribution. Yet, the painful lessons we would like to forget are precisely the ones which should be kept for reference. Santayana has reminded us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and not without reason did Plato declare that a philosopher must have a good memory.”

Monday, May 13, 2019

On Character and Intelligence

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, notes that for Aristotle character is inseparable from intelligence. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 12, “Aristotle’s Account of Virtues” (Page 154-155):

“According to Aristotle then excellence of character and intelligence cannot be separated. Here Aristotle expresses a view characteristically at odds with that dominant in the modern world. The modern view is expressed at one level in such banalities as ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever’ and at another in such profundities as Kant’s distinction between the good will, the possession of which alone is both necessary and sufficient for moral worth, and what he took to be a quite distinct natural gift, that of knowing how to apply general rules to particular cases, a gift the lack of which is called stupidity. So for Kant one can be both good and stupid; but for Aristotle stupidity of a certain kind precludes goodness. Moreover genuine practical intelligence in turn requires knowledge of the good, indeed itself requires goodness of a kind in its possessor: '... it is clear that a man cannot have practical intelligence unless he is good’.”

He goes on to note that modern social practice and theory follows Kant rather than Aristotle at this point. “It is indeed difficult to envisage the exaltation of bureaucratic expertise in any culture in which the connection between practical intelligence and the moral virtues is firmly established.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Metaphysics of Conservatism

Le Penseur
Edward Feser, in his essay “The Metaphysics of Conservatism,” shows the relevance of metaphysics to modern conservative thought. He regards Plato and Aristotle as the originators of the theory of metaphysics which motivates the best strand of modern conservatism (which Feser calls Realist Conservatism).

According to Feser, modern conservatism can be divided into three broad metaphysical categories: Realist Conservatism, Reductionist Conservatism, and Anti-Realist Conservatism.

Realist Conservatism, Feser says, “affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.”


Reductionist Conservatism, he says, “might be defined as a variety of conservatism that agrees with Realist Conservatism in affirming that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is more or less fixed, but which would ground this affirmation, not in anything like an eternal realm of Forms, but rather in, say, certain contingent facts about human biology, or perhaps in the laws of economics or in a theory of cultural evolution. The Reductionist Conservative is, accordingly, more likely to look to empirical science for inspiration than to philosophy or theology. He is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms. But he is less likely to see grey than is the Anti-Realist Conservative…”



An Anti-Realist Conservative, he says, “might be characterized as someone doubtful that any relatively fixed moral or political principles can be read off even from scientific or economic facts about the human condition. Whereas Realist and Reductionist Conservatives value tradition because there is at least a presumption that it reflects human nature, the Anti-Realist Conservative values it merely because it provides for stability and order.”

Feser notes that Realist Conservatism must be supported because it is a true form of conservatism. He rejects Reductionist Conservatism and Anti-Realist Conservatism—noting that these two are not really versions of conservatism at all, any more than nominalism or conceptualism are versions of realism. He writes: “For the Anti-Realist Conservative, as I've said, does not really oppose liberal measures per se, but only their overhasty and excessively disruptive implementation. Historically, the pragmatists, politicians, and others who exemplify Anti-Realist Conservatism have merely served to consolidate the gains of liberalism.”

Only the Realist Conservatives are capable of opposing liberalism. “Communists, it used to be said, are liberals in a hurry. Conservatives need to be wary lest their creed degenerate into something indistinguishable from a leisurely liberalism.”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

On The Role of Senses and Freedom of the Mind

In his essay, “Good Sense and Classical Studies,” (Henri Bergson: Key Writings; page 422), Henri Bergson says:

"The role of our senses, in general, is not so much to give us knowledge of material objects as to signal their utility to us. We taste flavours, we breathe odours, we distinguish hot and cold, darkness and light. But science tells us that none of these qualities belong to objects in the form that we apprehend them; they only tell us in their picturesque language the inconvenience or advantage that things have for us, the services they could render us, the dangers they could lead us into. Our senses thus serve us, above all, to orient us in space; they are not turned towards science, but towards life. But we do not only live in a material milieu, but also in a social milieu. If all of our movements are transmitted in space and thus disturb part of the physical universe, by contrast most of our actions have their immediate or far-reaching consequences, good or bad, first of all for us, then for the society that surrounds us. Foreseeing [prevoir] these consequences, or rather having a presentiment of them [pressentir]; distinguishing the essential from the inessential or indifferent in matters of behaviour; choosing from the various possible courses of action the one which will produce the greatest amount of attainable rather than imaginable good: this is, it seems to me, the role of good sense. It is thus indeed a sense in its own way; but while the other senses place us in relation to things, good sense presides over our relations with persons." (This essay is an address delivered by Bergson at the Great Ampitheatre of the Sorbonne, July 30, 1895.)

The comments that Bergson makes on freedom of the mind are also quite perceptive. He says:

"One of the greatest obstacles, we were saying, to the freedom of the mind, are the ideas that language gives to us ready-made, and that we breathe, so to speak, in the environment which surrounds us. They are never assimilated with our substance: incapable of participating in the life of the mind, they persevere, as truly dead ideas, in their stiffness and immobility. Why then do we so often prefer them to those which are living and vibrant? Why does our thought, instead of working to become master of itself, prefer to exile itself from itself? It is firstly through distraction, and by dint of amusing ourselves along the road, we no longer know where we wanted to go."

Friday, May 10, 2019

On The Meaning of The Comic

Henri Bergson
Henri Bergson’s 1911 book Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic is a collection of three essays which explore why people laugh and what laughter means, especially laughter that is caused by comical acts. Here’s an excerpt from the first essay, “The Comic in General — The Comic Element in Forms and Movements — Expansive Force of the Comic”:
The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,—the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to. 
Bergson is of the view that laughter is a social gesture which inspires people to avoid eccentricity and be normal. In the first essay, he notes: “By the fear which it inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical inelasticity.”

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Is Ayn Rand a Platonic or Aristotelian Thinker?

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand has founded a school of philosophy called objectivism, but she has not written a single philosophical treatise on any area of philosophy. As far as I know, objectivism is the only school of philosophy in the last 400 years whose founder was primarily a fiction writer.

Much of what goes under the banner of objectivism is an interpretation by scholars who are Rand’s followers of what she has said in her fiction novels, short articles, and lectures and interviews. But it is possible that other scholars, who are not Rand’s followers, may examine the same writings by Rand and come up with a different interpretation of her philosophy.

Prof. Roderick T. Long has his own way of looking at Rand’s philosophical thought. In his interesting monograph Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand, he questions the objectivist claim that Rand was an Aristotelian thinker. In the beginning of the monograph, Long says:
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy proclaims itself a version of Aristotelianism. It is also a philosophy that places a premium on rationality. So my question here is: How far does the Objectivist account of rationality succeed in capturing the crucial insights of the Aristotelian approach? My answer, to give the game away, is that Rand unfortunately adopts a Platonic rather than an Aristotelian conception of theoretical rationality; that this in turn leads her to adopt a Humean rather than an Aristotelian conception of practical rationality; and that this leads her to adopt a Hobbesian rather than an Aristotelian conception of the relation between self-interest and morality— all of which tends to undermine her basically Aristotelian inclinations and sentiments. Hence, I would maintain, Rand’s admirers may still have something important to learn from their teacher’s first teacher. 
Long makes the case that Rand’s philosophical writings contain not only Platonic elements but also the elements of Humean, Hobbesian, and Kantian thought.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

William James and Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson
Harvard professor William James and the French philosopher Henri Bergson were great friends. James (who was senior to Bergson by 17 years) did a lot to promote Bergson’s work.

In his 1909 book The Pluralistic Universe, James said: “If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behavior of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.”

James’s high opinion of Bergson’s work is also clear from the letter that he wrote to Bergson on June 13, 1907 (The Letters of William James, Edited by his son Henry James; Page 290-294). Here’s an excerpt from James’s letter:
O my Bergson, you are a magician, and your book is a marvel, a real wonder in the history of philosophy, making, if I mistake not, an entirely new era in respect of matter, but unlike the works of genius of the “transcendentalist” movement (which are so obscurely and abominably and inaccessibly written), a pure classic in point of form. You may be amused at the comparison, but in finishing it I found the same after-taste remaining as after finishing “Madame Bovary,” such a flavor of persistent euphony, as of a rich river that never foamed or ran thin, but steadily and firmly proceeded with its banks full to the brim. Then the aptness of your illustrations, that never scratch or stand out at right angles, but invariably simplify the thought and help to pour it along! Oh, indeed you are a magician! And if your next book proves to be as great an advance on this one as this is on its two predecessors, your name will surely go down as one of the great creative names in philosophy. 

There! have I praised you enough? What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise — although the philosophers generally call it “recognition”! If you want still more praise, let me know, and I will send it, for my features have been on a broad smile from the first page to the last, at the chain of felicities that never stopped. I feel rejuvenated. 
As to the content of it, I am not in a mood at present to make any definite reaction. There is so much that is absolutely new that it will take a long time for your contemporaries to assimilate it, and I imagine that much of the development of detail will have to be performed by younger men whom your ideas will stimulate to coruscate in manners unexpected by yourself. To me at present the vital achievement of the book is that it inflicts an irrecoverable death-wound upon Intellectualism. It can never resuscitate! But it will die hard, for all the inertia of the past is in it, and the spirit of professionalism and pedantry as well as the aesthetic-intellectual delight of dealing with categories logically distinct yet logically connected, will rally for a desperate defense. The élan vital, all contentless and vague as you are obliged to leave it, will be an easy substitute to make fun of. But the beast has its death-wound now, and the manner in which you have inflicted it (interval versus temps d'arrêt, etc.) is masterly in the extreme. I don’t know why this later redaction of your critique of the mathematics of movement has seemed to me so much more telling than the early statement — I suppose it is because of the wider use made of the principle in the book. 
In this letter, James is talking about Bergson's new book Creative Evolution. He goes on to inform Bergson of his own book Pragmatism: “You will be receiving my own little “pragmatism” book simultaneously with this letter. How jejune and inconsiderable it seems in comparison with your great system! it seems in comparison with your great system! But it is so congruent with parts of your system, fits so well into interstices thereof, that you will easily understand why I am so enthusiastic. I feel that at bottom we are fighting the same fight, you a commander, I in the ranks.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

On Debroy’s Translation of the Vedas

The Holy Vedas by Bibek Debroy and Dipavali Debroy is a fine overview of the four Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Artharva Veda.

The authors have not translated all the vedic hymns, and they do not cross-reference to the original vedic verse, which makes it difficult to find out to which vedic verse a particular paragraph in the translation is referring to, and I believe that the placement of some of the verses in the book could have been better. But overall this book manages to give a fine sense of what is in the Vedas.

The Sanskrit word “veda” is literally means knowledge and is derived from the root vid—“to know.” In his 1898 book The Arctic Home of the Vedas, Bal Gangadhar Tilak suggests that the vedic literature was composed around 6000 B.C. But most modern scholars date the Vedas between 1700 B.C. to 900 B.C.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Enlightenment Endangers Philosophy

Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates
by François-André Vincent (1776) 
Allan Bloom in his “Interpretative Essay,” (The Republic of Plato; Page 392) writes:

“Socrates teaches that wisdom and political power are distinct. Their coming together can only be due to the coincidence that a man who is wise happens also to be a ruler, thus uniting the two things; nothing in their two natures leads the one to the other. Political power serves the passions or desires of the members of a city, and a multitude cannot philosophize. It may use the results of science or philosophy, but it will use them to its own ends and will thereby distort them. Moreover, the wise man by himself is more of a threat to a regime than a helper. Intellectual progress is not the same as political progress, and, because there is not a simple harmony between the works of the mind and the works of the city, the philosopher without power must remain in an uneasy relationship with the city and its beliefs. Enlightenment endangers philosophy because it tempts philosophers to sacrifice their quest for the truth in favor of attempting to edify the public; in an "enlightened" world, philosophy risks being made a tool of unwise and even tyrannical regimes, thus giving those regimes the color of reason and losing its function as the standard for criticism of them.”

Sunday, May 5, 2019

On The Politics of Philosopher Kings

In Plato’s the Republic, Socrates says: “Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun.” ~ (Allan Bloom’s translation in The Republic of Plato)

In his "Interpretive Essay," (The Republic of Plato; Page 390), Allan Bloom writes: “we are in some sense the heirs and beneficiaries of Socrates' work, even as we are the children of the Enlightenment which radicalized that work. Partly because Socrates and Plato were so effective in arguing the usefulness of philosophy to civil society, and partly because the meaning of philosophy has changed, we no longer believe that there is a tension between philosophy and civil society. Although we might doubt whether philosophers have the gift of ruling, we do not consider the activity of philosophy to be pernicious to political concerns. Hence the notion of philosopher-kings is not in itself paradoxical for us. But, precisely because we take it for granted that the hatred of philosophy was merely prejudice, and that history has helped us to overcome that prejudice, we are in danger of missing the point which Socrates makes here.”

Socrates is taking the position that a just city is not possible unless philosophy is tolerated and encouraged. Without philosophy the regime cannot find impartial rulers. Only the philosopher is capable of devoting his attention to the whole—only he can make a fair distribution of the good things that the city has to offer. Bloom notes that “Philosophy is a rare plant, one which has flourished only in the West; it is perhaps the essence of that West. Its place is not simply assured everywhere and always as is the city's. The writings of Plato and a few others made it respectable. The Republic thus represents one of the most decisive moments of our history. In this work Socrates presents the grounds of his being brought to trial and shows why philosophy is always in danger and always in need of a defense.” ("Interpretive Essay"; Page 390)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Allan Bloom on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam (1604)
In his interpretive essay on Plato’s the Republic, Allan Bloom offers an interesting interpretation of the Platonic Allegory of the Cave. Here’s an excerpt:

“After initiating Glaucon into the mysteries of this divine beauty, Socrates turns to an elaboration of the relationship of the philosophic soul to the city. The divided line described the soul's progress from its lowest level of cognition, imagination, to trust, thought, and finally intellection, its highest level. But now Socrates makes clear that this is not a simple movement depending only on talent and effort. There are powerful forces that stand in the way of the philosophic quest. The discovery of that quest has the character of a liberation from bondage. In the most moving of all his many images, Socrates compares our situation to that of prisoners in a cave. We are surrounded by darkness, our only access to ourselves and the world coming from the observation of shadows on the wall. But, although there is darkness, there is also a light in the cave; the pale shadows we possess are made possible by that light. Moreover, a few human beings can emerge from the cave. Our lives are a combination of ugliness and sublime possibility. The Enlightenment, taken literally, believed that the light could be brought into the cave and the shadows dispelled; men, in that view, could live in perfect light. This Socrates denies; the philosopher does not bring light to the cave, he escapes into the light and can lead a few to it; he is a guide, not a torchbearer. The attempt to illuminate the cave is self-defeating: a part of man craves the shadows. The light would be dimmed and distorted; it would not provide real clarity within the cave. And, at the same time, those who have the urge to ascend to the light would be discouraged from the endeavor by the myth, apparently based on reason, that there is no other light to which they can ascend. Thus the only source of liberation and inspiration would disappear from the cave. The Enlightenment teaches that the cave can be transformed; Socrates teaches that it must be transcended and that this transcendence can be accomplished only by a few.” ~ (“Interpretative Essay”; The Republic of Plato by Allan Bloom; Page 402-403)

Friday, May 3, 2019

On Nietzsche’s Last Man

There is a resistance to transforming into an Nietzschean overman. Most men will not accept the challenge. They will prefer to live as the as an antithesis to the overman, the Nietzschean Last Man. Eric Voegelin offers a perspective on the “Last Man” in his 1944 essay, "Nietzsche, the Crisis, and the War," published in the Journal of Politics. Here's an excerpt:
The refusal of the challenge can assume various forms which, in part, are determined by the time position of the evading person. A first form has been characterized by Nietzsche himself in the symbol of the “Last Man.” Zarathustra preaches the gospel of the superman to the people, and the people are silent. He then tries to arouse them by an appeal to their pride and draws the picture of the most contemptible, of the Last Man, whom they will be unless they overcome their present state. The Last Man is the man without creative love, without creative imagination, without a desire for anything that is more than himself. “What is a star?” asks the last man, and he is satisfied with his little pleasures and the comforts of his existence. What he wants is: some warmth, some neighborliness, not too much work, protection against disease, a sufficient measure of drugs to create pleasant dreams (liquor, movies, radio), no poverty but not too much wealth. He wants to know what is going on and to thrash it out; all want the same and want to be equal; he who feels different goes voluntarily into the insane asylum; “formerly all the world was insane”—say the most subtle and leer; one has a pleasure for the day and a pleasure for the night— but with restraint, for the last man is concerned about health and wants a long life. “ ‘We have invented happiness’—say the last men and leer.” At this point of the speech the audience breaks out in enthusiasm: “Oh, give us this last man—make us these last men. You can have then your superman!” and they laughed. “But there is ice in their laughter,” adds Nietzsche, having diagnosed correctly the schizophrenic touch of the man who is last because he is lost spiritually.
Voegelin notes that the popularity of the Last Man leads to despiritualized existence or nihilism which can be a cause of brutality and war. He writes, “The evasion of the challenge through derision and through acceptance of the despiritualized existence is, however, a short-lived possibility. When the organizing power of the spirit becomes weak, the result is not a peaceably happy despiritualized society, but a chaos of instincts and values. Despiritualized happiness is the twin brother of despiritualized brutality; once the spiritual order of the soul is dissolved in happiness, it is only a question of time and circumstance when and from which quarter the attack on an order without dignity will begin.”

In his Will to Power, Nietzsche predicted a great war: “There will be wars, as there never have been wars on earth.” On Nietzsche’s prediction, Voegelin says, “This prediction is to be understood, not as hyperbole, but as a statement on the level of empirical description. The wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dynastic and national wars with limited political purposes. The wars predicted by Nietzsche are “immense” because the framework of political ordinates—the dynasties, the nations—which determined the purpose, and with the purpose the limits of war, is breaking down.”