Saturday, 11 April 2009

Uxorial Matter

“The materialist who is convinced that all phenomena arise from electrons and quanta and the like controlled by mathematical formulae, must presumably hold that his wife is a rather elaborate differential equation; but he is probably tactful enough not to obtrude this opinion in domestic life.”

Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), p.341.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Sympathy for Little Sadists

“The news that two children aged 10 and 11 have been charged with the attempted murder of two other boys is deeply depressing, . . . but I dread the possibility that children of that age will be forced to undergo a full-blooded public trial as if they were adults”, says Marcel Berlins of The Guardian. [1] “At that age, their brains are not yet fully developed, and one of the elements missing is mature judgment.” Yet it is to be dreaded that, if they remain as they are, if their brains stay as tender as mush, they may well end up becoming judges or journalists.

[1] Marcel Berlins, “I am dreading the possibility that two young children will be forced to undergo a public trial”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 8th April 2009.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Street-Comedy in the UK

“Police intercepted a blue armoured car containing 10 anarchists — known as the Space Hijackers — who had come to the protests to make their feelings felt through the medium of street theatre.”

Sam Jones and Paul Lewis, “G20 protesters gather in City of London for series of demos”,, 1st April 2009.

Monday, 30 March 2009

A Most Extraordinary Fact

“It is a most extraordinary fact that all modern talk about self-determination is applied to everything except the self.”

G.K. Chesterton, “Government and the Rights of Man”, Illustrated London News, 30th July 1921, reproduced online at The American Chesterton Society.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Not Three Thousand Leagues

“To the south-east — three thousand leagues —
The Yüan and Hsiang form into a mighty lake.
Above the lake are deep mountain valleys,
And men dwelling whose hearts are without guile.
Gay like children, they swarm to the tops of the trees;
And run to the water to catch bream and trout.
Their pleasures are the same as those of beasts and birds;
They put no restraint either on body or mind.
Far I have wandered throughout the Nine Lands;
Wherever I went such manners had disappeared.
I find myself standing and wondering, perplexed,
Whether Saints and Sages have really done us good.” [1]

I assume that the lake in question is Lake Dongting in the north-east of Hunan Province into which the Yüan and Hsiang (Xiang) flow. I further assume that “league” in this translation does not signify a traditional English league, since three thousand leagues north-west of Hunan Province would be somewhere in the Arctic Sea. Regarding the more important matter of the sentiment let loose in this poem, I know it is one that has often been found lurking not three thousand leagues away from the minds of the civilised.

[1] Yüan Chieh, “Civilisation”, in A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, tr. A. Waley (New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, 1919), p.149.

At the Disposition of Fortune

“It seems to me, upon the whole matter, that to save or redeem a nation . . . from perdition, nothing less is necessary than some great, some extraordinary conjuncture of ill fortune, or of good, which may purge, yet so as by fire. Distress from abroad, bankruptcy at home, and other circumstances of like nature and tendency, may beget universal confusion. Out of confusion order may rise: but it may be the order of a wicked tyranny, instead of the order of a just monarchy. Either may happen: and such an alternative, at the disposition of fortune, is sufficient to make a Stoick tremble! We may be saved, indeed, by means of a different kind; but these means will not offer themselves, this way of salvation will not be opened to us, without the concurrence, and the influence, of a Patriot King, the most uncommon of all phaenomena in the physical and moral world.” [1]

One may suspect that “the most uncommon of all phaenomena” has not taken the curious form of a one-eyed Calvinist with a grin as stiff and crooked as his soul.

[1] Lord Bolingbroke, The Idea of a Patriot King (1738), in The Works of the Late Right Honourable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, Vol. IV. (London: J. Johnson, 1809), pp.230-1.

Fewtril no.267

Iconoclasm is for the philistine a sacred idol never to be broken.

A Natural Instinct of Economy

“When we speak of a cube with trimmed corners—a figure which is not a cube—we do so from a natural instinct of economy, which prefers to add to an old familiar conception a correction instead of forming an entirely new one. This is the process of all judgment.” [1]

It is also, if care is not taken, why judgement is apt to go awry, since we are often so impressed with an old familiar conception that we fail fully to appreciate the significance of a new one for which it is meant to bring understanding.

[1] Ernst Mach, “On the Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry”, Popular Scientific Lectures, tr. T.J. McCormack (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1898), pp.201-2.


Any ethos — say, of Confucianism or Stoicism — that teaches the harmony of the mind with the order of nature cannot now but stand as a threat to the mindedness of modern man; for, if any such ethos were accepted in conjunction with what is now taught, namely, that the order of nature is neither divine nor spiritual but rather fundamentally and utterly devoid of anything analogous to mind — no forms or final ends, no qualities or values, and so forth — then any such ethos would be so conjoined as to teach mindlessness. Perhaps in this is the source of much of the modern sickness. Harmony with the order of nature in any of the outgrowths of the mind, whether social, political, aesthetic, philosophical, is not possible under the modern conception: either there is mind at odds with the world, alienated from the grounds of meaning and reason, a cosmic freak perpetually bound to vain and joyless strife, or there is mindlessness. One may fairly suspect that modern man is coming more and more to choose the latter.

Fewtril no.266

There is no war where no-one sees anything of value for which to fight. The peace-mongers would see the world stripped of values, and all men rendered worthless and blind, so as to achieve that end which they value at the expense of all others. It is against them, if nothing else, that war has a holy value once more.

Fewtril no.265

Not even the dregs of humanity are so contemptible as those who look down upon them with condescending indulgence wherewith to stir them up.

An Ounce of Wisdom

“The first and highest rule of all deed and speech, the more necessary to be followed the higher and more numerous our posts, is: an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness. It is the only sure way, though it may not gain so much applause.”

Balthasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr. J. Jacobs (London: MacMillan and Co., 1892), §.xcii, p.54.

A Grave Problem

Great Britain has a grave problem. Its highest political offices are not held by black men. How can any self-respecting Briton ever feel proud of his country, let alone rid himself of a pervading sense of disgust, whilst the country remains in white hands? Let us all, therefore, irrespective of race or creed, and for the sake of pride and progress, justice and fairness, give way to black-racial interests. Towards the realisation of our goal, we should mark every step with the slogan: “It’s hardly Barack Obama, but you’ve got to say it’s progress.” [1]

[1] Joseph Harker, “A sign of hope for Commons equality?Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 25th March 2009.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Old Gigontic Confusion

“On two occasions I have been asked, — ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1864), p. 67.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Fallacy of Chronological Snobbery

So named by Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis, this fallacy is a modern favourite, especially amongst self-declared rationalists, who are not just commonly prone to irrationality, but who have, in their doctrinal entailments, an uncanny instinct for irrationalism. The fallacy is as follows:

(1) It is argued that p implies q.
(2) That p implies q was argued long ago when people also believed such absurdities as r, s, and t.
(3) We are modern and up-to-date and thoroughly rational and do not associate with such stupid, primitive, pre-rational, superstitious, iron-age thinking.
(4) We do not deign to suppose that p implies q.
(5) That which we do not deign to suppose to be true is untrue.
(6) p does not imply q.

One may note the group-thought that greatly informs this fallacy. Mere conventionality to the prevailing intellectual climate of the age usurps the place and name of rationality, which is then made sacrosanct, whereupon the fear of appearing irrational — that is to say, of appearing out of step with the age — becomes greater than the initial motivating fear of being irrational. Guided by this conventionality, enticed by a progressive-historicism which sees the future as a bright light, and the past as a dark and terrible place, the fallacy is informed throughout by haughtiness and ignorance. The progressive-historicism of the fallacy often betrays itself in such epithets as “medieval logic”, spoken as though an instance of logical inference could somehow be invalidated and therefore ignored merely through association with a pre-modern source.
.....For near-daily examples, read the weblogs Overcoming Bias and Secular Right, wherein one may also enjoy the spectacle of what Arthur Schopenhauer called the secularised religion of reason, which has, as one may expect, much to do with passion.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

An Unwelcome Guest

The present day. A large town-house in Hampstead. In the lounge are seated four persons: Dr and Mrs Ashmarr, he, an academic, she a publisher; Mr Hipkins, a science-writer; and Miss Treadwell, a journalist. They await the arrival of Mr Charles Darwin, who has been brought back from the grave for the evening in celebration of his two hundredth birthday. [The reader is welcome to petition the writer for technical details on how this resurrection was effected, or why Mr Darwin would spend his brief time in such company. The writer regrets, however, that, owing to many pressing matters, he cannot guarantee that he will have the time to supply an answer.] The doorbell rings, and a Polish servant-girl goes to answer it. A few moments later, Mr Darwin enters the lounge at the sound of laughter.

Dr Ashmarr. Ah, my dear Mr Darwin, what a miracle it is that brings you here! Forgive us. You catch us in a nervous state. My wife was just amusing us with her impression of the Mayor of London. Please come in and let me introduce you. [He does so.]
Mr Darwin. You are all most kind. [He takes a seat, and so as to break the ice, begins somewhat nervously to speak.] As bearing on the subject of imitation, the strong tendency in our nearest allies, the monkeys, in microcephalous idiots, and in the barbarous races of mankind, to imitate whatever they hear deserves notice. [1]
Mrs Ashmarr. I beg you pardon?
Mr Darwin. Ah, madam, I beg yours! I did not mean to suggest . . .
Dr Ashmarr. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate the two hundredth birthday of our honoured guest, Mr Charles Darwin, a genius, I hope you don’t mind my saying, and a man of whom this country can be justly proud. The whole world owes you a great debt.
Mr Hipkins. Indeed, you have brought great intellectual fulfilment to men such as I.
Miss Treadwell. Hear, hear!
Mrs Ashmarr. Bravo!
Mr Darwin. I thank you all for your kind words. I must say that everything has been most queer for me today. I can see that much has changed.
Mr Hipkins. It has, Mr Darwin, and you are impressed, no doubt, by the progress that has been made.
Mr Darwin. I am shocked, sir, though I dare say I have not seen the half of it. Tell me, how is our noble race faring on the whole?
Mr Hipkins. Our noble race?
Mr Darwin. The English. They are still a noble race, are they not? [2]
Dr Ashmarr. Ah, Mr Darwin, forgive me, but we do not speak of ourselves that way any more.
Mr Darwin. Then it is as I feared. ’Tis all too true that the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. [3] With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. [4]
Miss Treadwell. But that is frightful!
Dr Ashmarr. Mr Darwin, are you seriously suggesting that we remove our aid from those less fortunate from ourselves?
Mr Darwin. Not at all, sir. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. . . . Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. [5]
Mr Hipkins. It is true that many now refrain from marriage.
Mr Darwin. Well, that is splendid! Then there is hope.
Mr Hipkins. Err . . . of course.
Dr Ashmarr. But of progress, Mr Darwin, there is still much to be done. The dreadful inequality that still blights this country is enough to shame us all.
Mr Darwin. But this is far from an unmixed evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending, their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. [6]
Miss Treadwell. Mr Darwin, you forget yourself. This is the twenty-first century. We do not speak of savage and civilised peoples, let alone . . . Such terms are vague and inappropriate.
Mrs Ashmarr. Oh, Mr Darwin, we are shameful — we have not offered you a drink!
Mr Darwin. That is of no consequence, madam. A small sherry should suffice, if you don’t mind.
Mrs Ashmarr (to the servant-girl). Aniela, fetch Mr Darwin a small sherry, would you?
Mr Hipkins. We understand that you have been away a long time, Mr Darwin, but I must say to you that we no longer admit race as a valid concept.
Mr Darwin. There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,—as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of structural difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties. [7]
Mr Hipkins. Not any more.
Mr Darwin. I . . .
Dr Ashmarr. We have progressed beyond all that, Mr Darwin.
Mr Hipkins. Naturally, ha-ha, we do not look to natural selection for the progress of civilisation.
Mr Darwin. I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilisation than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world. [8] I see how the Anglo-Saxon race will have spread and exterminated whole nations; and in consequence how much the human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank. [9]

[Mrs Ashmarr gives out a yelp. Miss Treadwell drops a glass. Mr Hipkins gapes in horror.]

Dr Ashmarr. But that is monstrous! That’s not what we mean by progress at all!
Mr Darwin. Oh dear, have I said something out of turn?
Miss Treadwell. You, Mr Darwin, are a savage.
Mr Darwin. You mean I am not civilised?
Miss Treadwell. I mean precisely that. Besides, you are quite wrong. We are becoming diverse, Mr Darwin, yes, vibrant and diverse! Things are changing, progress is being made. Europe will no longer be hideously white. Your beloved race will disappear. We shall make sure of it.
Dr Ashmarr. I think, Mr Darwin, that I speak for everyone here in declaring that you are no longer welcome.
Mr Darwin. But . . .
Dr Ashmarr. Aniela, show Mr Darwin to the door.

[Aniela leads the bewildered Mr Darwin out of the room.]

Mrs Ashmarr. Oh, what a frightful man! I had no idea! He’s not at all as he appears in the Sunday-supplements.

[1] [“As bearing . . . notice.”] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. I. (London: John Murray, 1871), pp.56-7.
[2] [“a noble race.”] C.R. Darwin, Letter to Syms Covington, 23rd November 1850, transcribed and published online for the Darwin Correspondence Project.
[3] [“the reckless . . . members.”] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man, p.174.
[4] [“With savages . . . to breed.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., p.168.
[5] [“Nor could . . . from marriage.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., pp.168-9.
[6] [“But this is far from . . . lower races.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., p.169.
[7] [“There is . . . faculties.”] Charles Darwin, ibid., p.216.
[8] [“I could show . . . the world.”] C.R. Darwin, Letter to William Graham, 3rd July 1881, op.cit.
[9] [“how the Anglo-Saxon race . . . risen in rank.” ] to C.R. Darwin, Letter to Charles Kingsley, 6th February 1862, op.cit.; minor changes made to format.