MY TOP SHELF -45 – RUSSELL

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY

Bertrand Russell

George Allen & Unwin limited, 1961; rebound in half red morocco, with sage title and author, and floral boards.

Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.

Bertrand Russell may not have been a very pleasant man, but he was very, very bright, and he could expound difficult concepts in a way that even those who are not experts or who have not been exposed to philosophy at university can understand.  This book is in my view a classic of that kind of exposition.  I have used it as a reference book for nearly fifty years, but recently I read it for the first time from cover to cover.  I wish other scholars would use it as a model of the kind of book that can be read by the general reader.  When asked about his style once, Russell said that it should be a mixture of the prose of Milton and a Baedeker Guide.  That was very good advice.

The book is large.  Its 800 pages, with a very full index, cover the ambit from the beginnings of Greek civilization to the time at which Russell wrote.  The book may therefore serve as a very good introduction to the history of the West because Russell never hesitates to put his subject in a wider political or social context.  Here, for example, are two passages on the relative claims of ancient Greece and Rome.

These [Greek] cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes [admirers of Greeks], and did not destroy what they had conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done.  The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilisation which they governed but did their utmost to preserve.

The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture, and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy.  The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion.  The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but the latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted for a long time.

I have probably spent more time reading this book than any other non-fiction book on the shelf.  It has been beautifully rebound, and it is a pleasure to both hold and read.  I just fear that if I start picking out slabs to quote, I may not serve the cause of getting it read.  It does if nothing else show the danger of judging a book by its author.

 

My Top Shelf – 29 – Hume

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

29

ENQUIRIES CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING

David Hume

Edited by L A Selby-Bigge, Second Edition, 1902; reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1977; rebound in stone cloth boards with Mediterranean half blue leather, with gold print on red label.

Either as a man or as a philosopher, the name of David Hume is fit to be mentioned in the company of Spinoza and Kant.

He was born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711.  He was happy to have come from a good family.  His father was a lawyer who owned a large estate at Ninewells that had been held in the Hume or Home family for centuries.  His mother was the daughter of the President of the Court of Justice.  He lost his father when he was very young.  His mother was a strict Calvinist.  Like Spinoza, Hume lost God early; like Kant, he was put off religious fanatics early.  The Scottish Sunday tended to be very dour and drab.

David spent three years at Edinburgh University, starting when he was not quite twelve years of age.  He did a general course in Greek, Logic, Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy.  University as such left no deep imprint on him; nor did the Church.

At the age of only eighteen years he embarked on the work that was to be his most famous, A Treatise of Human Nature.  He experienced a psychosomatic condition that turned him from a ‘tall, lean, raw-boned youth’ to a ‘sturdy robust healthful like fellow … with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful Countenance’. The portraits of Hume do show a very full face, at peace, with a kind of restful somnolence.  The portrait by Allan Ramsay shows a face at once serene yet somehow vulnerable.  While he was still ill, Hume described it as ‘the Disease of the Learned’.  His doctor helpfully prescribed a ‘Course of Bitters & Anti-hysteric Pills’ and ‘an English pint of claret wine every day’, a course of treatment that is still faithfully followed to the letter by some who suffer from a ‘Disease of the Learned’.

Hume never married.  Sir Alfred Ayer was qualified to speak on this and said that Hume was ‘too thoroughly immersed in intellectual pursuits to qualify as an amorist’.

Hume spent two years at La Flèche, where Descartes had been educated, writing the Treatise.  It was published and, said Hume, ‘it fell dead-born from the Press’.  He went on to publish an Abstract, setting out the substance of his arguments.  He also published essays and later came to write The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding which was a re-write of part of the Treatise.  The present work has a section on miracles that Hume had deliberately omitted from the Treatise.  In it he said that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact that which it endeavours to establish’.

Hume had odd jobs in government positions, but he derived substantial income from his writing.  His six volume History of England was a great hit and a great money earner.  He was more famous for his History during his life than for his philosophy.  Montesquieu was impressed with the essays and he and Hume kept up a correspondence.  Voltaire said that ‘nothing can be added to the fame of this History, perhaps the best ever written in any language’.  It is still extremely readable.  Here is part of his judgment –and Hume was certainly judgmental in his History – on Mary Queen of Scots.

Her numerous misfortunes, the solitude of her long and tedious captivity, and the persecutions, to which she had been exposed on account of her religion, had wrought her up to a degree of bigotry during her later years; and such were the prevalent spirit and principles of the age, that it is the less wonder, if her zeal, her resentment, and her interest uniting, induced her to give consent to a design, which conspirators, actuated only by the first of these motives, had formed against the life of Elizabeth.

It is all there – balance, grace and rhythm.  As writers go, Hume was a natural.  The marginal note for the next paragraph reads:  ‘The Queen’s affected sorrow’.  As Russell dryly remarked, Hume ‘did not consider history worthy of philosophic treatment’. But what was entirely fundamental to Hume was that to be a philosopher was to be a man of letters.  That, sadly, is no longer the case.

When Adam Smith vacated the Chair of Logic, Hume would have been a natural selection, but the opposition of the church faction prevented the appointment.  But when he went to Paris, Hume was an instant success.  The French took to him with the same zeal that they were later to show toward Miles Davis.  As Lytton Strachey said, ‘He was flattered by princes, worshipped by fine ladies, and treated as an oracle by the philosophers’.

He was, like Gibbon after him, fluent in French.  One of his women admirers was the Comtesse de Boufflers.  She was younger than Hume, le bon David – and the mistress of a Prince of the Blood, the Prince de Conti.  Although she wanted to marry the Prince after presumably outliving her husband, she appears to have fallen for the corpulent Scot.

The relationship was not consummated and le bon David may have been well out of it.  It is difficult to avoid the impression that he was punching well above his weight with these French women.  In one petulant letter to Hume, the Comtesse asked, ‘Do you want to confirm me in the idea which I hold, that your sex like to be handled roughly … to confess to you my opinion, the majority seem to have by nature servile souls?’  On one occasion the Comtesse upbraided the Maréchale de Mirepoix, her intimate friend, for associating with Madame de Pompadour, saying, ‘She is, after all, merely the first prostitute of the Kingdom’.  It is said that Madame de Mirepoix quietly returned, ‘Don’t ask me to count up to number three’. That is cattiness of a very big hitting calibre, the stuff of European championships.

Hume was taken in by Rousseau – as, surprisingly enough, Kant was to be.  They got on famously until Rousseau’s paranoia broke out and he behaved appallingly toward Hume, as he tended to do to anyone who ever got close to him (such as his children).

Hume was wealthy and successful and feted.  He built a house in New Town off St. Andrew’s Square, which came to be known as St. David’s Street in his honour.  He worked on his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  They were published after his death, for the same reason that Spinoza left his Ethics to be published after his death.

Like Spinoza and Kant, Hume had run-ins with government over his views on religion, but like them, Hume died at peace with himself.  He told his doctor that ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire’.  He could not understand why people were asking him if he would retreat from his unbelief in God in the face of death. According to Ayer, Boswell intruded on him to see ‘how he was handling the prospect of death; Hume convinced Boswell that he faced the prospect serenely; equally characteristically, Dr. Johnson insisted that Hume must have been lying’.

In his autobiographical Memoir, Hume said this of himself:

I was a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.  Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments.

Hume had a mind like a lightning conductor.  He was like one of those who come along every hundred years or so in the law, who can put novel ideas so simply and surely that you wonder how people of goodwill could seek to argue the contrary.  They have a beguiling simplicity that charms those who are not so gifted, and for that reason they are greatly feared by the guardians of the intellectual peace who are also not so gifted.

Hume had said that ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous’.  Russell said:  ‘He has no right to say this.  ‘Dangerous’ is a causal word, and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is ‘dangerous’.’  Russell then went on to say:

In fact, in the later portions of the Treatise, Hume forgets all about his fundamental doubts, and writes much as any other enlightened moralist of his time might have written; he applies to his doubts the remedy that he recommends, namely ‘carelessness and inattention’.  In a sense, his scepticism is insincere, since he cannot maintain it in practice.  It has, however, this awkward consequence, that it paralyses every effort to prove one line of action better than another.

Hume’s scepticism in philosophy never interfered with his enjoyment of life.  Those who fear a void opening up after Hume’s destruction of empiricism and his questioning of causation should take solace from the six volumes of his History of England.  How could anyone write a history of England from The Invasion of Julius Caesar to The Revolution in 1688 without giving full weight to what every person understands by the word ‘causation’ on every single page?  Even the little citation above, about Mary Queen of Scots, is laced with references to causation from beginning to end.  We may therefore doubt whether the philosophy of David Hume was as much a guide for him in the conduct of his life as has appeared to be the case with Spinoza and Kant.  After Rousseau had affronted Hume for the third time, and as Hume realised that Rousseau was mad rather than bad, he wrote to his Comtesse:

For the purpose of life and conduct, and society, a little good sense is surely better than all the genius, and a little good humour than this extreme sensibility.

MY TOP SHELF – 26

MY TOP SHELF

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

26

 

TRACTATUS THEOLOGICO-POLITICUS

Benedict de Spinoza (1670)

Translated R H M Elwes Second Edition, Revised; George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden, 1889; republished in facsimile by Kessenger Publishing, U S; rebound in half yellow leather and yellow cloth with black label embossed in gold.

Superstition then is engendered, preserved and fostered by fear.

The main text that the Inquisition invoked against Galileo was the miracle of the sun standing still for a day to enable Joshua and the Israelites to kill a lot more of the indigenous people whose land God had promised to his chosen people.  This is one of those parts of Scripture that makes a lot of people very nervous about miracles and an all too human God – nor did it do much for Galileo.  Do we really want a God who intervenes in Middle Eastern wars by suspending his own laws to help one tribe kill more of others because he has chosen them as his favourite?  Do we want a God who is so exclusive and so lethal?  If you do not, you may wish turn to Spinoza and Kant.

For some, the only black mark against Spinoza is that Bertrand Russell said that he was ‘lovable.’  This is what Russell said.  ‘Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.  Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.  As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.  He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him.  Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.  Leibniz, who owed much to him, concealed his debt, and carefully abstained from saying a word in his praise; he even went so far as to lie about the extent of his personal acquaintance with the heretic Jew.’  That is a fair summary.  Good people, saintly people, can have that kind of effect on others.

Spinoza’s parents were Portuguese Jews forced to ‘confess’ Christianity by the Inquisition.  They migrated to Amsterdam where Baruch (or Benedict) was born.  He was very bright as a child and so intellectually precocious that his own community eventually excommunicated him.  The terms of the cherem chill the blood.  He was described when young as having a beautiful face with a well formed body and ‘slight long black hair.’  He polished lenses by day and wrote philosophy at night.  He died young of a lung condition that was not helped by his work.

The Tractatus was published anonymously and was immediately condemned on all sides.  His master-work, Ethics, was not published until after his death.  He lived alone, and frugally – although he enjoyed a pipe and a glass of wine, he could go for days on milk soup made with butter and some ale.  There is no evidence that he ever sought to harm another, but plenty to suggest that he died in a state of peace, if not grace.

The Ethics contains his full world-view, made up of geometric propositions.  One is: ‘God is without passions, neither is he affected by any emotion or pleasure or pain.’  That is a large part of the Tractatus.  Spinoza says that his chief aim in the Tractatus is to separate faith from philosophy.  He says that Moses did not seek to convince the Jews by reason, but bound by them a covenant, by oaths, and by conferring benefits.  This was not to teach knowledge, but to inspire obedience.  He then says, ‘Faith consists in a knowledge of God, without which obedience to Him would be impossible, and which the mere fact of obedience to Him implies’.  Spinoza supports this assertion with reference to both Testaments.  He then goes on to say that he has ‘no further fear in enumerating the dogmas of universal faith or the fundamental dogmas of the whole of Scripture.’

As doctrinal dynamite goes, there is enough in his exposition for believers and unbelievers of all kinds to inflict a lot of damage on each other.  And Spinoza gives intellectuals another slap in the face:  ‘The best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who discloses the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity’.  You might think that a lot, or even most, believers of good will would go along with that proposition, but Plato and Aristotle would have been very, very unhappy, and deeply shocked.

Spinoza holds that if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend, Christ communed with God mind to mind.  Elsewhere, he puts it that Christ was not so much a prophet as ‘the mouthpiece’ of God; Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race.  He condemns those who stick to the letter:  ‘If a man were to read the Scripture narratives believing the whole of them, but were to give no heed to the doctrines they contain, and make no amendment in his life, he might employ himself just as profitably in reading the Koran or the poetic drama.

Reason, Spinoza said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’  His belief is evidenced by the following extracts from the Tractatus.

I have often wondered that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion … should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.

Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries;  men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt … are never tired of professing their wonder at the profound mysteries of Holy Writ; still I cannot discover that they teach anything but speculations of Platonists and Aristotelians, to which (in order to save their credit for Christianity) they have made Holy Writ conform; not content to rave with the Greeks themselves, they want to make the prophets rave also….

The Bible leaves reason absolutely free…it has nothing in common with philosophy; in fact, Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings….I pass on to indicate the false notions, which have arisen from the fact that the multitude – ever prone to superstition, and caring more for the shred of antiquity than for eternal truths – pays homage to the books of the Bible, rather than to the word of God.

Spinoza corresponded widely on a very high plane, but some letters show homely insights from the least sect-bound of men.  Christ gave ‘by his life and death a matchless example of holiness’; if the Turks or other non-Christians ‘worship God by the practice of justice and charity toward their neighbour, I believe that they have the spirit of Christ, and are in a state of salvation’; the ‘authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates does not carry much weight with me’; and ‘Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture.’  He also asked question similar to one asked by Darwin: whether ‘we human pygmies possess sufficient knowledge of nature to be able to lay down the limits of its force and power, or to say that a given thing surpasses that power?’

In The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, the late Professor Alan Donaghan contributed a paper called Spinoza’s Theology.  Theology is the study of God.  If Spinoza was studying God, you would think that he believed in God.  Sane people do not devote large portions of their lives to discussing something that they do not believe exists.  Spinoza said that he believed in God.  He was emphatic about it.  When you get to his Ethics, published after his death, God is fundamental to his whole world view – to the whole universe.  Yet the other members of his community expelled him on religious grounds.  They said that he did not believe in God.  They said that Spinoza was an atheist.

In the Ethics, you come across propositions that run slap, bang into the face of the Bible.  We have already seen one proposition denying passion to God.  It is fundamental to Spinoza that he takes humanity out of God and identifies God with Nature.  Then Spinoza incorporates the Sermon on the Mount into his metaphysical edifice.  Part IV, Proposition 45, says:  ‘Hatred can never be good’.  A corollary is that envy, contempt, derision and revenge are bad.  Then you get Proposition 46:  ‘He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other man’s hatred, anger, contempt etc, toward him’.  This is the doctrine of turning the other cheek in logically modelled Latin.  And later comes a little gem of humane wisdom in Part 4, Proposition 55:  ‘Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme ignorance of self’.  It is not at all hard to see why Spinoza appealed to the mind of Einstein.

It is fundamental for some that the existence of God can be and has been demonstrated (proved).  Well, even if you accept that this may be the case, or is the case, that proof must leave open the question of which, if any, model of God that is presently on the market has been proved to exist.  The model put forward by Spinoza was not satisfactory to most Jews or Christians, but it is inherently unlikely that any logical proof of the existence of God could lead necessarily to the proof of a god whose characteristics are defined by revelation and in very human terms.  And do not forget that Spinoza, brought up in the Jewish tradition, was not just a great mind.  He was a first-rate Bible scholar – in both Testaments.

Spinoza holds that the sphere of reason is that of truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience; ‘I consider the utility and the need for Holy Scripture or Revelation to be very great … the Bible has brought a very great consolation to mankind.  All are able to obey, whereas there are the very few, compared with the aggregate of humanity, who can acquire the habit of virtue under the unaided guidance of reason’.  Reason, as he had said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’

The little Dutch Jewish outcast also said:

Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others.  He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness, and the joy which he feels is either childish, or envious and malicious.

Many of those words will ring true for those who have become estranged from religion, and just as many who are struggling to stay with it.  The last citation alone would justify the whole life and work of this very great and holy man.  That sentiment should be put up in neon lights outside every exclusive institution in the land.

Spinoza was a very holy man who crossed on to the turf of less holy men.  Turf wars are the scourge of religion.  The great gift of Spinoza and Kant to mankind was to stand up and stare down those clever and subtle men – alas, they were all men – who claimed to have exclusive rights to the box of tricks without which the rest of us could not get near God or enjoy the grace of true religion.  They both should be remembered as two of our greatest liberators.  Their legacy is worth so much more than the brackish howls of those bothered God-deniers whose very loudness bespeaks the bankruptcy of philosophy.  Just what does philosophy have to show for itself?  And, just before dawn, did Bertrand Russell see himself as one of those who were intellectually superior to Spinoza?

 

 

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 23

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

23

CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON

Immanuel Kant (1781)

Macmillan Co Ltd, London, 1963; translated Norman Kemp Smith; Papermac; rebound in half biscuit morocco with soft burgundy boards.

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1724.  He was the fourth of nine children of a poor harness-maker.  His parents were simple Prussians – and devout Pietists, a reformist group within the Lutheran Church, sometimes compared, not always politely, to the Jesuits.  Kant was fortunate to be sent, although poor, to a school that would have given him a better education than many countries in the West now offer to their poor children.  But Kant was to be scarred for life by the teachers whom he regarded as religious fanatics.

The whole life of Kant was governed by duty.  One Prussian Pietist saw what duty might mean at the age of thirteen.  A friend of his mother was jilted in love.  She fell sick with a deadly high fever.  Kant’s mother nursed her friend.  The friend refused her medicine.  To encourage her, Kant’s mother took a spoonful herself.  As she did so, she realised that her friend had already used the spoon.  She died the same day of smallpox – in the words of Kant, ‘a sacrifice to friendship’.  She was buried ‘silently’ and ‘poor’, possibly in the manner shown in the film Amadeus for the burial of Mozart.

Kant entered the University of Konigsberg at sixteen and graduated six years later.  He took work as a private tutor.  When aged thirty one, he obtained a post at the University.  He gave public lectures.  He became known as de Schöne Magister, the Elegant Teacher.  Konigsberg was then a substantial city of 50,000.  It was a sea-port with trading interests and it therefore had a cosmopolitan flavour.  Kant was constrained to lecture over a wide area, including geography, but from the time he became a professor, his interest was in philosophy.  It looks like Kant never stepped out of Konigsberg.

His lectures were very popular.  He gave them at 7.00 a.m.  It was said that you had to be there at 6.00 a.m. to be sure of getting a place.  One of his students said of the lectures that Kant had an intense way of stating the issue to be discussed.

Kant was indifferent to music and painting – how unlike Wittgenstein! – but he loved poetry and satire, a form which he indulged in his own writings.  His published works are astonishingly substantial.  He must be the most prolific and industrious philosopher since Aristotle.  His major work, The Critique of Pure Reasoning, was not published until he was fifty seven.  Most of it is too dense for the average reader, but it is shot through with practical insights.  He later wrote The Critique of Practical Reason, The Critique of Judgment and The Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals.  The last work contains his ethical theory, and may be the most accessible to the general reader.  Kant is probably the most uplifting of writers on ethics for the uninitiated.

In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant launched an all-out assault on those who want to intellectualize God and faith.  Kant was well and truly warned off by the Prussian establishment.  Throughout his life Kant managed to avoid attending any ceremony at the University that may have involved religious ceremony.

Toward the end the mighty mind of Immanuel Kant fell into decline. This is how the English philosopher Roger Scruton describes his ending:

He faded into insensibility, and passed from his blameless life on 12 February 1804, unaccompanied by his former intellectual powers.  He was attended at his grave by people from all over Germany, and by the whole of Konigsberg, being acknowledged even in his senility as the greatest glory of that town.  His grave crumbled away and was restored in 1881.  His remains were moved in 1924 to a solemn neoclassical portico attached to the cathedral.  In 1950 unknown vandals broke open the sarcophagus and left it empty.  By that time Konigsberg had ceased to be a centre of learning, had been absorbed, following its brutal destruction by the Red Army, into the Soviet Union, and had been renamed in honour of one of the few of Stalin’s henchmen to die of natural causes.  A bronze tablet remains fixed to the wall of the castle, overlooking the dead and wasted city, bearing these words from the concluding section of the ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’:  ‘Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more and the more steadily we mediate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within’.

It is good to see that the tradition of clear, crisp writing, in English philosophy is not dead.

You might think that the religious writings of Kant constitute one long protest.  He was brought up, but he did not remain, a Protestant (as was the case with Hume and Gibbon).  He was brought up as a Lutheran Pietist and it shows, both in his life and in his writing.  The Pietists saw themselves not as subscribing to doctrine, but as being in a living relationship with God.  They had a ‘born again’ feeling.  They were against their religion being taken over by intellectuals.  You see both tendencies alive and well in the US – the second with alarming consequences.  They also tended to be egalitarian. The priesthood was their community of believers.  All this comes through in Kant, the most intellectual man in Europe.

The thinking of Kant would affect the Christian churches of Europe in at least three ways.  First, Kant set about demolishing the logical arguments for the existence of God.  Moses Mendelssohn, a friend and colleague, said that the criticism of Kant were ‘world-crushing’.  But Kant did hold that the concept of God is natural to human reason.  Just what that concept may involve is another matter.

Secondly, Kant developed a system of ethics or morals from the ground up, so to speak, and without invoking religion or the supernatural in the process.  His teaching on ethics was and is available to most people.  Some in the church may have felt threatened by a moral code that did not require God.  But Kant went one step further.  He did not stop with saying that morality does not rest on religion; he went on and said that religious faith is founded on morality.  The whole point of his arguments on morality is to establish that morality, which is independent of religious belief, nonetheless does lead us to religious belief.  Such a contention would, of course, leave plenty of room to manoeuvre on the content of the religion.

Thirdly, Kant has a lot to say about the practice of religion, and it was mainly this that got him into trouble.  Like the old Hebrews with God, Kant refused to refer to Jesus of Nazareth by name, but like Spinoza before him, Kant accepted the teaching of Jesus and incorporated it into his own and was hostile to people who sought to come between that teaching and the rest of mankind.

Kant may have been a bit of a pill to have lunch with – even if he did ensure that a wine decanter was in reach of every guest.  But his mind was one of Europe’s great engine rooms.  It is sad that provincialism and specialization mean that he is hardly taught now at English universities because no one since has got within a bull’s roar of producing insights across the scale like Kant ,and Kant might be just the kind of man to make the word ‘intellectual’ sound decent to Anglo-Saxon ears.  He fought the fight for religious faith and he did more than anyone else to give people an ethical code that did not require underpinning by faith.  He never set out to hurt anyone, and he left the world better than he found it.  It is not just Prussia or Europe that should revere the name of Immanuel Kant.

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!