Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation


Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.


The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’

Here and there – a philosopher on Shakespeare


Ludwig Wittgenstein was a German scientist and architect who became an English philosopher.  He was a client, in the Latin sense of that term, of Bertrand Russell.  When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he thought he had solved the problems of philosophy.  Russell was far from convinced and wrote a cautious forward.  Wittgenstein later recanted, as age and experience begat modesty.  His published output was later fragmentary.

One such work is Culture and Value.  It is a collection of aphorisms jotted down over many years about logic, life, religion, music, and literature.  If Russell had trouble following Wittgenstein when he was writing for the learned, we may have trouble when Wittgenstein is thinking aloud about the world at large.

Some of the aphorisms relate to Shakespeare.  What might they say about the playwright or the philosopher?

Shakespeare displays the dance of human passions, one might say.  Hence he has to be objective; otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions – as talk about it.  But he displays it to us in dance, not naturalistically.  (I got this idea from Paul Engelman.)

I’m pretty sure that I follow that.  The first proposition contains a metaphor that I find enlightening.  The suggested requirement of ‘objectivity’ is thought provoking, even if I’m not sure that the point is carried.  But he returns to the idea of a dance.  If he had referred to a ‘symphony’ or ‘fugue’ or ‘canvas’ of human passions, would there have been any different meaning?

It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not see the truth of for ourselves.  When, for instance, I hear the expression of admiration for Shakespeare in the course of several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him has been the conventional thing to do; though I have to tell myself that this is how it is.  It takes the authority of a Milton really to convince me.  I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But I don’t of course mean that I don’t believe an enormous amount of praise to have been, and still to be, lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and for the wrong reasons by a thousand professors of literature.

I don’t follow that at all.  The first sentence looks silly.  If we do not see the truth of a statement for ourselves, of course we tend not to believe it.  There is nothing remarkable there.  If the author is saying that a lot people just toe the line on this part of high art, we could well agree.  But does the fact that there is bullshit elsewhere disqualify our opinions, or, perhaps I should say, reactions?  The reference to Milton appears to me to be at best adolescent, and at worst plainly rude.  We can return later to the issue of ‘understanding’ Shakespeare.

It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority, and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the same way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is.

If I am right about this, that would mean that the style of his whole work, I mean of all his works taken together, is the essential thing and what provides his justification.

My failure to understand him could then be explained by my inability to read him easily.  That is, as one views a splendid piece of scenery.

These comments make you wonder how often the philosopher had seen plays by this playwright on the stage – or if he had ever gone to the theatre at all.  The author wrote the plays for profit – obtained by people willing to be entertained by seeing these plays performed on the stage.  The repeated references to Shakespeare, and the reference to ‘the style of his whole work’ and ‘all his works taken together,’ suggest, to my mind, that the philosopher is proceeding at a level of abstraction that is almost metaphysical – and for him, that is anathema.

But if the first proposition entails that we should be careful in trying to analyse any part of this artist’s work, I agree with it.

But what does it mean to say that the style of the work provides its justification?  Why did Shakespeare have to justify King Lear – or any other part or the whole of his output?

And what does he mean by understanding Shakespeare?  When we talk of understanding something, we talk of getting its meaning or significance.  If I go to St Peter’s and see the Pieta of Michelangelo, or if I had gone to hear Miles Davis in the Vanguard in the 1950’s, or if I had gone to see Blue Poles chez nous, and someone had asked me if I had understood what I had seen or heard, I would have been at best confused.  ‘Listen, Mate, I have come all this way, and at real expense, to experience a work of art, one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  Don’t ask me to relegate these masterpieces to the dustbin of the prosaic by trying to give what I think may the meaning of that art.’  To what extent is, say, Hamlet different to other works of art when it comes to understanding art?

There is, I think, a real problem here.  I have hugely enjoyed reading commentaries on Shakespeare by people like A C Bradley and Tony Tanner, and they have greatly added to my enjoyment of experiencing the plays.  (I have also come across truckloads of tripe.)  In some loose sense those authors may have added to my understanding of the plays, but I very much fear that that sense is far too loose for a philosophical inquiry.

If you think that sounds woolly, I would plead guilty – but that is what I feel driven to.  I would refer back to what I said about the need for care in trying to analyse any part of the work of this artist, or any other artist.  Indeed, any one of us might be accused of tiptoeing around the volcano if hubris if we claimed to have found the ‘meaning’ of any play or poem of this playwright and poet.

Shakespeare and dreams.  A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time, it is completely right: put together in this strange way, it makes an impression.  Why? I don’t know.  And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all wrong, things aren’t like that – and yet it’s quite right according to a law of its own.

It could be put like this too: if Shakespeare is great, his greatness is displayed only in the whole corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world.  In other words he is completely unrealistic.  (Like a dream.)

All of that goes clean over my head.  Even Freud may have had trouble with it.  It is worryingly symptomatic of a tortured ambivalence about Shakespeare.  It calls to mind a summer school at Oxford about Wittgenstein.  A very charming Indian lady was evidently finding it hard to come to grips with the subject.  She was not alone.  At the end she had a question for the tutor.  ‘You have told us that Wittgenstein set out to cure our language of illness – could you be so good as to give us an instance where the cure worked?’  She also told the class that ‘in India, we don’t even have a word for God.’  I took her to be saying that for her, some things – like God – were out of reach of words.  At least at one point, Wittgenstein would have agreed with her.

I do not believe Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?

The short answer is that he was both.  The long answer is that labels are at best dangerous and at worst presumptuous.

I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

There is a whole lot in the works of Goethe that I don’t ‘get’ (in part, because I am not receiving it as it was written – in German); it seems clear that Wittgenstein had the same problems with Shakespeare.  We are nowhere near analysis or criticism.  (When I use the term ‘get’ here, I am I think invoking a loose form of ‘understanding’ of the order I referred to earlier.)

It is not as though Shakespeare portrayed human types well and were in that respect true to life.  He is not true to life.  But he has such a supple hand and his brush strokes are so individual, that each one of his characters looks significant, is worth looking at.

Art is a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  We know art is good if people keep wanting more of it.  It is hard to think of an artist who has done this anywhere near as well as Shakespeare.  He shows us as we are.  To the extent that you can give meaning to the phrase ‘true to life’ in this context, it is dead wrong.

‘Beethoven’s great heart’ – nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart.’  ‘The supple hand that created new linguistic forms’ would seem to be nearer the mark.

A poet cannot really say of himself ‘I sing as the birds sing’ – but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself.

The last proposition means nothing to me.  The first is of the same intellectual calibre – zero – as a public bar discussion of whether Bradman was better than Trumper or Ronaldo is better than Messi.

May I go back to what I said about the need for care in claiming to analyse art and the danger of hubris?  I’m afraid that the philosopher may be guilty on both counts.  And the statement that ‘nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart’ looks suspiciously like a statement of fact.  Richard Burton knew a good deal more about Shakespeare than Wittgenstein.  Burton saw ‘staggering compassion’.  The context is:

What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

Well, if a man as bright as Wittgenstein sees fit to go into print on an issue that gives him such trouble, you may wonder what modern philosophy has done for us.  Nor will you be alone there.  At a later tutorial at the summer school I mentioned, the Indian lady – to whom I had taken quite a shine – said to the tutor, in the course of the class: ‘Thank you for being so kind as not to notice that I was falling asleep.’

But we should end on a softer, kinder note.  I wrote elsewhere –

After a short visit to the United States in 1949, he [Wittgenstein] learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was, in common with our other heroes, at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady.  Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, he would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers.  That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity.  He had a most extraordinary intellect in a constricted character that made it nearly impossible to pass on to us the benefits of that intellect.  His success in doing so is due to his extraordinary moral courage.  Intellect alone is never enough.

Dostoevsky on freedom and God


Dostoevsky had a lot in common with Wagner.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither to others improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, which I have just read for the third time, raises the issue nicely.  In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.  Ivan’s biggest problem is the familiar one.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it.  These Turks, incidentally, seemed to derive a voluptuous pleasure from torturing children, cutting a child out of its mother’s womb with a dagger and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on a bayonet before the eyes of their mothers.  It was doing it before the eyes of their mothers that made it so enjoyable…..I can’t help thinking that if the devil doesn’t exist, and, therefore, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…..Listen, if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me, please?….Why should they too be used as dung for someone’s future harmony?…..And what sort of harmony is it, if there is a hell?….I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  Ivan says the Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes a crunch.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Here and there – Herman Melville on Evil


In Melville’s final work, Billy Budd, Billy personifies innocence and beauty.  John Claggart personifies evil.  He cannot stand the sight of Billy.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab represents another kind of evil.  Ahab is mad to get revenge on the murderous whale that ‘dismasted’ him.  W H Auden said that Ahab ‘is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature of defiant despair.’  Ahab is wilfully beyond comfort because ‘comfort would be the destruction of him’ (a phrase that Auden takes from Kierkegaard).

Captain Ahab personifies the fanatic, and he appeals to the gutter.  It was only on reading the novel for the third time – in which serious self-editing is permitted – and on looking again at the luminous book Melville, His World and Work (2005) by Andrew Delbanco – that I realised how relevant this curious novel is to us now.  It is a frightening portrait of a manic demagogue.  There is another frightful example in the White House as we speak.

Captain Ahab believes that we are all prisoners of our ignorance about the meaning of our suffering.  He asks his Chief Mate ‘how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?’

To me, the white whale [Moby-Dick] is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white male agent, or be the white male principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

This is the kind of apocalyptic stuff we get with Carlyle.  Delbanco says that with Captain Ahab, ‘Melville struck a note that would resound through modern history in ways he could never have anticipated’:

All that maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

The usual term is scapegoat.  Delbanco refers to another writer who says that ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering….a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain’ upon whom he can vent his rage and ‘dull by means of some violent emotion his secret tormenting pain.’

For this purpose, Ahab gees up his troops, who are at best an indifferent motley.  They happily surrender to the mood of the moment, and to the instinct of the herd.  The zeal of each takes on the colour of the rest.  Delbanco refers to a critic who called Moby-Dick a ‘prophecy of the essence of fascism’, and to a French critic who in 1928 saw the drift into reactionary nationalism and xenophobia and who said that ‘hatred becomes stronger by becoming more precise.’   He refers to another comment about the ‘intense subjectivism’ with which Hitler ‘repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder’ that led to the final disaster.

The relevance of all this to the manic demagogues we have now, and their pliant acolytes is obvious.  Delbanco concludes:

In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose – an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.

Amen.  But, at least the whale won that one.  And the phrase ‘truth with malice in it’ belongs to the ages.

Passing Bull 129 – Fake conservatives


The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they revelled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations…’  And the French?  ‘You set up your trade without…capital.’

Now, that is very English.  Our state of mind comes from our experience of history.  ‘Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta.’  And the big reformation secured the separation of Church and State in a typically perverse English fashion.  All this was in aid of ‘liberty’ – ‘Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.’

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta.

…..everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past, and the more slowly institutions have grown, so much the more enduring are they likely to prove.

Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

These views flow naturally from the Anglo-American legal tradition.  We are looking at a certain type or cast of legal or political thought.  How, then, would a ‘conservative’, so described look at some of our main political issues?

Take our handling of refugees.  History is not a good guide.  Historically, Australians have not acted well toward people of a different faith or colour, and the present government recently flirted with one of the more obnoxious disguises used in the White Australia policy.  But putting to one side plain human decency, our treatment of refugees flouts Magna Carta and legal obligations undertaken to the world community.  To that extent, a conservative must condemn our policy.

Take marriage equality.  A conservative would argue that allowing same sex marriage expands the notion of liberty that underlies our whole dispensation.  There are problems with that contention, but there are more problems with the very idea that the proposal might be opposed on the ground of religion.  Our separation of church and state is recognised in our constitution in a way that is the direct opposite of the English version.

Yes, marriage has been between a man and a woman since Biblical times, but while antiquity may appeal to conservatives, it cannot rule them.  Slavery has a history as long as that of marriage.  As Burke said: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’  That in my view is the real lesson of the French Revolution, but of one thing we may be sure – Burke would have been horrified and Disraeli would have been mortified by the suggestion that the Parliament refer the issue to the plebs.  That to them would have been a fatal abdication.  Labels have limits – Burke was a conservative Whig and Disraeli was a radical Tory.

Take our reaction to climate change.  It’s now common ground that we have made a mess of it, and fools of ourselves.  It’s hard to see how the issue could have become political, much less ideological.  It would be tart, but not ridiculous, to suggest that the first job of a conservative is to conserve the planet, but you struggle to find any principle to the opposition to the findings of science.  All you get are populist diversions about the price or reliability of power.  It’s what we used to call the ‘hip-pocket nerve.’

Now, you will know that some in parliament and in the Murdoch press who call themselves ‘conservatives’ hold views opposite to those set out above.  Some do it out of malice; others do it for money.  Either way, it’s hard to see any underlying political principle.  But it’s easy to see a surrender to the mob.  What you don’t see is anything like the compromise, moderation or temperaments described by Burke or the self-restraint described by Guthrie.  None of these parliamentarians is temperamentally given to compromise, moderation or self-restraint.

What you have is a repudiation of conservatism.  It’s time these people were called out.  They are not of the right sort of mind.

Passing Bull 126 – Being rational about religion


We take a lot of things on faith – the balance in our bank account, the state of our health, the sense of our doctors, the faithfulness of our partners, and the magic and mystery of giants like Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart.  Faith doesn’t only apply to religion then.  To that extent I agree with Greg Sheridan in his piece ‘Idea of God is perfectly logical’ in The Saturday Australian.

My position about God is that of a God-fearing doubter.  I simply don’t know.  I don’t believe anyone knows about God, either way.  While I have lost any belief in God, at least as that term in generally understood, I don’t seek to persuade others either way.  That, frankly, would be none of my business.

It follows therefore that I too, with Mr Sheridan, don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens, although I must confess that I have not read either in depth.  I don’t believe that any proposition about the existence of God is capable of rational proof.  As I gather that both of these men thought that they had proved that God does not exist, they are in my view talking bullshit.  And I don’t think I could be persuaded to the contrary.  And certainly not by arrogant and insulting people like those two.  They are to me nasty intellectual bullies, who think that they can work over people who overtly pledge their faith in that which cannot be proven.

People like Dawkins and Hitchens look to me to be evangelists of a nasty and bigoted kind.  Kant knew that bigots of denial were often worse than bigots of belief, and Carlyle showed his disdain for Rousseau by calling him the ‘Evangelist.’  What right or interest do these people have in seeking to undermine the religious faith of others – a lot of whom may not have the same intellectual horsepower, but very many of whom will be far better off for taste and judgment?  For that matter, why should they seek to deny to all of us the place of magic and mystery in the world – with some variety of rationalist double entry accounting?

So, I agree with Mr Sheridan that belief in God is rational.  To suggest the contrary seems to me to be as silly as it is rude.

But belief in what kind of God?   And how do we express it?  Mr Sheridan refers to ‘the thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced.’  The best minds would include Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Einstein.  They all professed to believe in God, but their God would be unrecognisable as such to most believers.  (And both Spinoza and Kant were persecuted because their God did not conform.)

Take Einstein.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were trying to trap him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

So, are we talking about the intellectual model of God, or the personal model?  The personal model, which is that favoured by most believers, is that revealed by scripture.  Here is another and more biting division.  Which scripture?  The Old Testament, the New Testament, Confucius, the Koran, and so on?

So, of course a belief in God is rational – but putting meat on the bones of ‘God’ is another matter.  And that takes us to the second question.  The belief is rational, but to what extent can it be expressed in words and be justified in logic?

Mr Sheridan refers to Aquinas, ‘the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians.’  Augustine and Aquinas took the teaching of an unlettered holy man from Asia and drenched it in the European philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  I was brought up in a Protestant sect, and on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the eruption of Martin Luther, I may be forgiven for saying that this intellectualising of the teaching of Christ may appeal to some more than others.

It is in truth no small part of why I lost my faith.  God is limitless – Christ is too – and I have never understood the presumption of mere men seeking to lock God in behind the bars of a syllogism, a construct of human thought.  This is, if you like, an article of faith for me.  I can’t jump six feet; I can’t conceive of a thing being and not being at the same time; but I don’t say that God can’t do either.  What gives us the right to say that God cannot transcend our limitations?  Why can’t God be better than us?

But this intellectual elevation put up by Augustine and others, which can only be understood by about a thousand people in the world at any one time, looks to me to be part of reserving the mystery of it all to the clerics – and that is bad.  This monopoly of understanding was at the heart of Luther’s protest.  And the Church made a great gift to people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  The people of faith were offering to play the people of logic on their own home ground.  It would be like the New York Yankees offering to play the MCC at cricket at Lords.  No bloody contest, mate.

In sum, there are limits to both our logic and language, and you have as much hope of explaining or justifying your faith in God as you do of explaining or justifying your faith in Leonardo, Shakespeare or Mozart – or, I may add, the divine Catherine Deneuve.  Wittgenstein said:

I believe that one of the things that Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless.  That you have to change your life. 

His biographer said:

‘Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm, infinite harm.’  [Wittgenstein wrote.]  Why pair Russell and the parsons in the one condemnation? Because both have encouraged the idea that a philosophical justification for religious beliefs is necessary for those beliefs to be given any credence.  Both the atheist who scorns religion because he has found no evidence for its tenets, and the believer, who attempts to prove the existence of God, have fallen to the ‘other’ – to the idle worship of the scientific style of thinking.  Religious beliefs are not analogous to scientific theories, and should not be accepted or rejected using the same evidential criteria.

That looks obvious to me.  And if you want to return to the beginnings, I see that Plato believed that no philosophical truth could be communicated in writing at all – it was only by some sort of immediate contact that one soul might kindle a light in another.  Good grief – from what ashram did that come?  But then we recall that Einstein said that he rarely thought in words.  And the great physicist Niels Bohr said:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.

It was therefore sad to see that Mr Sheridan began his piece by saying: ‘It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God.’  What might that entail?  It is idle to contend that my belief in God is as secure as my belief in my parentage, and it is plain wrong to say that Mr Sheridan’s ancestry is ‘certainly not rationally proven.’ (Otherwise our judges would have to pick up their bongos).  And then we get the call to arms: ‘the high points of our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism.’

May I suggest that making warlike claims to rational superiority about religion is not the best way to deal with intolerance?  When we talk of God, those who think they have the best arguments are those who are likely to lose the war.  There is a lot to be said for live, and let live.

Poet of the month: Henry Lawson

A prouder man than you

If you fancy that your people came of better stock than mine,

If you hint of higher breeding by a word or by a sign,

If you’re proud because of fortune or the clever things you do —

Then I’ll play no second fiddle: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you think that your profession has the more gentility,

And that you are condescending to be seen along with me;

If you notice that I’m shabby while your clothes are spruce and new —

You have only got to hint it: I’m a prouder man than you!

If you have a swell companion when you see me on the street,

And you think that I’m too common for your toney friend to meet,

So that I, in passing closely, fail to come within your view —

Then be blind to me for ever: I’m a prouder man than you!

If your character be blameless, if your outward past be clean,

While ’tis known my antecedents are not what they should have been,

Do not risk contamination, save your name whate’er you do — `

Birds o’ feather fly together’: I’m a prouder bird than you!

Keep your patronage for others! Gold and station cannot hide

Friendship that can laugh at fortune, friendship that can conquer pride!

Offer this as to an equal — let me see that you are true,

And my wall of pride is shattered: I am not so proud as you!

Here and there – Evil á la mode; and Iago


Last year Fox News, a part of the Murdoch Empire and an aider and abettor of Donald Trump, paid out huge amounts of money to settle sexual harassment claims against their CEO – and to settle with him.  Such is the evil of our times that, as I recall, both settlements ran to tens of millions of dollars.  Earlier this year, Fox News was forced by public opinion to sack its number one attraction, and Trump’s biggest fan and supporter, Bill O’Reilly.  He, too, was a serial abuser, and the undisputed world champion of hypocrisy.  He too handed over many millions of dollars to the victims of his abuse.  Such is the contempt for truth now in public life that O’Reilly was suffered to say that there was no truth in the allegations against him – he was just paying out all those millions to protect his children from bad publicity that had no foundation.  I don’t know whether O’Reilly, too, employs the lie ‘fake news.’

On the weekend, The New York Times reported that O’Reilly had agreed to pay one of the victims of his abuse more than $30,000,000.  That was the cost of her silence – but someone has ratted.  And now it gets worse.  With knowledge of that deal, the Murdoch family offered O’Reilly a renewal of contract at $25,000,000 a year.  Does anyone get to say grace at the start of these lucre-shovelling sessions?

There is evil all around here.  We have monopoly money figures that of themselves corrupt the recipients.  Just look at the spectacle that our bankers have made of themselves.  But there is a vicious disparity in status as well as wealth and income.  The case of that rutting pig Weinstein shows just how corrupted these people can become, and how moguls get to believe that they are untouchable.

But it also showed how vulnerable to predators are those at the bottom.  It’s as if we were reinstituting serfdom of a quite medieval kind – a form of rightlessness deriving not from contract but from status.

As I see it, this is evil, very evil.  And it is just these rents in our communal fabric that lead to cancers like Hanson, Farage, and Trump, so that they can spread their own kind of evil.  It’s all very depressing, and it prompts reflection on the nature of evil.

Roger Scruton – Sir Roger if you go in for that kind of thing – is an English philosopher who gets up people’s noses big time on some issues.  He calls it as he sees it, and tact or social nous may not be his strong suits.  He is however an urbane man with wide interests who is capable of speaking plain English.  I think that he subscribes to the Church of England, and I know that he is an opera fan, and that he wrote a book called I Drink, Therefore I Am.  It’s hard to dislike such a bloke, and he represents a full blooded defence of religion that both God and we badly need.

Scruton’s book On Human Nature has a lot of university type language, but there are some insights there for people who are not familiar with the ontological argument for the existence of God, or Kant’s celebrated refutation of that argument.  (Yes, of course – existence is not a predicate.)

The book is a revolt against the notion that we humans can be defined biologically, genetically, or even, I think, scientifically.  It may even be a reaction against Bryan Cox.

Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge.  There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music.  And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion.  Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world?  Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us to be at home in it?

Scruton seeks to explain our humanity by looking at our capacity to reflect on ourselves.  He refers to an Islamic teacher, al Fārābī, who offers us the insight that ‘the truths furnished to the intellect by philosophy are made available to the imagination by religious faith.’  Scruton’s opening lecture on ‘Human Kind’ has a ringing finale:

Take away religion, however, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness.  Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable, and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind – and with it our kindness.

It’s been quite some time since anything like that was taught at university under the heading of Philosophy.

It is the subject of evil that is of interest to us now.  Bad people, Scruton says, are like you or me, but evil people are visitors from another sphere, incarnations of the Devil.  ‘Even their charm – and it is a recognised fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of their Otherness.  They are, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that they seek to destroy.’

That seems to be about right.  Scruton reminds us that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles the line: ‘I am the spirit that forever negates.’  We’re not just talking of the person who sucks the oxygen out of a room.  Bad people tend to ignore others because they are guided by self-interest – just look at Trump – but the evil person ‘is profoundly interested in others, has almost selfless designs on them.’

The aim is not to use them, as Faust uses Gretchen, but to rob them of themselves.  Mephistopheles hopes to steal and destroy Faust’s soul and, en route to that end, to destroy the soul of Gretchen.  Nowadays we might use the word ‘self’ instead of ‘soul’, in order to avoid religious connotations.  But this word is only another name for the same metaphysical mystery around which our lives are built – the mystery of the subjective viewpoint.  Evil people are not necessarily threats to your body; but they are threats to yourself.

The relevance of all this to Iago is obvious and Scruton makes the link himself.  In watching the play, we are quickly shocked to find that Iago really intends to destroy Othello.

Peering into Iago’s soul we find a void, a nothingness; like Mephistopheles, he is a great negation, a soul composed of anti-spirit, as a body might be composed of antimatter.  The evil person is like a fracture in our human world, through which we catch glimpses of the void.

These insights, which are strong, lead Scruton to refer to ‘the banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in the bureaucratic mindset of Adolf Eichmann.  And he powerfully reminds us that concentration camps ‘were designed not merely to destroy human beings, but also to deprive them of their humanity.’  He then goes on to refer to what he sees as the ‘paradigm of evil – namely, the attempt or desire to destroy the soul of another so that his or her value and meaning are rubbed out.’

The book concludes with some comments on faith, and the notion that religion ‘is a dedication of one’s being’ and concludes with a reference ‘ to the two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us, in the world of modern scepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.  In the wake of these two great aesthetic achievements, it seems to me, the perspective of philosophy is of no great significance.’

Would that others of us could be so modest (even if he lost me on Parsifal).  But as ever, we needn’t press the labels or categories too hard.  (George Bush Senior said that ‘labels are what you put on soup cans.’)  Nor should we forget another remark of Hannah Arendt.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

This may be hard to square with Scruton, but people who choose to demonise Stalin and Hitler want to run away from history and they demean their victims.

Iago has these lines:

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly… (5.1.18-20)

There is a primal, Garden of Evil, feeling about that type of envy, and it calls to mind the visceral description by the same writer of the type of person who sucks the air out of a room, the common garden smiling assassin.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous…

…..He reads much,

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men …

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

Whilst they behold a greater than themselves.

And therefore are they very dangerous.

(Julius Caesar, 1.2.200-215)

You would not want to stake your house on spotting the difference between the badness of Cassius and the evil of Iago – or, for that matter, what category you might reserve for Eichmann.  It may be best to leave all that stuff to God.  Those issues are certainly way above my pay level.

But let us go back to Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O’Reilly.  A friend of mine – as it happens, the one who attends mass in a cathedral – astutely observed of the problems of Fox that ‘a large part of tabloid journalism involves the exploitation of human misery’ – or at least, I may add, misfortune.  It is therefore ironic that O’Reilly lies that he is paying out protection money just to avoid exploitation from the gutter.  The exploitation of the gutter is the business model of Fox News, and the modus operandi of President Donald Trump.

Are we then tip-toeing ever closer to the rim of the volcano that we have always sensed lies below us?

Why did the Roman Empire fall?  Edward Gibbon, the great historian, said:

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind.  But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of its immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it subsisted so long.  The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.  The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.

The United States is not there yet – but Gibbon looks to me to have diagnosed precisely the condition of the actual decline and coming fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Here and there – Getting a fright – and feeling desperately mortal


The wonderful film Dunkirk shows young men knowing real fear.  They may be shot and wounded or killed.  They may be shot in the worst possible way.  In the back –retreating.  So that if they get back home, it will be as part of defeated army.  (We know about that here in Australia.  This movie is at its most moving when it shows some men getting back home and fearing their rejection as losers.)  We see young men dying – it’s all down to chance.  Randomness is all about them.  Their fate is out of their hands.  There is a sense of helplessness.  Is this the ultimate insult to our human dignity – that we become powerless in the hands of others?

Last Saturday morning, I was working here at this desk in the way I am now – typing and looking out over meadows and gumtrees.  I had experienced some shortness of breath that morning and the previous morning, but nothing much.  (This is about my condition of emphysema, not lung cancer.)  At about 11.20, I started, to feel a chill.  Then I felt aches in the legs.  Then I got short of breath changing rooms.  I felt even chillier and suspected an onset of flue.  When I went to put a large log on the fire, I fell to one knee, and seemed to lose my breathing completely.  This all happened so fast.

At about 11.45, I rang the clinic at Kyneton and said I was very distressed and on my way.  I cannot recall thinking about ringing 000 then.  I do recall thinking the trip to Kyneton – about ten k’s on the freeway – might be tricky for me, but that if I had collapsed, I could have rung 000 from there.  It’s hard reconstructing these things after the event.  The trouble is that you feel like you are running out of time – but you don’t know how much time is left.  It’s like being on time-on in the last quarter.

I made it to the clinic.  I just presented my bedraggled self and was soon on oxygen.  I can recall the fever was so bad that when they pulled a sleeve up, I pulled it down again because the chill to the exposed skin was physically painful.  (Is this what Don Giovanni felt at the end?  )I was looked after by a young doctor who is an extremely competent professional person.  The nursing staff acted on my instructions to get some good neighbours to look after Wolf.  I was taken by ambulance to Bendigo.  The paramedics were also very professional and kind.

After about four hours in casualty – monitored to the hilt – I was cleared of influenza, X-rayed, and told I wasn’t go to die – at least from this infection of the lung.  After a long delay caused by a bus crash outside Ballarat, I was taken to St John of God.  I had a long discussion with Lilly, a 48 year old Malaysian lady, about cooking and climate.  (‘It’s bloody hot there all the time, Mate.’)  I had similarly diverting discussion with many members of a dedicated staff, and after only minimal untruths, I secured my release after two nights.  The kind neighbour who looks after my garden had looked after Wolf.  She collected me and drove me back with him.  I’m determinedly resilient one day later.

But for about thirty minutes on Saturday, I knew real fear.  It was that sense of randomness of helplessness, that fear of the unknown, and loss of dignity.  The image that came to mind was of a fly on its back heading in diminishing oval slurries to the bath plug hole.  There does after all obviously have to be an end sometime.  Timing is all.

I think I can say that death itself doesn’t worry me.  What’s the point?  It has to happen.  Wittgenstein taught me years ago that you don’t live to see your own death.  That is axiomatic.  (Someone at Oxford told me a Greek had said just this 2,500 years ago.)  Descartes started modern philosophy by saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’  At about 4.30 this morning I thought for the first time of a kind of obverse.  ‘I’m dead, therefore I don’t think.’  (If you think that’s silly, it may suggest a problem in the first proposition.)

When the lights go out, that’s it.  There are no replays or appeals to the third umpire.  But we may wish to have some say in how the lights get turned off.

I hadn’t thought I had ever been so scared.  But when I thought about it, I recalled one time in the ‘60s.  During each vacation I worked with a small outfit called C & I Cleaning.  (That stood for ‘Commercial and Industrial’ – you can imagine the men’s version.)  The work was dirty and often dangerous.  Employers got away with things that would now draw jail time – big jail time.  There was no union involved.  It was never even discussed.  I used to think about it, but instinctively felt I would not have a job if I did anything about it.  More importantly, the permanents had families to support, and they were not interested.

We used to do jobs that these people were not qualified to do.  We did a job cleaning the outside of what was the Graham Hotel in Swanston Street between Flinders Street and Collins Street.  We did our own rigging of what were called needles, that is, girders, over the top of the building from which to suspend the slings, called painters’ slings.  These needles went over the parapet under a steel fence and then had concrete davits holding them down.  The whole arrangement looked to me to be amateurish.  I was involved in setting it up.  You may as well have asked me to do surgery. There was no Department of Labour and Industry inspection.  In truth, the needles were wrongly set.

At about midnight, we started winching up the slings.  There were three of us on each of two slings.  I was winching one, at the end nearest the Town Hall.  The site beside me was vacant and there was a north wind giving a bit of a sway to the sling as we went up.  About every ten feet or so my ratchet would give a slight click and just drop.  It was very, very unnerving.  It was also damned hard work.

We got to the top of the sixth floor and the little click became a run and the thing went down so that we were sort of hanging there with the sling at a 60 degree angle.  Someone or others of us were shaking so much that the whole sling was shaking.  It was seven minutes to four in the morning according to the Town Hall clock.  I can remember saying to Dickie Roberts that we were up a bit.  Dickie was an Englishman (who lived with a hooker who did interesting things with Cadbury’s chocolates).  I liked Dickie.  He said ‘You don’t fucking bounce’ in an accent that was thick for more than one reason.

A young night porter came to the window and turned white.  He said he could not handle the window.  We told him to kick the fucking thing in – and the air conditioner as well.  We made our escape at about 4am.  About seven minutes of swaying terror.  When I first read Measure for Measure, years later I thought I knew just what Shakespeare meant by the phrase ‘desperately mortal’.

Someone gave me a brandy.  It was a huge balloon glass.  I drained it and did not feel a thing.  I was blind with anger.  I wanted to get my hands on those management bastards who had been standing down there looking up hopefully with their feet on the ground.  When we got to them they asked if we would go up on the other sling.  Looking back on it, I think it may have been as well if one or another of us had hit one of them.  Dickie could have been just the boy for the job – he was brawny and he had pictures and I was sure he had been inside.  It is not so much that those men were greedy – it was that they did not care: they were worse than careless.  They were in truth bloody dangerous.

None of this came to me last Saturday.  The two cases are very different – not least because of my age.  But there was the same sense of randomness and helplessness – and fear of the unknown.

At least three things are clear to me after two trips to casualty by ambulance.

First, while we have mostly lost the old independent civil service we used to know, we are very well provided for by our doctors, nurses and paramedics.  I spent a lot time in the last few days talking to many of them, including many trainees and Latrobe students.  All of them – all of them – impressed me by their professionalism.  If you spend time in casualty, and see what life’s like at the bottom, you know that these people are not there for the money.  This is vocation, and God bless them.

And God bless their variety.  The last nurse I spoke to was a student from Zimbabwe called Lana.  She had the natural dignity of tall African women, and speaking to her, I realised the advantage that black women have over whites – their eyes flash naturally.

Secondly, there is another group who should spend time in casualty in a public hospital.  Those vicious idiots who want to loosen our gun laws should listen to people screaming obscene hate in public – whether through drugs, including alcohol, or dementia – in hospitals that now employ permanent security staff, and where PA’s announce impending mayhem by ‘Code Grey’, and their end by ‘Stand down.’  It is straight out of Nineteen Eighty-four.  It is worse than madness to suggest that we should loosen gun laws in pursuit of a vane mantra about ‘freedom.’  We will have to learn better how to deal with these nasty, cruel, cranks – I’m talking about the ratbag politicians, not the poor bastards in casualty.

Thirdly, I don’t want to go into labels about dying, but I may have to look again at some of the issues.  The trick, as it seems to me, is to be allowed to go out with as much dignity as possible and as little pain to those close to you.  Can we not manage to set up such a regime?  The issue looks to me a bit like that of marriage equality.  People should be left free to do as they decently want to as long as they don’t hurt others.  Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about?

Let me then go back to Dunkirk.  I hardly saw any TV at St John of God.  But I turned on SBS to watch their Sunday news.  I got the end of the Battle of Jutland.  This was the great naval battle of the Great War.  It was at best a draw.  Neither side risked its whole fleet.  It is still very controversial.  But many ships went down and thousands died.  The horror came as some British ships limped home – to be met by people heaving coal at them from bridges.  The fearfully uninformed were abusing their servicemen for cowardice.  This is sickening to see.  Have ever men been worse treated?  As I said, we know all about that here.  In the name of God, we are such awkward boxes of good and bad.

Here and there – The facts of political life


In order to encourage young lawyers to meet the facts of life head on, and to be able to recount them without bullshit, I used to give three books to my articled clerks on their admission into the legal profession: Gowers, The Complete plain Words; Clausewitz, On War; and Machiavelli, The Prince.  I don’t suppose any of them read all three, or anything like it, but I wanted to convey a hard-headed message – if they didn’t like it, they may have needed to rethink their future.

This came back to me when I read Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, by Erica Benner.  It seemed to me to have a lot in common with another book I had recently acquired, Ike and McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower’s Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, by David Nicholls.  They both have respectable publishers – in order, Allen Lane and Simon & Schuster.  The academic credentials of the authors are elliptically expressed.  The title is catchy.  The style is a kind journalese that may leave some feeling like they’ve been talked down to.  In the first there is direct speech. In each, the author feels the need to tell us about their own journey of discovery, which can be a very troubling symptom. There are floods of notes.  Above all, extravagant claims are made for the book by the usual tame suspects in the blurbs, and by the author.  And in each case, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about – worse, I wondered how I got to be suckered once again, when I’m old enough to know better.

Erica Benner’s book is readable enough, if you go for that chatty style in the historical present, and you suppress your fear of another populist outbreak,  but you would have to be a bloody idiot to believe the blurb that says she has succeeded ‘brilliantly in overturning centuries-old received views.’ We can leave that puffery to the commercial conscience licence of Allen Lane.  But in the Preface, the author says this:

His [Machiavelli’s] design was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall.’  In other words, the book’s most shocking advice was ironic.  Its author wore the mask of a helpful adviser, all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin…..Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point,  was a fraud.  And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims.  Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value…..and in doing so, had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap.

These statements are not small. They are large.  Is Ms Benner intent on eulogising a fraud?  (‘Fraud’ is her word.)  Where can you buy the crystal balls that allow you to divine Machiavelli’s real intent or purpose?  Was poor King Henry VIII really a flop?  Was the English Reformation a mistake?  How fared the nation of England in suffering through its victimhood?   And why didn’t Machiavelli’s fraud work earlier on seriously bad princes like Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler?  Why did five, twenty, and fifty million people have to die before they walked into Machiavelli’s trap?  Just how Machiavellian was Ms Benner’s version of Machiavelli?  Are we all just sad victims of a dilettante prankster?

And that’s before you get to the subtitle.  What did ‘freedom’ mean in Renaissance Italy?  As Bertrand Russell remarked of Machiavelli (in his History of Western Philosophy), ‘The word ‘liberty’ is used throughout as denoting something precious, though what it denotes is not very clear.’  My suspicion is that ‘freedom’ in Machiavelli means the kind of  pompous hypocrisy denoted in that word by the conspirators in Julius Caesar – as they pulled their hats down over their ears and hid half their faces, and then set out about murdering the man who was in their way.

Well, all this stuff is irrelevant to us in the Anglo-American scheme of things.  We don’t go big on theory.  We don’t trust ideologues.  And philosophy, especially political philosophy, has even less going for it than economics.  We prefer experience, evidence, tradition and something like natural growth.  Evolution hadn’t even been invented when Machiavelli was floating his theories.  But they have taken effect, and not noticeably to our benefit.

The Prince was mainly about contemporary or recent rulers in Italy.  The Discourses was more about republics, the form of government more favoured by the author.  If you know anything about the Medicis, Borgias, or Renaissance popes, you know that praise, much less idolatry, is out of the question. In the eyes of most, Cesare Borgia was a model of depravity.  Here is part of what Jacob Burckhardt had to say about the ‘great criminal’ Cesare Borgia.

‘Every night four or five murdered men are discovered – bishops, prelates, and others – so that all Rome is trembling for fear of being destroyed by the Duke’ (Cesare).  He himself used to wander about Rome in the night-time with his guards, and there is every reason to believe that he did so not only because, like Tiberius, he shrank from showing his now repulsive features by daylight, but also to gratify his insane thirst for blood, perhaps even on persons unknown to him….those whom the Borgias could not assail with open violence fell victim to their poison.

On any view, the bloodlines were less than charming, and the Borgias were not nice people to have dinner with. If Machiavelli says he sees nothing to reproach in Cesare Borgia, and he does, he is obviously taking the mickey – unless he is morally insane.  Some have called it satire; others call it comical irony.  While Burckhardt may be out of fashion, he did understand Italy at this time, and he thought the real reason for Machiavelli’s sympathy for Cesare was that Cesare was the only one who could have secularised the Papal States.  (Now there is a proposition to conjure with!)

We are looking at the difference between facts in history and politics, and values in ethics or morals. That’s what I wanted my new lawyers to come to terms with – together with the dangers of talking in such abstractions.  Can you have any politics without any morals at all?  Even Stalin and Hitler found room for loyalty to the nation and party, and obedience to the leader.

This realism had its upside.  Machiavelli criticised the Church because by its conduct it had undermined religious belief.  But there was a downside.  A prince should seem to be religious – an implacable law for American presidents – but the Prince emphatically rejects morals for princes.  Rulers who are always good will fail.  They must be as cunning as a fox.  In the year of Our Lord 2016, this attempt to divorce morals from politics came home to bite us all.  And the point was made by people who worked on the equally objectionable principle that the ends justify the means – a notion that figures largely in Machiavelli’s writings.

Russell introduced the subject this way (back in 1946, the year after I was born).

His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad.  When, on occasion, he allows himself to mention the ends that he desires, they are such as we can all applaud.  Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to his name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.  There remains, it is true, a good deal that genuinely demands criticism, but in this he is an expression of his age.   Such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible at any other time or in any other country…..

This assessment looks fair and sensible to me, and I doubt whether Ms Benner would dissent from it.  But it is not a bookselling headline.  How then does Ms Benner unveil her revelation?

But he has learned to avoid lecturing princes on what they should and should not do.  Instead, he gives free reign to his old talent for ambiguous writing, so useful when writing diplomatic dispatches.  [35] He adopts the persona of a cold-blooded adviser to new rulers, one who teaches them to use other princes, foreign peoples, and their own subjects to serve their soaring ambitions.  Yet his writing turns hot, nearly bursts into flame, when he describes how free peoples avenge themselves on those who attack their freedom….On closer scrutiny, though, one begins to notice hesitations and caveats that compromise the praise…..Yet the book’s long discussion of Cesare’s career teams with insinuations that undercut the praise….look more closely and you start to notice details that subvert the artist’s glowing portrait….When reading the Prince, one often has the impression that the book speaks in two different voices, sometimes in the same sentence…..If the louder voice of the amoral adviser goads princely readers to accumulate more and more power, the Prince’s lower register voice – Nicco beneath his bestial disguise – constantly hints that well-ordered republics are stronger, safer, and more natural for the human animal.

Now, whether you regard ‘bestial disguise’ as an improvement on ‘fraud’ may involve issues of taste as much as judgment, but there is nothing new here.  When you could be killed or mutilated for saying the wrong thing, it was natural to equivocate, or be deliberately ambiguous, or to speak with a forked tongue.

All of Machiavelli’s books were banned; he had already been tortured not for what he said, but because someone else put his name in a list; and that most notorious controversialist of the Renaissance, Galileo, had sought to pull off the same stunt by dressing his heresy up in a dialogue.  He said that he just wanted to show both sides.  Well, as we know, the Inquisition did not buy that argument, and Galileo was convicted of being ‘vehemently suspect of heresy.’  Two could play the ambiguity game – but it was and is a well-worn game.

Well, if nothing is new, what’s all the fuss about?  The author’s argument begins with the reference to the ambiguity of diplomacy.  I have included the footnote [35] for which the citation is:

‘35 See Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince.’

Passim? The whole bloody book?  Has it all been said before? Is the good book right after all – is there nothing new under the sun?

So, give us a break Mr Allen Lane, and go a bit easier on the bullshit.

Passing Bull 104 – Australian values


The hypocrisy and intolerance in our public life is getting worse.  A week after telling us that migrants should share Australian values, government ministers are doing hand-stands because someone said something of questionable taste that offended part of our secular faith.  Nor are our leaders in the slightest put out that those complaining the loudest about this allegedly offensive behaviour are also the ones that cry the loudest when the law is invoked against offensive words.  You can apparently be as offensive as you like – until you offend a true blue Aussie.  Why don’t we go for the full Monty and set up a House of UnAustralian Affairs Committee?  I can think of a number of thick thugs who would be ripe to emulate the U S model.

Well, here is my go at some real Australian values where we could well be world leaders.

  1. Holding without trial a person fleeing from persecution in a nation ruined by a war that your nation entered under false pretences.
  2. Imprisoning young aboriginal offenders for stealing bread, under laws of mandatory sentencing passed to deal with aboriginals by legislators who do not know as much as the judges and who do not trust them, while their rich mates crookedly deprive people of millions of dollars and routinely go uncharged.
  3. Refusing to change taxation laws in an effort to enable young people who are not so well off to buy their first home – not just an Australian value but what we used to call ‘the Australian dream’ – for fear that such a law might be against the interests of those who are well off, in particular those members of parliament who invest in land and use the tax laws for that purpose – what used to be called ‘the ruling class’ or ‘the landed gentry’.
  4. Supporting bodies that claim to be in sport but which are in truth trading corporations in the entertainment industry that at least in part live off the earnings of gambling, another form of business that has brought hardship and misery to countless Australians, commonly those who are not so well off or who are not so good at looking after themselves.
  5. Having legislatures refuse to limit the gambling business that does so much harm to their voters, because their governments are now hooked on the easy money coming in as revenue derived in large part from human misery.
  6. Refusing, for reasons of pure self-interest, to make laws to contain the spread of this evil, and to ban advertising of products that bring as much misery as cigarettes.
  7. Refusing to investigate or prosecute people who in public offend aboriginal footballers on the basis of their race on the ground that such action would impede the freedom of speech of the abuser, or on the ground that a single instance of abuse does not constitute harassment – or professing inane political theories that leave them open to this silly suggestion.
  8. Maintaining a system of government that blatantly prefers one religion to all others by requiring its head of state to be in communion with one sect of one religion – by the law of a foreign nation that we hapless and timid Australians have no power to alter.
  9. Forbidding members of a government from voting in parliament on an issue of social equality apparently favoured by a clear majority – on the reasoning like that of a spoiled brat who is a bad sport and who just picks up his bat and ball to spite the winner.
  10. Acquiescing in a body of laws on taxation that are at best incomprehensible, but which offer the wealthy more avenues of evasion than poor people.
  11. Coming too late to the conclusion that allowing a bank manager to be paid one hundred times what a bank teller gets paid is as bad for the rest of Australia as is their practice of encouraging their managers to boost their incomes by engaging in bad and illegal banking practises that hurt those who are less able to look after themselves.
  12. Refusing to sanction a decent inquiry into these evils because it might be bad for business! (This is the bell ringer of all  bell ringers.)
  13. Failing to see that it is blindingly obvious that the widening gap in incomes and housing wealth is undermining the fabric of the nation in the same manner that has produced such ghastly political disruption elsewhere.
  14. Having politicians who generally behave in such an appalling fashion that at any given election, a majority of voters will be clearly against the party that has the misfortune to be elected to govern.
  15. Habitually going off to wars and losing them as a payment of protection money to Uncle Sam, and not only refusing to acknowledge that fact, but positively lying and denying it.
  16. Allowing blockheads – seismically stupid people – to favour a warped ideology of fanatics against the evidence of science to endanger our hold on the planet and to rob our children of their heritage.
  17. Having a political system that is so decrepit that a rational literate liberal leader is soon reduced to a crass scared vote-chasing follower.
  18. Living in philistine cities of the plain where more people will go to watch a single match of football, in a code that has not been and never will be exported beyond our sunlit plains extended, than go to see all the operas and plays put on in those cities over the whole year.
  19. Being in a nation that likes to see itself as ‘sporting,’ and having a major sporting body aligned with one of the most corrupt entities on the planet, whose head has a tenure exceeding that of most African dictators, whose income has blue sky (more than $200,000) between it and that of the Chief Justice of the High Court, and who when challenged descends to the gutter in a manner that should have got him sacked on the spot.
  20. After more than two centuries of white settlement, not having found the means to stop such jerks worming their way into positions of trust and reducing the rest of us to illness or tears.
  21. Having politicians who are so low and unprincipled that they will go out and spruik bullshit about Australian values in an effort to get a transitory lift in the polls, and who either do not see or do not care that we see them for what they are.

You do wonder how our values might be different to those of the English, French, Americans, Chinese, Kenyans, Chileans, Indonesians, or North Koreans, or what school of diplomacy you should attend before pointing out their deficiencies to their face.

But, on reflection, I think there may be one real Australian value – anyone who uses that term with a straight face is a no good bullshit-artist and, worse, probably a politician to boot.

Confucius says:

I am not so impertinent as to practise flattery.  It is just that I so detest inflexibility.

Analects 14.32.