Knowing and Unknowing: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy

“Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates.”—H.L. Mencken

For all of history, mankind has been grappling with the great questions that life poses.  Some are answerable, some unanswerable.  Through the millennia many seemingly insoluble problems have been dealt with, thanks, for example, to science.  Other puzzles, like the best means to organize society, seem hopelessly complicated.  But philosophers continue boldly to tackle the conundrums of human existence, betting on impossible idealism rather than settling for meaningless materialism.

Bertrand Russell’s summary of these human endeavors is a priceless tool in understanding the history, the meaning, and the possibilities of philosophy.  He was himself a philosopher, though I suspect he would never have presumed to take on that title himself.  Intrepid and yet humble, Russell knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know, as well as what can be known and by what means it can be known.  This is the mark of both intellect and maturity, not to mention that grayest of English vices: common sense.  You will not find any reductio ad absurdum in his work.

The writer makes no secret about what he thinks of any given school of thought, but he treats all arguments fairly, even those of the Medievals, with whom, one imagines, he would have the greatest differences.  He saves his delicious scorn and mockery for those who truly deserve it. Punctuated by his dry wit, all 800 pages of this book come to life, and one gets the feeling that philosophy is not mummified, that it really does matter.  This impression is helped along by Russell’s thorough treatment of world events alongside the philosophies that developed contemporaneously with them.  Sentiment, as Richard Weaver said, is anterior to logic, and sentiment often comes from circumstances.

One wonders if this book didn’t at least partially inspire Monty Python’s movie The Meaning of Life.  A Leibnizian moment occurs in the introduction, for instance, when God picks up a global earth and a cubic one, hefting one in each hand, trying to decide which one is best.  God chose the best of all possible worlds, Leibniz tells us, “and everything is a necessary evil,” one commentator added.  In the movie, the best world is the cubic one, of course, Cleese and Chapman, et al., being the delightful imps that they are, who bring us Panglossian delight.

Russell’s treatment of the philosophers is chronological, systematic, concise, and lucid—unlike this sentence.  It seems probable that all ideas were thought of by the pre-Socratic thinkers, and we have simply been arguing about them ever since.  In this company are atomists, relativists, socialists, and even a guy named Anaxagoras who theorized about a heliocentric solar system eons before Copernicus.  The major innovations of modernity have been scientific.  Our ability to create technology and understand nature has led to unprecedented health and wealth in our time.  The one purely abstract novelty in modern philosophy might belong to John Locke, who’s idea of tolerance was the basis of liberalism, though everyone these days, including liberals, seems to be faltering on this point.

After the empiricists and rationalists, I’ve found, much philosophy can be dense and downright indiscernible for the amateur reader like myself.  With these writers Russell does a marvelous job of crystallizing their work into a recognizable language.  With him even Hegel is not insurmountable.

I already mentioned the author’s common sense.  Good taste in thought often puts one at odds with the mobocracy, and I do think that pretty much anyone could find a reason to dislike Bertrand Russell.  This is why I like him, even though I also have some quibbles to add, all of which may well spring from my own shortcomings rather than the author’s.

Most crucially, Russell trusts too much in mathematical analogies to make points in which math has no business.  Arguments about infinite regress cannot be solved by pointing out that certain series of numbers have a beginning point.  It’s simply irrelevant.  I find, however, that most scientists are more satisfied by hard scientific facts than I am.  This is a mental disorder I’ve had all my life.  Ask my parents.  I was the brat who always asked why.  I was a walking infinite regress.  So be it.

Russell is very skeptical of private property rights, which might be why he can hail John Dewey almost without reservation.  God knows there have been monsters on this earth who have used their property rights to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts, but has anyone come up with a better way? It seems to me that we either have property rights, or a gang leader who beats anyone who doesn’t get in line.  All political philosophies, it seems to me, have a tendency to one way or the other, though one could argue that both succumb to the dark side of human nature.  We’re left to ask, I suppose, which approach succumbs the fastest.

A further thought about Russell’s views on private property rights:  John Locke developed the homesteading theory, which says that a man makes, for instance, an undeveloped plot of land his own property by mixing his labor with it, by fixing it up.  Russell says that this theory is no longer useful in modern society.  I disagree. I rather see the modern methods of trade and wage-earning as extensions rather than contradictions of the homesteading theory.  This is important: If we perceive the intimate relation of man’s work to his person, his rights to his acquisitions become more concrete. The homesteading theory helps us to envision this, and it is in any case true even if it isn’t useful.

Of all the figures considered in this tome, Nietzsche may well be treated the worst.  This is understandable, as Russell was writing in 1943 while the world was wrestling with the ghastly consequences of this philosophy.  But Russell, being something of a social democrat, goes too far, in my opinion.  No lie gains a foothold without some truth in it, and there is an element of truth in Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian stance.  There is, as Jefferson said, a natural aristocracy in humanity, and our refusal to recognize this, while it has not been as disastrous as other ideas, has been detrimental to our societal health.  The practical effect of egalitarianism in many places is that excellence is banned.  Saying this will get you branded an elitist these days, but that’s just sentiment driving logic—along with the assumption that elitism, as such, is necessarily bad.  All this is a small point in the vast landscape of the Nietzschean scorched earth, but I think it’s one worth mentioning.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

I also think there’s more to Henri Bergson than Russell seems to believe.  We are running into the limits of logic. Just consider the developments in particle physics that have left everyone baffled.  The age of the syllogism is over, and Bergson’s picturesque language may offer a way out of this jam.  Bergon’s work seems to rely heavily on Hegel’s Absolute Idea.  He is a monist; he insists that all matter is one, that pieces are really a part of the whole, and that we use our intellect to cut them down into pieces.  Reality is like a chicken, and matter is like little bits of chicken that we cut with the knife of the intellect. (Do we then cook the bits in little pots? Sorry. Monty Python gets the best of me sometimes.) I think I have this right.  Corrections are welcome.

My sympathy for Bergson may be related to his language about time, which is put more in psychological than mathematical terms. (No wonder Russell, the mathematician, disliked him.)  “This reminds me of the music of Olivier Messiaen,” I thought to myself as I read up on this.  Sure enough, a subsequent Google searched yielded up discussion of Bergson’s theory of time as it relates to Messiaen.  Bergson’s ideas would do a lot of good for our contemporary tick-tock, watch the clock society.

Bertrand Russell’s anti-war sentiments are made clear throughout the book.  Maybe it is his belief in the power of reason that drives this conviction. Those who think often feel less compelled to succumb to the barbaric urge to destroy one’s neighbor rather than to figure him out and negotiate with him.  There are still plenty of seemingly insoluble problems in our world, and the temptation to succeed by force is great when one is faced with a Gordian knot.  But if the history of philosophy is any indication, many of these issues can be solved peacefully if man can learn to think with his brain instead of his testicles.  Whether or not society can produce people capable of reading books like this one may decide the ultimate destiny of man.

Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind

When I was a child, I can remember wondering about all kinds of seemingly insoluble questions.  Why am I here?  Where was I before I was born?  How could I come from not existing at all to being a real person?  If my parents had not married, would I have existed in someone else’s body, as the child of other parents?

If the world and the universe was created, what existed before it?  Nothing?  How could nothing exist?  How could there be no things, and no time?  Is all of this a cruel joke, or is it an ineffable mystery?  One of my favorite problems had to do with colors.  What if what we both agree is green looks different to you and me?  Could one person’s red be another person’s purple?  I wasn’t talking about color blindness, as my father always assumed; I was talking about people who could differentiate colors who nevertheless perceived them differently.

I remember pondering some questions of existence along these lines one day while riding in the car.  I can still remember exactly where I was when it all overwhelmed me, and I felt overcome with a dazzling confusion.  An eight-year-old runs out of words for these kinds of things quickly, but we might just consider that honesty, as opposed to an adult who can go on for a bit longer without really saying anything.

Few of the clergy and none of the school teachers are interested in questions like this, and so I went years without realizing that there is a whole body of work that deals with the ultimate—or, if you wish, fundamental—questions.  I speak, of course, of philosophy.  As a graduate of a music conservatory, my only class in this lasted a mere semester, and it wasn’t very good, at that.  But it did introduce me to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Augustine—even Erasmus (a loveable fellow) and Luther.  And after I got over my hatred of the course work (when the class was over, obviously), I developed a delight in delving into these volumes.

Over the years I picked up a spotty self-education in philosophy and religion, with lots of gaping holes and little systematic understanding.  Until two weeks ago.  I was in Baltimore and stumbled upon a used book store, which—like most used book stores—had an ample philosophy section, compliments of the incurious who are eager to dump old required reading from college.  Among other things, I picked up Richard Tarnas’s book, The Passion of the Western Mind, which covers the whole of Western thought from pre-Socratic Greece up until its publication in the early 1990’s.  I’ve been looking for something like this for awhile, something good in which the author does not have an ax to grind and in which he does not, once he gets to modern times, go down obscure rabbit holes while trying to pass them off as the whole of contemporary thought.  Tarnas’s book is such a work.

This book possesses one of the foremost hallmarks of greatness, which is the invisibility of the author.  It is as if you’re reading directly from Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.  I think this has something to do with Tarnas’s genuine curiosity.  While he intimates that he does not agree with the thinking of Medieval Christianity, he nevertheless gives it quite a fair hearing and urges the reader to understand the importance of knowing what people like Aquinas really said, so that we can better appreciate what came later, particularly the work of William of Occam and the epistemological conundrum that the West found itself in once reason and revelation were separated.  This problem led to the work of Descartes and the debate between the English empiricists and the Continental rationalists and culminated—for a short time—in the synthesizing work of Immanuel Kant.

Two things dawned on me while reading all of this.  First, there is not a thought or a question that you or I have ever had that was not considered centuries, if not millenia, ago.  We have been wrestling with the same angels and demons in the night for our entire history, and one idea comes into ascendence as another fades away.  There is not much originality in the world; the scale of our thought only has so many notes.  Second, it seems that philosophers, as much as I love them, often stake out opposite but equally ridiculous positions in a given debate.  Those who try to come up with something more reasonable or nuanced are often ignored.  Etienne Gilson, in his book Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, discusses Thomas Aquinas’s attempted compromise between the Latin Averroeists, who were ultimately rationalists, and the mystics in the thirteenth century.  Aquinas was ignored, thanks to the inroads the Averroeists had made, and this resulted ultimately, for better or worse, in the divide between science and religion.

But it is not just a problem of philosophical stubbornness or extremism that causes this.  As we think and write and question, it seems as if we’re going around in circles around a great big hole, an empty space where truth seems to reside and which will tolerate no description in words.  Our attempts to get there only lead to distortion and confusion.  The musical scale of our thought, as it were, must be translated into a new mode, and from what place will these New Songs come?

Does this mean that philosophy is a waste of time?  I don’t think so.  To approach even the unanswerable questions makes us more human, if only because it makes us more humble.  We don’t know as much as we think we do, and philosophers are usually the first to admit that, the folksy protestations of the pragmatic notwithstanding.  This confrontation with the ineffable is precisely what makes philosophy a passion, in both senses of the word:  It is a love affair, but it is also a suffering.  Even today, borrowing from St. Paul, humanity groans as it tries to give birth to a fuller understanding of what it means to exist.  There is, in my opinion, only one disastrous outcome possible—that we cease our labors and begin to live as animals, witless participants in a technologically-advanced dark age of stupidity.

One cannot write, or read for that matter, a history of Western thought without wondering where we go from here.  Tarnas puts a lot of stock in the idea of a collective conscious and in the reuniting of male and female which he shows has been a recent theme in many spheres.  He’s surely no cultural traditionalist, but I don’t think this idea should be dismissed out of hand.  In Christ, St. Paul said, there is neither male nor female.  Maybe this has eschatological and not just evangelical meaning.  Angels have no gender.  Think, too, of all the ancient texts that intimate that the sexes grew separately out of the same source.  There are, of course, crazy people who would put all boys on Ritalin if they could so they behaved more like girls, but I don’t believe this is what Tarnas is aiming for.  He’s on another plane entirely.  If I tried to sum up his position I would likely do it some violence, so just read the book, and allow yourself to wonder along with the author.

Every commentator has his favorite hobby horse when it comes to theories about what it is that ails modern society.  Maybe the good news is that they all seem to agree that society is ailed.  This is a start.  I myself am unmoved for the most part by drug use, teen pregnancy, wars, violence, and the like.  They should be eliminated, yes, but they are nothing new.  What troubles me is the fundamental shift in what knowledge is considered to be.  You are thought educated these days if you can perform brain surgery but few believe it to be essential to be curious about what the first cause of the material world is.  We will not cease to feel homeless—and therefore prone to all manner of self-destructive behaviors—until we can at least begin to be curious about these ultimate questions.  Many philosophy books are dry, and so the undergraduate careerist shirks them off and takes them to the used book store.  But Tarnas’s book is anything but boring and has the power to stir up the enthusiasm of even the most rotten materialist.  Whoever gave this book to the used book store was a fool.

Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:


Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.


Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.


Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.


Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.


Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”


G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.


Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.


Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

If not voting, then what?

I’m often confronted by people who insist that it’s my duty to vote.  When I respond that voting, to me, is irresponsible since it only reinforces an irreparable system, they say, “Well then what do you do?”  My response usually elicits guffaws of disbelief:  I say that I engage in the discussion of ideas, in the exploration of what kind of situation would best establish order in society.

People don’t seem to understand that one’s fundamental ideas are of utmost importance and that everything flows from them.  What looks like building castles in the air is actually putting a floor under our feet, and it would be foolish for me to do something—like voting—that would undo my other efforts.  The pragmatic man does not see this problem; he thinks that he’s solving the problems right in front of his face.  The difficulty I have is that most self-described pragmatic men don’t stop to think about whether an entire situation actually works.  “This is what we’ve got to work with,” they say.  They are expedient, not pragmatic, and in the process they perpetuate the Samsara cycle of State-sponsored rule, since voting is the certificate of legitimacy in a democracy.

There is one weakness in my argument, since it presupposes that people will actually listen carefully in a conversation.  I don’t see much evidence of this these days, and this kind of selective deafness probably contributes to poor leadership.  Voters cast their ballots in secret, and, similarly, a kind of hush descends over the American political debates:  vast swaths of political possibilities are all but prohibited from discussion by peer pressure.  A prevailing prejudice against philosophical discussion also contributes to this.  We are stuck at the sensate level, and we are paying the price for it.

But the only way forward is to continue discussing ideas.  No one will change if we just give up.  No one will see a different way of looking at things if those outside the inch-deep mainstream don’t speak up.  And with that happy thought being said, I’ll close with a cynical thought from Mencken:

“Now and then, in a human body otherwise apparently healthy, certain lowly varieties of cells run amok and begin assaulting their betters: their aim is to bring the whole body down to their own vulgar and incompetent level. The result is what is called a cancer. In the social organism the parallel phenomenon is called democracy. The aim of democracy is to destroy if possible, and if not, then to make ineffective, the genetic differences between man and man. It begins in the political domain–by setting up the doctrine that one man’s opinion about the common affairs of all is as good as any other man’s–but it always tries to extend itself to other and higher domains. In a democratic society it is more hazardous than elsewhere to show any oddity in conduct or opinion. Whoever differs from the general is held to be inferior, though it may be obvious, by any rational standard, that he is really superior. People who live under democracy tend to wear the same kind of hats, to eat the same food, to laugh at the same jokes, and to admire the same mountebanks. They become, as the phrase has it, standardized.  Their laws lay heavy penalties on any man whose taste in reading, in drinking or in any other private avocation differs from that of his neighbors. Life tends to be regimented and unpleasant, and everyone is more or less uneasy.”
–H.L. Mencken


The bizarro world of State-sponsored executions

Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed in a little less than an hour from the time at which I’m writing this.

These stories are always difficult for me to read, but for once I made it through to the end of one, and I’m struck by a number of things.  First of all, this is all very bizarre.  A spokesman for the State of Utah informs the media that the time of the execution has been settled, that the inmate has been moved to his observation cell, and that he’s been occupying his time with sleep, eating, watching a movie, reading a book, etc.  It’s all a little too reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  One might even expect to hear Mr. Bureaucrat wish us a happy visit to the zoo at the conclusion of his remarks.  Are events like this, rather than the Super Bowl, the modern American version of the Roman Coliseum?  The controversial act of a State execution plays into both our curiosity and our barbaric need for occasional gore in life.

One can hardly miss the fact, too, that one of the five marksmen charged with this grim task will be given blanks, so that none of them really knows who fired the fatal shot.  Question:  If this is really a just act, why is this necessary?  Say what you want about Medieval executions, but at least those executioners had the cojones to do what they did with awareness.  Whatever the justice or injustice of their act, they had to live with their consciences.  Heaven forfend that modern State functionaries should have to do the same thing.  It brings a whole new meaning to the saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The death penalty is a touchy subject, and yet it shares some essential things with all kinds of conversations these days:  When it comes up, people have a tendency to discuss the irrelevant and the unimportant rather than the crucial things which are really at stake.  Deterrence and revenge are high on the list of fables that only serve to make the world a perpetually fallen place.  State-sponsored execution was reinstated decades ago, and yet many of us live in cities which have not seen falling murder rates but rather quite the opposite. Ronald Reagan’s sacred myths about the death penalty win elections but they don’t save the souls of our cities.

Much as the deterrence mentality is mistaken, it is at least presumably offered up by those who mean well.  The same cannot be said for people who simply want revenge.  The punishment should fit the crime, etc.  This, too, misses the point and is a maniacal application of the principle of proportionality.  If this kind of logic were to be used, then one could argue that those accused of involuntary manslaughter should be eligible for an ignominious descent into That Good Night, courtesy of the local governor.  In any case, revenge makes barbarians of us all; indeed, it makes apparatus of the State worse than the criminals, since executions are always well-planned.  At least some murderers were acting in the heat of the moment.  That means that they are quite possibly more gentle people than former Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The Catholic Church has done an admirable job of late of standing up against the death penalty.  She has brought good arguments to the discussion which do approach the essence of the matter—issues such as human dignity and the sacredness of every life.  This is all to the good.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that the Church still teaches that the State has the right to execute certain criminals who pose a particular threat to society.  The late Dr. Wojtyla argued that this almost never happens anymore, given the high security of modern prisons.  Ok.  This is better, and largely a welcome outlook on all of this, as far as I’m concerned, but even with all the talk about the sacredness of life—surely an important matter—a crucial element is left undiscussed.

What few people seem to get, what even the commendable Catholic position has not approached, is the insidious implication in State-sponsored execution:  If the State can execute you, then the State owns you.  You do not belong to yourself.  You do not have any self-determination.  Your very life is in the hands of the State.  Criminals may surrender certain rights by virtue of their misdeeds, but I do seem to recall that certain rights are inalienable.  But the idea of inalienable rights is an achievement of the philosophers, and Americans don’t know much about philosophy.  “Ahhhh, what sort of thing is that?” asked the American tourists in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  Consequently, no one seems to ask the question after an execution:  If the State can do this, what else can it do?  I am personally frightened by that thought.

You may think I’m paranoid, and ten or twenty years ago that might have been a plausible reaction to my position.  But now the U.S. government has given itself the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens which it considers to be threats.  How could such a premise stand if we did not surrender, at least in principle, our very beings to the State?

“Oh, philosophy.  That’s the meaning of life— you know, why are you here?”

“Well we were in California last year and Miami the year before that….”

Ignorance is the bedrock on which tyranny is built.

Internet arguments

Experts say that one of the reasons road rage is so prevalent is that drivers feel anonymous behind the wheel, and therefore they feel secure enough to say and do things they otherwise wouldn’t if they felt more accountable.

There is a kind of internet rage as well, though sometimes it’s not rage, but just a certain kind of harassment.  It is fueled not so much by anonymity but by the ability to lambaste someone and then run away and shut down Safari before he’s had a chance to defend himself.  This happens a lot on Facebook, to the point that I have curtailed posting potentially controversial items.  There is a certain cadre of people on Facebook that must let it be known every time they see something on my page that they disagree with.  The fact that I leave them alone and don’t get all preachy on their page seems to have little effect on their behavior.  The courtesy is not returned.

I thought this problem would be solved by saving my political comments for more politically-oriented situations.  Not so.  In fact, lately I’ve become utterly amazed at what can start an argument on Facebook.  Last week, for instance, I was in a cafe reading Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, when I decided to put on my favorite hat and take a picture.  I thought it would make a great profile shot.  Within minutes of its being posted, I had people—good people who are friends of mine, no doubt—coming after me about whether or not it was okay to have a hat on inside.  “I hope there were no ladies present,” one said.   It was all so—-annoying.  I don’t dislike the people that were stoking the fires of this conversation, I just found it all to be rather pointless, and a complete killjoy.

Then, today, instead of posting a very unoriginal status update about the fact that February sucks, winter sucks, I miss the sunshine, etc., I decided to get creative and search for an interesting quote.  I found a great one by Allan Bloom:

As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition, it is dead.

I thought this might occasion some interesting discussion—and there is much to be said about this quote—but nothing quite so dogmatic as the first response:  “Not true.”  Gee, thanks for the enlightenment.  Happily, the conversation seems to have taken a more productive and more jokey direction.

Is there anything left to discuss in our world that won’t start an argument?  Thanks to the Global Warming controversy, not even the weather is safe territory.  Nicer conversations were had in the fourteenth century about the filioque question.  People even develop intense hatreds over dumb stuff like sports, whether or not clergymen ought to wear lace albs, and which presidential candidate has a more well-defined jaw line and is therefore more deserving of the popular vote.  To be sure, sentiment is anterior to logic, and so we’ll always be passionate beings, but why does everything deteriorate into screaming matches?  I don’t think it’s our unwitting attempt to copy talking heads; in fact, talking heads are most likely a response to the demands of the market.  Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that our incuriosity has teased the worst parts of our tempers out of us.

I am not innocent in this, I’m sorry to say.  Sometimes I start it; other times I allow myself to get sucked into it.  One of the things that keeps these kinds of conversations going is the sheer delusion that other people actually give a damn what we think.  Many of us think it’s up to us to save the world, to “save souls” for the sake of fill-in-the-blank.  This seems to make us lose sight of where the boundaries might be prudently placed on any given conversation.

I am not arguing against the exchange of ideas.  In fact, one of the problems here is that a sizable portion of our culture has no tolerance for any worthwhile ideas—ideas in the philosophical sense—to begin with.  Conclusions are too frightening for us.  But witness the exchange of ideas between thoughtful people—the debate between Foucalt and Chomsky comes to mind—and see how much more civil it is than a shouting match that occurs between two headline readers that only know how to repeat slogans.  Our modern functional illiteracy has enforced a kind of dogmatism.  It engenders the attitude, for instance, that if you’re against the NEA, you’re against the arts, and that if you’re opposed to gun control, you’re A-okay with violence.  Et cetera, ad nauseam.

The last piece of mystery meat in this witches brew seems to be a lack of a sense of humor, which is, I dare say, sometimes related to a lack of wit in general.  No one can laugh about anything, not even a stupid hat in a coffee shop.  It is also a sense of humor that  allows us to see the truth about ourselves.  I know for a fact that I am a jackass, and that everyone else is, too, so we need to go easy on each other sometimes.  Plato said it more eloquently:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Language, one of my favorite things

I’m about to head into center city today to recover from a long but fulfilling weekend.  I want to do some writing.  I think I’ll take just a pen and paper.  Sometimes the old fashioned way works best.

These plans got me to thinking some random thoughts about language:

Most school students are taught countless things about writing style—how to make the writing more interesting, etc.  But I’m not sure how many of us are taught how to bring more substance to our writing, to our ideas.  I know I’m still working on this.

When I was in school we had teachers who seemed to be more concerned about certain pet peeves, e.g. words that are to be avoided.  Two of these words have turned out to be some of my favorite.

“Is” is the first.  “Well it depends upon what the definition of ‘is’ is,” infamously said Bill Clinton in his deposition which might well have been little more than an elaborate set-up.  Beyond this freak show from the 90’s, “is” doesn’t get much thought or attention.  “Is” is boring, said my teachers.  But I say that on this word hinges so much.  With “is,” writers declare where they stand.  When Murray Rothbard wrote that “the State is a parasite,” he was making a very clear, very daring statement.  “Is” gets at the essential nature of ideas; it makes arguments from definition, which Richard Weaver said is the foremost kind.  I love this word.

The second word is “thing.”  Some teachers say, “Tell me what it is.  What kind of thing?”  But there is still great delight in this word.  A thing is something that is, or something like that, and I think that’s very neat.  Around the word “thing” revolve all the mysteries of existence, from the sensate level on up.  To say “thing” thoughtfully is to be in constant wonder.

That’s all for now.  File this one under “fragmented obsessions,” and note that Richard Weaver is likely more responsible for this post than I am.