Thursday 27 March 2008

Metternich’s Prediction

“I have had the misfortune to belong to the revolutionary epoch. . . . Fate has laid upon me in part the duty of restraining, so far as my powers permit, a generation whose destiny seems to be that of losing itself upon a slope which will surely lead to its ruin.” [1] So said Klemens von Metternich, yet events showed his prediction to be a little off the mark, at least as stated in Dearieme’s Laws of Political Dynamics: — First Law: Conservatives are good at inferring the direction of change; Second Law: . . . but are prone to overestimate the pace of change. [2] Still, it was owing in no small part to his own efforts that his prediction was untrue.
[1] Klemens von Metternich, letter dated 3rd September 1819, in Richard Metternich (ed.), Mémoires, Ducuments et Écrits laissés par le Prince de Metternich, 8 Vols (Paris, 1880-84), vol. III, p.307, quoted by Alan Palmer, Metternich: Councillor of Europe (London: Phoenix Giant, 1997), p.186.
[2] From a comment at Dennis Mangan’s weblog, Mangan’s Miscellany, “Letters to the Economist”, 8th February 2007.

Truth and Well-Being

“There is no pre-established harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of mankind.”

[“Es gibt keine prästabilierte Harmonie zwischen der Förderung der Wahrheit und dem Wohle der Menschheit.”]

F.W. Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Franfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 2000), §.517, p.275.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

The Celtic Tiger

“The Tiger is now lashing its tail and smashing its way through the harp”, [1] says Seamus Heaney in repugnance at the economism which has begun to rule in Ireland and which is now set to put a motorway through the Tara-Skryne Valley. Poor Mr Heaney; does he not appreciate the necessity of destroying beauty in order that everyone might get to his desk in half the time?

[1] David Sharrock, “Seamus Heaney laments loss of Ireland’s ancient spirit to onward march of the Celtic Tiger”, The Times, 3rd March 2008. (H/T: Laban Tall, “A Few Primroses From The Curate’s Coppice”, UK Commentators (weblog), 26th March 2008.)

Fixed Exaltation

When the all-or-nothing mentality is fixed upon exalting one thing above all others, it allows no criticism of the exaltation of that thing to pass without seeing it as an attack on the thing itself. Thus, such men for whom the economy is the single most important thing, before which all other matters must fade into insignificance, see criticism of the idea that the economy is the single most important thing as an attack on the importance of the economy; or, such men for whom science constitutes everything worthwhile see criticism of the idea that science constitutes everything worthwhile as an attack on science itself. (In the latter case, there is an inability on the part of such men — at least as a first reaction — to distinguish between science and their unscientific and scientistic hopes for it.) Now, if you were to ask such men in the cold light of day, as it were, whether they see their particular interest as the be-all-and-end-all of everything, and perhaps give them examples from their lives that make a mockery of the very idea, most of them would likely declare that they see it in no such terms, and would even declare any suggestion thereto as an attack upon a straw man — and yet their reactions, at least in first flush, tell us that they do not like to hear it said that their particular interest is not the be-all-and-end-all of everything. It strikes me very much as originating in an ancient defence-mechanism, of the same kind as that of loyalty to kith and kin, but without the warmth.

Fewtril no.236

It is pleasing in adolescence to be cynical, declaring, say, that love is simply a chemical imbalance. With adulthood comes a greater sobriety and an appreciation of the complexity of life, such that one is given to suspect that adolescent cynicism is partly the result of a chemical imbalance.

Fewtril no.235

With all the hopeful remedies, liberal policies, humanistic prescriptions, and so on, that I hear mentioned everyday, I ask myself whether they are really directed at the same species I see everyday.

Fewtril no.234

“In sensitive times like these, we need helpful statements” — or lies, as they were called in less sensitive times.

Moral Intuitions

In the view of evolutionary psychology, moral intuitions are simply the result of evolutionary adaptations to group-existence. No group can stay together for long that has members all of which behave badly towards one another, and so selection is against such behaviour and for co-operation. In first flush, then, goodness is taken to exist not in any objective moral sense but rather in the evolutionary-pragmatic sense: as a function of group-cooperation. But evolutionary psychologists sometimes go further and use equivocation of these two senses to try and establish that evolutionary psychology does not undermine the idea of moral objectivity. Yet, quite simply, if evolutionary psychology is true in this regard to the exclusion of all other possible factors, then nothing is moral in the sense in which it is interesting to propose its existence. Everything “moral”, in other words, is but another aspect of the struggle for existence — which is naturally and unremittingly amoral.

Fewtril no.233

One could write a book which might send every man who read it mad. It would have to be so persuasive in tone and argument as to strip him of the defences of his character and reveal to him without consolation the terrible possibilities of his predicament: the ephemerality and finitude of his being, without autonomy, overwhelmed by the vastness of the world. It could be a best-seller, but only if it were bound in a bright cover with pictures on it.

The Mystery of Christopher Hitchens

There are several things that I find unfathomable: how mind might arise from matter; how an atom or an electron can be both a particle and a wave; how a hack such as Christopher Hitchens can become a celebrated writer.
Before I discovered Christopher Hitchens, I seriously doubted that non-fiction prose could be savoured and reread. How wrong I was. As a writer, Hitchens has the style of Byron, the depth of Faulkner and the wit of Wilde. Possibly the most well-read man on the planet, Hitchens has the ability to communicate complex arguments with a warmth and economy that can engage the dullest layman. [1]
I should like to see it as some kind of joke, than which, at the expense of the self-congratulatory philistine-inheritors of Western culture, I could compose no better and few crueller.
[1] Max Dunbar, “A Secular Symposium: The Portable Atheist”, Butterflies and Wheels, 5th March 2008.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Poor Old Peasants

I am well enough versed in controversy to know that it is quite unlikely that one can mention peasants in a favourable manner without provoking the accusation that one has romanticised them, a reaction which itself speaks loudly for the contempt in which they are held, where it is as if the concept of the peasantry could not possibly sit alongside a favourable mention without adverse mental reaction. Nonetheless, I shall mention a few words in favour of the peasantry as a historical phenomenon, at the prompting of my blogging-fellow Mr Tom Paine:
I am very much with my revered namesake on the subject of monarchs and it makes me laugh that the ‘right on’ New Labourites are so desperate for votes that they are appealing to the inner peasant in every Brit. [1]
One may well wonder what it is about peasants that unites almost everyone — from capitalist to communist — in such contempt. If you are partial to the abstractions of liberty and progress, as is likely if you have lived in the last two hundred years, then the answer might strike you as obvious from the pejorative connotation of the word itself: peasants are ignorant and dumb creatures obstinately wedded to the bonds of authority and tradition, and therefore a bar to progress; or, as G.B. Shaw succinctly put it: “Peasants will not do”. [2] Since the fairy-land of universal liberty cannot be reached by such earthly creatures, we might wish to leave the story there, go off and enjoy a celebratory latte, and leave the peasants to toil in the mud on the wrong side of history; or, then again, we might find it interesting to look at the other side of the pejorative coin.
.....The peasantry’s more traditional and personal bonds to authority have meant that it has typically been very much less susceptible to pie-in-the-sky political ideals than most other social groups; and, time and again, it has proven itself ill-disposed to those who would “drive the people to paradise with a stick”. [3] When in the 1870s, the Russian radicals went out to the peasants to spread the word, to set them free from their bonds, the peasants were hardly impressed, and were more inclined to call the authorities — something that the radicals neither forgot nor forgave. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century, from Germany to Russia, the peasantry proved to be a disappointment to every kind of progressive scheme; and much the same was true throughout the twentieth. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen noted how the peasantry of the villages and farms of Bavaria were among the least impressed with Nazi officialdom.
[T]he farmers remain wedded to their old, unchangeable patterns of thinking and living, shrug their shoulders over the triumphs, and cannot be brought to ‘participate’. [4]
In short: peasants do not make good mass-men. No, in that regard, if we must talk in terms of class, then let us spare the peasants and even the proletarians for a moment, and speak of that class whence comes the majority of zealous participants in, and proselytisers for, the latest moral fads, mass-political fashions, and hopeful idiocies: the bourgeoisie. If therein was found some little trace of the inner peasant, even in the pejorative sense, I should think it a blessing not a curse; for against participation, bloody-mindedness is the next best thing to nobility. And if that does not immediately strike you favourably, then imagine this: pitch-forks and fiery-brands outside the townhall next time its occupants propose an ethnic-awareness day at the tax-payer’s expense.
[1] Tom Paine, “‘Britishness’ day and oaths to the Queen urged”, The Last Ditch (weblog), 11th March 2008. (I mean no undue attack on Mr Paine, and I hope he does not take my criticism amiss; the connotations of the word “peasant” are such nowadays that it serves as an effective rhetorical device to which most of us are tempted at one time or another.)
[2] George Bernard Shaw, Preface to On the Rocks: A Political Comedy (1933), republished online by Project Gutenberg.
[3] A phrase that has many variants, here used as a characterisation of the intentions of Petr Tkachev and Sergey Nechayev by G.G. Vodolazov, Ot Chernyshevskogo k Plekhanov (Moscow: University of Moscow, 1969), p.79, quoted by Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in 19th Century Russia, tr., F. Haskell (London: Phoenix Press, 2001), p. lxxxviii.
[4] Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, October 1940, Diary of a Man in Despair, tr. P. Rubens (London: Duck Editions, 2000), p. 117. He declares them “a sociological anchor to windward in any epoch, who have not let themselves be fooled, no matter what the propaganda”, and tells the story of how in 1941 he saw one of them standing at the side of the road watching the tanks roll by on their way to crush Serbia. “Each time a tank rumbled by, the old man spat forcefully.” Ibid., June 1941, p.131.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

The Officially Forgotten Boche

“On 1st January, the last German veteran of the First World War passed away . . . and to official Germany this is worth not one syllable.”

[“Am 1. Januar verstarb der letzte deutsche Veteran des Ersten Weltkrieges . . . und dem offiziellen Deutschland ist dies keine Silbe wert.”]

Dieter Stein, “Eine Frage der Ehre”, Junge Freiheit, 1st February 2008.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Politics as Bad Poetry

It strikes me that the turpitude of our politicians might come into starker relief if we were to view them as bad poets: pathetic and desperate souls, free from restraints of harmony and good form, who must fill the world with their corrupt and ugly visions and endeavour to shape it to them.
.....Indeed we might view demotic politics itself as bad poetry, a great coarsening of symbols and ideas, extending into almost all spheres of life: into art, architecture, literature, philosophy and manners. Like bad poetry, however, it has one good aspect: its inadvertent comedy, though even this is far too weak to compensate for its corruption. Many a time I have nearly choked in astonished hilarity at what some politician has said in all seriousness, and yet, in the end, I am left disquieted, as if having laughed at a profane joke at the expense of everything sacred and worthwhile. So too I have seen many a stage comedian about whom I have thought half-way through his act: this man is here for therapy and we the audience are his collective psychiatrist — what a presumption! Is it too much to ask that such people redeem themselves quietly and without fuss, and not in front of an audience, and, if they really must go off in search of themselves, that they get lost? Aye, it is; for in search of redemption such people must become bad poets, bad comedians — and politicians. They must make the world a witness to their emptiness as if it could fill in the blanks. It no doubt makes for an amusing spectacle, but the amusement one takes from it is firmly on the cruel or unsympathetic side.
.....Anyway, the time has come to sully the page with a humble example of politics as bad poetry, and to have a little amusement at the expense of the Prime Blighter of Her Majesty’s Government:
So with the courage of our convictions,
With pride in our common purpose,
Let us go out with confidence to meet the world to come,
Let us embrace this new age of ambition,
and let us build the Britain of our dreams. [1]
Now, cynically speaking, I should say that a man prone to visions of leading his people into a new age sounds like a dangerous nutter to me, but really it is just the sort of cant that is expected of politicians nowadays, as we also see across the Great Pond, where presently the American people are being entertained to the great and ugly spectacle of political bellwethers each vying for the status of redeemer, each with his magic words and bad poetry.
The modern governor, owing to the fact that he addresses crowds, is compelled to be a moralist, and to present his acts as bound up with a system of morality, a metaphysics, a mysticism. [2]
No, it is all just too damned ugly for anyone with an aesthetic bone still left in his body. And as for the moral dimension, well, all I shall say is that, if Mr Brown indulges himself once again in mentioning his moral compass, I shall indulge myself once again in imagining a moral rifle with its scope set at three hundred yards.
[1] Gordon Brown, Speech to the Labour Party Spring Conference 2008, online at (The faux-poetic layout is as it appears on the Labour Party website.)
[2] Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2007), p.111. (I do not expect modern governors any time soon to acknowledge what they owe to that great master-poet of modern politics: Joseph Goebbels.)

Monday 3 March 2008


“The Greeks had a knowledge of human nature which we seem hardly able to achieve without passing through the strengthening hibernation of a new barbarism.”
[“Die Griechen besaßen eine Menschenkenntnis die wir ohne durch den stärkenden Winterschlaf einer neuen Barbarei durch zu gehen kaum erreichen zu können scheinen.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), F.385 from Sudelbuch F (1776-1780), p. 267.

A Dose of Schopenhauer

So far as I can recall, I have never read a word by William Buckley, who died the other day, but if it is true that he believed — as he is accused of believing — that “the purpose of government was to keep the plebs in their place while civilisation and culture were guarded and developed by the elite”, [1] then all I can say is that he had at least some conception of the proper role of government and of its proper limitation.
.....Such “reactionary nonsense” has not been widely favoured in the West ever since it fell for the cant of the mystic-peddlers of optimism who in the cry of the spirit of the people — “I am nothing and I should be everything[2] — professed to hear the sound of liberty, when, in fact, as Arthur Schopenhauer was keen to point out, they were hearing the will-to-life and -domination that sets itself no limits.
It always strives, because striving is its sole nature, to which no attained goal can put an end. Such striving is therefore incapable of final satisfaction; it can be checked only by hindrance, but in itself goes on forever. [3]
That the cry also sounds uncannily like that of an empty and resentful bourgeois radical with an unquenchable thirst for power, we should reckon not as coincidental; nor should we pass over how the cry comes as a breath of encouragement to all those who would meddle in other people’s lives — or “show concern”, as they are wont to present it to their consciences — and to all those who would make of the State a monstrous wet-nurse of morality, even of a new humanity: a quite ludicrous expectation, not to say a dangerous one.
What has always made the State a hell is that one wanted to make it a heaven. [4]
Political wisdom has long recognised that the strict authority of a State towards the external matters of behaviour is necessary to protect everyone from the egotistical will of everyone else; but political wisdom also recognises that to make of the popular will the sole and free source of power in the State, in other words, to found the sovereignty of the State on an unlimiting will, liberated in the name of freedom, so as to have it as the wind in the sails or the water in the bucket-wheel of every concern, is to set no limits on the power of the State itself; for, of the mass alone, there is no “better consciousness” through which its own will could be abnegated.
[W]e see that the advance of the common people in the state is closely linked with that of the state in the nation. [5]
About that, we should not be surprised, yet optimism in this regard still reigns, against which we could all do with a large dose of Schopenhauer. “Ever more it seems to me that he had a special mission for our age.” [6]
[1] Ian Williams, “An Ivy League saint”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 28th February 2008.
[2] Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, (1844), in Marx on Religion, ed., J. Raines (Philidelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), p.180. When, every fourteenth of July, Hegel raised a glass of red wine to the French Revolution, in which he professed to see the essence of liberty, he was in fact raising his glass to a new source of power, far greater than the old one.
[3] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol.1, tr. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), p.308.
[4] [“Immerhin hat das den Staat zur Hölle gemacht, daß ihn der Mensch zu seinem Himmel machen wollte.”] Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion, oder Der Eremit in Griechenland, Erstes Buch, online at Agerlibrorum.
[5] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, tr, J.F. Huntington (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.203.
[6] [“Mir kommt immer mehr vor, er habe für unsere Zeit eine wahre spezielle Sendung gehabt.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 19. September 1875, Briefe, (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), pp. 409-10.