Wednesday, 26 March 2008

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.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Hostile Notice

On account of something I wrote a while ago, entitled “Something Called Education”, I have come to hostile notice. My criticisms have caused offence in the right circles and provoked a series of letters, published I know not where, but republished anonymously in the comments of the aforementioned post:
We read the shallow piece entitled ‘The Joy of Curmudgeonry,’ and we completely disagree with its limited and defensive stance. It’s always easier and more cowardly to blog without a real name and to quote scholars’ work out of its comprehensive and thoughtful context.
Dr. James Andrews
Dr. Mary Evans
Dr. James Nardy
We applaud Drs. Andrews, Evans, and Nardy for their thoughtful response to the shallow and cowardly ‘The Joy of Curmudgeonry: Something Called Education.’ We read the original 30-page essay, which the ‘Curmudgeonry’ writer critized, and we are convinced that the ‘Curmudgeonry’ writer did not read the entire essay. In fact, he/she quoted only from the first paragraph of the essay, suggesting that the rest of the article was not read. This is shabby journalism at its worse, and the writer of this journalistic garbage should be embarrassed. As high school teachers, we would give him/her a failing grade in both process of writing and substance of ideas. In retrospect, the 30-page essay is receiving major recognition from researchers and classroom practitioners in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and New Zealand. We therefore were dismayed to read the emotionally toned ‘Curmudgeonry’ response to it. Obviously, this limited writer and thinker knows little about education, about classroom practice, and about related substantive research.

Joel Rittler, Ph.D.
Barbara McNulty, M.S.

We read ‘Something Called Education’ and were extremely disappointed by its overt bias and narrow perspective. This so-called critique pretended to have substance, when it really demonstrated quite the opposite. As educated parents, we expect more from writers who are supposed to control their prejudices as they express their points of view and document them thoroughly. The author of ‘Something Called Education’ did neither. He also did not read the two articles that he critiqued. His review of the English Leadership Quarterly article was predicated entirely on a secondary source. It also was obvious that his critique of the progressive education article was equally ineffective because he quoted from the first paragraph only, and this quote was blatantly out of context. This lack of ethics, accompanied by poor research skills, would clearly be identified by most young school-age children. As parents, we demand more.

George and Rachel Clifton
Four Ph.Ds, one Masters, and a brace of demanding parents. Not a bad catch for murky waters.
.....Now, if I were to take these my teachers in earnest, and take chicanery to heart, then I should learn at least two lessons to be applied in all future controversy:

(1) When a man quotes solely from the beginning of an article, one can take it to suggest that he has not read the whole, wherewith one comes to the understanding that even if he had quoted from the beginning, the middle, and the end, performed for no other sake than to forestall idiotic objections, for which he might feel life is too short and pertinence too precious, he would not thereby prove that he had read the whole. Nor indeed would a quotation of the whole suffice for the proof that he had read it, though at least the latter would forestall accusations that he had quoted out of the context of the whole of the article itself, though not out of the whole of extended context, given that context can be extended to whatever bounds one sees fit for one’s purpose, including a “comprehensive and thoughtful context” in which any article can be said to rest, to which adepts can claim privy access, and to which they can always refer vaguely in their defence; — all of which in effect is to say: should one be of a mendacious cast, all one’s clearest assertions can be retracted into infinite context, all criticisms of one’s views made inadmissible, and all one’s bollix made defensible.

(2) When a man has no access to the primary source — perhaps even on account of an insurmountable unwillingness to pay a subscription to a journal he suspects would be of little use to him except perhaps to end up as expensive lavatory-paper — then any quotes he takes from a secondary source quoting that primary source are inadmissible regardless of whether the secondary source is true as regards the primary one, wherewith no onus falls on the criticiser to show that the secondary source is false as regards the primary one.

It is not that I am ungrateful for these lessons; it is just that, in the textbook of political chicanery, they are not very sophisticated ones, and, in any case, outside such a textbook, they are dishonourable. But the authors of the letters have missed an opportunity: in taking me to task for quoting out of context, as in the case of the quote from the primary source, they could have endeavoured to teach me — indeed the whole world — what the quote actually means in context rather than merely what it apparently means both in and out of it, and also of what that secret something is in the context of the article that gives the quote a meaning different from that which is apparent; moreover, in taking me to task for quoting from a secondary source, all they need have done is provide evidence of the falsity of it. It seems not too much to ask of teachers — sorry, classroom-practitioners — that they do what appears to be quite simple.
.....But that is enough: I shall not bother to address the accusations of shallowness, cowardice, and so on, but as to the charge of overt bias, I plead guilty: I should not wish such mind-blighters on anyone’s children, including their own.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Myths and Misconceptions

There is no doubt that tabloid myths and popular misconceptions do a great deal of damage to this country. Gangs of them hang around not existing whilst smashing windows, daubing walls with graffiti, and doing violence to the innocent, who, after all, are guilty for imagining them. “Adults must think twice before assuming that every group of under-20s in a street or mall is likely to be a threat” [1] — right enough: and thrice before passing the time of day with them.
[1] Rowan Williams, “It’s adults, not young people, who are a public menace”, The Guardian, 26th February 2008. (I once broke a knuckle on an instance of popular misconception. It had a hard skull.)

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

A Little Advice

If being rich is ruining your life, [1] then why not try the obvious solution? To that end, please do not hesitate to contact me, whereupon I shall be only too happy to arrange for the alleviation of your suffering in the form of your sending me cheques, postal orders, or, preferably, cash. Any amount will be as gratefully received as it is given — the more, the merrier, for me as well as for you. Failing that, you could always give the money to charity. Either way, you could thereby dissipate your riches, avoid spending money on a nice house and a comfortable life, and thus blessedly find no need “to forgive [your] father and be grateful” [2] to him for giving you all that money in the first place — and perhaps then, by the graces of poverty and ingratitude, you would find happiness at last.
[1] “Francesca”, Letter to Lesley Garner: “Lifeclass: ‘Being rich is ruining my life’”, The Telegraph, 19th February 2008.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Choose Democracy, or We'll Make You

“[T]he goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project; the means need to combine both soft and hard power.”

David Milliband, quoted by Patrick Wintour, “Miliband: UK has moral duty to intervene”, The Guardian, 12th February 2008.

The Emotional Appeal of Eliminative Materialism

If one were to mark upon a scale the emotional rather than the rational appeal of various philosophies of mind, one would be first inclined to place Cartesian dualism at the very appealing end, and eliminative materialism at the very unappealing end. Why? Because Cartesian dualism sees mind to be alongside or above mere matter, gives succor to the idea of an autonomous self, makes plausible the idea of immortality, and thus accords in large part with our commonsense beliefs, our hopes for human dignity, and our desires for self-preservation. Eliminative materialism, on the other hand, declares that we have no self or even mind. It would be wrong to assume, however, that this scale of appeal holds for all men. There may be some for whom the obvious appeal of dualism is itself that aspect that makes it very unappealing to them. Such men would not deny the common, emotional appeal of dualism; on the contrary, it would be important that they make much of it, all the way unto declaring it an appeal stemming from an embedded folk-psychology left over from the days of superstition that no properly modern, hard-headed, rational man should touch with a maypole. Therewith the embrace of eliminative materialism appears to put them at the greatest remove from being taken as the kind of men who would fall for ideas on account of their emotional appeal. That eliminative materialism does not appear to be emotionally appealing at all would be emotionally appealing to those in whom the need to appear utterly rational in disregard of the emotional appeal of ideas is the basis of their self-esteem and thereby their strongest emotional need of all.

Fewtril no.232

Democracy vulgarises to so great an extent that it leaves the vast majority of people impressed with its achievements.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Public Aspiration

“More and more individuals, owing to their bloodless indolence, will aspire to be nothing at all—in order to become the public.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, in The Present Age, and Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, tr. A. Dru (London: The Fontana Library, 1962), p.72.