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Archive for the tag “Bertrand Russell”

Goodbye to Christmas Truces

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

We have recently passed the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which has occasioned a fair amount of press coverage looking back at the so-called (and ill-named) “Great War” or “War to End all Wars”. I intend to join this chorus with some of my own thoughts. For many people interested in history, the Second World War is the more interesting one due to its grander scale and its relatively clearly-defined moral force. For me, the First World War holds more interest since it was what I consider a “highly preventable” war that preceded and directly led to the next “necessary” or “just” war (if such a thing does exist, per Saint Augustine, then World War II is surely its closest reification in modern history). To be honest, I would rather consider both wars merely two parts of the same dance of death, punctuated by a short interval of instability (not unlike a modern and truly global version of that first “world war” reported by Thucydides — the Peloponnesian War). In any case, the causes and aftermath of the First World War would be laughingly stupid and unbelievable if they were not already tragically stupid and unbelievable. I am reminded of a quote by Jorge Luis Borges about the 1982 Falklands War, “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb.” In a similar way, we could say that the First World War was a fight between a bunch of spoiled children over who got to use the playroom. Though they all had their own toys, sharing and cooperation were unlearned traits. There is something profoundly important to remember about this tragedy, though sometimes the easiest way to deal with tragedy, if not outrage, stoicism, or escapism, involves a disarming sense of humor and irreverence. All four issues will be dealt with in this essay, in which I will focus on Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, his memoirs of early life in England up to and after his participation in the trenches of WWI. Graves was a highly prolific poet and author most famous for his fictional rendering of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and of the Byzantine general in Count Belisarius (which I reviewed here). He was born in 1895, making him 19 years old when the war began–a typical age for new officer and soldier recruits. His mother was German and his middle name was von Ranke, which was no small problem considering the bullying nationalistic anti-German hysteria before, during, and after the war, and was one that caused suspicion from bullying schoolmates and later even from fellow soldiers despite his proven competence in battle. This was a smaller version of the same problem faced by fellow writer D.H. Lawrence, a pacifist married to a German who was under de facto house arrest for the entire war.

Goodbye to All That, published 11 years after the Armistice in 1929, was Graves’ second work of non-fiction after a biography of his friend T.E. Lawrence called Lawrence and the Arabs. By this time, Graves had already published many poetry collections, including poems written before and during the war. The publication of his memoirs came at a time in which the young author had apparently only recently recovered from years of emotional trauma that today we would call PTSD (often called “shell shock”), and the title references what he calls his “bitter leave-taking of England”, including its war, its politics, its society and education, and even many of his own family and friends. Here is a representative quote about his post-war experience: “Very thin, very nervous, and with about four years’ loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone’s orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.” After publication of Goodbye to All That, Graves moved to the Spanish island of Majorca were he remained for the rest of his life, except for a long stay in America to escape the Spanish civil war.

The book is important for its ability to capture, from the point of view of a single individual rather than a comprehensive historian, the passing of one epoch to another that occurred with the First World War–from what has been called the “long 19th century” (or the “belle epoque” if you like) to the “modern age” of which we are still living (or transitioning out of to a still-undefined age). These are mere historical categories, but they tend to capture the turbulence that saw many of the changes to an old world system dating from the French Revolution, or the Middle Ages in some cases, to a new world where possibilities for progress and destruction both expanded exponentially. Graves serves as a paradigm of a certain type of young person (by definition well-educated and middle-class), especially in England but also throughout the West, after the First World War who saw personal shifts in thinking towards more radical ideas like socialism, atheism, feminism, and pacifism based on their first-hand experiences in the trenches, as well as in their jaded view of a society which they discovered to be neither as civilized nor as progressive as they had thought (I think Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, captures this sense from the German perspective).

Graves opens with an account of his family history and early years, with the first line stating his acceptance of the autobiographical convention of starting with earliest memories: witnessing Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee, in his case. He spends some time in these chapters detailing his visits to his aristocratic German relatives in their Bavarian castles and against whom he would later take arms.

He attended many public schools (what Americans would call private or prep schools), with the longest tenure at one called Charterhouse. Several anecdotes are given regarding the severity and hypocrisy of the education system he went through. Outdated but still powerful Victorian standards of morality accomplished little more than to stifle emotional development and foster “immorality”. One such case is his description of the rampant homosexuality in these types of all-boys boarding schools, going so far as to detail his own platonic infatuation with a younger schoolmate. He dwells on his friendship with George Mallory, the famous alpinist who was an older mentor at Charterhouse and later best man at Graves’ wedding. Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924 after possibly being the first person to reach the summit, was mentioned as one of the only people who treated students like humans, which puzzled everyone according to Graves. Also at this time Graves took up boxing as much to defend against bullies as to keep fit, and would later prove useful in proving his manliness (and, thus, his worth) in front of soldiers and superiors alike.

The heart of the book comes in the middle chapters detailing Graves’ time spent on the Western Front. At the outbreak of war, he deferred his matriculation to Oxford University in order to join the army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Welsh Regiment since his family home was in Harlech in northwest Wales. Like so many other young men, he was eager to join in the fighting before the war ended (how many times it is said at the beginning of every war that it will be over “by Christmas”). While the war obviously did not end by December 25, 1914, Graves witnessed the famous Christmas Day truce soon after joining his regiment on the Western Front (he refers to it as the Christmas 1914 fraternization, of which his regiment was among the first to participate). This event, the likes of which are rare in the annals of war, saw the belligerents, German, French, and British, come out of their trenches and join in an unarmed singing of carols and exchange of greetings and gifts. More than anything else, this short-lived sense of shared humanity and brotherhood can be interpreted as soldiers losing the martial spirit and wanting to take back control of some part of their lives, however small or temporary. I spent two Christmases in Afghanistan and well understand the sentiment of soldiers that comes at times like Christmas in which all that is desired is a temporary break from the stress and trauma of war.  Even in 1914, the truce was obviously resented by the generals and politicians, who ensured there would not be a repeat of such non-warlike sentiment the next Easter or following Christmases, as well as by the Press in the involved countries, where no mention was made for at least a week after the event that hundreds of thousands laid down their arms to hobnob with the enemy. The press coverage also distorted and minimized the truce in order to make it seem more freakish and less peaceful than it actually was. The Christmas Day truce lives on in popular memory and culture, however, and this year the British supermarket Sainsbury’s went so far as to make a television commercial reenactment of it in which a German and British soldier swap chocolate and biscuits.

One of the central events in the book is the Battle of Loos, a British and French attack on German lines in September 1915 in which a few kilometers of ground changed hands and almost 100,000 men died. It was the first use of poison gas by the British, and also the battle in which Kipling’s son went permanently missing in action, prompting that writer of The Jungle Book to write the sad poem “My Boy Jack.” Graves describes how the gas was euphemistically referred to “the accessory”, and how everyone was highly skeptical of its efficacy because its supervisors were university chemistry professors brought in to administer it. Sure enough, “the accessory” was deployed with a headwind coming into the Allied lines, causing the gas to harm the British more than the Germans it was intended for. The battle itself was also an all-around disaster. Graves mentions how, much later in the war when he had been sent home to recover from his wounds, he was asked to give a speech to 3000 incoming Canadian soldiers. “They were Canadians, so instead of giving my usual semi-facetious lecture on ‘How to be Happy, Though in the Trenches’, I paid them the compliment of telling the real story of Loos, and what a balls-up it had been, and why – more or less as it has been given here. This was the only audience I have ever held for an hour with real attention. I expected Major Currie to be furious, because the principal object of the Bull Ring was to inculcate the offensive spirit; but he took it well and put several other concert-hall lectures on me after this.”

A key feature of Goodbye to All That is the farcical and probably invented dialogue, which reads like short theatrical set-pieces. It seems like almost every occasion of reported speech involves a back-and-forth rhythmic dialogue that ends in someone laying a punch-line. Along with the stock characters, this shows the fictionalized nature of Graves’ memoirs (a feature which recalls Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, or Robert Byron’s travel writing masterpiece The Road to Oxiana).

One of the most important characters in Graves’ book is Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow “war poet” who joined Graves’ Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment in 1916 and struck up an immediate friendship. Sassoon published his own three-part fictionalized autobiography in the 1930’s with the middle book, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, covering the war. Like Graves, Sassoon had not published any poetry when they met, and Graves’ realistic (as opposed to romantic) style influenced his friend. They both published collections before the end of the war. Sassoon was described by Graves as being one of the most courageous men he had ever seen or heard about in his time in the trenches. He tells one story in particular about how Sassoon single-handedly attacked and took control of a German observation trench, then enraged his superiors by not telling anyone about it. He was found two hours later sitting in the German trench reading a book of poetry. Sassoon, like Graves, later suffered a type of nervous breakdown and wrote his famous 1917 “Soldier’s Declaration” denouncing the war and the government’s incompetent prosecution of it. In this, he was encouraged by anti-war activists like Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Sassoon threw his Military Cross for bravery into a river, though he escaped a court-martial, with Graves’ help, and was sent to a hospital to recover from “shell shock”. There he met Wilfred Owen, another war poet hugely influenced and encouraged by Sassoon, and who was himself killed on the Western Front one week before the Armistice. I find it worth mentioning that Sassoon and Owen were both gay. Another gay soldier was the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein who, like Sassoon, volunteered for service at the outbreak of war and demonstrated repeated bravery in battle on the Russian Front to the point of being thought suicidal (which he also was). Such examples make one wonder why gay soldiers in the American military have until recently been considered unfit for service.

One of the most tragic, and understated, events of the book is when three officers of Graves’ battalion, and three of his closest friends, were all killed in the same day by shelling and sniper fire. David Thomas, the third member of the trio of poet friends in the battalion, was among the dead. Graves states: “I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was acting transport-officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.” Soon thereafter, he writes: “My breaking-point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the breakdown come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.”

Graves finished his time in the trenches during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, being injured so gravely as to be reported dead. He spent the rest of the war convalescing in hospitals, helping train new volunteers to his unit, and even being posted to Ireland where the English garrison was trying to stop (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the burgeoning Irish uprising. The rest of the book talks about his marriage to a feminist activist, their move to the country near Oxford, setting up house, opening a general store (“The moral problems of trade interested me. Nancy and I both found it very difficult at this time of fluctuating prices to be really honest; we could not resist the temptation of under-charging the poor villagers of Wootton, who were frequent customers, and recovering our money from the richer residents. Playing at Robin Hood came easily to me. Nobody ever detected the fraud”), and having four children in eight years (possibly the most amazing fact of the autobiography; he mentions at this point how sometimes he would only scrape out half an hour or so of writing a day in between his fatherly and household care taking duties–we can well imagine).

In this later part he also deals at length with his friendship with T.E. Lawrence, whose biography he wrote just before Goodbye to All That. Here are, in my opinion, two of the most important quotes from that chapter: “I knew nothing definite of Lawrence’s wartime activities, though my brother Philip had been with him in the Intelligence Department at Cairo in 1915, making out the Turkish Order of Battle. I did not question him about the Revolt, partly because he seemed to dislike the subject – Lowell Thomas was now lecturing in the United States on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and partly because of a convention between him and me that the war should not be mentioned: we were both suffering from its effects and enjoying Oxford as a too-good-to-be-true relaxation. Thus, though the long, closely-written foolscap sheets of The Seven Pillars were always stacked in a neat pile on his living-room table, I restrained my curiosity. He occasionally spoke of his archaeological work in Mesopotamia before the war; but poetry, especially modern poetry, was what we discussed most.” And the other: “Lawrence’s rooms were dark and oak-panelled, with a large table and a desk as the principal furniture. There were also two heavy leather chairs, simply acquired. An American oil-financier had come in suddenly one day when I was there and said: ‘I am here from the States, Colonel Lawrence, to ask a single question. You are the only man who will answer it honestly. Do Middle-Eastern conditions justify my putting any money in South Arabian oil?’ Lawrence, without rising, quietly answered: ‘No.’ ‘That’s all I wanted to know; it was worth coming for. Thank you, and good day!’ In his brief glance about the room he missed something and, on his way home through London, chose the chairs and had them sent to Lawrence with his card.” I find these scenes moving and relevant.

The book ends in 1929, though shortly after he divorced his first wife, and got married and had four more children with his poetic muse, Laura Riding, with whom he established a publishing company at their base on Majorca. He was runner-up to the Nobel Prize in Literature won by Steinbeck, and he died at the age of 90 with 140 published works.

The whole of Graves’ memoirs is filled with stories of understated and cynical humor, and pathos. In one case, he describes the last time he attended church which was during his Easter 1916 visit home. He tells a story of having to push his mother uphill in an heavy bath chair, since the only available wheelchair in town was taken by “Countess of-I-forget-what”, and then sit through a three-hour service despite being ill himself. About the ordeal he writes: “I forgot my father’s gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart to pull their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate happiness.” During the sermon the “strapping” young curate, one of four men present–compared with 75 women–was “bellowing about the Glurious Performances of our Sums and Brethren in Frurnce today. I decided to ask him afterwards why, if he felt like that, he wasn’t himself either in Frurnce or in khurki.” His father then took him to meet War Secretary (and future Prime Minister) David Lloyd-George, who Graves says “was up in the air on one of his ‘glory of the Welsh hills’ speeches. The power of his rhetoric amazed me. The substance of the speech might be commonplace, idle, and false, but I had to fight hard against abandoning myself with the rest of his authence. He sucked power from his listeners and spurted it back at them. Afterwards, my father introduced me to Lloyd George, and when I looked closely at his eyes they seemed like those of a sleep-walker.” It is worth mentioning that Graves’ book angered so many people that even his father, one of the offended, felt it necessary to write his own memoirs as a rebuttal to his son’s entitled To Return to All That.

While I have enjoyed and profited from reading “big” history, Goodbye to All That is a great example of the importance and edification of reading individual accounts of history. I always find autobiographies of great and famous people illuminating for the perspective it helps give to their time period. Though I have studied history and literature, I am no scholar and seek mostly entertainment and self-improvement in my reading. I will leave it to others to argue more convincingly the faults or short-comings of books like Graves’ or Sassoon’s memoirs (Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory comes to mind, which Mike Carson has already discussed at length here), but I personally find such personal accounts interesting and instructive.

Regarding a sense of humor towards destructive war declared by elites and suffered by the common man, I think it is not only in bad taste but can do more harm than good by normalizing the illegality and immorality of the war. Thus, I agree with this quote by Bertrand Russell, a pacifist who spent the last year of World War One in prison for speaking against involuntary military service for conscientious objectors: “Alas, I am that extremely rare being, a man without a sense of humour. I had not suspected this painful fact until the middle of the Great War, when the British War Office sent for me and officially informed me of it. I gathered that if I had had my proper share of a sense of the ludicrous, I should have been highly diverted at the thought of several thousand young men a day being blown into tiny little bits, which, I confess to my shame, never once caused me to smile. I am reminded of a Chinese emperor, who long ago constructed a lake made entirely of wine, and then drove his peasants into it only to amuse his wife with the struggles of their drunken drownings. Now he had a sense of humor.”

Regarding a sense of humor, which can only be “dark” or cynical, by veterans against their war which may be a way to ease the personal trauma and represent, even fictionalized, the collective tragedy in which they played a part, I look up to Graves and his successors such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, who have highly influenced the field of war literature.

Regarding the causes of destructive (and self-destructive) wars like WWI, I will leave it once more with the wise and quotable Bertrand Russell, writing here in his book Education and the Social Order about the innate violent sense of retributive justice that is easily awakened in humans: “I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: ‘The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.’ In these words he epitomised the history of the human race.” One of the things that makes us human is the ability to laugh in the face of the tragically absurd, and continue living in spite of it. Graves in this book has done just that, making his book a classic not only in the genre of war literature but in modern literature as a whole.

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On Plato, Donald Trump, and the Ship of State

(Originally published at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Plato’s most famous work and the foundational text of political philosophy is the Republic. Written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and other real-life Athenians, the book opens with a discussion about the nature of justice and then proceeds into Plato’s ideas about what an ideal state and its leader would look like. I will argue how these ideas are still relevant nowadays, especially regarding the disturbing state of American politics in which the American people are considering electing for the first time an openly authoritarian leader who is blatantly unqualified for the job.

Plato, an aristocrat, held a deep antipathy for democracy; he had lived through the defeat of Athens at the hand of Sparta as well as the condemnation of his mentor, Socrates. He blamed democracy for these twin catastrophes. His own ideal state would actually bear strong resemblance to Sparta–a totalitarian state in which a small elite trained for success in battle, the majority were disenfranchised slaves who did all the labor, and all cultural activities were forbidden. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy summarized Plato’s Republic as follows:

“When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.”

Russell goes on in his criticism, answering the question of how and why Plato could have achieved such greatness despite having, frankly, mostly terrible ideas:

“Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Plato’s Non-Ideal Republic in Practice

Indeed, the millennia of admiration for Plato’s Republic came to a sudden end when Russell’s History and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies were published in the same year–1945. No coincidence that both were written during the Second World War at the height of the destruction wrought by demented dictators and dangerous ideas. Popper’s was perhaps the first, and still most important work, that separates Plato from the humanistic and democratic ideas of Socrates, and shows rather that Plato’s ideal state was a totalitarian one. The overriding theme of the book, which follows the thread of totalitarianism from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, is how all these philosophers relied on historicism, a false theory in which history unfolds according the universal laws, to enable dangerous ideas to follow. He accused all of these thinkers of being partially culpable in leading Europe towards the crisis of leadership and war contemporaneous with the book’s publishing. Popper argues instead for a strong defense of the open society, which protects liberal values and institutes reforms without violence. One relevant issue Popper also discusses is the Paradox of Intolerance, which says that for an Open Society to flourish, we must not be tolerant of intolerance (which include the type of hate speech, bigotry, and violent rhetoric that is becoming normalized in Donald Trump’s Republican Party).

The most famous parable from the Republic is that of The Cave, whose premise about Plato’s theory of ideas most undergraduates would be familiar. Much more useful, in my opinion, however, is the parable of the Ship of State. Imagine the state as a ship, whose captain is a skilled stargazing navigator. The citizens are sailors, who may have many various skills but are not qualified to pilot the ship, especially through rough weather. The sailors mock the captain and try to replace him, but ultimately he is the only one with the ability to lead them. In Plato’s view, the captain in a state should be a philosopher-king, wise and trained at birth for his position as total ruler. One sees that democracy and Plato do not mix well–for him, the people were a mob who could not rule themselves.

Let’s bring these analogies into present day America.

As far as I can tell, America is the longest running large democracy in history, though a number of smaller polities, such as Iceland or the old Iroquois Confederation, to name two, are certainly older. For a huge and diverse nation of over 300 million people that has the world’s largest economy and strongest military, the fact that it has survived 240 years and a bloody civil war without ever deviating from a democratic and peaceful transition of power is quite amazing. Unprecedented actually. It was taken for granted when the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution that Athenian-style democracy could only ever end in manipulation of the mob, or demos, by a demagogue or tyrant. They drew up a system of checks and balances between branches of government in which no person could amass enough power to take over the government, and through which change would necessarily be slow and conservative. This has often frustrated the ability to pass needed reforms, but has also the greater benefit of preserving the system peacefully.

Past American Presidents

Never in American history, discounting the obvious case of the Civil War, has the original political system drawn up in the Constitution come under threat of being radically altered. Likewise, there has never been a single person in American history who has had the power, or even sought the power, to completely control government in anything even resembling a dictatorship. Out of all the 44 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice), historians typically agree on Andrew Johnson as the worst. It was certainly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake to name him his Vice President for short-sighted and unnecessary electoral reasons before his reelection, and Johnson’s horrible term had awful ramifications for the next century regarding the reconstruction of the South. Even so, it is hard to find any American president who was unqualified to hold the office, in the traditional sense of having the ability and experience to operate an executive organization with delegated tasks and many moving parts. This has nothing to do with ideology, or even effectiveness, but of basic qualifications for the job before taking office. Several highly successful generals had either mostly good, mixed, or awful administrations (Eisenhower, Jackson, and Grant, for example), but their qualifications were never questioned despite their success or lack thereof. Herbert Hoover is generally considered an awful president mostly due to the Great Depression beginning on his watch, but he was highly successful in his private career and as the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and Secretary of Commerce under two presidents before being elected, and was thus very qualified. Even George W. Bush, whom historians will most likely rank closer to Andrew Johnson than Franklin Roosevelt, governed the second largest state before becoming president. Most presidents have been highly educated and experienced men (obviously all men to date) with military backgrounds and terms as senators, congressmen, or governors. Men who understood something about the world and also how government works at various levels. The most successful presidents have also had temperaments suited for the rigorous stressfulness of this unique position as well as the ability to listen to advisors and learn from mistakes. To have a combination of many of these rare skills is what is wanted in a president, as well as a certain degree of other abstract qualities like intellectual curiosity, integrity, and empathy.

The Ideal Leader in a Democracy

Basically, I would argue that we want the same thing today as Plato wanted, even if we have different ways of going about it. Even if they will not be philosopher-kings, our leaders should be the best among us, and chosen by an informed electorate. They should be highly skilled at steering the large and unwieldy ship of state even in the rough waters of domestic and international politics. Plato, a member of the hereditary aristocracy and an anti-democrat, thought that these leaders should be bred from birth for the role, with the rest of the people having no say in the matter. There is another meaning of aristocracy, which is merely “rule by the best”, not involving genetics or inheritance but pure merit through earned experience, training, and natural character, and selected for by the majority of citizens. In our democracy, even with the two major political parties nominating candidates for the office of president, there has long been a de facto sorting out of the best qualified candidates. Once again, this has nothing to do with ideology but of basic minimum ability to function in a very complex role. Despite differences in ideas by the parties and the electorate, there has always been a tacit understanding that the winner will uphold the duties of his office and continue to serve in the government for the people.

The Disqualification of Donald Trump

Thus, we have never before in American history been in the position we are currently in–namely, to have a major party candidate for president who is clearly and without any doubt unqualified and unsuited for the office that he seeks. The Republican Party, once a bastion of principled conservatism, respect for law, and personal responsibility, has become so radical and reactionary over the last three decades or so that it has nominated a person who would certainly be the most disastrous, irresponsible, and unqualified president in history, and the closest we have yet come to a dictator, however petty. Trump’s open disregard for the rule of law, free press, and clear lack of basic knowledge of the world and the government he would operate is a disqualification for president. His other temperamental flaws, his proudly open bigotry (the likes of which has not been seen in a major candidate since the days of legal slavery), his shocking, world historical level of narcissism and mendacity (unprecedented even for a politician), and other shallow but toxic policy ideas are almost beside the point–any one of these attributes should easily have disqualified Trump from coming anywhere near being a realistic candidate for president, but the ultimate fact that he has none of the necessary tools to meet the minimum standards for piloting the ship of state is the single most important fact. He is not trained or experienced in anything like running the executive branch of the richest and strongest military power on Earth. He has shown no ability to succeed in anything other than making his own name universally known, however he goes about that. He is not a stargazer who can pilot America through bad storms, nor is he someone who should have instant control over soldiers’ lives and nuclear weapons.

The Republican Party, for the first time in American history, has failed in the basic task of nominating a human who is at a basic level of qualification for the office of president. There is no need to get any more into the details of how and why this happened--this article gives a brief summary of how the Republican Party began moving rightward three decades ago and cynically cultivating deep distrust of government itself for its own electoral gain, and this is the result. The most important thing is that Trump be defeated at all costs, and that a strong warning is cried out that never again will We the American people tolerate such a denigration of our hallowed tradition for maintaining a functioning democracy, whatever differences of policy and ideology. I disagree with Plato’s sentiment that democracy is a bad thing. It is not a perfect system; it is merely less bad than every other possible system. Its strength, and also its only flaw, is that it ultimately depends on an electorate that votes in the best interests of the peaceful and prosperous survival of the state, and not on a single tyrant who manipulates the mob with promises to solve all problems on his own. Let’s hope that we can continue for at least another 240 years without such a threat and an affront to our great country.

A Soupçon of My Favorite Lexemes

Open DictionaryOpen Culture, a fantastic culture and education website, recently published an article with a list of Bertrand Russell’s favorite words in English. A couple of the words are fairly common, such as wind and golden, but for the most part lists like these tend to be heavy on unusual Latinate or Greek-based terms. One of my first posts on this blog was a similar short list of favorite words, A Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List. Here is its unsolicited sequel, in which I will nominate a score or more of some additional favorites, mostly unusual and obscure, hand-picked from my various readings over the years, from the million or so English locutions. They were chosen not completely at random but for some felicitous combination of their sound, spelling, sense, and significance. Excepting a handful of the first ones, which are Germanic in origin, they are all typically Latinate or Greek. It seems all writers tend to have their own preferred lexicons (the Open Culture article above links to a similar, even more recherché list by David Foster Wallace), and if so inclined, do not hesitate to comment or add your own suggestions.

Firstly, some general types of words that I love to encounter in any form

Collective animal nouns (someone should coin some of these for human groups):

a shoal of fish, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls, a tribe of monkeys, a crash of rhinos

Proper adjectives from names:

Shakespearean, Herculean, Tolstoyan, Orwellian, Borgesian, Mephistophelean, Rortyan

Old Germanic causative transitive verbs or adjectives prefixed with be-:

besmirch, bespatter, betwixt, bedraggle, bereft, bemused, besotted, bequeath, bewitch, bedevil, beguile, benighted

Now for the actual list:

cleave (and its participle cloven; maybe the only verb with two opposite meanings)

thwart

thralldom (these last two come from the Viking invasions)

blood (pure Old English)

hidebound

selfsame

purse-proud

flummoxed

multitudinous (obligatory Shakespeare coinage, without which lists of this type would be immaterial)

threnody (synonyms such as dirge, requiem, and elegy could also make this list, as could rhythmically related words such as prosody, monody, and remedy)

fructify

cyclopean

persiflage

turpitude

opsimath

sybarite

sinecure

cynosure

hecatomb

unctuous

demiurge

petrichor (“the scent of rain on dry earth”)

corybantic

perfidious

obsequious

sycophantic

lachrymose

legerdemain

redoubtable

indefatigable

obstreperous

concatenation

grandiloquent

concupiscence

valetudinarian

plenipotentiary

metempsychosis (which, as Borges writes, is not reserved for humankind alone)

The Connection Between Walking and Thinking

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

I haven’t always been a walker. Where I grew up in America, in a small town in South Carolina, walking was not a normal activity. A town of 30,000 people that was so spread out that there were no schools or stores within walking distance. While at university in the state capital, walking became more common to get around the large campus, but it remained purely a functional rather than pleasurable activity. In the army, I spent a lot of time doing a certain kind of walking–marching at a vigorous pace with a heavy uncomfortable rucksack in too hot, too cold, or too rainy conditions. This, too, did little to foster the love of walking in me. Only after finishing my time in the army did I have the time to cultivate other more relaxing hobbies such as walking for fun.

My first real experience of this new world was the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage path from France across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, ostensibly the site of the remains of the apostle James. This trip was one of the best and most valuable experiences of my life, and a personal symbol of my starting a new life after unfocused and unhappy years in the army. On the Camino, the only goal everyday is just to walk as far as you want at a pace you want until you decide to stop for the day, which is repeated day after day during the slow progress across Spain. I did the walk alone, though it is so full of interesting fellow travelers that you are never really alone except when you want to be. Every night was a social event at the various pilgrim hostels along the way. There is much to see in the countryside, the changing landscapes, from mountains to high plains to wet forests, and yellow arrows point the way at every crossroads of the 800-kilometer trek. The absence of any other duties or responsibilities means that you have time to let your mind wander freely and really think about whatever you want. You become mentally stronger as you walk, not only because walking is a healthy activity that increases blood flow to the brain, but because you find new challenges for yourself along the way. Some days I pushed myself to see how far I could go in a day (my record was 58 kilometers); some days you just found a quiet place in a wood near a stream to take a break, perhaps a nap, before continuing on to the next village.

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

Walking puts our human capabilities into perspective. For example, walking was the primary (or only) means of human transportation for a huge majority of humankind for a huge majority of our existence. The distance you can walk in a day has not changed since humans migrated from Africa to Asia and down to South America. The days I spent walking 30, 40, or 50 or more kilometers were exactly the same, quantitatively if not qualitatively, as those spent by countless ancestors searching for new hunting grounds, living space, or fleeing stronger tribes. You feel more connection to the land as you slowly explore it step by step, and a closer connection with other people. Hospitality becomes important when you have nothing but what you can carry on your back and no means of travel except your own feet. Indeed, in the days before its worldwide popularity and commercialization, the Camino was still supported almost exclusively by the hospitality of local people.

In the six years since I completed the Camino de Santiago, I have only increased my walking ability and appreciation. Almost all of my food shopping has been done on foot carrying only what fits in my backpack. I have been able to commute on foot to all the jobs I have had. When I spent a year in Wales doing a graduate degree, I joined the university hiking club and went on a long walk every weekend in the green hills or lovely coast of that wild country. In Italy, my home for the last four years, I have explored as much as possible the nearby mountains of the Dolomites, and started rock climbing again as well.

I wanted to write about this topic because I have recently moved from the city center of a large industrial area to a small rural town on a hillside surrounded by mountains with a panoramic view of the western edge of the Venetian plain. While I have to drive to work and shops for the first time in years, there are also miles of quiet and wooded paths just outside my door that go higher and higher up the hill into the clouds. I was thinking about the countless hours I have spent walking in the last six years, either in conversation with friends or occasionally listening to an MP3 player, but mostly in quiet meditation and contemplation of the ground below my feet, the trees and landscapes around me, and the myriad thoughts that come and go in the mind when unshackled to a specific task at hand. Even if it is not immediately or obviously clear, the time I spend walking is not only good for its physical and psychological aspects, but has also helped me find the inspiration and motivation to develop my intellectual and literary pursuits.

Writers and philosophers have long known and appreciated the benefits of walking. As described by his pupil Plato, Socrates is often seen walking the six miles or so to the Piraeus harbor while interrogating his companions. Plato’s pupil Aristotle famously did most of his discussion while walking around Athens, which is why his followers were called the Peripatetics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the central figures of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, wrote one of his last autobiographical works called Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he expounded on his thoughts on natural science, political philosophy, and other subjects that were inspired during long walks around Paris. He went so far as to claim that he could not work or even think when not walking. Immanuel Kant followed the same daily schedule every day of his adult life, including the same walk at the same hour rain or shine. It was only delayed one time when he was unable to put down David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which Kant famously claimed had awoken him from his dogmatic slumber. Incidentally, Kant also believed it was healthier to always breathe through the nose while walking. Arthur Schopenhauer followed a similar identical daily routine for the last 27 years of his life, which included a two-hour walk no matter the weather. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, who interrupted his furious work pace for a two-hour walk in the late morning, and an even longer walk before dinner. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the last three men were lifelong bachelors. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell mentions that from his university days he would walk at least 20 miles every Sunday, and recounts how some of his peers at Cambridge walked much more.

0092Probably the most famous literary walker was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a long essay entitled “Walking”. It is filled with many examples and musings on the importance of walking, and is also one of the early inspirations for the environmental movement. Thoreau opens by giving his reason for writing as the following: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” The text contains many learned digressions on philosophy, literature, politics, and local culture, among other things. He says at one point, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

The connection between walking and thinking is strong. If the most obvious examples I have given are all philosophers and writers, it is because their intellectual currency and production–words and ideas–are most easily wrought while the body and mind are otherwise free to walk at leisure through nature. I would recommend that you make a habit of walking more frequently and, in addition to added health benefits and lower stress, perhaps you will find inspiration for your own project striking when you least expect it.

Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.

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