Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On Ayn Rand’s Attacks on Past Philosophers

You can learn a lot about a philosopher’s agenda by looking at the philosophers that he or she attacks. A philosopher who lusts for glory will attack the most popular and powerful philosophers with the hope that by vanquishing the reigning emperors of the world of philosophy, he will prove his own mettle as a philosophical warrior and make himself relevant in the eyes of his contemporaries and posterity. Ayn Rand, I believe, was lusting for glory, when, in the 1960s, she aimed her bazooka at Plato, David Hume, and most importantly, Immanuel Kant. Unfortunately, her plan backfired because her attacks were ignorantly and sloppily orchestrated—instead of vanquishing the philosophers of the past, she shot herself in the foot and caused irreparable harm to her own reputation.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Philosophy and Decline of Civilizations

When a nation is on the ascendent, it makes rapid progress in science—and when a nation is on the decline, it makes rapid progress in philosophy. The rise of philosophers (even the ones who claim to stand for reason, liberty, and individualism) is never the herald of a nation’s success; it's an indication of its failure. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his classic work Democracy in America as a report on his tour in America between 1831 and 1835. In this book, he observes: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” But I think that one of the reasons for which America was doing well at the time of Tocqueville’s visit was because the Americans were paying less attention to philosophy. After 1910, the intellectuals managed to gain a stranglehold on American culture, and the country started paying more and more attention to philosophy—and as a result of that its economy and culture started declining. Such parallels between philosophy and the decline of a nation can also be observed in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Roman Empire, and several other cultures. 

Synthesis or Revolution

When “thesis” and “antithesis” collide, then there is either a “synthesis” or a “revolution”. The collision can happen in any particular domain of activity, but if it happens at massive scale, on a cultural and political level, then the philosophers and politicians, who want the status quo to continue, work tirelessly to develop a synthesis between the thesis and antithesis—they pursue the idea of achieving a synthesis between the old and the new as a holy cause. But there will be philosophers and politicians who will want a total transformation for a variety of reasons—they could be convinced that a better way of life is possible, or they could be alienated from their society. They will show no sign of patience and tolerance; they will do their best to ignite a revolution which, they believe, will endow them with the power to shape the future.


My Earlier Post on This Subject: "Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis"

Monday, July 29, 2019

Eric Hoffer: On the Student Rebellion

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
By Caspar David Friedrich
Here’s Eric Hoffer’s reflections on the student rebellion of 1964 (from his journal entry on February 12, 1974):
"I was right in the midst of the mess when the Free Speech Movement exploded in 1964 [in the University of California]. The spark which set off the explosion was the discovery by the students that the power structure of the university was manned by toothless lions. President Clark Kerr, one of the finest products of our culture, knew how to build a great university but did not know how to defend it. He had not an inkling of the vulnerability of institutions—that they are more vulnerable than individuals—and did not know the first thing about the nature of authority. I cannot resist the feeling that things might have turned out differently had President Kerr had a taste for theorizing. He might have known that authority is an instrument for the repression of individual willfulness and that social authority had its origin in the need to tame juveniles as they came out from underneath parental authority. Instead, President Kerr dealt with the rampaging juveniles as if they were his equals, and a punk like Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement, ran circles around the great Clark Kerr. Much of the teaching at the University was done by teaching assistants not much older than the students. Monkeys with academic degrees opened all the cages and let the tigers out into the streets."
Weakness, like familiarity, breeds contempt and encourages rebellion. By his weakness and inability to exercise his authority, Clark Kerr bred contempt for his institution in the mind of the young punks like Mario Savio who went on to rebel and destroy order in the university campus.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

On Two Closed Systems: Marxism and Objectivism

Vladimir Lenin made Marxism a closed system in 1909: In his theoretical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin writes, “You cannot eliminate even one basic assumption, on substantial part of this philosophy of Marxism (it is as if it were a solid block of steel) without abandoning objective truth, without falling into the arms of the bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.” Leonard Peikoff made Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism a closed system in 1989: In his article, “Fact and Value,” Peikoff writes, “Objectivism holds that every truth is an absolute, and that a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system.” It is an irony that Lenin, a Marxist and communist, and Peikoff, a Randian individualist and free marketer, have used similar arguments for imposing a closed system on their philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle Chained Inside The Platonic Cave

Question: If Plato and Aristotle are dragged inside the Platonic Cave (The Allegory of the Cave) and chained with other prisoners so that they cannot turn their head and can only see the reflections which appear on the wall of the cave, then what kind of philosophy will they develop?

Answer: If Plato and Aristotle are in such a situation, their philosophy will be uninspiring like the philosophy of most modern philosophers who claim to stand for reason and liberty. Plato and Aristotle may still philosophize, but their ideas will consist of their own rationalizations because, being trapped inside the Platonic Cave, they will be out of touch with reality.

My Point: Most modern philosophers who talk about reason and liberty are incapable of developing a good philosophy. They ignore what is going on in the world and develop their thoughts through their own rationalizations. Their understanding of human psychology is limited. Their mind is trapped inside the Platonic Cave of their own making.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Protagoras: Plato Versus the Sophist

Plato’s dialogue Protagoras is an attack on the sophists—it's meant to be read as a direct contest between Socrates and Protagoras, who is an elderly and celebrated sophist. At one point, there is a breakdown in the conversation when Socrates and Protagoras start bickering about how long their answers to each other’s questions should be—Socrates, being a dialectician, favors short answers and rapid questions, but Protagoras, being a sophist, prefers long answers and fewer questions. Socrates is on verge of walking out of the home of Callias where the dialogue is taking place, but other speakers engineer a compromise and the dialogue resumes.

Protagoras narrates a story about the origin of living things. When the gods created the creatures on earth, two Titan brothers, Prometheus (“forethought") and Epimetheus (“afterthought") are given the task of assigning to each creature its powers and abilities. The brothers decide Epimetheus would do the assigning while Prometheus would evaluate the work. But Epimetheus is too profligate in his distribution, and by the time, it is the turn of man to receive his abilities, Epimetheus has nothing left to give. He had already assigned all the abilities to other creatures. Prometheus realizes that without speed, wings, claws, and other powers, mankind will not survive—so he steals wisdom from Athena and assigns it to man.

But what mankind has received is merely the wisdom to survive and not civic wisdom, which is the art of politics. Later on Zeus, becomes aware that even with wisdom mankind may not survive, and he asks Hermes to assign justice and sense of shame to mankind. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange between Hermes and Zeus:

“Zeus was afraid that our whole race might be wiped out, so he sent Hermes to bring justice and a sense of shame to humans, so that there would be order within cities and bonds of friendship to unite them. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute shame and justice to humans. ‘Should I distribute them as the other arts were? This is how the others were distributed: one person practicing the art of medicine suffices for many ordinary people; and so forth with the other practitioners. Should I establish justice and shame among humans in this way, or distribute it to all?’ ‘To all,’ said Zeus, ‘and let all have a share. For cities would never come to be if only a few possessed these, as is the case with the other arts. And establish this law as coming from me: Death to him who cannot partake of shame and justice, for he is a pestilence to the city.’”
 ~ (Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper & D. S. Hutchinson; “Protagoras,” translated by Stanley Lombardo & Karen Bell; Page 758)

Towards the end of the dialogue, Socrates and Protagoras realize that they are arguing the opposite of the positions that they had taken at the beginning of their conversation—it becomes apparent to them that there is lot of similarity in their views. The dialogue ends when Socrates complains about a missed appointment and leaves.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis

The triad “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” is generally attributed to Hegel, but Hegel does not mention the triad in his works. Some commentators have attributed the Hegelian triad to Fichte, but they don’t point out the work where Fichte has deployed it.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have used the triad in their materialistic conception of history--for instance, in Marx's 1847 work The Poverty of Philosophy--but their version of the Hegelian triad must be seen as an outcome of their own understanding of the philosophy of Hegel and Fichte. The origin of the triad, however, can be traced to Ancient Greece—to the Classical Philosophy of Socrates and Plato, and Aristotle. The Platonic dialogues follow a dialectical form: An argument (thesis) is followed by a counterargument (antithesis); either the counterargument cancels out the argument or it leads to the development of a final position which consists of a “synthesis” of the opposing arguments and represents an improvement in the position taken by the argument and the counterargument. Aristotle has said that rhetoric is a counterpart of dialectics.

Plato and Aristotle agree with each other on several points—but they also have several major differences. Platonism can be seen as the thesis, and Aristotelianism as the antithesis. The process of developing a synthesis between Platonism and Aristotelianism began with the Hellenistic Neo-Platonists and the philosophers in Ancient Rome, and was finally accomplished by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The philosophy of Aquinas is not pure Aristotelian—it's a synthesis between Plato and Aristotle. Aquinas was inspired by the Platonic thought of St. Augustine, and through the works of Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Proclus, Aquinas picked up a lot of neo-Platonism. In his works, the tension between the works of Plato and Aristotle is resolved.

On The Libertarian Style of Writing

I have come across several articles by libertarians in which they set out to denounce the liberals but end up denouncing the conservatives. I think this is because the libertarians are intellectuals and they are reluctant to take a strong position against their “brother intellectuals” who are part of the liberal camp. Being self-centered and self-righteous, the libertarians will never admit that their softness towards the liberals is a mistake; they will never admit that neither the liberals nor the conservatives take the libertarian viewpoints seriously; they will never admit that they are preaching to the choir, and that their articles appeal only to other libertarians.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Myth of Vincent van Gogh’s Madness

In her book The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, (Chapter 13: “Van Gogh and The Transcendent Profane”), Deirdre N. McCloskey writes: “Vincent was a poet in paint, a self-educated sophisticate. He read novels and journals of opinion ravenously in four languages, taking themes for paintings directly from them, and wrote letters in three of the languages often and well, especially to his equally sophisticated art-dealer brother, Theo.” Van Gogh was not a mad genius; he was a sane, rational, sophisticated, and artistic man for almost his entire life. He was ill only for the last nineteen months of life, and that too, only from time to time. McCloskey writes:

"Van Gogh’s illnesses did not make his art. They blocked it. In his estimation, sex did, too. He declared in a letter of June 1888 to his young artist friend Émile Bernard: “Painting and fucking a lot don’t go together, it softens the brain. Which is a bloody nuisance.” His art certainly did not derive from his madness, or from his sexual activity, or from his bodily pains, or from his drinking. He painted when he was well and sober. His art had nothing to do with being sick.

"What is this insistence on the mad, alcoholic artist? Such a man (always a man) is above all imprudent. He does not plan. He can’t handle money. He injures himself. The bourgeois is known as a seeker of safety—this against the fact of risk in a commercial life. The mad artist rejects safety. The myth is an antibourgeois faith in the autonomous human spirit—this against the opportunities for expression in a commercial life. Who is in love with the myth? Sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie."

McCloskey doubts the story of van Gogh cutting his ear; she posits that the painter Paul Gauguin might be responsible for that incident. “In his painting van Gogh was not foolish or mad. There is even doubt, by the way, about the circumstances of the ear-cutting-off. A German art historian, Rita Wildegans, claims that Gauguin did the ear-cutting, and that van Gogh was covering up for his friend by claiming that he himself did it.” The legend of van Gogh’s madness was created by the art critics six months before his death. McCloskey says that the critics might have been inspired by Émile Zola's 1886 novel L'Œuvre. Zola was advancing the views of the doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso that men of genius were mentally ill—or epileptic. Van Gogh objected to being labeled insane. He wrote a letter to an art critic called Albert Aurier and pointed out that the kind of paintings that he was doing could not be the work of a madman.

McCloskey says that the critics and moviemakers continue to depict van Gogh as a madman because “it fits well the late-Romantic, wannabe-aristocratic notion of the mad artist, as in Kirk Douglas’s riveting but nutty performance in the movie Lust for Life.” She conjectures that if van Gogh had not fallen sick in 1888 and he had not committed suicide in July 1890, then “we would have more of his art, with the same qualities—which were technical developments, not effusions of madness—at a lower price per painting, unhyped by the Romance of his illness and death.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Voice of Alienation and Pessimism

The philosophers, who are full of hatred for the traditions and lifestyle of their ancestors and are alienated from the culture and history of their country, have a tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of time for making pessimistic predictions about the future.

To them every politician that they dislike in their country is a potential Hitler or Mussolini, and an apocalypse is always round the corner. They see potential recruits for totalitarian religious and fascist movements in their countrymen. Such philosophers are followed by a horde of ignorant, unwise, and cowardly folks, who blindly accept everything that their philosopher says, and become alienated from their ancestors, fellow citizens, country, and culture.

For such a flock of “True Believers,” nothing in the past or present seems good enough—they pine for a total revolution which they believe will pave way for the rise of a utopia where their philosophy reigns supreme.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Deirdre McCloskey On Taxation

In her book The Bourgeois Virtues, Deirdre McCloskey makes a use of Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative to make a case against taxation: "The tempting shortcut of taxing the rich has not worked, for two reasons. First, I repeat, taxation is taking, and as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, “Respecting another’s self-ownership… [reflects] one’s recognition that that other person does not exist for you…The socialist or liberal egalitarian…rather than the Nozickian libertarian… is… more plausibly accused of ‘selfishness.'” No left egalitarian has explained how such takings square with Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: “So act as to use humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” Taxing Peter to pay Paul is using Peter for Paul. It is corrupting. Modern governments have been encouraged to think that any abuse of Peter is just fine, that Peter is a slave available for any duty that the ruler has in mind. A little like nonmodern governments."

On The Importance of Past Civilizations

Liberty can make people capable of mastering the natural world, but it’s not helpful for mastering one’s emotions, desires, and passions—for the latter you need a culture with a positive sense of history and philosophy that inspires people to lead the life of a moral, hardworking, aspiring, and caring man. Such a culture is developed through centuries of civilization. That is why the countries which enjoy a fairly good culture of liberty are generally an offshoot of the long-established civilizations; they have a strong sense of their own history and traditions.

The nations that cannot develop connections with the past civilizations often prove incapable of developing a culture of liberty. If liberty (or democracy and a free-market system) is imposed on them by an outside force, then it has the effect of ripping the nation apart. The nation splits into factions which often use violent tactics to achieve their agenda, and this inevitably leads to political instability and a fall in the quality of life. Therefore liberty can bring progress in some nations but in some others it will lead to large-scale destruction.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Galileo Versus Aristotle

In my post, “On The Anti-Aristotelianism of the Renaissance,” I talk about the anti-Aristotelianism of Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Francis Bacon. The anti-Aristotelianism that was sweeping Europe, in the time of the Renaissance, touched a new high with the publication in 1632 of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which is written in the form of a Platonic dialogue for debating the fundamental scientific principles which govern the universe. The conversationists in Galileo’s Dialogue include a scholar of Copernicus, a man called Salviati, who makes a presentation of Galileo’s own scientific views, calling him a respected academician, and an Aristotelian scholar called Simplicio who presents the arguments for the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the universe. Galileo’s contempt for Aristotle is clear from the name that he has given to the Aristotelian scholar—“Simplicio” means simpleton. The Dialogue of more than 600 pages is a direct confrontation between Galileo and Aristotle—the arguments that Simplicio presents are demolished one by one by Salviati who presents evidence in the form of scientific graphs, mathematical equations, and information derived from the direct observations through the telescope. They discuss the movement of heavenly bodies; the craters and mountains on the moon; the phases of Venus; the relation between ocean tides and motion of the earth; and much else. In the end, Galileo (through Salviati) manages to establish that while Copernicus was right on most things, Aristotle (and Ptolemy) had an erroneous view of the universe. The book became influential during the Renaissance; its first edition was sold out immediately after publication, but the religious establishment was outraged by the disrespect shown to Aristotelian cosmology. The Dialogue was placed in the list of forbidden books and on October 1, 1632, Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition to face prosecution for defaming the religious order.

Schopenhauer On Kant's Writing Style

In his essay, “Criticisms of The Kantian Philosophy” (Chapter: Appendix; The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1), Arthur Schopenhauer talks about Kant’s writing style:

"Kant's exposition is often indistinct, indefinite, inadequate, and occasionally obscure. This obscurity is certainly to be excused in part by the difficulty of the subject and the depth of the ideas. Yet whoever is himself clear to the bottom, and knows quite distinctly what he thinks and wants, will never write indistinctly, never set up wavering and indefinite concepts, or pick up from foreign languages extremely difficult and complicated expressions to denote such concepts, in order to continue using such expressions afterwards, as Kant took words and formulas from earlier, even scholastic, philosophy. These he combined with one another for his own purpose, as for example, "transcendental synthetic unity of apperception," and in general "unity of synthesis," which he always uses where "union" or "combination" would be quite sufficient by itself. Moreover, such a man will not always be explaining anew what has already been explained once, as Kant does, for example, with the understanding, the categories, experience, and other main concepts. Generally, such a man will not incessantly repeat himself, and yet, in every new presentation of an idea that has already occurred a hundred times, leave it again in precisely the same obscure passages. On the contrary, he will express his meaning once distinctly, thoroughly, and exhaustively, and leave it at that."

Schopenhauer laments that by his complicated style of writing, Kant legitimized the use of obscure language in philosophy and thereby enabled the madness of Hegel: "The public had been forced to see that what is obscure is not always without meaning; what was senseless and without meaning at once took refuge in obscure exposition and language. Fichte was the first to grasp and make vigorous use of this privilege; Schelling at least equalled him in this, and a host of hungry scribblers without intellect or honesty soon surpassed them both. But the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel. It became the instrument of the most ponderous and general mystification that has ever existed, with a result that will seem incredible to posterity, and be a lasting monument of German stupidity."

Sunday, July 21, 2019

On The Anti-Aristotelianism of the Renaissance

During the Renaissance, anti-Aristotelianism was at its zenith: Erasmus and Martin Luther despised Aristotle because they believed that he was the fountainhead of Scholastic philosophy that was polluting their religion and culture; Francis Bacon thought that Aristotle’s philosophy was barren, disputatious, and wrong in its objectives, an he held Aristotle responsible for the decline in scientific thinking in Europe. The work of Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Francis Bacon convinced the religious and the scientifically minded people of their time that Aristotle was having a baleful influence on their society and culture. The word “dunce”, derived from the name of the Aristotelian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, Duns Scotus, became a term of abuse and a synonym for Aristotelian scholars. Even playwrights like Shakespeare became caught in the wave of anti-Aristotelianism that was sweeping across Europe. In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In the play, Horatio is inspired by the ideas of Aristotle.

My Doubts About the “Men of Reason"

A “man of reason” is someone who develops his understanding of the world through his perception and not through his projection. But most people who claim to be a man of reason fail on this very account—their belief in reason leads them to project an ersatz world in which they are always right, always moral, full of knowledge, and capable of holding better opinions than everyone else. An analysis of most votaries of reason will reveal that their thinking is warped and so is their projection of themselves. More often than not, the man who claims to be a “man of reason” is an ignorant person who is clueless of the great complications that a man faces in the use of reason and verifying the knowledge derived through it.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Libertarian Notions of Liberty are Impractical

The libertarians believe that liberty is a magic wand that can cure society of all its woes. But history of last 2500 years shows that most city-states and nations where people enjoyed a high level of liberty were remarkably short-lived. Several examples can be considered to establish the point that greater the liberty, shorter the lifespan of the society: Ancient Athens after the Peloponnesian War, Ancient Rome, and Florence during the time of the Renaissance.

The good thing about liberty is that it leads to flowering of art, science, and private enterprise—it brings prosperity and comfort to the people. But liberty has its unintended consequences; it leads to the rise of a libertine society. After enjoying prosperity and comfort people lose their character and their passion for hard work—they become complacent, lazy, degenerate, and arrogant; they start taking their freedom for granted. A stage comes when a significant part of the society’s population becomes uninterested in being free and they start lusting for a statist political system.

The libertarian notion that liberty is the cure of all social problems is wide of the mark—liberty solves some problems, but not all, and it gives rise to several new problems. Liberty has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. A self-governed society which allows a high degree of liberty to its people might be good in the short term, but in the long term such societies prove to be very unstable. A free society with minimal government can only survive for a minimal amount of time.

Political freedom can lead to more harm than good if a significant part of the population is not culturally united to defend their way of life from internal and external enemies. The campaign for liberty through a political process must go hand in hand with the campaign for strengthening the bonds of culture, tradition, and history.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Strauss on Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy

Leo Strauss on Niccolò Machiavelli's sayings in the Chapter 10, “That contrary to the vulgar opinion, Money is not the Sinews of War,” of Discourses on Livy: “Almost exactly in the center of the Discourses, Machiavelli tries to prove, as he indicates at the outset in the heading of the chapter in question, that money is not the sinews of war, as it is thought to be by common opinion. After thus openly challenging common opinion in the very heading of the chapter, and refuting that opinion within the chapter, he turns, near the end of the chapter, to the authority of Livy: "But Titus Livius is a truer witness to this opinion than anyone else. In the place where he discusses whether Alexander the Great, if he had come to Italy, would have van­quished the Romans, he shows that three things are necessary in war: many good soldiers, prudent captains and good luck. Examin­ing there whether the Romans or Alexander were superior in these things, he then draws his conclusion without ever mentioning money." Livy does not mention money in a context in which he would have mentioned it if he had regarded it as important. This fact by itself establishes not only a vague presumption in favor of Livy's having held the sound opinion on the subject of money; it makes him the truest witness, the most important authority for that opinion. Livy's silence is more impressive than his explicit statement would have been. Livy reveals an important truth most effectively by silence. The rule which Machiavelli tacitly applies can be stated as follows: if a wise man is silent about a fact that is commonly held to be important for the subject he discusses, he gives us to understand that that fact is unimportant. The silence of a wise man is always meaningful. It cannot be explained by forgetfulness. The view from which Livy deviates is the common view. One can express one's disagreement with the common view by simply failing to take notice of it; this is, in fact, the most effective way of showing one's disapproval.” (Thoughts on Machiavelli, Chapter 1, “The Twofold Character of Machiavelli’s Teachings.” (Page 30).)

On God, Religion, and Science

It’s not necessary for religion and science to be antagonistic to each other—they can have a symbiotic relationship. If the religion is dominated by good thinkers and it seeks to explain to its adherents the nature of the universe, and it views god as the entity that has given birth to the material world by creating the laws of science and mathematics, then an investigation into the nature of god is in essence an investigation into the nature of the universe and the laws of science and mathematics—isn’t this what science is supposed to do? The cooperation between religion and science is one of the reasons behind the progress that mankind has achieved—we have risen from the Stone Age level of existence to modern civilization in mere 3000 years, a relatively small span of time. The “Iron Curtain” between religion and science is a recent development—it came up in the 20th century when atheism became the world’s most dominant intellectual and political force.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Arendt On Political Judgment of Scientists

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 Einstein’s politics is mired in irrationality. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Three Ways of Philosophers

There are three ways by which a philosopher can convince his audience that his philosophy is good: first, he can try to show that his philosophy is logically consistent; second, he can try to prove that his philosophy works; third, he can assert that my philosophy is perfect because it's “my philosophy” and I am never wrong. A good philosopher will adopt the first way; a mediocre philosopher will adopt the second way; and a bad philosopher, who is of a cultist mindset, will adopt the third way.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Meno: The Paradox of Inquiry

Socrates and Meno are discussing what virtue is and whether it can be taught in Plato’s dialogue Meno. This dialogue offers a good impression of the Socratic dialectical style. In it Socrates rephrases something that Meno has said in the form of a paradox. Here’s an excerpt:
MENO: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? 
SOCRATES: I know what you want to say, Meno. Do you realize what a debater’s argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for. 
(Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson; “Meno,” translated by G.M.A. Grube; Page 880)
If you know what you are looking for, there is no need for an inquiry; if you don't know what you are looking for, then an inquiry is impossible—this is essentially a sophistical argument; it is possible for someone to know the question and not have an answer. But Socrates takes the argument seriously and goes on to propose his famous doctrine of recollection.

Philosophy is a Series of Footnotes to Plato

I am a believer in Alfred North Whitehead’s famous statement: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology; Part II; Chapter 1; Section 1) In the lines that follow, Whitehead goes on to put his statement on Plato in its proper context: “I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”

Monday, July 15, 2019

On The Socratic Way of Philosophizing

In his Introduction to Plato: Complete Works (Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson), John M. Cooper writes:

"Socrates was a totally new kind of Greek philosopher. He denied that he had discovered some new wisdom, indeed that he possessed any wisdom at all, and he refused to hand anything down to anyone as his personal ‘truth’, his claim to fame. All that he knew, humbly, was how to reason and reflect, how to improve himself and (if they would follow him in behaving the same way) help others to improve themselves, by doing his best to make his own moral, practical opinions, and his life itself, rest on appropriately tested and examined reasons—not on social authority or the say-so of esteemed poets (or philosophers) or custom or any other kind of intellectual laziness. At the same time, he made this self-improvement and the search for truth in which it consisted a common, joint effort, undertaken in discussion together with similarly committed other per- sons—even if it sometimes took on a rather combative aspect. The truth, if achieved, would be a truth attained by and for all who would take the trouble to think through on their own the steps leading to it: it could never be a personal ‘revelation’ for which any individual could claim special credit."

In the following paragraph, Cooper talks about Plato’s way of writing the dialogues:

"In writing Socratic dialogues and, eventually, dialogues of other types, Plato was following Socrates in rejecting the earlier idea of the philosopher as wise man who hands down the truth to other mortals for their grateful acceptance and resulting fame for himself. It is important to realize that whatever is stated in his works is stated by one or another of his characters, not directly by Plato the author; in his writings he is not presenting his ‘truth’ and himself as its possessor, and he is not seeking glory for having it. If there is new wisdom and ultimate truth in his works, this is not served up on a plate. Plato does not formulate his own special ‘truth’ for his readers, for them to learn and accept. You must work hard even to find out what the author of a Platonic dialogue is saying to the reader— it is in the writing as a whole that the author speaks, not in the words of any single speaker—and the dialogue form demands that you think for yourself in deciding what, if anything, in it or suggested by it is really the truth. So you have to read and think about what each speaker says to the others (and also, sometimes, what he does not say), notice what may need further defense than is actually given it, and attend to the author’s manner in presenting each character, and the separate speeches, for indications of points on which the author thinks some further thought is required. And, beyond that, you must think for yourself, reasoning on the basis of the text, to see whether or not there really are adequate grounds in support of what it may appear to you the text as a whole is saying. In all this, Plato is being faithful to Socrates’ example: the truth must be arrived at by each of us for ourselves, in a cooperative search, and Plato is only inviting others to do their own intellectual work, in cooperation with him, in thinking through the issues that he is addressing."

On Philosophical Judgements

A philosopher is judged by his intentions and vision. A philosophy is judged by its methodologies and the quality of its arguments. A philosophical movement is judged by the character of its leaders and followers, and the outcomes that they achieve.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Critias: On Plato’s Atlantis

In Critias, Plato offers a brief account of the political order in the island of Atlantis, its layout, and the way of life of its citizens. But the dialogue ends abruptly—either Plato left it unfinished or rest of the dialogue is lost. Critias suggests in the beginning of the dialogue that there was a war between Athens and Atlantis, after which Atlantis was destroyed in an earthquake—but he does not get to the point of providing the details of the war and earthquake. In the dialogue’s final paragraphs, Critias talks about the people of Atlantis coming together to create a great society because they are virtuous and they have respect for their laws—but when they lose their virtue and their respect for the laws, Atlantis is doomed. This point of view connects this dialogue with Plato's Republic in which Socrates draws a similar conclusion about the importance of virtue and rule of law for the ideal city-state.

Here are the final two paragraphs from Critias:

"For many generations and as long as enough of their divine nature survived, they were obedient unto their laws and they were well disposed to the divinity they were kin to. They possessed conceptions that were true and entirely lofty. And in their attitude to the disasters and chance events that constantly befall men and in their relations with one another they exhibited a combination of mildness and prudence, because, except for virtue, they held all else in disdain and thought of their present good fortune of no consequence. They bore their vast wealth of gold and other possessions without difficulty, treating them as if they were a burden. They did not become intoxicated with the luxury of the life their wealth made possible; they did not lose their self-control and slip into decline, but in their sober judgment they could see distinctly that even their very wealth increased with their amity and its companion, virtue. But they saw that both wealth and concord decline as possessions become pursued and honored. And virtue perishes with them as well.

"Now, because these were their thoughts and because of the divine nature that survived in them, they prospered greatly as we have already related. But when the divine portion in them began to grow faint as it was often blended with great quantities of mortality and as their human nature gradually gained ascendancy, at that moment, in their inability to bear their great good fortune, they became disordered. To whoever had eyes to see they appeared hideous, since they were losing the finest of what were once their most treasured possessions. But to those who were blind to the true way of life oriented to happiness it was at this time that they gave the semblance of being supremely beauteous and blessed. Yet inwardly they were filled with an unjust lust for possessions and power. But as Zeus, god of the gods, reigning as king according to law, could clearly see this state of affairs, he observed this noble race lying in this abject state and resolved to punish them and to make them more careful and harmonious as a result of their chastisement. To this end he called all the gods to their most honored abode, which stands at the middle of the universe and looks down upon all that has a share in generation. And when he had gathered them together, he said…" (Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson; “Critias,” Translated by Diskin Clay; Page 1306)

We don’t know what Zeus said at the conclave of the gods. Significant part of this dialogue is missing because in the beginning of the dialogue Socrates says that the fourth person in the dialogue, a man called Hermocrates, will have a chance to speak after Critias. But we do not hear from Hermocrates.

Ethics is the Art of the Approximate

Being a master of ethical philosophy and being capable of mastering yourself are two different things which seldom coexist in a man. There is not a single philosopher of ethics who has demonstrated through his conduct that he is capable of practicing the ethical ideas that he preaches. When judged on the basis of their own ethical principles, all philosophers of ethics appear unethical. I think, Aristotle was right when he defined virtue as the “golden mean” between the two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. The identification and the practice of perfect virtue is beyond the scope of the human mind—we can only hope to approach the approximate or the “golden mean”.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Voegelin on Classical and Modernist Thought

In his essay, "The Classical Studies,” Eric Voegelin notes that Plato and Aristotle have created philosophy as the science of the nature of man, but the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy is in conflict with the contemporary climate of opinion. Voegelin lists nine points of disagreement between classical thought and modernist thought. Here are five of his principal points:

1. Classic: There is a nature of man, a definite structure of existence that puts limits on perfectibility.

Modern: The nature of man can be changed, either through historical evolution or through revolutionary action, so that a perfect realm of freedom can be established in history.

2. Classic: Philosophy is the endeavor to advance from opinion (doxa) about the order of man and society to science (episteme); the philosopher is not a philodoxer.

Modern: No science in such matters is possible, only opinion; everybody is entitled to his opinions; we have a pluralist society.

3. Classic: Society is man written large.

Modern: Man is society written small.

4. Classic: Man exists in erotic tension toward the divine ground of his existence.

Modern: He doesn’t; for I don’t; and I’m the measure of man.

5. Classic: Through the life of reason (bios theoretikos) man realizes his freedom.

Modern: Plato and Aristotle were fascists. The life of reason is a fascist enterprise.

On Dandies and Drudges

In his novel Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle describes two sects, Dandies and Drudges, the first worshipping money and the trappings of gentlemanliness, and the second slaving to keep barely clothed and fed:

“Such are the two Sects which, at this moment, divide the more unsettled portion of the British People; and agitate that ever-vexed country. To the eye of the political Seer, their mutual relation, pregnant with the elements of discord and hostility, is far from consoling. These two principles of Dandiacal Self-worship or Demon-worship, and Poor–Slavish or Drudgical Earth-worship, or whatever that same Drudgism may be, do as yet indeed manifest themselves under distant and nowise considerable shapes: nevertheless, in their roots and subterranean ramifications, they extend through the entire structure of Society, and work unweariedly in the secret depths of English national Existence; striving to separate and isolate it into two contradictory, uncommunicating masses.

“In numbers, and even individual strength, the Poor–Slaves or Drudges, it would seem, are hourly increasing. The Dandiacal, again, is by nature no proselytizing Sect; but it boasts of great hereditary resources, and is strong by union; whereas the Drudges, split into parties, have as yet no rallying-point; or at best only co-operate by means of partial secret affiliations. If, indeed, there were to arise a Communion of Drudges, as there is already a Communion of Saints, what strangest effects would follow therefrom! Dandyism as yet affects to look down on Drudgism: but perhaps the hour of trial, when it will be practically seen which ought to look down, and which up, is not so distant.

“To me it seems probable that the two Sects will one day part England between them; each recruiting itself from the intermediate ranks, till there be none left to enlist on either side. Those Dandiacal Manicheans, with the host of Dandyizing Christians, will form one body: the Drudges, gathering round them whosoever is Drudgical, be he Christian or Infidel Pagan; sweeping up likewise all manner of Utilitarians, Radicals, refractory Pot-wallopers, and so forth, into their general mass, will form another. I could liken Dandyism and Drudgism to two bottomless boiling Whirlpools that had broken out on opposite quarters of the firm land: as yet they appear only disquieted, foolishly bubbling wells, which man’s art might cover in; yet mark them, their diameter is daily widening: they are hollow Cones that boil up from the infinite Deep, over which your firm land is but a thin crust or rind! Thus daily is the intermediate land crumbling in, daily the empire of the two Buchan–Bullers extending; till now there is but a foot-plank, a mere film of Land between them; this too is washed away: and then — we have the true Hell of Waters, and Noah’s Deluge is out-deluged!”

Friday, July 12, 2019

Nationalist Sparta and Democratic Athens

Classical Athens was a noisy democracy, while Sparta was a militaristic and nationalistic state; both were political rivals and they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The alliance led by Sparta was victorious over the Athenian alliance. For reasons that are unclear, the Athenian society, which was crippled and demoralized by the defeat in the Peloponnesian War, gave rise to several brilliant minds, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The militarily powerful Sparta did not produce any major thinker, but it can be said to have played a role in keeping Athens safe from invaders—this, I think, can be seen as the contribution that the Spartans have made to the cause of philosophy, literature, and art. In 480 BC, the Persian King Xerxes would have wiped out Athens and rest of Ancient Greece if the Spartan King Leonidas had not stopped the Persian army comprising of more than 200,000 soldiers at the narrow passageway of Thermopylae. Without nationalistic and militaristic Sparta, there would not have been any democratic and liberal Athens—and without Athens, it is possible that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and several other artists and writers might not have found a conducive social environment for doing their work. 

On The Frustrated and Clueless Atheists

The people who are the first to hop aboard the bandwagon of a philosophy which claims to possess the “one and only truth” are usually the frustrated and clueless atheists who feel alienated from their own culture and have started yearning for a new “god”. Their need for a new god is both psychological and spiritual. They want to lose their personal identity (and with it their frustrations and cluelessness) in a movement that provides them with the satisfaction of denying religion while assuming a godlike persona—of a being who is perfectly moral, perfectly intelligent, and full of knowledge about the past, present, and future. I am not negative on all atheists, many of them are good thinkers, but I think that to be part of a philosophical movement which claims to posses the “one and only truth” while being an atheist is a sign of alienation and psychological derangement.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Philosophical Movement: Between God and Devil

A philosophical movement which claims to possess the “one and only truth” is like a religion in the sense that it operates between two poles: the good ideas/acts of the movement’s god (the founder) and the bad ideas/acts of the movement’s devil (the founder’s greatest enemy). But when the founder passes away and the movement matures, the realization dawns on the new leaders of the movement that the standards of their god are too high and that they are lacking in intellect, knowledge, passion, and also the stature to occupy the same space that their god once used to occupy. Since they are incapable of emulating their god, they, intentionally or inadvertently, start emulating the devil. As time passes, the movement acquires all the traits of the same devil that the founder once detested.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

On The Invention of Fanaticism

The British scientist and philosopher J.B.S Haldane counts religious intolerance among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D. In his essay, “Is History A Fraud?” (Page 56; The Inequality of Man and Other Essays by J.B.S Haldane), he writes:
“Between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1400 there were probably only four really important inventions, namely the general use of iron, paved roads, voting, and religious intolerance. Perhaps I should have added coinage and long-distance water supply. Gunpowder had been known for a long time before A.D. 1400 in China, but did not begin to win battles in Europe till the seventeenth century. Some­ what before that date, however, it had helped to acceler­ate the decay of feudalism by diminishing the military value of castles.”
I am not a fan of Haldane, but it is an interesting thought that fanaticism which is widely seen as a cause of political violence in our times was in the early days of civilization a miraculous instrument for energizing men and inspiring them to give rise to new societies and nations. The first major nations in the history of humanity were the creation of the religious fanatics.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Hoffer on the Rise of New Fanatical Faiths

When existing beliefs and institutions are discredited, and people are in the grip of the idea of change, society becomes ripe for the rise of a new fanatical faith: the Renaissance was followed by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, and the French Enlightenment gave birth to Marx’s communist revolution. In True Believer, Eric Hoffer writes:

"A wide diffusion of doubt and irreverence thus leads often to unexpected results. The irreverence of the Renaissance was a prelude to the new fanaticism of Reformation and Counter Reformation. The Frenchmen of the enlightenment who debunked the church and the crown and preached reason and tolerance released a burst of revolutionary and nationalist fanaticism which has not abated yet. Marx and his followers discredited religion, nationalism and the passionate pursuit of business, and brought into being the new fanaticism of socialism, communism, Stalinist nationalism and the passion for world dominion." (Chapter 15, “Men of Words”)

He goes on to make the following observation:

"When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man of words becomes the precursor of a new faith."

On The Problem of Contradictions

It is easy to stridently proclaim that contradictions cannot exist in nature, but it is difficult to resolve all the contradictions in your own philosophy. There has not been a single philosophy in the last 2500 years that is not full of contradictions. The process of identifying and resolving the contradictions in the work of a good philosopher can involve a multitude of scholars working over a period of centuries.

Monday, July 8, 2019

On Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf's writing style can be compared with that of Marcel Proust; she was an admirer of Proust, while she disliked James Joyce for his “whirls of obscenity”. Here's a scene from Woolf's To The Lighthouse (Part II, “Time Passes”; Chapter 3):

"But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

"It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking; which, did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only.

"The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer."

Sunday, July 7, 2019

On Modernity & Atheism

Modernity and atheism do not mix well. In the last 250 years all movements led by atheist politicians and intellectuals promised to establish a utopia of reason, science, and liberty, but on attaining power they unleashed a reign of terror and established a socialist and racist regime. The atheistic regimes have the record of prosecuting more people of other religions and races than most normal democratic governments. The important learning of last 250 years is that all atheists are potential jacobins and bolsheviks—they cannot be trusted with political power.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Selfishness is Not a Virtue

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 
Eric Hoffer did not regard selfishness as a virtue. He belittles the idea of selfishness in Chapter 7, “The Inordinately Selfish,” of his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. He writes:
The inordinately selfish are particularly susceptible to frustration. The more selfish a person, the more poignant his disappointments. It is the inordinately selfish, therefore, who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness. 
The fiercest fanatics are often selfish people who were forced, by innate shortcomings or external circumstances, to lose faith in their own selves. They separate the excellent instrument of their selfishness from their ineffectual selves and attach it to the service of some holy cause. And though it be a faith of love and humility they adopt, they can be neither loving nor humble. 
In his book The Passionate State of Mind: And Other Aphorisms (Chapter 5, “The Readiness to Work”), Hoffer notes that selfishness subsumes self-abnegation:
There is even in the most selfish passion a large element of self-abnegation. It is startling to realize that we call extreme self-seeking is actually self-renunciation. The miser, health addict, glory chaser and their like are not far behind in the exercise of self-sacrifice. Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self.

Philosophical Movements Have Unintended Consequences

Philosophical movements have unintended consequences. A movement dedicated to the cause of brotherhood of man may lead to jealousy and factionalism. A movement dedicated to the cause of individualism and happiness may lead to collectivism and misery. A movement dedicated to the cause of reason may lead to irrationality and mysticism. A movement dedicated the cause of freedom may lead to groupthink. Only the philosophers who are hungry for power over others and have a delusional view of human psychology waste their time on movements.

Friday, July 5, 2019

On The Term “Byzantine Empire”

Darío Fernández-Morera dislikes the term “Byzantine Empire.” In his book The Myth of The Andalusian Paradise, he suggests that it's not a love for historical facts but ideology that drives many modern historians to use the term “Byzantine Empire” for the Eastern Roman Empire. He writes: “Continuity between the Greek Roman Empire and the classical heritage needs to be emphasized because it bears on both Christian and Islamic civilizations. However, the word Byzantine hides this continuity. It is a word even less justifiable to designate the inhabitants of the Christian Greek Roman Empire of the Middle Ages than the word Indian is to designate the sixteenth-century inhabitants of the Americas or the word Iberia (now almost universally adopted among specialists in the English-speaking scholarly world) is to designate medieval Spain. The word Indian is an involuntary error resulting from an unavoidable lack of knowledge about an existing continent, but the words Byzantine and Iberia are artificial academic constructions resulting from ideology.”

The German historian Hieronymus Wolf (13 August 1516 - 8 October 1580) was the first to use the term “Byzantine” — in his 1557 work Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ — to label the later years of the Roman Empire. He got the term from "Byzantium", the name of the city of Constantinople before it became Constantine's capital. Montesquieu used the term “Byzantine” in his own works, but the term came into general use only in the mid-19th century. Here’s Fernández-Morera’s perspective on the origin of the term “Byzantine Empire”:

“In fact, the term Byzantine Empire was invented in 1557 by the German scholar Hieronymus Wolf, who as a Protestant would not have been sympathetic to Eastern (or Orthodox) Christians, to indicate that these culturally Greek people of the Eastern Roman Empire were not Romans, and somehow not even Greeks. His scholarly decision may also have been influenced by the fact that the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and his successors had claimed the name Roman for itself… Eighteenth-century Enlightenment scholars such as Montesquieu, who despised Orthodox Christianity perhaps even more than Roman Catholicism, adopted the term, thereby emphasizing that these presumably retrograde Christian Greeks had nothing in common with those pagan Greeks admired by the Enlightenment. This artificial construction, Byzantine, already charged with Enlightenment-created connotations of convoluted formalism and corruption, has continued to be used by most Western historians.”

I think that the term “Byzantine Empire” is a misnomer and a synecdoche; it does not tell us that this empire used to call itself “Roman Empire” during much of its history. However, Hieronymus Wolf was not at fault in using the term “Byzantine Empire” — after all, the capital of the empire was called Byzantium before the age of Constantine.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

On Antony Flew’s Pilgrimage of Reason

The English philosopher Antony Flew was a well known advocate of atheism for more than fifty years, but he changed his position in 2004, when he made the startling claim that he had now started believing in the existence of an intelligent creator. He provided the reasons for changing his mind in his 2007 book (written in collaboration with Roy Abraham Varghese) There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s Chapter 4, “The Pilgrimage of Reason” (Page 88-89):
I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.
Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature. But it is not science alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments.
My departure from atheism was not occasioned by any new phenomenon or argument. Over the last two decades, my whole framework of thought has been in a state of migration. This was a consequence of my continuing assessment of the evidence of nature. When I finally came to recognize the existence of a God, it was not a paradigm shift, because my paradigm remains, as Plato in his Republic scripted his Socrates to insist: “We must follow the argument wherever it leads.”
Flew makes his deistic argument on God at a purely natural level; he asserts that his discovery of God has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith: “I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has had no connection with any of the revealed religions. Nor do I claim to have had any personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.” ~ (Page 93)

On The Atmosphere of Officialdom

“The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything that breathes the air of human endeavor, would extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of paper and ink.” ~ Joseph Conrad in The Shadow-Line

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Joseph Conrad On The Supernatural

When Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line was published in 1916, the critics noted that the novella was a fantasy because in it the previous captain’s ghost is haunting the ship on which the story takes place. In the second edition of the book, which came in 1920, Conrad appended an Author’s Note in which he mounted a defense of natural world, noting that the world “contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is… I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural.” Here’s an excerpt from Conrad’s Author’s Note:

“This story, which I admit to be in its brevity a fairly complex piece of work, was not intended to touch on the supernatural. Yet more than one critic has been inclined to take it in that way, seeing in it an attempt on my part to give the fullest scope to my imagination by taking it beyond the confines of the world of the living, suffering humanity. But as a matter of fact my imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as all that. I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the Supernatural on it it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap. But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.”

The ghost of the previous captain (a man called Mr. Burns) is described by one of the inmates of the ship in these words: “His face in the full light of day appeared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Somehow I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him; his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on my face. They were greenish and had an expectant expression."

On Intellectuals Who Philosophize Like Zeus

There exists a category of intellectuals who think that they are the world’s ultimate repository of reason and morality. They are so convinced of their intelligence that they think that the solutions that they prescribe for the world’s problems are always correct and must be accepted by all. These intellectuals remind me of the Homeric god Zeus who is also convinced of his omniscience and omnipotence, and keeps coming up with new ideas which, instead of doing any good, cause massive chaos in all the three realms.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Religion as an Embodiment of Reason

Santayana was not religious but being sensitive to man’s spiritual needs, he did not identify as an atheist. He believed 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."