Friday, 2 June 2006

A Thumb-Law of Controversy

It so often happens that a well-crafted argument is no match for a well-established sentiment, such that in controversy, a resistance is put up, whereby the stronger the opposing case, the firmer one’s resolve to oppose it. As Sydney Smith told Lord John Russell,
Euclid would have had a bad chance with you if you had happened to have formed an opinion that the interior angles of a triangle were not equal to two right angles. The more poor Euclid demonstrated, the more you would not have been convinced. [1]
That of course is an exaggeration designed to make a point about Lord Russell’s obstinacy. In many things, however, in which sentiments and the undemonstrables of life might figure more prominently, it is often the case that the belief comes first, and the reasons for believing come later, and that for the whole edifice, it is sentiment that provides the foundations, with reasons (truth-claims and arguments) as the supports.
.....One may try to kick away the supports, but they are likely to be strongly embedded in the foundations; and even if one manages to kick them away, and the roof comes crashing in, there is no certainty that a man will abandon the foundations to begin anew elsewhere. It is just as likely that he will retain his attachment to them and go in search of new supports. Often then, if you wish in controversy to get a man to abandon his beliefs, you must take dynamite to his sentiments—and this explosive is often made, not from reason or facts, but from other sentiments.
.....It is often said—more from affectation than conviction—that sentiment is always a very poor thing on which to base one’s arguments, and no doubt in many instances, sentiment should play no part. One could draw only puzzled glances and pitying looks if one were to argue that the sky is blue because it looks rather nice that way. Without sentiment, however, most people would find no persuasive grounds for the assertion that people should not be tortured for fun. The belief is ultimately rational, but for most it comes immediately and unreflectively from sentiment. The sadist too is a sentimentalist.
.....The existence of sentiment in controversy can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, shared sentiment provides us with grounds from which we might persuade others of the goodness of a belief. On the other hand, it may introduce perverse and almost immovable objections to the most evident truths.
.....The most interminable controversies are usually those which surround the question of how society and government ought to be organised; for, though truth and sound reasoning may be brought to bear, it is sentiment that often plays the role in immediately determining what a person feels to be the better way of life, and thus it is a matter over which the twain shall rarely meet.
.....In such cases, and if one insists in arguing it out, one of the most effective things to do against an advocate of a certain way of life is to demonstrate to him that it will bring about circumstances which will be an affront to the very sentiments by which he advocates it in the first place. I do not predict much controversy when I say that this is more easily said than done.

[1] Sydney Smith, quoted by Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths, Being the Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith. The Right Book Club, London. (n.d.). p. 274.

Thursday, 1 June 2006

Joyless and Triumphant

The joy of an unregimented life is incalculable, and cannot therefore find support from a state that wishes everything to be regimented and calculable.
.....We have sufficient cause to call totalitarian that state which seeks to regulate and regiment every area of life in accordance with some socio-political ideal, by which nothing—so far as it is practicable—may be left to individual choice and responsibility.
.....It does not matter what this state calls itself, nor is it a matter of symbols, flags, uniforms and military parades: such might accompany tyranny, but there is no reason to suppose they must accompany totalitarianism. The totalitarian state seeks rather to become coterminous with the nation; and the danger for us is precisely that democracy knows no bounds in this regard; for the proudest boast of democracy is that it is the government of the people by the people, and however ludicrous this claim may be, it has the injurious effect of lowering resistance to the idea that the nation is the state and the state is the nation.
.....We might hope to depend upon a robust body of individuals to maintain a healthy spirit of resistance against this threat, but we ought not to become complacent in this hope; for it is far from certain that every age must bring forth its saviours—cometh the hour, cometh the man—especially when that age has so many means of snuffing out the individual soul.
We have killed the ‘soul’, but we have created for ourselves a thousand-odd social and political slogans . . . which tyrannize over our thoughts, . . . and we proceed logically to transform the state into a monster to swallow up the individual. [1]
So wrote Lin Yutang, who would doubtless be unsurprised to see that the joyless impulse to crush the diversity and spontaneity of life, to regulate and regiment thought and deed, is so strong in our political and intellectual elite, and triumphant over timid and belittled souls; wherewith the greatest danger is that people will no longer be able to distinguish the true from the politically correct. This inability may already be seen to a large extent in the university-educated, who, you may be sure, will be ever happy to share their enlightened confusion with everyone else.
.....Statism has become a virulent idea, and consequently the state intrudes ever further into our lives, as surely as influenza lays low the infirm. It could well be that soon a man may not leap into a bath without Big Nanny having first tested the water with her big toe.
.....Still, a government minister playing croquet on a well-kept lawn is a glimmer of hope—and this hope, a proof of one’s desperation.
[1] Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1938), p.427.

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Fewtril #100

When the expert seeks to dissociate himself from the layman, he is often tempted into making the sort of claims from which every layman ought to dissociate himself.

Friday, 26 May 2006

Fewtril #99

Little can be made of a man who habitually lies, cheats, inveigles, and corrupts, unless he has the support and encouragement of others, in which case he might easily be made a Right Honourable Gentleman.

A Public Cacophony

Sometimes it seems that public debate in this land is worthy of attention only because it is the arena in which charlatans and demagogues might publicly expose their own and one another’s dreadful ideas in the most interesting and inventive ways. When one considers, however, that they would neither hold nor parade such ideas if they did not have this arena in which to do so, one might consider that social life would be better without it, even though we would be deprived of a fine spectacle. For, as Lin Yutang wrote:
Life, after all, is made up of eating and sleeping, of meeting and saying good-bye to friends, of reunions and farewell parties, of tears and laughter, of having a haircut once in two weeks, of watering a potted flower and watching one’s neighbour falling off his roof. [1]
Such unassuming simplicity is made difficult, however, by those publicly fielded ideas which threaten to overturn private life, ideas which seek to restructure the whole of social life in conformity with an efficient and watchful state, or in line with a profitable concern, or whose merits are measured by the power that might be had on account of the number of persons who might be made to subscribe to them. Consequently, one cannot be left in peace by the ideological organ-grinders and their countless shrieking monkeys.
.....At least one ought to take a holiday from public debate every now and then, and still too from those whose minds cannot be detached from it, in order that one might think again on one’s own terms:—better that than to remain just another shrill voice in a cacophony, or a vehicle for the ideas of others. In this regard, I share the sentiments of Jacob Burckhardt:
I want to get away from them all, from the radicals, the communists, the industrialists, the intellectuals, the pretentious, the reasoners, the abstract, the absolute, the philosophers, the sophists, the state fanatics, the idealists, the ‘ists’ and ‘isms’ of every kind. [2]
The trouble is, as I say, that with the growing cod-intellectualisation and politicisation of social life, in which one can hardly speak inconsequentially without someone’s objecting to one’s tone or to one’s supposed underlying assumptions, one can hardly be left unmolested. Live and let live is losing ground to that adolescent and most totalitarian slogan of them all: The personal is the political. It is a damned ugly phrase too.

[1] Lin Yutang, “On Lying in Bed” The Importance of Living (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1938), p.207.
[2] Jacob Burckhardt, Letter to Hermann Schauenburg, 28th February 1846, The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, ed. & tr. A. Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), p.75. (“[I]ch will ihnen allen entweichen, den Radikalen, Kommunisten, Industriellen, Hochgebildeten, Anspruchsvollen, Reflektierenden, Abstrakten, Absoluten, Philosophen, Sophisten, Staatsfanatikern, Idealisten, aner und iten aller Art.” Jacob Burckhardt, Briefe, Brief an Hermann Schauenburg, 28. Februar 1846, (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), p. 137.)

Fewtril #98

Our failings which are known to others are often unknown to ourselves; for we are wont to conceal those that are known to us, but to advertise those that are not.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

Lofty Bubbling

“Each and every time I find myself sitting on a plane, somewhere between a European city and Delhi or Bombay, I always experience that same bubbling lightness of being and sense of expectation and anticipation.” [1]
.....I’d be inclined to put that down to the re-heated prawn biriyani, but then I’m no spiritual guru, unlike the author of those words, who is apparently “endeavoring to define the contours of a new human consciousness and culture”. [2]
[1] Andrew Cohen, “What a Place to Wake Up! Reflections on IndiaNotes From the Revolution: News and Views from Andrew Cohen and his Students (Weblog), 15th May 2006.
[2] EnlightenNext,

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Fewtril #97

“If you’re not careful, I shall be offended, and then you’ll be sorry.” Such is the threat of the crutch-rattler, usurper of pathos, exploiter of pity, and brandisher of offendable sensibility, whose every claim is backed up with a show of weakness.

A Journalist's Inclination

Every journalist ought to struggle against that inclination of his to call brave those efforts of which he approves; yet typically it seems to him to be the most tiresome obligation, for which he has neither the pip nor the principle. An example:
Hilary Benn’s foray into war-torn, drought-plagued Somalia last week was a brave attempt to focus attention on the land the world forgot. [1]
It’s not as if Mr Benn was ordered to take Hill 523, armed with nothing but a bread-knife and a winning smile. Rather, he had a quick shuftie around a refugee camp, and then he came home, pledging to spend somebody else’s money. Biggety perhaps, but hardly brave.
[1] Simon Tisdall, “The land the world forgot”, The Guardian, 23rd May 2006.

Monday, 22 May 2006

Die Glaubens-Lehrer

“Most teachers of a faith defend their propositions, not because they are convinced of their truth, but because they have once asserted their truth.”
[“Die meisten Glaubens-Lehrer verteidigen ihre Sätze, nicht weil sie von der Wahrheit derselben überzeugt sind, sondern weil sie die Wahrheit derselben einmal behauptet haben.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), J.502 from Sudelbuch J (1789-1793), p. 387.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Prophet of Merciless Vitality

George F. Will tells a story of how Isaac Deutscher, biographer and acolyte of Leon Trotsky, once opined amidst the tea, banter, and hot sickle buns of the Oxford Marxist Society that the “[p]roof of Trotsky’s farsightedness is that none of his predictions has come true yet” [1]. If one had the temper to set one’s mind in line with that thought, one might suppose that the proof of Trotsky’s farsightedness grows more compelling by the year, although it ought to be appreciated that such a mind-set would behove the use of a bib to gather the fluid proceeds of one’s mental labours.
.....If time has not yet given us the occasions by which to refute all of Trotsky’s predictions—and only eternity would be sufficient time in which to refute those that are temporally indefinite—it has nonetheless afforded us with much evidence by which we might justifiably meet his glib pronouncements with hollow laughter. In addressing the American people on the prospect of the communisation of the United States, for example, Trotsky wrote:
Should America go communist as a result of the difficulties and problems that your capitalist social order is unable to solve, it will discover that communism, far from being an intolerable bureaucratic tyranny and individual regimentation, will be the means of greater individual liberty and shared abundance. [2]
Trotsky would have had the American people believe that no example could be drawn from the condition of communism in the Soviet Union, and that “true” Marxian communism, productive of individual liberty and shared abundance, could be built in the United States. Trotsky himself believed, however, that the American people were different from continental Europeans in one important respect, a difference that could hinder the process of their communisation:
[Y]our rationalism itself is weakened by empiricism and moralism. It has none of the merciless vitality of the great European rationalists. [3]
Thus: close your eyes and harden your hearts; let no facts inform the soundness of your premises, nor scruples hinder the drawing of the consequences therefrom; be progressive and merciless!—such are the prescriptions of the man whom Christopher Hitchens calls a “prophetic moralist”. [4]
.....In whatever political form it comes, it hardly need be said that it is the duty of all good men to resist this “merciless vitality”—and better to do so without euphemism.

[1] George F. Will, Text of a Speech by George F. Will, delivered 8th June 2001, in the Archibald Room of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, The Layman Online, 10th June 2001.
[2] Leon Trotsky, “If America Should Go Communist”, Liberty, 23rd March 1935, transcribed for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Christopher Hitchens, “The Old Man” (Review of the three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher), The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2004.

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Fewtril #96

If some unearthly being were to list the most common symptoms of madness on earth, happen it would find them mostly unnamed by earthlings, except as moral prescriptions.


“I have no embarrassment at all. No shame”, says Bono [1], which is just as well, for shame is one of those things that marks us out from beasts and pop-stars alike.

[1] Bono, Interview with Eddie Izzard, The Independent, 16th May 2006.

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Devotion to Stooping

If a mark could be set at that level down to which the demotic politician is willing to stoop, it would most likely be set no higher than at that level up to which the majority of his constituents are willing to reach, so that there will be not too great a gap between them; and where there is a demand for a politician of a certain kind, we should not think that we will want for a supply, as Lord Salisbury wittily observed:
[I]f a Member of Parliament were obliged to dance upon his head for the amusement of his constituents, it is probable that men of fortune and independence would be found to do it, and to assure the spectators that the time devoted to the feat was the proudest moment of their lives. [1]
Some believe that such devotion is to be applauded as the surest sign that our politicians respond to the demands of their constituents. And so they do—as surely as a bladder responds to the demands of a bar-room binge.
[1] Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, quoted by Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Phoenix, 2000), p. 60.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

A Waft from a Windbag

“Evil is something immanent to truth” [1]. Such is the opinion of Alain Badiou, standard-issue French windbag and Marxian buffoon.
.....Now, I do not doubt that truth can be used for evil or for bad effect—for instance, in teaching a terrorist how to set off a bomb, or in telling a bald man, preternaturally sensitive to his hairless condition, that one can see aeroplanes reflected in his shiny dome—but is it immanent therein? This would mean that telling the truth per se is the speaking of evil. If that is what they have been teaching at the École Normale Supérieure all these years, the attitudes of its alumni begin to make more sense after all.
.....Professor Badiou, having been saintly and studious in his eschewal of truth, is also of the opinion that “with science or with totalitarianism there is always a desire for the omnipotence of truth” [2], in which there appears some deliberate confusion between “truth” and “truth-claims”. After all, from the fact that the totalitarian desires the omnipotence of his truth-claims, it does not follow that he desires the omnipotence of truth. Countless false ideas have been claimed to be true—for the appeal to truth is undoubtedly a powerful one—but who would deduce from this that there has always been a desire for truth? To believe so is to believe that no-one ever lies or deceives.
.....Badiou, however, appears to be trying to conflate the truth-claims that the totalitarian makes about the world with those that the scientist makes, the implication being that scientific claims about, say, the nature of gravity are no more true—and are no more reflective of the desire for truth—than totalitarian claims about, say, the nature of society. The one is as evil as the other.
.....The question must naturally arise of what he means by the word “truth”; for it is widely known that French windbags are rarely satisfied with conventional usage, what with all the demands of “problematizing” and “transgressing boundaries” and the sundry other ways of keeping themselves and their ideologies in business. Here is what Professor Badiou has to say about truth [3]:
(1) “Truth is first of all something new”;
(2) “A completed truth is a hypothesis, it’s a fiction, but a strong fiction”;
(3) “Truth is always the possibility of its proper destruction”;
(4) “Ethical questions, for me, are questions in the field of truth”;
(5) “[T]ruths are something like pure creations, without finality”.
It is difficult to know what to make of these. We might guess that for something to be called true in Badiou’s scheme, it must be new, created, infinite, ethical, and strongly fictional if completed. Since these “truths” about truth were written in 2002, it is unclear whether they are now untrue, in accordance with (1), though presumably if they are still true, they are presumably false, since they are “something like pure creations”, which, if completed, are strongly fictional, and contain moreover “the possibility of [their own] proper destruction”, whatever that may mean.
.....If, as it seems from the statements above, Badiou does not mean by “truth” what we normally mean by it—to wit, the conformity or the correspondence of propositions to what is the case—against which pseudo-philosophy must make its case if it is to be seen by charlatans and excitable undergraduates everywhere as “bold” and “transgressive” in its challenge to truth, then his assertions against this normal conception of truth do not hit their target, since the target has become that other thing which he means by the word “truth”. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of his strategy lies in the equivocation of usage between denoting his eccentric—some might say indecipherable—concept of truth and the concept of truth as we normally conceive it, wherewith the impressionable fool can take any strikes against the former as strikes against the latter.
.....I could, of course, be accused of quoting out of context. The trouble is, it is more difficult to determine from the whole context what he means; for there is a haze of obfuscation and a tangle of intractable phrases. Moreover, miscreants such as Badiou may so render their writings that they can always claim to have been quoted out of context. The trick requires that one’s boldest and clearest assertions, most likely to be quoted in all fairness as the best summation of one’s position and as meaning what they appear to say, are set within an expanded and intractable context that includes subtle and obscured rescissions of those assertions. If the skill is developed, these rescissions may appear as one pole of an ambiguity, the other pole acting in concord with the general position as upheld by one’s clearest and boldest assertions.
.....Discussing the intellectual charlatans of his own time—most notably Fichte, Schelling and Hegel—Schopenhauer had this to say:
From every page and every line, there speaks an endeavour to beguile and deceive the reader, first by producing an effect to dumbfound him, then by incomprehensible phrases and even sheer nonsense to stun and stupefy him, and again by audacity of assertion to puzzle him, in short, to throw dust in his eyes and mystify him as much as possible. [4]
So it is with the writing of Alain Badiou, a thought-rotter of the first order, in whom a profound mendacity is something immanent.

[1] Alain Badiou, “On the Truth-Process: An Open Lecture by Alain Badiou” online at the European Graduate School, August 2002.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Arthur Schopenhauer, “Sketch of a History of Ideal and Real: Appendix”, Pererga and Paralipomena, vol.1, tr. by E.F.J. Payne, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.23.

Thursday, 4 May 2006

Laws of Migration

“We oppose all immigration laws” [1], says the Revolutionary Communist Group, though one may fairly suppose it has a different view on emigration.

[1] “What We Stand For”, Revolutionary Communist Group, online at