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Archive for the tag “Voltaire”

What I Read in 2016: 100 Books

In spite of the seemingly endless bad news that pounded us into submission this year, one great personal satisfaction for me is that I enjoyed by far the best and most inspired year of reading of my life, in terms of quality and quantity. This is the third edition of my project to catalogue and publish my annual reading list. You can see the 2014 list here and the 2015 list here. An unforeseen benefit of this project is that my reading has become more focused, more planned, and more thoughtful. I would recommend to everyone to try keeping a reading list with notes and see if it makes a positive difference of any kind. This year’s reading was heavy on post-war and contemporary Anglophone literature, including plenty of Booker Prize candidates and the like; also, I continued deeper into African and African-American literature that I started exploring last year; also, classic French literature (after which, I can say that all in all I prefer the Russians). Not included on the list are a handful of academic works regarding ESL teaching for my ongoing Cambridge Delta diploma. Without further ado, here are the 100 (or so) books I read this year, nearly all of which I greatly enjoyed, and many of which were truly outstanding:

Full-Length Books (Paper or Ebook)

1. Lucky Jim—Kingsley Amis

2. A House for Mr Biswas—V.S. Naipaul
3. In a Free State—V.S. Naipaul
4. A Bend in the River—V.S. Naipaul
5. Age of Iron—J.M. Coetzee

The last of these is just as great as his Waiting for the Barbarians or Disgrace, and should be more acknowledged. Between Naipaul and Coetzee, the latter is more compelling to me.

6. Mountolive—Lawrence Durrell
7. Clea—Lawrence Durrell

I finished these last two novels of the Alexandria Quartet after reading one book each of the last two years. This work is absolutely magnificent writing and a hugely underrated classic.

8. Midnight’s Children—Salman Rushdie
9. The Siege of Krishnapur—J.G. Farrell

These two complement each other nicely; the latter should be more well-known.

10. Memoirs—Giuseppe Garibaldi (with Alexandre Dumas)
11. Autobiography—Giuseppe Garibaldi
12. Garibaldi and the Defense of Rome—George Trevelyan
13. Garibaldi: A Life in Brief—Denis Mack Smith
14. Cavour—Denis Mack Smith
15. Mazzini—Denis Mack Smith

All of these historical and biographical books focus on the Italian Risorgimento as part of ongoing research for my own writing project.

16. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919—Mark Thompson

I reviewed this book here.

17. Billy Budd—Herman Melville

18. In Patagonia—Bruce Chatwin

19. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind—Yuval Noah Harari
20. Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?—Alan Weisman

I reviewed these two books here.

21. The General in his Labyrinth—Gabriel Garcia Márquez
22. Autumn of the Patriarch—Gabriel Garcia Márquez
23. Pedro Páramo—Juan Rulfo

24. Why Does the World Exist—Jim Holt
25. What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge—Marcus du Sautoy

I reviewed these two books here.

26. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn—Nathaniel Philbrick
27. Why Read Moby-Dick?— Nathaniel Philbrick
28. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—Dee Brown
29. Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas—Mari Sandoz

I discussed these books in my essay Crazy Horse and the Legacy of the American Indian Genocide

30. The Social Conquest of Earth—E.O. Wilson
31. The Meaning of Human Existence—E.O. Wilson

I reviewed these two books here.

32. Stoning the Devil—Garry Craig Powell

This is a fantastic “novel in stories” set in United Arab Emirates. Very moving and memorable, and a unique piece of work.

33. The Road Ahead—Adrian Bonenberger, Brian Castner (editors)

This is a collection of 24 short stories set around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by veteran writers. I am the author of one of the stories, “Hadji Khan.”

34. Green on Blue—Elliot Ackerman

Incredible and powerful novel set during the ongoing Afghanistan war (where I also spent two years) by one of the authors in The Road Ahead (above).

35. Society Ludvika: Separatists of Smith, Sorcery, and Sea—Hugo Hennegau

This is a debut poetry collection, self-published by one of my friends (using a nom de plume). I am highly unqualified to comment on poetry, but this has to be one of the most original, sophisticated, and enigmatic works in recent years.

36. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question—Sarah Bakewell
37. How Proust can Change Your Life—Alain de Botton

Two similarly fascinating books discussing the lives of works of two of the greatest French writers. Related to my essay Philosophy as the Art of Dying.

38. The Remains of the Day—Kazuo Ishiguro
39. An Artist of the Floating World—Kazuo Ishiguro
40. Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
41. The Buried Giant—Kazuo Ishiguro
42. The Unconsoled—Kazuo Ishiguro
43. When We Were Orphans—Kazuo Ishiguro
44. Nocturnes—Kazuo Ishiguro

I read basically everything by this writer in one go. I will say more about these in a future review, but he is well-worth reading.

45. Snow Country—Yasunari Kawabata

46. The Sense of an Ending—Julian Barnes

Incredibly crisp style.

47. Flaubert’s Parrot—Julian Barnes
48. The End of the Affair—Graham Greene

After reading The Heart of the Matter last year, I happened to read this directly after Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (above) and noticed that the plots were very similar.

49. Money—Martin Amis

I actually did not enjoy this book very much, and will be slow to read more from this writer. It is surely a useful a relevant book to keep in mind during the upcoming Trump administration (readers will probably understand why, as far as it is thematically related to American Psycho).

50. Amsterdam—Ian McEwan
51. Atonement—Ian McEwan
52. Saturday—Ian McEwan
53. On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
54. The Child in Time—Ian McEwan

Another very talented contemporary British writer that I leaped into all in one go. Atonement will surely be a classic, and Saturday was also excellent.

55. The Sellout—Paul Beatty

I reviewed this book here.

56. The African Svelte—Daniel Menaker

Funny little book by the former The New Yorker editor discussing how interesting misspelled words can be in subtle (almost Freudian) ways.

57. The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Unique and haunting book that lingers in one’s mind.

58. Love—Toni Morrison

This novel is fantastic, and should be as celebrated as her Song of Solomon.

59. The Thing Around Your Neck—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A collection of short stories all involving women living in Nigeria or America. Not a single average story in the book, and many of them are excellent. I previously reviewed her novels here.

60. Arrow of God—Chinua Achebe

His third novel which I would controversially suggest is as good or even better than Things Fall Apart. The dialogue and abundance of Igbo proverbs are wonderful.

61. Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood

Speculative apocalyptic tale of humanity’s downfall from a combination of corporate greed, climate change, and genetic engineering; full of very creative and ironic details. I will finish the last two books of this trilogy next year.

62. Chronicles—Bob Dylan

Fascinating partial, non-chronological autobiography of a singular artist, whom I praised after the Nobel award here.

63. Open City—Teju Cole

Profound and philosophical novel of a psychiatrist walking around Manhattan and Brussels, beautifully written. One of my favorite books of the year.

64. The Fishermen—Chigozie Obioma

Moving story of four brothers in a Nigerian village.

65. The Underground Railroad—Colson Whitehead

This inventive and cathartic novel is absolutely required reading for Americans. Here is a great review of the book in The New Yorker.

Audio Books

Starting last year I changed jobs and house and now I drive much more than ever. These are the books I listened to during my commuting and walking. Librivox.org is the main website I got them from. (If anyone thinks audiobooks are somehow “cheating”, this article explains the science showing that listening to books is just as effective as reading.)

66. Of Human Bondage—W. Somerset Maugham
67. The Moon and Sixpence—W. Somerset Maugham
68. Eugenie Grandet—Honoré de Balzac
69. Père Goriot— Honoré de Balzac
70. The Peasant Story of Napoleon— Honoré de Balzac
71. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—James Joyce
72. A Sportsman’s Sketches—Ivan Turgenev
73. Sevastopol Sketches—Leo Tolstoy
74. The Cossacks—Leo Tolstoy
75. Sons and Lovers—D.H. Lawrence
76. The Rainbow—D.H. Lawrence
77. Women in Love—D.H. Lawrence
78. Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed)—Alessandro Manzoni
79. Don Quixote, Part One—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
80. Madame Bovary—Gustave Flaubert
81. Salammbô—Gustave Flaubert
82. Three Short Tales—Gustave Flaubert
83. The Education of Henry Adams—Henry Adams
84. Confessions—J.J. Rousseau
85. The Social Contract—J.J. Rousseau
86. Candide—Voltaire
87. Zadig—Voltaire
88. The Sincere Huron—Voltaire
89. Lord Jim—Joseph Conrad
90. The Secret Sharer—Joseph Conrad
91. The Secret Agent—Joseph Conrad
92. Kim—Rudyard Kipling
93. The Man who Would Be King—Rudyard Kipling
94. The Good Soldier—Ford Madox Ford
95. Penguin Island—Anatole France
96. The Hunchback of Notre Dame—Victor Hugo
97. Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe—George Eliot
98. Ball of Fat—Guy de Maupassant

Short Stories

99. The Old Chief Mshlanga—Doris Lessing
100. Zawalahbi—Naguib Mahfouz
101. L’Anguille—Jon Trobaugh
102. Yellow Woman—Leslie Marmom Silko
103. The Rooftop Dwellers—Anita Desai
104. Stories—Lucian of Samosata

Some of his assorted stories are the only things this year that were rereadings for me. My favorite writer from the Greco-Roman world.

105. Stories—Anton Chekhov

For the third year in a row, I gradually worked my way through more of his stories, which are endless (in a good way).

Books Partially Read, Unfinished or Abandoned

106. The Old Devils—Kingsley Amis
107. The Satanic Verses—Salman Rushdie
108. The Museum of Innocence—Orhan Pamuk
109. The Matisse Stories—A.S. Byatt
110. The Sense of an Ending—Frank Kermode

Famous work of literary criticism, obviously picked up after Barnes’ novel named for it.

111. The Wings of the Dove—Henry James

This is the only one from this final section that I will not come back to. I am actually finished with James for the foreseeable future, if not a whole lifetime.

Are We Still Charlie Hebdo?: The Growing Dissonance between Extremism and Free Speech

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

(Article originally published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

I started preparing this essay a month or two ago to collect my thoughts about the after effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how the limits of free speech are being tested as extremism and intolerance increase in Europe and America. Now, the latest attacks in Paris on November 13th have made me reevaluate my original thoughts and given them new urgency, but have not substantially changed my views. The key issues I will discuss are the nature of Daesh, the refugee crisis, climate change, media hypocrisy, right-wing extremism, and free speech. These are complicated issues, obviously, with many interwoven factors at play, and I will do my best to make sense of the situation as I see it.

Let’s begin with a brief look at what Daesh is (one thing I have learned from philosophy is that linguistic terminology matters; I don’t like the term ISIS because it was chosen by them and it disparages the ancient Egyptian goddess and Roman cult figure Isis; the term used by the French government and Secretary of State John Kerry is “Daesh”, which is more useful because it delegitimizes the group and they hate it). From what I can gather, the purpose of this self-declared Islamic Caliphate is to gain and hold as much territory as possible in order to establish a haven for what they consider pure Islam, all while making incessant war against neighbors and non-Muslims until their awaited apocalypse. For brevity’s sake, an apocalyptic death cult that happens to follow the words of the Koran literally. This long article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood does a good job explaining the rationale behind the erstwhile Caliphate. One of the conclusions is that, despite how it looks from Western eyes, Daesh is a very reasonable and consistent group of people; it just happens that their reasons and consistency spring from a bloody and black-and-white ideology deriving from 7th century Arabia. Up to now, Daesh has seemed content to wage war only in its own neighborhood of Syria and Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda (which was responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack), Daesh is not primarily a terrorist organization but an actual government, however illegitimate and doomed to failure. (It is also highly relevant that the two groups have long been feuding for the soul of Islamic jihad, and are in no way allied). The attacks in Paris could have two possible interpretations: Daesh is branching out to international terrorism for the first time, either out of desperation after recent setbacks or to further their apocalyptic aims; or, the attacks were claimed by Daesh only after the fact, and were actually carried out by desperate European-based sympathizers who were unable to reach Syria themselves. As far as its origins, it is not too hard to trace the rise of extremism wherever violence and instability holds sway. Four years of a bloody civil war in Syria, combined with over a decade of bloody war in Iraq, created the perfect conditions for an organization such as Daesh to thrive. One of the lessons of history is that, in spite of some rare exceptions, periods of violence and revolution do not suddenly end in peaceful and stable governments.

If we are to attach blame to the creation of Daesh, it must be said that the US and its allies bear no small part of it. First and foremost for the illegal and disastrously managed war in Iraq, but more indirectly from the decades of unquestioned alliance and support for Saudi Arabia, a country which has almost single-handedly allowed the extreme Wahhabi sect to spread and produce jihad across the Middle East and the World (the US has an extremely long history of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of business; Saudi Arabia is different from many of the historical examples in that the support continues today with virtually zero public backlash). There is enough blame to go around, however; do not think that I absolve the dictators and mullahs and imams who have themselves actually done the most killing (it is almost too obvious, but I don’t want to come under the familiar charge of being anti-American just because I point out the facts). The Saudi royal family, the Iranian Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guards, Israel and its increasingly hardline and rightward skew, the Palestinians who resort to violence and terrorism, Russia, and Britain and France and the greedy and racist colony legacy they created all play a part in brewing up the toxic sludge that represents the modern Middle East.

One group that does not bear any responsibility whatsoever for the Paris attacks or the existence of Daesh are refugees. Syria had a population of around 22 million before the war, and nearly half of these have been dislocated by force or desperation. At least four million have found shelter abroad, mostly in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. There are another three million refugees from Iraq trying to escape Daesh (figures here). The refugees seeking shelter from wanton violence and destruction of homes are not themselves terrorists trying to kill Westerners. As we will see, the big political winners from terrorism, besides the terrorists themselves, are the far-right political parties that wallow in and cater to extremism and xenophobia of any kind. This includes the French National Front, which will probably see yet another surge of support for its anti-immigration and Islamophobic platform. Every country in Europe and the Americas has a political party of this sort, which have generally grown both more popular and mainstream as the wars and and subsequent refugee crisis have grown in inverse proportion to economic stability: UKIP in the UK, Lega Nord in Italy, the Republicans in the US,  Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Pegida in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, True Finns in Finland, Jobbik in Hungary (which has been instrumental in physically stopping the largest numbers of refugees into the EU), and several others all follow the same rancorous script. Though these parties are comparatively small in some cases, they have an outsized voice and influence on the public and political discourse, which they help to poison. They must be denounced loudly and immediately as soon as they use hatred fear, and intolerance of other races and religions to further their selfish political and economic ends. It is encouraging to see, now almost a week after the latest Paris attacks, that there has in fact been such a large pushback against extremism. It must continue unabated, however.

On a deep level, if Europe and America want to ameliorate both the immediate and long-term situation in the Middle East, one of the two best things they can do is to accept many more refugees (as in, all of them). Countries like Germany and Sweden are acting responsibly and charitably in the refugee crisis. Every other country leaves something to be desired after setting extremely low thresholds for asylum applications and doing as much as possible to discourage refugees (and immigrants in general). It is not only the only moral and humanist solution to such a tragedy, but the best way to economic and political security. After all, no country benefits by having a failed state and terrorist breeding ground on its doorstep. In addition, Europe and the US should do much more to provide assistance to internally displaced refugees in Syria and Iraq, and create safe zones. Whatever is being done is not even remotely enough. It goes without saying that if the Middle East is ever to emerge from its miasma of retributive violence into something vaguely resembling the more modern liberal democracies that most of you (readers) enjoy, it will need a strong and educated middle-class. Not only does this generally not exist now, but every month of war, destruction, and privation over a huge swathe of this territory is preventing entire future generations from the possibility of ever attaining a peaceful and prosperous life. This is very important and typically gets lost in the fog of war and apathy.

Digression on Climate Change: It is well-known that there will be a crucial international conference on climate change in Paris next month in which virtually every nation in the world will attempt to come to an agreement on how to combat the warming of the planet. The stakes were already high enough, considering the consequences of continued indifference in the face of climatic upheaval, but the terrorist attacks in Paris occurring less than a month before the conference raises the pressure even more. It has long been well-known and documented by scientists and historians that environmental issues like deforestation, drought, overpopulation, and resource scarcity heavily contribute to human conflict. Before the outbreak of a genocidal killing spree in Rwanda in 1992, for example, the population carrying capacity was at the absolute limit, meaning that way too many people were competing for not enough resources (Jared Diamond discusses this and related issues convincingly in his book Collapse, which I reviewed here). In Syria, it should be noted that there were four years of extreme drought which ruined farmers and forced more people into overcrowded cities, all prior to the peaceful uprising by restive Syrian citizens against a repressive and indifferent government. It was only after months of peaceful protests and brutal government suppression that the real civil war started, and we know well that peaceful moderates do not long survive in bloody civil wars. Thus, the conditions were ripe for the formation of a group like Daesh. Though climate change’s very existence is denied by Republicans in America, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently spoke for the growing number of people who not only accept the reality of the crisis, but see the direct link climate change has on political and military conflicts. Lest you still see this as just a liberal fantasy despite overwhelming evidence, the Pentagon and military leaders in America and NATO see climate change as an immediate risk to national security as well.

Voltaire said, or is supposed to have said, something along the lines of “Though I hate what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This can be seen as an early defense of the right of Freedom of Speech, later adopted in the new country of America as the First Amendment to the Constitution. Although it would appear to be an unlimited right, it has been challenged over the years and its limits have often been tested. Nowhere are the limits pushed and tested as much as in the face of intolerance and violence, or the mere threat of violence.

Let’s now take a trip back in time and revisit the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of January 2015. Besides the murders themselves, an act of outrageous maliciousness, I was troubled by the reaction to the event by the media and the world at large. It need not be said that violence and murder are inexcusable under any circumstances; I say this anyway because it has been discussed around the edges of the event that because Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam and drew pictures of Mohammed, such a tragic outcome was somehow expected or even preordained. The mindset that produces such thought is one lacking in critical thinking skills, perspective, empathy, and intelligence. I can understand the series of causes and effects that can produce mass murderers, religiously motivated or otherwise. The killers were Muslim outsiders in a secular society that limited their economic possibilities, and often expressed prejudice against them, even by the government. They were also of Algerian descent, like a majority of France’s Muslims, which can only remind us of the lingering effects of the long and brutal Algerian war which ended only two generations ago. To understand broader context is not to excuse or even sympathize with violence of any kind. Most of the world’s peaceful Muslims will agree. Though they are often just as disenfranchised or economically limited as the killers, yet they do not curse the world and go on murderous sprees.

Another troubling thing about the media coverage and public outcry of the Charlie Hebdo murders is the total saturation of the news coverage itself and the unprecedented knee-jerk support for Charlie Hebdo by politicians who would condemn the magazine in their own country, and support for France by many of the same politicians who would never come close to supporting France’s culture of free speech. Thinking back to the worst massacres that we have witnessed in the last few years, there are several that stand out in my mind as even more appalling than Charlie Hebdo. One is the 2011 Norway massacre where a white right-wing Christian terrorist single-handedly killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in two separate attacks on the same day. Most of the victims were children and teens at a summer camp. Though this prompted an outpouring of sympathy and condemnation from around the world, there was not nearly as much as there was after the Charlie Hebdo killings, nor was there a show of solidarity in Oslo by world leaders and a viral slogan. Even more disturbing and tragic are the continued massacres and atrocities by the Nigerian jihad group Boko Haram (by far the deadliest terrorist group in the world), and specifically an attack only four days before the one on Charlie Hebdo in which thousands of people were reportedly murdered, with subsequent information saying that perhaps it was “only” a few hundred people instead (though no reporting has ever been able to confirm). This was an event mentioned in the world news, but quickly forgotten by most people even more quickly than they forget about the weekly school shootings in towns across America. A third incident which happened only three weeks before Charlie Hebdo was the massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban which killed 145 people, 132 of which were young children. There are two possible reasons why Charlie Hebdo was a much bigger deal for people around the world, much more well-known and publicized in the media, and attracted much more sympathy than the other three massacres I mentioned which were all much more violent: Charlie Hebdo’s victims were white Europeans who were killed in the name of free speech by French-Algerian Muslims, which means that white and non-white people from all across the political spectrum had reason to be shocked and angered. In the Norway massacre the victims were also white Europeans, but the perpetrator was counter-intuitively (according to the narrative we are used to hearing from the media) a white European male as well, thus diminishing the duration and strength of the shock and public outcry, while the Boko Haram attack four days before Charlie Hebdo was already out of the news cycle by the time of the Paris attack, most obviously because even though the terrorists were also African jihadists, the victims were black Africans, thus diminishing the sympathy and interest by a large segment of the western media and population that now openly condemns racism but still engages in it; likewise with the Peshawar attack perpetrated by the infamous Taliban on schoolchildren. This troubling comparison tells me that to much of the media and large parts of western society black and brown lives matter less, and that white terrorists are written off as exceptions while Muslim terrorists are seen as a representation of the entire world population of Muslims. The way these type of events are shown in the media is both a cause and an effect of these biased opinions.

One more bit of hypocrisy is the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was clearly and unambiguously an act of terrorism in which 12 people were killed in Paris, but many more people are killed every week by the US government in drone strikes, which must feel like terrorism to the people who live in fear. We know that missiles are rained down on supposedly high-value targets in uninteresting and out-of-the-way places like Pakistan and Yemen without any due process or guarantee that innocent men, women, and children will not be killed (they may be a majority of the victims for all we know, though all males are officially classified as “military-aged males” and assumed to be guilty). A detailed report by The Guardian has concluded that US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a total of 1147 people in hundreds of failed attempts to kill just 41 men. When a missile blows up houses and cars full of people and kills at least as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack, that seems like terrorism to me. And such violence is likely to create many more terrorists than were possibly killed in the original attacks (a fact conceded by former Air Force drone operators themselves), thus increasing the probability of more strikes such as the one on Charlie Hebdo in the future (and just as such attacks are likely to make more and more westerners see all Muslims as enemies or terrorists).

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted the trendy show of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” by millions around the world, which is not a bad thing in itself, but I am afraid that much of the solidarity was a superficial and knee-jerk response to the tragedy, not one which examined the sources and possible solutions to the set of circumstances that led to this attack and could lead to more in the future. From my personal point of view as a long-time resident in Europe, people across Europe as a whole are somewhat more thoughtful about such tragedies than the American people as a whole were after 9-11, but the fact that we have witnessed wars and terrorism in the past 14 years since then has created for many people a perspective either more empathetic or more cynical. At the same time Europe is still in the midst of economic troubles which have helped fuel the rise of a slew of right-wing xenophobic and anti-Islamic parties in every country, a large number of Europeans are also seeing that the absolute protection of free speech and tolerance is the only way to peacefully maintain an increasingly multicultural and globalized society. The question of tolerance is one that has not always been correctly understood or handled by either political leaders or citizens. There are limits to both tolerance and free speech, though it is admittedly difficult to tease out these limits, especially when faced with real-world tragedies that prompt unthinking reactions.

Just as there was a media double standard during the Charlie Hebdo massacre, likewise for the November 13th Paris attacks. The scale is much greater in the latter case, with at least 136 deaths and hundreds more injured. But the reaction was similar in that Daesh itself conducted other attacks on civilians in other countries within 24 hours of the Paris attacks, but with little reporting by the media and little interest by the public. 26 people were killed in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Baghdad, while 43 people were killed and hundreds wounded in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Beirut. Neither of those have the high death toll of Paris, but does it matter? After all, as I have shown, “only” eight people were killed in Charlie Hebdo attack but that was a bigger news story by ten or hundredfold than greater massacres of the same time in other countries. Some of this is cultural, and the fact that Paris is a central city in Western civilization, and one that many Western people have visited and feel a connection to. But still, does that matter? I love Paris as much as anyone, as well as free speech, and I hate terrorism and any kind of violence, but that does not make me feel more rage and frustration in either the case of Charlie Hebdo or the November 13th attacks as the ones in Beirut, Peshawar, Nigeria, Baghdad, Oslo, or the weekly school shootings in America. My rage and frustration is the same, and comes from the same source, directed at the same cause. I do not think Islam is the root of the problem, nor do I think that closing borders and blocking asylum and aid for refugees is the solution. These are just two of the ways I have complete and fundamental difference of opinion with the intolerant bigots in our own countries (such as my very own Congressional Representative in South Carolina, a Republican named Jeff Duncan, who blamed refugees and Muslims for the attacks before the blood had even congealed on the streets of Paris, or every single Republican presidential candidate and most of the Republican state governors).

Let’s look at some more case studies in tolerance and intolerance. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel once declared the idea of multiculturalism in Germany to have failed. I do not know if she was just trying to appeal to her conservative voters, but such a statement is irresponsible and untrue. This idea that immigrants cannot be integrated into a society only feeds the xenophobic bigots who have now become quite vocal and strong in most European countries. The fact that the rise of these groups has coincided with economic recession and unemployment is in fact no coincidence. Blaming outsiders is an appealing message to certain types of people who feel economic strain and see a threat to their traditional way of life. That does not mean that it is the fault of the immigrants, who are almost always under much more economic strain than their detractors, but of the political and economic elite who create the conditions that the people will either succeed or fail in. Whatever she meant by citing the failure of multiculturalism, Merkel has at least proven to be a courageous leader in leading the way for European countries accepting refugees. It is still not enough.

On the other hand, the right-wing nationalist and xenophobic parties have been spreading hate and intolerance. They grow stronger when people become fearful of violence and terrorism. It is well-known that toxic public discourse and intolerant speech by political leaders directly leads to violence by their troubled followers. It happens time and time again that some misguided soul takes out murderous aggression on an innocent party that had been vilified by some right-wing hate-monger. This point cannot be stressed enough. One clear limit to free speech exists at the first instance of violence, the threat of violence, or even the mere hint of violence. This goes not just for physical violence but for anything that qualifies as unnecessarily extreme aggression, intimidation, emotional bullying, etc. There is a paradox of tolerance, which is that one must be intolerant of intolerance in order to maintain a civil and open society (I have previously discussed this paradox at greater length here).

Let me indulge in a thought experiment, and let us imagine a growing fringe political party that doubles as a hate group. One of their keys beliefs is that beards are evil and unwelcome in their country. While this is a ridiculous position to hold, it is merely an opinion that happens to be small-minded and wrong (my sense of morality tells me that opinions can sometimes be wrong just as facts can). An invisible line is crossed, however, when the anti-beard group’s legitimately free speech turns to calls for violence, retribution, or even economic and social sanctions for people with beards. This is intolerance that cannot be tolerated in an open society, since it operates outside the bounds of civility and freedom from fear and violence that are the foundation a free society is built upon. In other words, though I hate what the anti-beard group says, I will defend their right to say, but only insofar as it is exercised as one particular opinion and way of life but not as a call for violence and intolerance against others who do not hold that opinion or other varying attribute (such as religion, sex, sexuality, skin color, or facial hirsuteness).

I would further argue that a fully democratic nation whose voting citizens are composed almost wholly of illiterate idiots is always preferable to a nation ruled by the most benevolent dictator but where freedom of speech is limited. The limits of democracy are seen insofar as its demos, or people, take active and informed interest in the decisions of the nation. So in the former case, though the ignorance or indifference of a sufficiently high percentage of voting citizens in a democracy could easily lead down the road to fascist dictatorship, the fact that it was firstly and presently still democratic weighs conclusively in its favor. This shows the promise and the limitations of democracy: nothing is guaranteed except what the citizens enable; everything is possible; but it can still be corrupted by propaganda and the preying on of the basest human emotions of hate, greed, and intolerance.

In the years after 9-11 in America, the people made the mistake of allowing fear and the illusion of security eclipse their freedoms. There is still much work to do to dismantle the security and surveillance state that was erected during those years of democracy in its lowest ebb. Similarly in Europe, leaders feel pressure from the right-wing parties that scream for closed borders and a stop to immigration, and for added security measures that will sacrifice hard-won freedoms for an illusion of safety. It must not be. Just as free speech must be protected at all costs, Western countries must not give in to the fear that terrorists aim to create. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is still true in that our society remains fundamental strong, free, and open, and there is nothing that terrorists can do to change that other than make us fear them so much that we remake our society in their image, and waging more endless wars of their choosing.

Wise men are able to say things that echo long after they are gone, and it’s the same once again with Voltaire, one of my favorite Parisians, who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” It was hard to miss the fact that one of the six Paris attacks was on a theatre on Voltaire Boulevard. Though this could be coincidental, it is not hard to imagine the attack planners targeting such a symbol of everything they hate: music and drama, philosophy, satire, reason, and enlightenment. The quote applies quite easily to the insanity that is Daesh, but let’s not hesitate to look at our own recent past. European civilization is easily the bloodiest in history, and that is why it is crucial for us to remember our own past in order to forge a new future.

Let me close with the words of another wise humanist and antiwar activist, Bertrand Russell, whose message to the future (which is the present for us) was the following: “The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

Karl Popper and The Paradox of Tolerance

The paradoxical problem can be stated as the following: a tolerant person may be hostile toward intolerance; thus, a tolerant person would apparently be intolerant of something–namely, intolerance. Is it possible to have too much tolerance? Does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Are there any limitations to tolerance and, if so, how do we define them? This is the problem in the so-called ‘paradox of tolerance’. In order to attempt to understand the issue, I will recount some of the history and meaning behind the idea of tolerance (aka, toleration), and then present my own current preferred method of defining and applying the idea of tolerance for practical use in our modern political and social context.

Let’s begin in the early modern era with John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration (coincidentally published the same year as the English Act of Toleration). In this influential treatise, Locke focuses on the conflict between political authority and religious belief. He argued that, since it was impossible for the state to coerce religious belief, it should totally refrain from interfering in the religious beliefs of is subjects. In his eyes, there was an inalienable right to the free exercise of religion that necessitated toleration by the state of all competing creeds (not counting his stated exceptions for Catholics who could give loyalty to a foreign government or atheists who could destroy the moral order). This view, somewhat revolutionary at the time (Locke was writing in exile from Holland), has come to be the central inspiration for the now-accepted doctrine of the separation of the church and the state.

Throughout the next century, many thinkers continued to argue for the case of toleration, which was almost invariably represented as ‘religious toleration’. In France leading up to the Revolution, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau all followed Locke in different ways, while all generally conceiving of a secular state in which religious belief should be tolerated. Likewise in the New World before and after the American Revolution, where Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were some of the key proponents of Lockean toleration. Paine, in his 1791 Rights of Man, seconded Locke’s notion that toleration for religious diversity is necessary since neither state nor church authorities could truly judge an individual in matters of conscience.

Madison took the issue further than Locke by refusing any exceptions to universal toleration, writing that “the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it.” According to Madison and Jefferson, the state was to have nothing to do whatever with religious matters, not only for the purpose of guaranteeing toleration but also to place limits on the power of the state. The Bill of Rights that was authored by Madison and passed in 1791 served not only to restrain political power, but to protect for all time the freedom of thought, speech, and actions of individuals. This has led, among other things, to a tradition of toleration for these things, even in the case of disagreement. This is best summed up in the quote often misattributed to Voltaire (which was actually another author’s epitome of his attitude): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If we continue to the 19th century, we encounter the more modern idea of tolerance championed by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 work On Liberty. Now, for virtually the first time, Mill centered the issue of toleration not on religious considerations, but on other forms of political, social, and cultural differences. He provides three arguments for toleration. The first is his ‘Harm Principle’, whereby individual liberty can only be limited to what harms another person or his well-being. The second is that freedom of thought is essential, and that even a wrong opinion can lead to a productive learning process. The third is his utilitarian argument that individuals will be happier, and will lead to more total happiness in society, if their differences are tolerated so that everyone can pursue his or her own idea of the good life. While his overall conclusions are uncertain and have some downsides (as I began to discuss here in regards to utilitarianism), his expanded and reasonable idea of toleration has had a positive and stimulating effect on the discussion up to the present day.

In the 20th century, especially since the World Wars, the concept of tolerance has become an important issue in ethical and political philosophy– especially seen in such liberal theorists as John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and John Rawls. I have previously written here about Berlin in regards to his concepts of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, and his idea of a tolerant system of ‘value-pluralism’. Likewise in this essay in which I discussed John Rawls and his ‘overlapping consensus’: a system in which individuals and groups with diverse opinions will find political reasons to agree on certain principles of justice that include mutual and universal toleration. Keeping all of this in mind, I will now turn my attention to Karl Popper.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Karl Popper was born in Austria in 1902, emigrated to New Zealand after the Anschluss, and spent the last half of his life in England where he received a knighthood, membership in the Royal Academy, and many other awards. He died in 1994 at the age of 92. His primary area of interest was the philosophy of science, in which he is considered the most important thinker of the 20th century. He refined the concept of ‘falsifiability’, in which a theory can only be taken as scientific if it can be shown to be falsifiable. This led him to conduct sustained attacks against such in vogue theories as psychoanalysis and Marxism, both of which he (rightly) exposed as pseudo-scientific. The same line of reasoning led to his supposed solution to the problem of induction which had plagued philosophers since David Hume. He wrote the most fundamental criticisms of the Logical Positivist school during their early days before they were popularized in the English-speaking world by A.J. Ayer. He defied Wittgenstein upon their first meeting at Cambridge by saying that if there were not real problems of philosophy, but only with language, then he never would have become a philosopher (there is an apocryphal story in which Wittgenstein brandished a poker iron at Popper during this meeting). Popper’s work with which I am most concerned is his political philosophy and his vigorous defense of democracy and liberalism, represented famously in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In this book (which can be read or downloaded for free here), written during the latter stages of WWII and published in 1945, Popper maintains as his central thesis that Plato, Hegel, and Marx were all, at best, deeply flawed thinkers whose ideas led to totalitarianism. The reason for this, according to Popper, was that they all preached theories based on ‘historicism’, an idea which states that all historical events are pre-determined according to certain laws of nature. In the first volume, he focuses solely on deconstructing “The Spell of Plato” by analyzing the negative consequences stemming from the proto-fascistic state Plato describes in the Republic. In the second volume, he treats similarly with Hegel’s ‘dialectics’ and Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, claiming that both were responsible for the 20th century cases of Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. One of the results is what Isaiah Berlin called “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.” This somewhat polemical book has obviously been highly controversial as well, inviting much criticism of Popper by other philosophers for his interpretations and uses of Plato, Hegel, and Marx.

Popper concludes, against the common long-held belief, that democracy is indeed a more efficient government than a dictatorship, since an open society with guaranteed individual freedoms is more sustainable and more able to solve its own problems over the long term (and, ideally, with less bloodshed). Additionally, Popper advocates what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than the sort of utopian planning which could be seen in theory and in practice leading up to WWII (and continuing today in some places). Rather than the great social upheavals, and often revolutions, brought about by the latter, Popper preferred piecemeal improvements on a small scale that could gradually eliminate errors in social policies and make the necessary improvements. There are many arguments he makes in this monumental work, such as ‘negative utilitarianism’, which are highly interesting and worthy of further debate. For now, however, I will transition back to the topic at hand– tolerance and its paradox.

From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 7, Note 4:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law. And we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

According to Popper, then, there is a limit to tolerance– the suppression, by the State, of intolerance. This is a key doctrine of modern liberalism, and contrary to the idea of individual freedom imagined by Jefferson, Madison, or in the classical liberalism of J.S. Mill. Governments and societies have changed much from 18th-19th century, and even from WWII to today. Governments have in general become much stronger and more centralized, but at the same time there is much more individual freedom, education, and empowerment than ever before, as well as numerous international authorities that can (ostensibly) check the power of any single government. In short, there is much diversity and plurality, and we know now that tolerance is necessary to maintain the peace between peoples of different opinions and ideologies.

So how do we define intolerance, and who gets to decide? How do we limit intolerance while not curtailing freedoms of expression? Intolerance should be defined as treating members of a certain group differently and with less equality only because of their beliefs, race, sex, etc. It should be decided by a democratically elected government which guarantees the rights of the minority. The limits of tolerance should be a point which goes beyond mere criticism of opinions or beliefs to a rejection of the legitimacy of the person making the criticism. As a general guideline, criticism of ideas is allowed, while extreme attacks on people who hold those ideas, and the corresponding attempt to limit the victim’s freedom, is usually intolerance (aka, bigotry). The issue is not so simple, and there are constant court cases which test the bounds of these rules.

Let’s look at an example of how this works. We can quite easily see now that racism is intolerance. In many areas of the United States, especially the South, that particular intolerant attitude was so ingrained that an outside authority was needed in order to ameliorate the situation. That authority was the US Government, which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism by no means has ended, as we can see clearly in today’s political headlines, but it has become become a criminal offense to express it openly. A vicious cycle has been transformed into a virtuous one as new generations are gradually raised with the idea that racism is unacceptable and off-limits. Today, though it still exists in the ignorant fringe of society, you will not see many examples of people who publicly announce that racism is an “individual right”, or that the Civil Rights Act was bad (unless you happen to be a right-wing “libertarian” named Ron Paul). That type is intolerance is no longer tolerated. There is no such thing as a ‘freedom to discriminate’, for example.

While there are numerous areas in which intolerance is still widespread, there is reason to believe that the tide is slowly turning. Popper’s model has not only been influential on both sides of the political discourse, but it also has the virtue of being a model that works in practice. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is one of the shining examples of our moral progress as a species. Part of this declaration reads that education is a universal right and should strive to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” The authority, in this case, is the international collection of all the countries on the planet, that have collectively decided where to set the limits of tolerance. American constitutional law continues to constantly develop as well as the nature of the society slowly evolves. We are seeing right now, for example, that the ‘traditional’ case for intolerance against gay rights is crumbling before our very eyes.

We can, it appears to me, conclude that criticism of opposing ideas or beliefs is permissible, and even necessary for the flourishing of free speech in a democratic and open society. Attacking people because of their beliefs is not permitted. The discussion on the finer points of this argument need to continue to be debated, but, for now, I think it is safe to say that, in order to maintain our freedoms, intolerance should not be tolerated.

Will Durant and the Story of Philosophy

I concluded my last post on this website, Defining Philosophy and Its Uses, with a long quotation from Will Durant stating the importance of philosophy as a synthesis of knowledge and distiller of wisdom. Now, I would like to write more about Durant and why he is important. Unlike Bertrand Russell, whom I have discussed several times, Durant was not primarily a philosopher or an academic. He was primarily a popular writer of world history and philosophy. His first major work was The Story of Philosophy in 1926, which I will compare with Russell’s similarly-themed 1945 work, A History of Western Philosophy.

From: willdurant.com

Will Durant was born in Massachusetts in 1885, and after receiving a Jesuit education, began working as a journalist, school teacher, and librarian. As a young man he was politically aligned with the socialist cause, which led him to begin teaching at an advanced working-class school, and which influenced his social views the rest of his life. He gradually rejected the political radicalism which became associated with socialism of the period, and deepened his relationship with philosophy and culture. He quit his teaching job in 1913 in pursuit of a doctorate in philosophy, and a bigger classroom. The Story of Philosophy was published in 1926, and became an enormous popular success that gave Durant financial independence for the rest of his life. Accordingly, he used this freedom to continue his lifelong project of spreading knowledge and culture to the masses–that is, to the common, non-academic, working-class reader. Along with his wife Ariel, he spent the rest of his very long life working on the 10-volume, 10,000+ page The Story of Civilization. He died in 1981 at the age of 96. Many of his works can be downloaded and read for free from the internet (The Story of Philosophy here; the first 4 volumes of The Story of Civilization here; some assorted articles here).

I have already mentioned how one of the downsides of Russell’s History is its rather cursory, and occasionally overly-critical, commentary on large swathes of important thinkers, which was obviously a necessity for a book with such an enormous scope. In the case of Durant’s work, this criticism must be even more pronounced. Rather than attempting to paint a complete picture of all of western philosophy, Durant is satisfied to go into reasonable depth with just a small and select group of the most important thinkers (and, as we shall see, some that were his personal favorites). The main chapters of the work are based around vignettes of Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and short discussions of then-contemporary European and American philosophers–Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, and Bertrand Russell; and George Santayana, William James, and John Dewey. Even from within this small group, you will no doubt notice the presence of some names that are not considered part of the most important or influential philosophic tradition–Herbert Spencer most of all, and Voltaire to a lesser degree. In my opinion, the chapter on Voltaire needs no apology since it is such an elegant and entertaining description of an almost impossibly interesting and powerful mind (it is probably my favorite part of the book, and I learned much about the now criminally-underrated Enlightenment thinker). Spencer is more perplexing, and must be mostly attributed to the fact that he seemed to share Durant’s mission for synthesizing and uniting all science and knowledge into a useful whole for mankind, rather than its many technical parts. In any case, Durant states his purpose in the preface:

This book is not a complete history of philosophy. It is an attempt to humanize knowledge by centering the story of speculative thought around certain dominant personalities. Certain lesser figures have been omitted in order that those selected might have the space required to make them live. Hence the inadequate treatment of the half-legendary pre-Socratics, the Stoics and Epicureans, the Scholastics, and the epistemologists. The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of the science of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

In this purpose, I think there is no doubt that he has succeeded. The Story of Philosophy is not only eminently readable, but engrossing, pleasurable, and fully worthy of the word ‘story’. It was difficult to select even some short representative passages to quote here, because every sentence is elegantly and poetically crafted, and the book is already such a compact and fast-moving summary of its protagonists. It is often said that the best way to understand philosophy is to read the works of the great philosophers directly. If we are to make exceptions to this dictum, I think the best place to begin for the young or uninitiated student of philosophy is The Story of Philosophy, followed by Russell’s more comprehensive, critical, and profound (though no less stylistically written) A History of Western Philosophy. Both works also achieve the identical goal of both authors in spreading and increasing human wisdom through knowledge and culture, and via history and philosophy.

(Incidentally, these two men were not necessarily in agreement on specific views within philosophy, but happened to share the same overall education purpose. In his autobiography, Russell includes a long letter from Durant, which appears to have been their only direct communication. Durant gives a rather long-winded account of his views on the antagonism of science and philosophy, and states his newest mission of interviewing all the greatest minds in the world for their opinions on the meaning of life, and ends with a list of his own literary and professional qualifications. Russell responds tersely, and somewhat dismissively, that “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever… I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.”)

Durant criticizing Plato:

What Plato lacks above all, perhaps, is the Heracleitean sense of flux and change; he is too anxious to have the moving picture of this world become a fixed and still tableau. He loves order exclusively, like any timid philosopher; he has been frightened by the democratic turbulence of Athens into an extreme neglect of individual values; he arranges men in classes like an entomologist classifying flies; and he is not averse to using priestly humbug to secure his ends. His state is static; it might easily become an old-fogey society, ruled by inflexible octogenarians hostile to invention and jealous of change. It is mere science without art; it exalts order, so dear to the scientific mind, and quite neglects that liberty which is the soul of art; it worships the name of beauty, but exiles the artists who alone can make beauty or point it out. It is a Sparta or a Prussia, not an ideal state.

On adapting Plato to our own purposes (educational and political reform in this case):

And now that these unpleasant necessities are candidly written down, it remains to do willing homage to the power and profundity of Plato’s conception. Essentially he is right–is he not?–what this world needs is to be ruled by its wisest men. It is our business to adapt his thought to our own times and today we must take democracy for granted: we cannot limit the suffrage as Plato proposed; but we can put restrictions on the holding of office, and in this way secure that mixture of democracy and aristocracy which Plato seems to have in mind. We may accept without quarrel his contention that statesmen should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians; we might establish departments of political science and administration in our universities; and when these departments have begun to function adequately we might make men ineligible for nomination to political office unless they were graduates of such political schools. We might even make every man eligible for an office who had been trained for it, and thereby eliminate entirely that complex system of nominations in which the corruption of our democracy has its seat; let the electorate choose any man who, properly trained and qualified, announces himself as a candidate. In this way democratic choice would be immeasurably wider than now, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee stage their quadrennial show and sham. Only one amendment would be required to make quite democratic this plan for the restriction of office to graduates in administrative technique; and that would be such equality of educational opportunity as would open to all men and women, irrespective of the means of their parents, the road to university training and political advancement. It would be very simple to have and counties and states offer scholarships to all graduates of grammar school, high school and who had shown. a certain standard’ of ability, and whose parents were financially unable to see them through the next stage of the educational process. That would be a democracy worthy of the name.

On the some of the problems with Aristotle:

It is difficult to be enthusiastic about Aristotle, because it was difficult for him to be enthusiastic about anything… He realized too completely the Delphic command to avoid excess: he is so anxious to pare away extremes that at last nothing is left. He is so fearful of disorder that he forgets to be fearful of slavery; he.is so timid of uncertain change that he prefers a certain changelessness that near resembles death. He lacks that Heraclitean sense of flux which justifies the conservative in believing that all permanent change is gradual, and justifies the radical in believing that no changelessness is permanent. He forgets that Plato’s communism was meant only for the elite, the unselfish and ungreedy few; and he comes deviously to a Platonic result when he says that though property should be private, its use should be as far as possible common. He does not see (and perhaps he could not be expected in his early day to see) that individual control of the means of production was stimulating and salutary only when these means were so simple as to be purchasable by any man; and that their increasing complexity and cost lead to a dangerous centralization of ownership and power, and to an artificial and finally disruptive inequality.

On Francis Bacon:

His achievement was not the less great because it was indirect. His philosophical works, though little read now, “moved the intellects which moved the world.” He made himself the eloquent voice of the optimism and resolution of the Renaissance. Never was any man so great a stimulus to other thinkers… The whole tenor and career of British thought have followed the philosophy of Bacon. His tendency to conceive the world in Democritean mechanical terms gave to his secretary, Hobbes, the starting-point for a thorough-going materialism; his inductive metbod gave to Locke the idea of an empirical psychology, bound by observation and freed from theology and metaphysics; and his emphasis on “commodities” and “fruits” found formulation in Bentham’s identification of the useful and the good. Wherever the spirit of control has overcome the spirit of resignation, Bacon’s influence has been felt. He is the voice of all those Europeans who have changed a continent from a forest into a treasure-land of art and science, and have made their little peninsula the center of the world… Everything is possible to man. Time is young; give us some little centuries, and we shall control and remake all things. We shall perhaps at last learn the noblest lesson of all, that man must not fight man, but must make war only on the obstacles that nature offers to the triumph of man.

Durant’s simple “Table of Philosophic Affiliations”. Of the philosophers mentioned in his book, only Rousseau is missing, whom I would place somewhere to the beneath and to the left of Liebniz.

On Intelligence and Morals in the Ethics of Spinoza (the earliest and favorite of Durant’s influences):

Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character and the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought. He begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions… He thinks that egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation…

So he builds his ethic not on altruism and the natural goodness of man, like utopian reformers; nor on selfishness and the natural wickedness of man, like cynical conservatives, but on what he considers to be an inevitable and justifiable egoism… He believes it is a simple matter to show that hatred, perhaps because it trembles on the verge of love, can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. For hatred is fed on the feeling that it is returned; whereas “he who believes himself to be loved by one whom he hates is a prey to the conflicting emotions of hatred and love,” since (as Spinoza perhaps too optimistically believes) love tends to beget love; so that his hatred disintegrates and loses force…

Spinoza’s ethics flows from his metaphysics: just as reason there lay in the perception of law in the chaotic flux of things, so here it lies in the establishment of law in the chaotic flux of desires; there it lay in seeing, here it lies in acting, sub specie eternitatis–under the form of eternity; in making perception and action fit the eternal perspective of the whole. Thought helps us to this larger view because it is aided by imagination, which presents to consciousness those distant effects of present actions which could have no play upon reaction if reaction were thoughtlessly immediate. The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination. By imagination and reason we turn experience into foresight; we become the creators of our future, and cease to be the slaves of our past. So we achieve the only freedom possible to man. The passivity of passion is “human bondage,” the action of reason is human liberty. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know. To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts. With this completeness and integrity comes the equanimity of the wise man; not the aristocratic self-complacency of Aristotle’s hero, much less the supercilious superiority of Nietzsche’s ideal, but a more comradely poise and peace of mind. “Men who are good by reason–i. e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them–desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” To be great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling others; but to stand above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desire, and to rule one’s self…

Such a philosophy teaches us to say Yea to life, and even to death–“a free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purposes must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength.

On Voltaire:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He carried on the antiseptic scepticism of Montaigne, and the healthy earthy humor of Rabelais; he fought superstition and corruption more savagely and effectively than Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Knox or Melanchthon; he helped to make the powder with which Mirabeau and Marat, Danton and Robespierre blew up the Old Regime…

No, never has a writer had in his lifetime such influence. Despite exile, imprisonment, and the suppression of almost everyone of his books by the minions of church and state, he forged fiercely a path for his truth, until at last kings, popes and emperors catered to him, thrones trembled before him, and half the world listened to catch his every word. It was an age in which many things called for a destroyer. “Laughing lions must come,” said Nietzsche; well, Voltaire came, and “annihilated with laughter.” He and Rousseau were the two voices of a vast process of economic and political transition from feudal aristocracy to the rule of the middle class…

He was happy in his garden, planting fruit trees which he did not expect to see flourish in his lifetime. When an admirer praised the work he had done for posterity he answered, ”Yes, I have planted 4000 trees.”

He rejects all systems, and suspects that “every chief of a sect in philosophy has been a little of a quack.” “The further I go, the more I am confirmed in the idea that systems of metaphysics are for philosophers what novels are for women.” “It is only charlatans who are certain. We know nothing of first principles. It is truly extravagant to define God, angels, and minds, and to know precisely why God formed the world, when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”

On Kant:

The great achievement of Kant is to have shown, once for all, that the external world is known to us only as sensation; and that the mind is no mere helpless tabula rasa, the inactive victim of sensation, but a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as experience arrives. We can make subtractions from this accomplishment without injuring its essential greatness…

There is something of a severe Scotch Calvinism in this opposition of duty to happiness; Kant continues Luther and the Stoic Reformation:, as Voltaire continues Montaigne and·the Epicurean Renaissance. He represented a stern reaction against the egoism and hedonism in which Helvetius and Holbach had formulated the life of their reckless era, very much as Luther had reacted against the luxury and laxity of Mediterranean Italy. But after a century of reaction against the absolutism of Kant’s ethics, we find ourselves again in a welter of urban sensualism and immorality, of ruthless individualism untempered with democratic conscience or aristocratic honor; and perhaps the day will soon come when a disintegrating civilization will welcome again the Kantian call to duty…

After a century of struggle between the idealism of Kant, variously reformed, and the materialism of the Enlightenment, variously redressed, the victory seems to lie with Kant. Philosophy will never again be so naive as in her earlier and simpler days; she must always be different hereafter, and profounder, because Kant lived.

On Schopenhauer:

Part of the cause of pessimism, in Schopenhauer and his contemporaries, lay in their romantic attitudes and expectations. Youth expects too much of the· world; pessimism is the morning after optimism, just as 1815 had to pay for 1789. The romantic exaltation and liberation of feeling, instinct and will, and the romantic contempt for intellect, restraint, and order, brought their natural penalties; for “the world,” as Horace Walpole said, “is a comedy for those who think, but a tragedy for those who feel.”…

Is it true that ”he that increaseth lmowledge increaseth sorrow,” and that it is the most highly organized beings that suffer most? Yes; but it is also true that the growth of knowledge increases joy as well as sorrow, and that the subtlest delights, as well as the keenest pains, are reserved for the developed soul. Voltaire rightly preferred the Brahmin’s ”unhappy” to the blissful ignorance of the peasant woman; we wish to experience life keenly and deeply, even at the cost of pain; we wish to venture into its innermost secrets, even at the cost of disillusionment…

There are other difficulties, more technical and less vital, in this remarkable and stimulating philosophy. How can suicide ever occur in a world where the only real force is the will to live? How can the intellect, begotten and brought up as servant of the will, ever achieve independence and objectivity? Does genius lie in knowledge divorced from will, or does it contain, as its driving force” an immense power of will, even a large alloy of personal ambition and. conceit? Is madness connected with genius in general, or rather with only the “romantic” type of genius (Byron, Shelley, Poe, Heine, Swinburne, Strindberg, Dostoievski, etc.); and is not the “classic” and profounder type of genius exceptionally sound (Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Goethe, Darwin, Whitman, etc.)? What if the proper function of intellect and philosophy is not the denial of the will but the coordination of desires into a united and harmonious, will? What if “will” itself, except as the unified product of such coordination, is a mythical abstraction, as shadowy as “force”?…

On Nietzsche:

Only a professor of paradox could rank the obscure and dogmatic fragments of Heraclitus above the mellowed wisdom and the developed art of Plato. With all his philology, Nietzsche never quite penetrated to the spirit of the Greeks; never learned the lesson that moderation and self-knowledge (as taught by the Delphic inscriptions and the greater· philosophers) must bank, without extinguishing, the fires of passion and desire; that Apollo must limit Dionysus. Some have described Nietzsche as a pagan; but he was not that: neither Greek pagan like Pericles nor German pagan like Goethe; he lacked the balance and restraint that made these men strong. “I shall give back to men the serenity which is the condition of all culture,” he writes, but alas, how can one give what one has not? …

Nietzsche here fell short of that historical sense which he lauded as so necessary to philosophy; or he would have seen the doctrine of meekness and humbleness of heart as a necessary antidote to the violent and warlike virtues of the barbarians who nearly destroyed, in the first millennium of the Christian era, that very culture to which Nietzsche always returns for nourishment and refuge. Surely this wild emphasis on power and movement is the echo of a feverish and chaotic age? This supposedly universal “will to power” hardly expresses the quiescence of the Hindu, the calm of the Chinese, or the satisfied routine of the medieval peasant. Power is the idol of some of us; but most of us long rather for security and peace…

Foiled in his search for love, he turned upon woman with a bitterness unworthy of a philosopher, and unnatural in a man; missing parentage and losing friendship, he never knew that the finest moments of life come through mutuality and comradeship, rather than from domination and war. He did not live long enough, or widely enough, to mature his half-truths into wisdom. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have turned his strident chaos into a harmonious philosophy. Truer of him than of the Jesus to whom he applied them, were his own words: “He died too early; he himself would have revoked his doctrine had he Teached” a riper age; “noble enough to revoke he was!” But death had other plans…

He spoke with bitterness, but with invaluable sincerity; and his thought went through the clouds and cobwebs of the modern mind like cleansing lightning and a-rushing wind. The air of European philosophy is clearer and fresher now because Nietzsche wrote.

On Henri Bergson:

It was a wholesome thing that this eloquent challenge should check the excesses of intellectualism; but it was as unwise to offer intuition in the place of thought as it would be to correct the fancies of youth, with the fairy-tales of childhood. Let us correct our errors forward, not backward. To say that the world suffers from too much intellect would require the courage of a madman. The romantic protest against thinking, from Rousseau and Chateaubriand to Bergson and Nietzsche and James, has done,its work; we will agree to dethrone the Goddess of Reason if we are not asked to re-light the candles before the ikon of Intuition. Man exists by instinct, but he progresses by intelligence.

On Bertrand Russell:

There have been two Bertrand Russells: one who died during the war; and another who rose out of that one’s shroud, an almost mystic communist born out of the ashes of a mathematical logician. Perhaps there was a tender mystic strain in him always; represented at first by a mountain of algebraic formulae; and then finding a distorted expression in a socialism that has the earmarks rather of a religion than of a philosophy. The most characteristic title among his books is Mysticism and Logic: a merciless attack on the illogicality of mysticism, followed by such a glorification of scientific method as makes one think of the mysticism of logic. Russell inherits the English positivist tradition, and is resolved to be tough-minded, because he knows that he cannot…

It is remarkable that after writing several volumes of this learned moonshine, Bertrand Russell should suddenly come down upon the surface of this planet, and begin to reason very passionately about war, and government, and socialism, and revolution,– and never once make use of the impeccable formulae piled like Pelion upon Ossa in his Principia Mathematica. Nor has anyone else, observably, made use of them…

Freedom is the supreme good; for without it personality is impossible. Freedom of thought and speech would go like a cleansing draught through the neuroses and superstitions of the “modern” mind. For we are not so educated as we think; we are but beginning the great experiment of universal schooling; and it has not had time to affect profoundly our ways of thinking and our public life. We are building the equipment, but we are still primitive in methods and technique; we think of education as the transmission of a certain body of settled knowledge, when it should be rather the development of a scientific habit of mind. The distinctive feature of the unintelligent man is the hastiness and absoluteness of his opinions; the scientist is slow to believe, and never speaks without modification…

There is nothing that man might not do if our splendid organization of schools and universities were properly developed and properly manned, and directed intelligently to the reconstruction of human character. This, and not violent revolution, or paper legislation, is the way out of economic greed and international brutality. Man has come to control all other forms of life because he has taken more time in which to grow up; when he takes still more time, and spends that time more wisely, he may learn even to control arid. remake himself. Our schools are the open sesame to Utopia…

All in all, a very lovable man: capable of the profoundest metaphysics and the subtlest mathematics, and yet speaking always simply, with the clarity which comes only to those who are sincere; a man addicted to fields of thought that usually dry up the springs of feeling, and yet warmed and illumined with pity, full of an almost mystic tenderness for mankind. Not a courtier, but surely a scholar and a gentleman, and a better Christian than some who mouth the word. Happily, he is still young and vigorous, the flame of life burns brightly in him yet; who knows but this next decade will see him grow out of disillusionment into wisdom, and write his name among the highest in “the serene brotherhood of philosophs”?

On George Santayana:

“Wisdom comes by disillusionment,” says Santayana; but again that is only the beginning of wisdom, as doubt is the beginning of philosophy; it is not also the end and fulfillment. The end is happiness and philosophy is only a means; if we take it as an end we become like the Hindu mystic whose life-purpose is to concentrate upon his navel.

On William James:

Certainly, as everyone has pointed out, the manner, if not the substance, of James’s thinking was specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought, and gives them a buoyant and almost aerial motility. Huneker calls it “a philosophy for philistines,” and indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it: James talks of God as of an article to be sold to a materialistically-minded consumer by every device of optimistic advertising; and he counsels us to believe as if he were recommending long-term investments, with high dividends, in which there was nothing to lose, and all the (other) world to win. It was young America’s defense-reaction against European metaphysics and European Science…

When some pragmatists speak of a belief having been true once because they were useful (though now disproved), they utter nonsense learnedly; it was a useful error, not a truth. Pragmatism is correct only if it is a platitude.

On John Dewey:

In an industrial society the school should be a miniature workshop and a miniature community; it should teach through practice, and through trial and error, the arts and discipline necessary for economic and social order. And finally, education must be re-conceived, not as merely a preparation for maturity (whence our absurd idea that it should stop after adolescence), but as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life. In a sense, the schools can give us only the instrumentalities of mental growth; the rest depends upon our absorption and interpretation of experience. Real education comes after we leave school; and there is no reason why it should stop before our death…

What Dewey sees and reverences as the finest of all things, as growth; so much so, that he makes this relative but specific notion, and no absolute “good,” his ethical criterion…

Our trust must after all be in thought, and not in instinct;–how could instinct adjust us to the increasingly artificial environment which industry has built around us, and the maze of intricate problems in which we are enmeshed?…

But political reconstruction will come only when we apply to our social problems the experimental methods and attitudes which have succeeded so well in the natural sciences. We are still in the metaphysical stage of political philosophy; we fling abstractions at one another’s heads, and when the battle is over nothing is won. We cannot cure our social ills with wholesale ideas, magnificent generalizations like individualism or order, democracy or monarchy or aristocracy, or what not. We must meet each problem with a specific hypothesis, and no universal theory; theories are tentacles, and fruitful progressive living must rely on trial and error.

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