Here and there: Aristotle’s Rhetoric

The difference in world views between empirical England and rationalist Europe may be mirrored in part by the difference between  Plato and Aristotle.  While England and Europe were developing their laws, they subscribed to a church that sought to apply the teachings of those two Greek philosophers.  The German poet, Heinrich Heine, thought that Plato was the idealist full of vagueness and mysticism, whereas Aristotle was clear and intelligible and stood for everything certain, the model for all empiricists. 

Plato and Aristotle!  They are not merely the representatives of two systems, they are the types of two different species of humanity, which since time immemorial, under every variety of garb, have stood opposed to each other in more or less hostile attitude…..Dreamy, mystical, Platonic natures find revealed in the depths of their being the Christian idea and its corresponding symbols.  Practical, methodical, Aristotelian natures construct out of this idea and its symbols a definite system, a dogma, and a worship.

Augustine and Aquinas may have seen it that way.  Plato may have been ethereal – if you forget his politics in The Republic – but the strait-jacket of Aristotle would stand in the way of science and nearly kill Galileo.

Shakespeare was taught rhetoric and it shows.  It is no longer taught in schools or universities – and that shows too.  Our omission feeds the capacity of demagogues to serve up tripe unchecked.  Therefore, while reading Aristotle may often be as entertaining as reading a phone book, it is worth our while to consider his teaching.  He says there are three divisions of oratory – political, forensic, and ceremonial.

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion…..Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible…his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses…persuasion may come through the hearers when the speech stirs their emotions.  Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile…..

Advocacy is about persuasion, but the references to character, including personal character, seem to me to be spot on.  And character bears on the next point.

The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case.  Consequently, if the rules for trials which are now laid down in some states….were applied everywhere, such people would have nothing to say.

Would that judges were more strict, and the press were more critical.

A member of the assembly decides about future events, a juryman about past events.

Both parliament and the jury stand for government by the people for the people – and both involve matters of judgment.

Honour is the token of a man’s being famous for doing good…We may define a good thing as that which ought to be chosen for its own sake.

This looks more like a substantive issue.  It may leave a lot of work for the word ‘ought’ – without invoking what is good – but very few get this right – if any.

For all men are persuaded by considerations of their interest, and their interest lies in the maintenance of the established order.

That is hopelessly wrong.  What about Philadelphia on 4 July 1776 or Paris on 14 July 1789?  (That is what the author calls ‘arguing by example’.)

Particular law is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members: this is partly written and partly unwritten…..For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other…..There are two kinds of right and wrong conduct…..written and unwritten….The second makes up for the defects of a community’s written code of law.  This is what we call equity; people regard it as justice; it is, in fact, the sort of justice that goes beyond the written law…..Equity must be applied to forgivable actions; and it must make us distinguish between criminal acts on the one hand, and errors of judgment, or misfortunes, on the other.

The reference to ‘errors of judgment’ and ‘misfortune’ is sensible and decent.  Whole books have been written about ‘natural justice’ and whole careers have been devoted to practising what we call Equity, but are we to be ruled  by laws or by people – by judges who seek to apply the law, or by judges who want to do what they think is a fair thing?  And how do you apply these broad conceptions to the maxim given by Aristotle on the second page of this book?

In general, then, the judge should, we say, be allowed to decide as few things as possible.

Our judges used to be better at this restraint than many with an eye to a headline are now.  And our great jurist, Sir Owen Dixon, referred with relish to the remark of Aristotle in this work (1.15): ‘The effort to be wiser than the laws is what is prohibited by the codes that are extolled.’  (My translation has, pleasingly, ‘cleverer’ for ‘wiser’.)  And indeed this part of Rhetoric carries reminders that the ancients were very far from our conception of civilisation.  The oath of the juror to ‘give my verdict according to my honest opinion’ would be a form of anathema for us as applied by Aristotle.  He says that while witnesses are concerned with past events, we can appeal to soothsayers.  Or voodoo?  We, now,  would much prefer the following.

….not to use the laws is as bad as to have no laws at all…as in other arts it does not pay to try to be cleverer than the doctor; for less harm comes from the doctor’s mistakes than from the growing habit of disobeying authority.

What a bull’s eye in a time of pandemic!  But ‘disobeying authority’ is what we flirt with when we appeal to natural justice, innate fairness, or our conscience.  That’s the issue that gave rise to the maxim that ‘hard cases make bad law’ – a simple proposition that gets forgotten by too many appellate judges, or ambitious souls at first instance.

That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking: that the audience should be in the right frame of mind, in lawsuits.

Well, lawyers should show character to the client – why not to the court?  The one thing that is incandescently clear is that bad character is fatal.  Sir Owen Dixon knew the truth that candour in advocacy is a weapon.  Its opposite is lethal – and remembered.  And it is both dumb and rude to go to court dressed like a bum.

The use of persuasive speech is to lead to decisions…we may say, without qualification, that anyone is your judge whom you have to persuade.

This is a very interesting perspective – at either end.

We will treat of argument by example, for it has the nature of induction, which is the foundation of reasoning.

If the driver of a coach and four owed a duty of care to other road users, why should not the driver of a car?  Is it not a fortiori?  This is as elemental to the common law as any other exercise in logic?

The first thing we have to remember is this.  Whether our argument concerns public affairs or some other subject, we must know some, if not all, of the facts about the subject on which we are to speak and argue.

This too is elementary – and elementally flouted.  When we say that people do not accept the science on a subject – like climate change, a pandemic, or a vaccine – what we mean is that they are ignorant both of the empirical evidence and the learning that tells what are the correct inferences to be drawn from that evidence.  One follows ineluctably from the other.  It is not like a question of whether you choose to accept some form of religious dogma that has to be taken on faith.  It’s about what happens when you change gears in a car.  You may not have the knowledge – the expertise – to explain what is going on mechanically, but you have a justified faith that the car will operate in the manner for which it was designed and built.  You can extend that to heart surgery, atomic physics, astronomy – and the climate.  The point about, say, vaccination is that its worth can be demonstrated by the application of logic to evidence of facts that is not in doubt.  People who should know better are getting away with bullshit that puts both people and the planet in danger.

It is plain that delivery has just as much to do with oratory as with poetry….Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do.

This is not just another bull’s eye – it is time for the Halleluiah Chorus.  And we have just seen how vital it is by looking at the proposition that some do not ‘accept science.’  Some people – millions and millions of them in the U S – do not accept the account of evolution that historians and geologists and astronomers and other professional people have put beyond doubt.  They prefer to rest on their faith in their chosen branch of religion.  That may not do so much harm, except to the minds of those choosing to follow them, but it is an exercise in irrationality that it is not always easy to distinguish from dementia.

The last quarter of the book gives detailed instructions on style.  Problems of translation here become paramount.  I mention only three things.  The author reminds us that fortune tellers (‘diviners’) use vague generalities because it is harder to say that they were wrong.  The oracle at Delphi is still notorious for this – hence our word ‘Delphic’. It is the same with all people who don’t have the answer and won’t admit it.  Aristotle asks us to remember what the man said to the baker who asked whether he was to make the cake hard or soft: ‘What, can’t you make it right?’  And he closes the book with a sample peroration.  ‘I have done.  You have heard me.  The facts are before you.  I ask for your judgment.’  It is indeed a solemn moment.

It is a matter of comfort to me, and I hope to you, that after 2,500 years we can still hold on to some truths by which we like to live.

Here and there – A Dream, the Storm and a Swan

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Mid Summer Night’s Dream in Melbourne in about 1971 caused quite a stir.  We were coming to the end of the time when we stood in awe of older foreign productions – and the RSC had rolled gold éclat.  Bright young things in the colonies could bank some cultural respectability by seeing Shakespeare performed by the people who invented him.  A little bit of snootiness in the night.

The snootiness went the other way when the Storm, a rugby league, team hit Melbourne in 1998.  ‘My dear boy.  You don’t understand.  Rugby, as played at School, is de rigeur.  But League is there for the diversion of thugs.’  Mining types in the north west of England, and working class Micks in the western suburbs of Sydney.  The snobbery was a wonder to behold.  ‘Wouldn’t do to mention it at the Club, old boy.’  In truth, there were some in Melbourne who wondered if anything warranting snobbery could come out of Sydney.

Well, I enjoyed it and I took to it – in part provoked by the snootiness of others.  The game had a simplicity and shortness that the AFL was losing.  And people outside Victoria don’t realise how many players were lost to interstate to help new AFL clubs open up.  I was at most home games of the Storm, and was rewarded with a flag in only our second year.  Since then there have been others, although officialdom did not appreciate our version of double entry accounting.

The club has been very well managed.  Its recruiting is such that we now act as a kind of feeder to rugby clubs.  But, among other things, I have had the benefit of watching three of the best footballers this country has produced – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, and Greg Inglis.  And a Greek restaurant on Swan Street was perfect for before or after – or, as happened on one very long day, both.

You may need to make certain adjustments to meet the terms of the new milieu.  I once committed the faux pas of appearing on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand.  The abuse was sufficient to get me to reverse course after a few steps.  At a mediation once, I was discussing matters of etiquette with John Brumby when he was Leader of the Opposition.  He said that he was going to the game and in a few hours’ time, he would have a glass of chardonnay in his hand.  I cautioned him.  ‘Don’t drink plonk, drink beer; if you have to drink plonk, get red; if you have to drink white, don’t in the name of Heaven call it chardonnay – you might start a bloody riot’.

It does you good to seek new outlets.  At about the time I started following the Storm, I got interested, vitally interested, in Formula One.  One reason was that I could see that Michael Schumacher was one of those once in a generation sportsmen who just tower over the rest.

But let me go back the Dream.  This RSC production helped me to slough off that resentment to texts that can be left over from having them forced down your neck at school.  The process began in the sixties when I sat up for two consecutive Sunday nights starting at 11 pm listening to Richard Burton as Hamlet have a Broadway crowd eating out of his hand.  For that and other reasons Richard Burton came to mean as much to me as Ronald Barassi – which is no small praise.  And as I had bought Bradley to consider Macbeth, I now did so for Hamlet.  And I have maintained my interest in that kind of scholarship – only Tony Tanner in my view matches Bradley.

It was at about the time I was starting to load up on Shakespeare that I came into contact with ballet.  For some reason, I went to see a small Russian company (from Novosibirsk) put on Swan Lake.  I fell for the theatre of it all, although there is a lot that could make a bloke very mawkish.  Then I saw a Russian group perform at the Palais de Danse in St Kilda.   Moisieva did The Dying Swan.  But people were there to see the man touted as the next Nureyev.  Mikael Baryshnikov came out.  And he ascended – and for a moment Newton’s laws of gravity were suspended.  The gasp of the whole audience was remarkable.  (I heard an echo of it last year for Anne-Sophie Mutter and, later, Jonas Kaufman – each a super nova.)

We used to take the girls to rehearsals of the Australian Ballet.  Then my interest was dampened by trips to Essendon each Saturday for ballet school.  I wrote many decisions in tax cases sitting in a Commodore, with Essendon supporters drifting by, while trying to juggle a dictaphone and a sausage roll.  When that all ended, so did my regular attendance at the theatre to see ballet.  Its place was taken by opera, but if I had to name my ten best nights at the theatre, I would want to include the ballets of Hunchback of Notre Dame that I saw in Paris and the Anna Karenin that I saw in Budapest.

A lot of this came back to me the other night in what has sometimes felt like a desolate isolation.  I watched a full Storm game for the first time in a while.  It was against the Rabbitohs – than whom it would hard to envisage a more NRL side.  Slater and Inglis are long gone, but Smith is still there, and there is a guy called Cameron Munster, who is up there with the best.  He is wiry and incredibly strong and resilient.  He was, according to the press, a rough nut who had a problem with the bottle.  The Storm does not put up with that kind of stuff, and Munster looks now to be the complete package.  If I had to nominate an AFL equivalent, it would be Diesel Williams.  Munster was involved in two tries each of which was worth the price of admission.  He is very, very hard to stop.

The game fell between two sides of the CD set of Benjamin Britten’s Dream.  The CDs had just arrived.  I could recall seeing it in rehearsal at the AO with my older daughter when she was still at school.  We had thought that the music was a bit strong – modern – for us, but we had nearly had a seizure laughing at the mechanicals doing their play.  This was a time when the Australian Opera was taking risks and putting on great shows.  The play was set in the Raj and the orchestra was on stage in a rotunda.  This was one of the best shows I have seen.

Since then I have become very at home with Britten’s music and I have seen and listened to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd on many occasions.  I had rung the OA artistic director, Moffatt Oxenbould, to ask him which opera I should see on a trip to London, and he had recommended Billy Budd.  He said it was a good idea to hear an opera in my own language for a change.  That was very good advice, and Billy Budd is now among my favourite operas.  So is Peter Grimes.  So, on this hearing, I had no trouble adjusting to the style of music.  It is a very engaging opera to listen to.   After all, the guy who wrote the original script did know how to put on a show.

A musical starring fairies may not be every Storm supporter’s go, but there you are.  (And the countertenor may be a bit much for the boys on the terraces.  Especially those who saw Farinelli.   And heard the crowd shout ‘Long live the blade!’)   As it happened, a DVD of Swan Lake starring Natalia Makarova had arrived at my home on the same day.  I just played Act II, and that part of Act III where she does the fouettés.  There must be something in the make-up or training of Russian ballerinas that enables them to radiate that supple sinuousness from the midpoint of their shoulder blades to the tips of their fingers.  It is as if they are taking flight.  It is very eerie theatre.  It is now nearly fifty years since I saw and marvelled at Moisieva, but that magic still hangs in the air.  (Although I did incline to the view that the second cygnet on the left did look to be verging on the plump.)

Well, there may seem to be worlds of difference between Munster, Bottom and Makarova – but I am entertained by all of them, and they have at least one thing in common – after all the bluster, puffing, money and hype – someone has to get out there and lay it all on the line.  It’s then that you get the alchemy of live drama and established ritual.  And community – or, if you prefer, communion.

While putting this note together, two boxes finally arrived after I had ordered them at the start of the lock-down.  One was a box of ten instalments of Ken Burns on Jazz.  The other was the complete Arkangel set of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays.  When I was living in South Yarra, and working at 101 Collins Street, the half hour walk each way would let me get through all the plays in about four months.  The process was edifying.

It’s sad that so many people are cowed by their ignorance or by the felt shadow of hierarchy or, God help us, blokiness, into not at least trying to come to terms with so much that is on offer and available at home for next to nothing and with a level of performance and reproduction that our parents could barely have dreamed of.  Without Shakespeare or football, cricket or opera, golf or theatre, the Olympics or the novel, I cannot think what my life may have been like.  And that’s before we get to wine and food.

It’s as if we all lived in a house that had rear windows with their blinds down behind which you could see Everest, Iguazzu Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Bungle Bungles – and people are too frightened to step outside.  They are even too scared just to lift up the bloody blinds.  If I might use an epithet that is comfortably within the spelling range of the President of the United States, that is SAD.  Downright bloody sad.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Ludwig Wittgenstein

University of Chicago Press, 1977; rebound.

The father of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father was a wealthy Jewish wool merchant from Hesse.   He converted to Christianity – of the Protestant variety – and married the daughter of a Viennese banker.  Their son Karl was well educated but took off for America while still a youth.  He returned to Vienna, studied engineering, made a fortune and became one of the leading industrialists of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His wife Leopoldine was also the daughter of a banker. She loved music, as her son Ludwig was to do.  Brahms and Mahler regularly visited the family.  She was Catholic, and Ludwig was brought up as a Catholic.

Karl had the children taught at home until they were fourteen.  When Ludwig left school he was not qualified to go to university.  He was sent to a technical school in Berlin.  He did not like it there, but he got an interest in aeronautical engineering which he decided to pursue at Manchester University. This is not blue ribbon stuff for high scholarship.

Wittgenstein actually played with the beginnings of jet engines, but his interest in engineering led to mathematics and then to philosophy.   Wittgenstein read the Principia Mathematica of Bertrand Russell and in 1907 Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to study with Russell. He spent only five terms there, but that was enough. Wittgenstein enlisted for the Army of Austria in World War I.  At the end of the war, he gave his share of the family fortune to his brothers and sisters.  They were able to use their wealth to escape being murdered by the Nazis.

Wittgenstein appears to have remained deeply spiritual all his life.  Such a war as the one he fought in must have etched all kinds of things on a mind like Wittgenstein’s.  He was taken prisoner for a time and he had in his kit the manuscript of what would be his first book, Tractatus – Logico Politicus.   He taught at a school for a while and again thought of becoming a monk.  He tried his hand at building design before returning to Cambridge in 1929. He got a Ph.D. – which Oxford and Cambridge looked down on then – for his Tractatus.  He did not enjoy university life.  His rooms at Cambridge were like barracks.  He did not have a single book, painting, photo, or reading lamp.  He sat on a wooden chair and he wrote on a card table.  There were two canvas chairs and a fire-safe for his manuscripts.  This room served as study and class-room.  He kept a cotton stretcher in the second room.

People were rarely neutral about Wittgenstein. They either loved him or they seriously disliked him.  He was about five feet six inches tall, had given up wearing a tie long ago, and had a gaze with the same transfixing power as that of one of his primary school classmates, Adolf Hitler.

Wittgenstein served his acquired home in the Second World War in hospitals – he had become a British national  After it, he developed what would now be called a cult following.   After a short visit to the United States in 1949 he learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was 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, 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.

Wittgenstein believed that the essence of religion lay in feelings and action rather than beliefs.  The book called Culture and Value is a collection of notes kept as a form of Commonplace Book by Wittgenstein from 1914 to 1951.  It contains observations on music and on the limitation of thought as well as religion.

What is good is also divine.  Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.  Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.

You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other.  The good is outside the space of facts.

This book [Philosophical Remarks] is written for those who are in sympathy with the spirit in which it is written.  This is not, I believe, the spirit of the main current of European and American civilisation.  The spirit of this civilisation makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author.

I am sure Bruckner composed just by imaging the sound of the orchestra in his head, Brahms with pen on paper.  Of course this is an over-simplification.  But it does highlight one feature.

What would it feel like not to have heard of Christ?

Religion as madness is a madness springing from irreligiousness.

Reading the Socratic Dialogues one has the feeling, what a frightful waste of time!  What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?

Amongst ‘Jews’, ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.  Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented.  (Myself for instance.)

The strength of the thoughts in Brahms’ music.

The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospel seems to have froth on it in Paul’s Epistles.  Or that is how it seems to me.  Perhaps it is just my own impurity ….  But to me it’s as though I saw human passion here, something like pride or anger, which is not in tune with the humility of the Gospels.   All I want to ask – and may this be no blasphemy:  what might Christ have said to Paul? A fair rejoinder to that would be:  what business is that of yours?  In the Gospels – as it seems to me – everything is less pretentious, humbler, simpler.  There you find huts, and poor [the poor in] church. There all men are equal and God himself was a man; in Paul there is already something like a hierarchy;  honours and official positions – that is, as it were, what my ‘nose’ tells me.

For instance, at my level the Pauline doctrine of predestination is ugly nonsense, irreligiousness.

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says:  now believe!  But not believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, but rather:  believe, through thick and thin, which you can only do as the result of a life.  Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives!  Make a quite different place in your life for it.  There is nothing paradoxical about that!

Queer as it sounds:  the historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this:  not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believing it (i.e. lovingly).  That is the certainty characterising this particular acceptance – as true, not something else.

One might say:  ‘Genius is talent exercised with courage’.

We could also say:  ‘Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other.  Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.

I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a ‘creator of language’ rather than a poet?  I can only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.

A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists.  But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.  Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way.  So, if you want to stay within the religious sphere you must struggle.

These are the limits that a great thinker put on the power of his mind when it comes to God (and music). These jottings of Wittgenstein may remind many people of the thinking of God of another great German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   What we have here is not just the humility of knowledge, but its distilled wisdom.  In his Commonplace Book, Bonhoeffer had written: ‘Spinoza:  Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.’




[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.]


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.]



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.



[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.]




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.]



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.