Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A Note on Voltaire

I cannot say I am utterly at home with Voltaire’s works, though, being no great admirer, I confess I have little desire to change this state of affairs — but I must say that the characterisation quoted below rings somewhat false to me, at least as far as Voltaire’s opinions on the Turks are concerned:
Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners — Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold — to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. [1]
I have been and still am under the impression — perhaps false after all — that Voltaire was a lifelong reviler of the Turks, expressing himself in a hostile manner thereto countless times in his long career. As he wrote in his twilight years:
I am seventy-nine, if you please, and upon the stroke of eighty. Thus shall I never see, what I have so passionately wished for, the destruction of those rogues, the Turks, who shut up the women, and do not cultivate the fine arts. [2]
Nor, whilst I am making note, can I rightly say that he was the anti-religionist of modern secularist fable, his being somewhat religious himself. It is nevertheless true to say that he was a gadfly and a trouble-maker, and, to a devout Roman Catholic such as Mozart, nothing more than a rogue. As the composer expressed it to his father at the time of Voltaire’s death: “I give you news which you will perhaps already know, namely, that the godless arch-scoundrel Voltaire has died wretchedly like a dog — like a brute.” [3] Naturally there are all sorts of fables about Mozart too. I have even heard it said that he was a political and social revolutionary in whom modern revolutionaries might take some comradely interest — said, that is, by modern revolutionaries who would have made Voltaire look to Mozart like a saint and a staunch conservative.

[1] Thomas F. Bertonneau, “The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel”, The Brussels Journal, 5th January 2009.
[2] Voltaire, “Extract of a Letter from M. Voltaire to the King of Prussia”, Annual Register, Vol. XVII, December 1774, p.177, republished online at the Internet Library of Early Journals. (Another example: “How I should like to see those scoundrels hunted out of the country of Pericles and Plato: it is true, they are not persecutors, but they are brutes.” Letter to M. d’Alembert, 4th September 1769, in Voltaire in His Letters; Being a Selection from His Correspondence, tr. S.G. Tallentyre (London: John Murray, 1919), p.228.)
[3] [“Nun gebe ich Ihnen eine Nachricht, die Sie vielleicht schon wissen werden, daß nemlich der gottlose und Erz-Spitzbub Voltaire so zu sagen wie ein Hund — wie ein Vieh crepirt ist.”] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Letter to His Father (no.107), 3. Juli 1778, in Mozarts Briefe (Salzburg: Verlag der Mayrischen Buchhandlung, 1865), p.165.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


Readers will have noticed the decline of activity in this backwater of Blogland. I have been a little lazy and largely diffident in posting. I have run low on presumption, the grease by which the blogging-cogs run smoothly. Still, the new year may bring more. In the meantime, a very merry Christmas to you all.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Argumentum Insapiens

“Given that Homo sapiens originated in Africa it would be true to say that 100% of Britons have immigrant ancestors.” [1]

Not only would it not be true to say so, but it would be dumb to say so. It is impossible to have immigration into states and nations that do not exist. And I am quite sure that Britain as a state did not exist at the dawn of humanity; that England as an ethno-geographic territory did not exist when the Anglo-Saxons invaded these islands; and that Britain still did not exist when the Normans invaded England. The socio-political-territorial concept of immigration implies by its prefix migration into something, rather than just movement from one point in space to another, and that that something is not a mere stretch of matter, which has by itself no objectively-existing territorial borders. The stretch of matter that we name “Britain” attains no status as anything but matter except by a socio-political concept; and its division into national territories depended on the very nations that made them. The Anglo-Saxons were not immigrants to an England which somehow magically existed apart from them; they were its creators. Nor were they immigrants to a Britain that would not exist until long after they had arrived. Similarly, Scotland did not exist before the Scots invaded from Ireland, and China did not exist before there were people calling themselves Chinese, and so on. It is utter nonsense to speak of the English being immigrants to England, the Scots being immigrants to Scotland, the Welsh being immigrants to Wales, the Irish being immigrants to Ireland, the Indians being immigrants to India, and so on — all of which are not mere stretches of earth, but ethnic, social, or political territories. Mr Worstall, however, comes from the So-Long-As-It-Makes-Us-Richer School of Thought, which is to say that he’d gladly sell his ancestral homeland for a few pennies more a year, and, as it seems, wouldn’t baulk at using spurious arguments to do so. Or perhaps, as regards the latter point, he is just a twit.
[1] Tim Worstall, “Twits”, Tim Worstall (weblog), 18th December 2008. (“Homo sapiens” changed from “Homo Sapiens”.)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fewtril no.263

Knowledge is the means by which we deepen mystery. There is, I suppose, an end to it, but that would require either omniscience or shallowness.

Fewtril no.262

Falsification can begin anywhere, but it must begin if “explanation” continues where a fundament is reached.

The Dark Night of the Intellect

“If I concentrate hard enough on why I believe there is a tree in the Quad, I cease to assume that there is a tree in the Quad, and treat that statement instead as a proposition to be proved rather than a premise that is given. In having the question of whether there is a tree in the Quad or not brought to my notice I am being begged not to beg the question, and the courtesies of argument demand that I put in doubt what I normally know to be true. There is also what I might call the Yellow-Spot phenomenon in philosophy, namely, that if we focus our attention too hard on any matter for too long, we cease to see it straight. In the dark night of the intellect, which is the philosopher’s usual state of mind, it is wise for him occasionally to distract his thoughts and look away, that he may see what he is looking at the better; more especially when he is dealing with facts and certainty. For facts are essentially what is peripheral to the question under examination, what can be taken for granted on this occasion; and therefore by being asked sufficiently earnestly to consider any question sufficiently closely I can be cajoled into giving up fact-status for this occasion for almost any statement: courtesy compels. Only if I am making the minimum possible statement can I be pushed no further: only if I say that there is in my visual field at this moment a red rectangular patch on a cream background, am I safe from possible error: hence, if there are basic facts, only the simplest facts of sense-experience can fill the bill. By attempting to make rigid and absolute the flexible standard, which depends on the circumstances, of what the honest man cannot reasonably refuse to concede, we have ensnared ourselves in a reductionist spiral, demanding an ever lower standard of reasonableness until we reach the phenomenalist’s goal, the lowest common denominator of what must be conceded by every reasonable man in any circumstances whatever, that is, what must be conceded by a barely sentient being.
.....It is an interesting way of doing philosophy. We start by assuming that a fact is what a true statement states: from this it is a natural inference that since the conclusions of ethical debate and scientific theorising are not facts, they are not true either. By restricting our criterion of truth to that of agreed truth, we are able to eliminate all doubt and dubiety within the province of philosophy; nor can the opponent of this view fault the examples given of what is to be allowed as really true, for only those truths that cannot reasonably be contested are put forward as examples. One weakness alone attaches to the method: as there are few facts, if any, that we cannot in our metaphysical moments be uncertain of, our concept of truth is regressive; our criterion grows progressively and indefinitely more stringent. At first we exclude those propositions of morals, theology and metaphysics, whose elimination is welcome to many of the enlightened; but the more we think, the more nice we become as to what are unquestionable truths; and so the truths of logic, mathematics, and natural science, of common sense and everyday life, join the procession to the guillotine.”

J.R. Lucas, “On Not Worshipping Facts”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 8, 1958, pp.155-6, online at J.R. Lucas’s website.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


“Young people only appear in the media to receive the blame for breaking Britain, and as the subject of longwinded tracts that label us apathetic and materialistic” — says yet another youngster in the media bemoaning the “negative” image of youth, i.e., whichever image does not excuse or praise the vices and inanities thereof. “Most of us care”, says our young female scribbler, “but feel so disempowered by these stifling truisms.” [1] Apart from indulging in the usual pathetic exaggeration, is she telling us that these labels are stifling but self-evident truths, or is she too apathetic to pick up a dictionary? Or is my usage too old?
.....Often in the eyes of the liberal press, the young can do no wrong — “like a multitude of little popes with the power of infallibility” [2] — and almost every journalist-intellectual therein feels the urge to flatter them, and makes little effort to resist it, such that he can hardly get through a lengthy description of some particular youths without at some point having described them as “very bright” or “fiercely intelligent”, particularly if they are also utterly stupid, poor, and criminal. I suppose, given the strength of this urge, we ought to congratulate any journalist who manages to resist it.

[1] Lily Kember, “Lily savaged”, Comment is Free (The Guardian's weblog), 10th December 2008.
[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One of Today’s Falsehoods”, 1873, in A Writer’s Diary, Vol.1 (1873-1876), tr. K. Lantz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994), p.282.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wrongly Adduced

“We wrongly adduce the honour and beauty of an activity from its usefulness, and our conclusion is wrong if we reckon that all are bound to perform it, and that it is honourable for each to do so, provided it be useful.”

Michel de Montaigne, “On the Useful and the Honourable”, The Complete Essays, Bk.III:1, tr. & ed. M.A. Screech (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p.906.

Inverted Filter

“A Government-office is like an inverted filter: you send in accounts clear and they come out muddy.”

Sir Charles Fox, as reported by Herbert Spencer, “The Sins of Legislators”, The Man versus the State (London and Oxford: Williams & Norgate, 1902), p.55.

A More Fatal Act

“The French Revolution was a vast act of political destruction at the heart of previous society: let us fear lest it creates a more fatal act of destruction, let us fear moral destruction hand in hand with that Revolution’s evils.”

François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, tr. A.S. Kline, Bk.XLII:8:1, published online by A.S. Kline.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


It is said that a Roman dux was accompanied in his triumphal procession by a slave whose task was to remind him by a constant whispering in his ear that he was not a god but a man: hominem te memento, memento mori, hominem te memento, memento mori, and so on. The fantastical idea strikes me that our times could benefit from an office somewhat akin to that which is said to have accompanied the triumphator of the ancient world, but say, an office of the demagogue-whisperer, whose task would be to remind the popularly-elected governor of his true nature — oligarcham demagogicum te memento; non modo non est vox populi vox dei, sed etiam vox tua non est vox populi — lest out of egomania and veritable democratic piety there be concocted in the demagogue’s soul a volatile formula:
Vox populi vox dei est,
Vox mea vox populi est,
Ergo est vox mea vox dei.
Yet we live in enlightened times, or so I am told, and therefore something so strange as this office could not be taken seriously, not because it would stand against all the most sacred and cherished principles of these times; on the contrary, such an office might easily be instituted as a salaried one alongside that of every demagogic oligarch, each to be overseen by a committee of well-remunerated academicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, and popular journalists with felicitous connections that tend more towards the social than the neuronal. Rather it would discourage not just a condition for the existence of modern popular government, but also a condition for its growth. The extension of this power involves not just cynical manipulation and mendacity on the part of governors and other interested parties. Also greatly advantageous thereto is the genuine belief, or the delusive sop to conscience, on the part of governors and governed alike that this power is exercised and extended on behalf and for the good of all, such that any discouragement to this belief must be seen as a discouragement to progress.

Popular Election

It is true that popular election is in principle a competition open to all. No shyster or mountebank is precluded even on the grounds of decency. Yet, as I have just foreshadowed, it is not true that popular election is in practice a competition open to all; for, whether by control of the selection of candidates by political parties or by the unsuitable character of some men, there are many who are unable to stand for popular election. Naturally, for instance, a man of honour is precluded on the very grounds of his honour from becoming a demagogue.
He who, in the consciousness of duty, is capable of disinterested service of the community does not descend to the soliciting of votes, or the crying of his own praise at election meetings in loud and vulgar phrases. Such men manifest their strength in their own work, in a small circle of congenial friends, and scorn to seek popularity in the noisy market-place. If they approach the crowd, it is not to flatter it, or to pander to its basest instincts and tendencies, but to condemn its follies and expose its depravity. To men of duty and honour the procedure of elections is repellent; the only men who regard it without abhorrence are selfish, egoistic natures, which wish thereby to attain their personal ends. To acquire popularity such men have little scruple in assuming the mask of ardour for the public good. They cannot and must not be modest, for with modesty they would not be noticed or spoken of. By their positions, and by the parts which they have chosen, they are forced to be hypocrites and liars; they must cultivate, fraternise with, and be amiable to their opponents to gain their suffrages; they must lavish promises, knowing that they cannot fulfil them; and they must pander to the basest tendencies and prejudices of the masses to acquire majorities for themselves. What honourable nature would accept such a role? Describe it in a novel, the reader would be repelled, but in elections the same reader gives his vote to the living artiste in the same role. [1]
Popular election certainly does not measure anything so airy as a spontaneous and indivisible will of the people; indeed it rarely measures the will of the majority of people even on the simple and manufactured matter of choosing one rather than another of the presented candidates. It serves only as a rather effective mechanism for the selection of bad governors, whose oligarchy is nevertheless seen as rightful for its having been the answer delivered by the greater part of those who do not understand the question.
.....It is always well to be reminded of that delusion whereby the empowerment of the governors through the mechanism of popular election is interpreted to mean the empowerment of the governed. Even some of the governors believe it.

[1] K.P. Pobyedonostseff, Reflections of a Russian Statesman, tr. R.C. Long (London: Grant Richards, 1898), pp.37-8. (I suppose we must count it to the success of the democratic ideal that few men of honour, but many men of keen participation, can now be found.)

Saturday, 8 November 2008


“Every school in England will get a specialist Holocaust teacher to promote tolerance and combat racism”, reports The Telegraph. [1] “[T]he new expert staff members will also be encouraged to lead other lessons on multiculturalism and fighting extremism”. It is safe to presume that they will not be encouraged to fight their own ideas. “One teacher from every secondary school will be invited on a two-day course to ensure themes surrounding the Nazi genocide are treated sensitively in the classroom.” Experts after a two-day course! But then I must admit that “experts” sounds better than “ideological co-ordinators”. It is just a shame that Trevor Phillips’ Equalities and Human Rights Commission has not yet sent out its own specialists; for children could also begin to learn that social progress against racial interest can be achieved only by promoting blacks to positions of power. [2]
[1] News Bulletin: “Holocaust Teacher for Every School”, The Telegraph, 8th November 2008.
[2] Chris Irvine, “Trevor Phillips: Racism would stop Barack Obama being prime minister in the UK”, The Telegraph, 8th November 2008. (As any fool can tell you, racial interest or aggression exists only in whites, especially insidious in its “institutional” form.)

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Van-Carterian Defence

“A party apparatchik . . . says the election means, ‘All of us have to give up our cynicism,’ and I think I might punch him in the face.”

Carter van Carter, “Over and Done”, Across Difficult Country (weblog), 5th November 2008.

The Grand Elector

“My vote mattered,” says some poor fellow [1], who seems to be giving delighted and succinct expression to the quite remarkably dim belief that his vote was decisive.

EskerPaleo, commenting on the transcript of Barack Obama’s speech, “Obama acceptance speech in full”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 5th November 2008; original emphasis.

The Holy Obama

Against the odds I have striven to ignore the American presidential election, yet I have been lured from my mental cave by all those “eloquent voices of hope and expectation” raised in honour of a “magnificent human being” who has been elected “[t]he first President of the World”. It is said that now “the grown-ups have celebrating to do”, and that the news has already brought hope “to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world”, news of a man who will lead us all “from some dark and terrible place”. No longer need we “cry over all the horrible things that have been done in our name . . . Now for tears of joy!”. Yet after this “moment of greatness for all humanity” [1], after “the justified euphoria” has died down, let us soberly “fly with hope, with . . . eyes wide open” and “let Obama . . . get on with healing the planet” — let him “[r]ide the wind and soar . . . for all our sakes”. Nevertheless, and if “the world” does not mind, I shall be watching from my cave, whither I shall soon be crawling back.

[1] Wangari Maathai, “The US has truly overcome. And the world is joining in”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 6th November 2008. (All other quotations are of sundry dolts commenting on Maathai’s article, or on the transcript of Barack Obama’s speech, “Obama acceptance speech in full”, Ibid., 5th November 2008.)