Monday, 31 August 2009

Without Embarrassment

“The left always feel faintly embarrassed at attempting to promote their own political agenda”, says Steven Barnett, [1] professor of communications at Westminster University, without the faintest trace of embarrassment. Odd, I say, for I had thought that much of the success of leftism through the centuries down to the present day had been owed to the diabolical shamelessness of its promotion. I must have been reading the history and seeing the sights of another planet. Perhaps I ought to go back to university in order to learn how to communicate with this one, perhaps even without embarrassment.

[1] Quoted by Mehdi Hasan, “Bias and the Beeb”, The New Statesman, 27th August 2009.

Monday, 24 August 2009

A Sham and Puerile Kind of Heroism

“Science being, it is said, a pure service of truth for truth’s sake, is not called upon to consider whether the selfish wishes of men’s souls are satisfied or not. Thus here, too, men pass from timidity to presumptuous boldness. Having once tasted the delight of impartial and wholly unfettered investigation, they rush into a sham and puerile kind of heroism that glories in having renounced that which no one has ever any right to renounce; and reposing boundless confidence in assumptions which are by no means incontestable, estimate the truth of their new philosophic views in direct proportion to the degree of offensive hostility which these exhibit towards everything—except science—that is held sacred by the living soul of man.”

Hermann Lotze, Microcosmus, Vol.I, tr. E. Hamilton and E.E. Constance Jones (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1885), p.viii.

Fewtril no.271

In the course of decline, a nation can pass through a time of pessimism into a time of optimism whence the gloominess of the earlier time looks silly, thereby confirming the fears of the pessimists: that after them would arise a mass of pigs satisfied.

Lucky Albion

“In Britain [between the world wars], many concluded that the wrong people . . . were giving birth at a rate that threatened to engulf society in a wave of mediocrity.” [1]

Phew! Thank goodness that didn’t happen!

[1] Matthew Price, “The end was nigh”, review of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, by Richard Overy, The National, 20th August 2009.

A Little Reminder

“I certainly cannot explain how we got here, but I’d rather wait a thousand years to see if science can push back a few more layers of our ignorance before positing what seems to me a somewhat metaphorical explanation for our place in the universe.” [1]

My dear lady, I do not know how to break it to you, but there is a fairly good chance that you will be dead in a thousand years from now.

[1] Heather MacDonald, “The Evolution of God”, Secular Right (weblog), 9th August 2009.

The Carefree Minds of Ants

“Ants behave in an extremely collective fashion. Each has no say in what happens, and it’s no problem for them, why should it be a problem for us?” [1]

It would not be a problem for “us” if we had the minds of ants. Forsooth we would have no problems at all. There are many other entities which have no problems: pebbles, leaves, stars, and so on. A utopian world free of problems is just a short step away.

[1] “Shlick”, commenting on Madeleine Bunting, “In control? Think again. Our ideas of brain and human nature are myths”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 23rd August 2009. (I do sometimes gape in wonder at what seems to be the profound stupidity of the commenters at Comment is Free, but then I remember that they are all geniuses, greater than which the world has never known.)

Fewtril no.270

The bellwether-intelligentsia are always one step ahead of the herd in the run of ideas, but are usually outpaced and trampled down in the realisation of their consequences.

Friday, 21 August 2009


“Novelty pleases all because it is uncommon, taste is refreshed, and a brand new mediocrity is thought more of than accustomed excellence.”

Balthasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr. J. Jacobs (London: MacMillan and Co., 1892), §.cclxix, p.162.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

On Failing to Observe the Rules of Decadence

For the last hundred years or so, but particularly for the last forty, many of the bourgeoisie have spent much of their time in the weird attempt to shock or unsettle one another by unseemliness against old rules. Naturally, after so long, one cannot expect that the class as a whole would be anything but inured to the basest improprieties. Even so, most are still easy to shock. One cannot do so by producing ever more revolting or decadent works, or by striking against tradition, good manners or civility; for their instincts are for decline and destruction which they misapprehend by some perversion of the moral sense as progress and liberty. It is only that which strikes against those instincts which shocks them. Everything else is a thrill wherein to indulge. It is the highest things which fill them with loathing. They are pious observers of new rules.
“A wicked fellow is the most pious when he takes to it. He’ll beat you all at piety.” [1]
All one need do is say quite innocently something truly right-wing or reactionary. All one need do is say something sane, something which almost every man and woman in every age but our own would have held as sensible and good, something which promotes order, authority, hierarchy, stricture, or familial, racial or cultural preservation — anything, in short, which does not tolerate, or celebrate as a moral imperative, the destruction of these things. [2] Soon enough, one will find that one is no longer welcome at dinner-parties. Still, every struggle, no matter how bitter, has its sweet consolations.

[1] Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell, 10th June 1784, Life of Johnson, ed., R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.1289.
[2] Actually this seems to be the case only amongst most of the white bourgeoisie. Even the plight of the red squirrel may exercise their considerations, whilst the dwindling of their own people, and the destruction of their own ancestral homelands, concerns them not at all.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Dowsers and Terrorists

If I were to claim that one man’s dowser is another man’s water-seeker, then I should do so in the expectation that many would call me a man of rare stupidity who has trouble distinguishing between means and ends, who fails to discriminate between mutually exclusive and inclusive terms, and who suggests, concerning the existence of dowsers and water-seekers, that there is no fact of the matter, but rather only opinion. Yet, analogously, if I were to claim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter, I should do so in the fair expectation that many would take my claim as just one of those things that everyone knows.
.....Unless some very special and mutually-exclusive meanings are arbitrarily assigned to the words in question, it ought to be obvious that a man can be a freedom-fighter and not a terrorist, a terrorist and not a freedom-fighter, or that he can be both, just as it is obvious that a man can be a water-seeker and not a dowser, a dowser and not a water-seeker, or that he can be both. [1] One set of terms (“terrorist” and “dowser”) refers to someone by the aspect of a specified means, whilst the other set of terms (“freedom-fighter” and “water-seeker”) refers to someone primarily or solely by the aspect of a specified end. The two sets are not mutually exclusive. Nor is it simply a matter of opinion whether a man is a terrorist or not. If a man employs violent terror against both combatants and non-combatants alike as a tactic for the sake of his political ends, then he is a terrorist, whether or not he does so to liberate or enslave, and so on. Furthermore, that an apologist will refer to a terrorist and freedom-fighter simply as a freedom-fighter is of no import to the fact of the matter.
.....So far as I know, no-one has ever claimed that one man’s dowser is another man’s water-seeker, whereas the claim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter has, as I say, been repeated time and again as though it were commonsense. Also, the terms of the first claim have never been the subjects of political-ideological discussion in the public arena, or, if they have, they have been only rarely, whereas the terms of the latter have frequently been such. Every good propagandist knows that even the stupidest falsehoods can be inculcated by affirmative repetition; and every good blight-spotter knows that any word or phrase which becomes the frequent subject of political-ideological discussion in the public arena is soon degraded by whimsical or politically-inspired abuse, sometimes even beyond worthwhile use, at least thereafter in the public arena itself.
.....All of which brings us to an article in a national newspaper, wherein the author takes a rather more original approach than simply assuming the aforementioned canard. He says:
“The choice of terms here is not between freedom fighter and terrorist but between murderer and terrorist — the former simply killing nihilistically because they are killing in a cause we do not believe in, and the latter using violence as part of an achievable and just political project with which we agree.” [2]
One can never quite tell beforehand what foul tortures the nation’s language will undergo at the whim or political exigency of its paid abusers.

[1] An archaeological geophysicist once told me that dowsing was sometimes used in site-surveys as a rough but effective substitute for some of the more technically-advanced and expensive conductivity-meters, but that their use was never admitted in publication.
[2] Brian Brivati, “Yes, Terrorism can be Justified”, Comment is Free (The Guardian's weblog), 18th August 2009. (A commenter — “LordSummerisle”— provides us with the usual canard: “We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”)

Just a Beginning

“If anybody wishes to know what was the influence of Rousseau in diffusing the belief in a golden age, when men lived, like brothers, in freedom and equality, he should read, not so much the writings of the sage, as the countless essays printed in France by his disciples just before 1789. They furnish very disagreeable proof that the intellectual flower of a cultivated nation may be brought, by fanatical admiration of a social and political theory, into a condition of downright mental imbecility.”

Sir Henry Sumner Maine, “The Nature of Democracy”, Popular Government: Four Essays (London: John Murray, 1886), p.75.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Greater Source

“[S]ince lamentation about the state of the world is one of life’s unfailing pleasures, the world is a greater source of satisfaction than ever.”

Theodore Dalrymple, “Reasons to be Cheerful”, The Spectator, 13th December 2003.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

China’s Pyrrho

“Shen Tao discarded knowledge, abandoned self, followed the inevitable, and was indifferent to things. Such were his principles. He said: ‘Knowledge is not to know’. He was one who despised knowledge and would destroy it. Stupid and irresponsible, he ridiculed the world’s way of preferring the virtuous; careless and impractical, he condemned the world’s great Sages; shifting and slippery, he changed about with circumstances; disregarding right and wrong, he was only concerned with avoiding trouble; learning nothing from knowledge and thinking, paying no attention to past or future, he stood loftily indifferent to everything.”

Chuang-tzu, ch. 33., tr. H.A. Giles (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926), quoted by Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1: The Period of the Philosophers (from the Beginnings to circa 100bc), tr. D. Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p.153. (Further: “Men of ability laughed at him and said: ‘The way of Shen Tao is no practice for the living; it is a principle for the dead’.” Ibid.)

Hope to an End

“Democracy is a daring concept — a hope that we’ll be best governed if all of us participate in the act of government.” [1]

It is another example of how connotations and motivating factors usurp the rule of a word’s denotations, such that a clear appreciation of what is meant or proposed or entailed is obscured. Naturally a hope that we shall be governed best if such-and-such happens is not a form of government, let alone a good one; it is merely a hope to that end. A hope, so far as I know, cannot be a form of government, except in the apolitical sense that it can govern a man’s deeds to good or ill effect. Hoping may well be a motivating factor in bringing the concept of democracy to realisation, so far as that is possible, but it has nothing to do with the concept itself. Furthermore the word “democracy” does not denote goodness, nor does the fact itself entail it; such is a connotation which a man fancies without reason. That said, I entertain a hope — though I dare say I am not governed by it — that the quiet and seemingly-innocuous emptying of words of their denotative meanings in the heads of many will not go so far as to bring about terrible consequences for all. It may well denote a vain hope.

[1] Brian Eno, “A New Politics”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 8th July 2009.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

From a Wordbook

bundling, n. A political party’s custom, hardly to be averted, of offering to an electorate a range of policies which must thereupon be accepted together as a bundle, or not at all; wherewith a discerning vote for one policy by taste and attraction can be to no avail since it is an undifferentiated vote for them all by effect, albeit in the highly unlikely event that it has any effect at all. Cf., wholesaling, nose-holding, and unlucky-bag; not to be confused with bungling. See P.R. Hornblower’s The Unavoidable Legitimation of Unappealing and Treacherous Policies when Held in Common by All Politickal Parties in Democratick Republicks (London: 1691), celebrated author of Politickal Tricks and Phancies and How to Foole Them All of the Time.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Darwin and God

“[F]aced with the facts at his disposal, Darwin reached the same conclusion as the Swedish Humanist Association: There’s probably no God.” [1]

He reached no such conclusion. He tended to waver between deism and agnosticism:
“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
...“Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.” [2]
“I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.” [3]
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where one would most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.” [4]
“There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.” [5]
“My views are far from clear . . . I can never make up my mind how far an inward conviction that there must be some Creator or First Cause is really trustworthy evidence.” [6]
“I feel in some degree unwilling to express myself publicly on religious subjects, as I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough to justify any publicity.” [7]
“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. . . . What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. . . . In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” [8]
I should add that Darwin was hardly a knowledgeable authority on the theological arguments, nor understood their subtlety or philosophical grounding, as he himself acknowledged. Still, the belief is in no way true that in the mid-nineteenth century Darwin became a Dawkinsian. I do not fear that I present a greatly controversial theory when I say that it is a belief which has evolved in no small part at the creative hand of a vociferous epigone and philosophical buffoon, though one yet falling short of omnipresence. Nonetheless, the former Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has amply fulfilled the duty for which that chair might have been instituted. If any members of the public have not by now understood that science as a human industry is one in which misinformation, polemics, ignorance, bullying, psychological appeals, inherited prejudices, woeful arguments, philosophical ineptitude, and base motives also play a part, then the blame lies more with them than with the professor; for he has demonstrated almost everything that was humanly possible in that regard.

[1] Björn Ulvaeus, “Religion and schools don’t mix”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 30th June 2009. (I am aware that the quotation comes from some pop-entertainer, but I feel it is worth adding my tuppence-worth to the rebuttal, since the view seems to be quite widely assumed.)
[2] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Asa Gray, 22nd May 1860, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[3] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Charles Lyell, 17th June 1860, ibid.
[4] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.J. Wedgwood, 11th July 1861, ibid.
[5] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex,
Vol. I. (London: John Murray, 1871), p.65.
[6] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.E. Abbot, 6th September 1871, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[7] Ibid.
[8] C.R, Darwin,
Letter to John Fordyce, 7th May 1879, ibid.