Sunday, October 31, 2010

Our own profound lack of interest

From Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History by Lee Harris.
it s a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge; it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap. Normally, for most of us at least, this fantasy world of ours stays relatively hidden, and indeed a common criterion of our mental health is the extent to which we are able to keep our fantasies firmly under our watchful control.


What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props: there is absolutely no interest in, or even awareness of, other as having wills or minds of their own. The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance or his intellect or his bank account cares nothing for us as individuals, for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play: we are there to be impressed by him. Indeed, it is an error even to suggest that he is trying to impress us, for this would assume that he is willing to learn enough about us to discover how best we might be impressed. Nothing of the kind occurs. And why should it? After all, the fantasist has already projected on to us the role which we are to play in his fantasy. And no matter what we may be thinking of his recital, it never crosses his mind that we may be utterly failing to play the part expected of us; indeed, it is sometimes astonishing to see how much exertion is required of us in order to bring our own profound lack of interest to the fantasist's attention.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Not the givens. But the choices we took.

From Kevin Kelly and his blog Technium, Chosen, Inevitable, and Contingent.
Who you are is determined in part by your genes. Every single day scientists identify new genes that code for a particular trait in humans, revealing the ways in which inherited "software" drives your body and brain. We now know that behaviors such as addictions, ambition, risk-taking, shyness and many others have strong genetic components. At the same time, "who you are" is clearly determined by your environment and upbringing. Every day science uncovers more evidence of the ways in which our family, peers, and cultural background shape our being. The strength of what others believe about us is enormous. And more recently we have increasing proof that environmental factors can influence genes, so that these two factors are co-factors in the strongest sense of the word — they determine each other. Your environment (like what you eat) can affect your genetic code, and your code will steer you into certain environments - making untangling the two influences a conundrum.

Lastly, who you are in the richest sense of the word - your character, your spirit, what you do with your life - is determined by what you choose. An awful lot of the shape of your life is given to you and is beyond your control, but your freedom to choose within those givens is huge and significant. The course of your life within the constraints of your genes and environment is up to you. You decide whether to speak the truth at any trial, even if you have a genetic or familial propensity to lie. You decide whether or not to risk befriending a stranger, no matter your genetic or cultural bias. You decide beyond your inherent tendencies or conditioning. Your freedom is far from total. It is not your choice alone whether to be the fastest runner in the world (your genetics and upbringing play a large role) but you can choose to be faster than you have been. Your inheritance and education at home and school set the outer boundaries of how smart, or generous, or sneaky you can be, but you choose whether you will smarter, more generous and sneakier today than yesterday. You may inhabit a body and brain that wants to be lazy, or sloppy, or imaginative, but you choose to what degree those qualities progress (even if you aren't inherently decisive).

Curiously, this freely chosen aspect of ourselves is what other people remember about us. How we handle life's cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It is what people talk about when we are gone. Not the givens. But the choices we took.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Our ignorance must necessarily be infinite

From Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.
The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance - the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

3,000 years of learning

From Goethe:
He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

They give our personal abilities a little more influence on our well-being

From Karl Popper, All Life is Problem Solving.
Although I consider our political world to be the best of which we have any historical knowledge, we should beware of attributing this fact to democracy or to freedom. Freedom is not a supplier who delivers goods to our door. Democracy does not ensure that anything is accomplished - certainly not an economic miracle. It is wrong and dangerous to extol freedom by telling people that they will certainly be all right once they are free. How someone fares in life is largely a matter of luck or grace, and to a comparatively small degree perhaps also of competence, diligence, and other virtues. The most we can say of democracy or freedom is that they give our personal abilities a little more influence on our well-being.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There is but one right, and the possibilities of wrong are infinite

I came across this essay yesterday. Thomas H. Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog", was one of those extraordinary gentlemen with which Victorian Britain seemed so blessed. Curious, ventursome, self-educated, an iron in many fires and effective in most the arenas in which he played. The following are some excerpts from an address he gave in Baltimore in 1876 on the founding of Johns Hopkins University, one of our premier centers of learning and medicine, founded through the benefaction of the eponymous Johns Hopkins. With a massive endowment and leadership from many talented philosophers, businessmen, and other leading lights, Johns Hopkins was established in an environment where the board sought to create an institution of learning and education free from any historical constrictions. Here is Thomas H. Huxley's Address on University Education. It is fascinating to me, here some 135 years later, that so many of the issues remain. The same questions, often similar answers, and we are still struggling to bring our aspirations into alignment with reality.
In my experience of life a truth which sounds very much like a paradox has often asserted itself: namely, that a man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes. So long as a man is struggling with obstacles he has an excuse for failure or shortcoming; but when fortune removes them all and gives him the power of doing as he thinks best, then comes the time of trial. There is but one right, and the possibilities of wrong are infinite.


Now I have a very clear conviction as to what elementary education ought to be; what it really may be, when properly organised; and what I think it will be, before many years have passed over our heads, in England and in America. Such education should enable an average boy of fifteen or sixteen to read and write his own language with ease and accuracy, and with a sense of literary excellence derived from the study of our classic writers: to have a general acquaintance with the history of his own country and with the great laws of social existence; to have acquired the rudiments of the physical and psychological sciences, and a fair knowledge of elementary arithmetic and geometry. He should have obtained an acquaintance with logic rather by example than by precept; while the acquirement of the elements of music and drawing should have been pleasure rather than work.


In a country like this, where most men have to carve out their own fortunes and devote themselves early to the practical affairs of life, comparatively few can hope to pursue their studies up to, still less beyond, the age of manhood. But it is of vital importance to the welfare of the community that those who are relieved from the need of making a livelihood, and still more, those who are stirred by the divine impulses of intellectual thirst or artistic genius, should be enabled to devote themselves to the higher service of their kind, as centres of intelligence, interpreters of Nature, or creators of new forms of beauty. And it is the function of a university to furnish such men with the means of becoming that which it is their privilege and duty to be. To this end the university need cover no ground foreign to that occupied by the elementary school. Indeed it cannot; for the elementary instruction which I have referred to embraces all the kinds of real knowledge and mental activity possible to man. The university can add no new departments of knowledge, can offer no new fields of mental activity; but what it can do is to intensify and specialise the instruction in each department.

Another very important and difficult practical question is, whether a definite course of study shall be laid down for those who enter the university; whether a curriculum shall be prescribed; or whether the student shall be allowed to range at will among the subjects which are open to him. And this question is inseparably connected with another, namely, the conferring of degrees. It is obviously impossible that any student should pass through the whole of the series of courses of instruction offered by a university. If a degree is to be conferred as a mark of proficiency in knowledge, it must be given on the ground that the candidate is proficient in a certain fraction of those studies; and then will arise the necessity of insuring an equivalency of degrees, so that the course by which a degree is obtained shall mark approximately an equal amount of labour and of acquirements, in all cases. But this equivalency can hardly be secured in any other way than by prescribing a series of definite lines of study. This is a matter which will require grave consideration. The important points to bear in mind, I think, are that there should not be too many subjects in the curriculum, and that the aim should be the attainment of thorough and sound knowledge of each.


In the first place, there is the important question of the limitations which should be fixed to the entrance into the university; or, what qualifications should be required of those who propose to take advantage of the higher training offered by the university. On the one hand, it is obviously desirable that the time and opportunities of the university should not be wasted in conferring such elementary instruction as can be obtained elsewhere; while, on the other hand, it is no less desirable that the higher instruction of the university should be made accessible to every one who can take advantage of it, although he may not have been able to go through any very extended course of education. My own feeling is distinctly against any absolute and defined preliminary examination, the passing of which shall be an essential condition of admission to the university. I would admit to the university any one who could be reasonably expected to profit by the instruction offered to him; and I should be inclined, on the whole, to test the fitness of the student, not by examination before he enters the university, but at the end of his first term of study. If, on examination in the branches of knowledge to which he has devoted himself, he show himself deficient in industry or in capacity, it will be best for the university and best for himself, to prevent him from pursuing a vocation for which he is obviously unfit. And I hardly know of any other method than this by which his fitness or unfitness can be safely ascertained, though no doubt a good deal may be done, not by formal cut and dried examination, but by judicious questioning, at the outset of his career.


All knowledge is good. It is impossible to say that any fragment of knowledge, however insignificant or remote from one's ordinary pursuits, may not some day be turned to account. But in medical education, above all things, it is to be recollected that, in order to know a little well, one must be content to be ignorant of a great deal.


Up to this point I have considered only the teaching aspect of your great foundation, that function of the university in virtue of which it plays the part of a reservoir of ascertained truth, so far as our symbols can ever interpret nature. All can learn; all can drink of this lake. It is given to few to add to the store of knowledge, to strike new springs of thought, or to shape new forms of beauty. But so sure as it is that men live not by bread, but by ideas, so sure is it that the future of the world lies in the hands of those who are able to carry the interpretation of nature a step further than their predecessors; so certain is it that the highest function of a university is to seek out those men, cherish them, and give their ability to serve their kind full play.

Finally, there is this interesting observation from Huxley as an observer of America. The resonance with today is eerie:
I constantly hear Americans speak of the charm which our old mother country has for them, of the delight with which they wander through the streets of ancient towns, or climb the battlements of mediaeval strongholds, the names of which are indissolubly associated with the great epochs of that noble literature which is our common inheritance; or with the blood-stained steps of that secular progress, by which the descendants of the savage Britons and of the wild pirates of the North Sea have become converted into warriors of order and champions of peaceful freedom, exhausting what still remains of the old Berserk spirit in subduing nature, and turning the wilderness into a garden. But anticipation has no less charm than retrospect, and to an Englishman landing upon your shores for the first time, travelling for hundreds of miles through strings of great and well-ordered cities, seeing your enormous actual, and almost infinite potential, wealth in all commodities, and in the energy and ability which turn wealth to account, there is something sublime in the vista of the future. Do not suppose that I am pandering to what is commonly understood by national pride. I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things? What is to be the end to which these are to be the means? You are making a novel experiment in politics on the greatest scale which the world has yet seen. Forty millions at your first centenary, it is reasonably to be expected that, at the second, these states will be occupied by two hundred millions of English-speaking people, spread over an area as large as that of Europe, and with climates and interests as diverse as those of Spain and Scandinavia, England and Russia. You and your descendants have to ascertain whether this great mass will hold together under the forms of a republic, and the despotic reality of universal suffrage; whether state rights will hold out against centralisation, without separation; whether centralisation will get the better, without actual or disguised monarchy; whether shifting corruption is better than a permanent bureaucracy; and as population thickens in your great cities, and the pressure of want is felt, the gaunt spectre of pauperism will stalk among you, and communism and socialism will claim to be heard. Truly America has a great future before her; great in toil, in care, and in responsibility; great in true glory if she be guided in wisdom and righteousness; great in shame if she fail. I cannot understand why other nations should envy you, or be blind to the fact that it is for the highest interest of mankind that you should succeed; but the one condition of success, your sole safeguard, is the moral worth and intellectual clearness of the individual citizen. Education cannot give these, but it may cherish them and bring them to the front in whatever station of society they are to be found; and the universities ought to be, and may be, the fortresses of the higher life of the nation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It always takes two to make a discussion reasonable

From Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.
There are many difficulties impeding the rapid spread of reasonableness. One of the main difficulties is that it always takes two to make a discussion reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you.

It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious

From The Multicultural Cult, an essay by Thomas Sowell. I have long enjoyed Mr. Sowell's common sensical approach to issues and his commitment to deep research and analyzing topical concerns from the perspective of what the data allows us to know rather than the perspective of what we would wish were the case. Here is a passage where he goes beyond the data and ends up channeling P.J. O'Rourke:
In Germany, as in other countries in Europe, welcoming millions of foreign workers who insist on remaining foreign has created problems so obvious that only the intelligentsia could fail to see them. It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

There is no history of mankind

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The notion of loss

Jacques Barzun in Toward the Twenty-First Century, an essay in The Culture We Deserve:
The very notion of change, of which the twentieth century makes such a weapon in the advocacy of every scheme, implies the notion of loss; for in society as in individual life many desirable things are incompatible--to say nothing of the fact that the heedlessness or violence with which change takes place brings about the incidental destruction of other useful attitudes and institutions.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. A continuing conundrum to which there is not easy answer.
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The pursuit of knowledge in the Middle Ages

Richer was a monk of Rheims in the late 900s. Invited by his friend Heribrand to come study Hippocrates with him at Chartres, he recounts both his excitement at this prospect and the tribulations attendant to executing that plan. We forget how many barriers their were to knowledge and wisdom in the days of yore, a dead horse being the least of it. From a translation by Michael Markowski at the Medieval Sourcebook.
While engaged in the study of the liberal arts, I wanted very much to learn logic through the works of Hippocrates. One day a horseman from Chartres came to Rheims and we began to talk. He told me that Heribrand, a clerk of Chartres, had sent him here to bring a message to a monk named Richer. When I heard my friend Heribrand's name, I told the messenger that I was Richer. He gave me the letter which I opened with some excitement. This was it! An invitation from Heribrand to come to Chartres and study the Aphorisms of Hippocrates with him. My joy faded somewhat because my own abbot gave me nothing more for the journey than one saddle-horse and a young lad to help with the trip. Without money or even a change of clothes, I decided to go anyway.

After setting out from Rheims with the messenger and the lad, I soon arrived at Orbais, well-known for its hospitality. The abbot cared for our needs and on the next day we set out for Meaux. But having entered the shadows of a dark forest, problems overtook us. We made a wrong turn at some crossroad, then wandered miles out of our way. Soon my abbot's generous gift of a saddle-horse, which had seemed as powerful as [Alexander the Great's own steed] Bucephalus, began to lag behind like a lazy ass. It was getting toward evening and the sky had clouded up. Just as the rain began to fall, as luck would have it, our Bucephalus sank to the ground some six miles from our destination and died. If lightening had struck him, he could not have been more dead! How serious our situation was, and how nervous we became, can only be appreciated by those who have also suffered hardships on the road.

The lad, now without a horse and unaccustomed to the difficulties of a journey, collapsed on the ground in despair. Our baggage sat there in a pile without any way to carry it further. Sheets of rain poured down on us. Clouds surrounded us. The setting sun brought darkness. Unsure of what to do, I turned to prayer and God did not ignore us: I had an answer. I left the boy with the baggage, told him what he should answer to any one who might come by, and warned him not to fall asleep. Then I set out with the messenger for Meaux. We reached the bridge before the town but could barely see it in the rainy night. I became even more anxious because the bridge had so many holes and large gaps in it that the citizens of Meaux could hardly cross it in the daytime, much less in the dark - and in a storm! The messenger, an experienced traveler, went to find a boat for us to cross in. Not finding one, we faced the difficult path over the bridge. As we went, the messenger put his shield over the smaller holes for the horses. He used planks for the larger gaps. At times he would be bending over, now standing up, now running here and there in order to keep the horses calm and safe. Slowly, he managed to get me and the horses across safely.

Well into the night, I finally arrived at the church of St Pharo. The brothers were preparing the love-drink. On this particular day, they were just finishing a special reading and feast. They received me as a brother and invited me to their table. After a fine meal, I sent the messenger of Chartres back with the horses to get the lad we left behind. Skillfully, the messenger crossed the bridge a second time, but he took a long time to find the boy. He wandered about and shouted for him. After finding him, he returned to the city but was afraid to try his luck on the bridge again. They sought shelter in a peasant's hut. The peasant let them sleep there but gave them no food even though the lad had gone the whole day without eating.

What a sleepless night I had waiting for them! If you have ever stayed up the whole might waiting for someone dear to you, then you know what torture I went through that night. But at first light they arrived, famished. The brothers gave them something to eat and took care of the horses. Since the boy had no horse, I left him with the abbot and headed for Chartres at a fast pace with the messenger. Having reached our destination, I sent the horses back to Meaux so that the boy could follow. Only after he arrived at Chartres could I rest easy.

Then I diligently began the study of the Aphorisms with Hippocrates with Heribrand, a highly cultured and scholarly man. I learned the ordinary symptoms of diseases and picked up a surface knowledge of ailments. This was not enough to satisfy my desires. I begged him to continue to guide my studies on a deeper level, for he was an expert in his art and in pharmaceutics, botany and surgery.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

As admirable and sound as it is dangerous

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous - from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue

From George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius:
The stagnation of the Empire in the between-war years affected everyone in England, but it had an especially direct effect upon two important sub-sections of the middle class. One was the military and imperialist middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps, and the other the left-wing intelligentsia. These two seemingly hostile types, symbolic opposites - the half-pay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain, like a dinosaur, the highbrow with his domed forehead and stalk-like neck - are mentally linked together and constantly interact upon one another; in any case they are born to a considerable extent into the same families.

Thirty years ago the Blimp class was already losing its vitality. The middle-class families celebrated by Kipling, the prolific lowbrow families whose sons officered the army and navy and swarmed over all the waste places of the earth from the Yukon to the Irrawaddy, were dwindling before 1914. The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

But the general weakening of imperialism, and to some extent of the whole British morale, that took place during the nineteen-thirties, was partly the work of the left-wing intelligentsia, itself a kind of growth that had sprouted from the stagnation of the Empire.

It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense 'left'. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T. E. Lawrence. Since about 1930 everyone describable as an 'intellectual' has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed nor falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be 'clever' was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties.

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the people who were most 'anti-Fascist' during the Spanish Civil War are most defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia - their severance from the common culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the New Statesman and the News Chronicle cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism hastened the process.

It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one's country implies 'for better, for worse'. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence. If you were a patriot you read Blackwood's Magazine and publicly thanked God that you were 'not brainy'. If you were an intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack and regarded physical courage as barbarous. It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue. The Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel. A modern nation cannot afford either of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Staunch courage of yesteryear

Bishop Latimer to Nicholas Ridley on their way to execution by public immolation as ordered by Queen Mary in 1555.
"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

Friday, October 15, 2010

A stranger to history

From Jacques Barzun in Where is History Now? from The Culture We Deserve:
History is not a piece of crockery dredged up from the Titanic; it is, first, the shipwreck, then a piece of writing. What is more, it is a piece of writing meant to be read, not merely entered on shelves and in bibliographies. By these criteria, modern man must be classed as a stranger to history; he is not eager for it nor bothered by the lack of it. The treasure hunt for artifacts seems to him a sufficient acknowledgment of the past.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The two modes of thought do not mix well

From A Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray, the essay History as Counter-Method and Anti-Abstraction:
The reason lies in the difference between two orientations of the human mind: the intuitive and the scientific. Pascal, who possessed the genius for both, gave of them a definitive account in his Pensees. Whoever wants to understand the difference between, say, Carlyle's French Revolution and Crane Brinton's Jacobins - why one is a history and the other not - should turn to Pascal's first chapter and assimilate the series of distinctions set forth there between the esprit de finesses and the esprit de geometrie. Neither esprit is higher or deeper or better than the other. They are only radically divergent modes of conceiving and working with reality.

A compressed paraphrase could run as follows: in science (the geometrical mind), the elements and definitions are clear, abstract, and unchangeable, but stand outside the ordinary ways of thought and speech. Because of this clarity and fixity, it is easy to use these concepts correctly, once their strange artificiality has been firmly grasped; it is then but the application of a method. In the opposite realm of intuitive thought (finesse), the elements come out of the common stock and are known by common names, which elude definition. Hence it is hard to reason justly with them because they are so numerous, mixed, and confusing: there is no method.

From the dissimilarity it follows that genius in science consists in adding to the stock of such defined entities and showing their place and meaning within the whole system of science and number; whereas genius in the realm of intuition consists in discerning pattern and significance in the uncontrollable confusion of life and embodying the discovery in intelligible form.

Obviously the two modes of thought do not mix well: there are no natural transititions from one to the other, the movement of the mind in each goes counter to the other. Once understood, the opposition resolves many puzzles and conflicts in contemporary culture, which is torn and racked by the imperialistic demands of each "mind" simultaneously.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories . .

From George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius:
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare's much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control - that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not just a discovery but an orientation

At 2am on October 12th, 1492, Columbus (or one of his crew members) spotted an island in the New World, the first documented sighting by Europeans of North America since the Vikings half a millineum before.
by Joaquin Miller

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: "Now we must pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.

Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?"
"Why, say, 'Sail on! sail on! and on!' "

"My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak."
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
"What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?"
"Why, you shall say at break of day,
'Sail on! sail on! and on!' "

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
"Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dead seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say" --
He said, "Sail on! sail on! and on!"

They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
"This mad sea shows his teeth tonight.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?"
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"

Then pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck --
A light! a light! at last a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time's burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: "On! sail on!"

Monday, October 11, 2010

In order to live in a wider world

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics? The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what? Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines - Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends' and neighbors' plans and gossip; wider especially than one's business or profession. For nothing is more narrowing than one's own shop, and it grows ever more so as one bends the mind and energies to succeed. This is particularly true today, when each profession has become a cluster of specialties continually subdividing. A lawyer is not a jurist, he is a tax lawyer, or a dab at trusts and estates. The work itself is a struggle with a mass of jargon, conventions, and numbers that have no meaning outside the specialty. The whole modern world moves among systems and abstractions superimposed on reality, a vast make-believe, though its results are real enough in one's life if one does not know and follow these ever-shifting rules of the game.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory

From George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius:
And yet the gentleness of English civilization is mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms. Our criminal law is as out-of-date as the muskets in the Tower. Over against the Nazi Storm Trooper you have got to set that typically English figure, the hanging judge, some gouty old bully with his mind rooted in the nineteenth century, handing out savage sentences. In England people are still hanged by the neck and flogged with the cat o' nine tails. Both of these punishments are obscene as well as cruel, but there has never been any genuinely popular outcry against them. People accept them (and Dartmoor, and Borstal) almost as they accept the weather. They are part of 'the law', which is assumed to be unalterable.

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law' as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred Macartney's Walls Have Mouths or Jim Phelan's Jail Journey, in the solemn idiocies that take place at the trials of conscientious objectors, in letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that this or that is a 'miscarriage of British justice'. Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How is "real book" defined?

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
How is "real book" defined? Quite simply: it is a book one wants to reread.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wiser for all time

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
The student who reads history will unconsciously develop what is the highest value of history: judgment in worldly affairs. This is a permanent good, not because "history repeats" - we can never exactly match past and present situations - but because the "tendency of things" shows an amazing uniformity within any given civilization. As the great historian Burckhardt said of historical knowledge, it is not "to make us more clever the next time, but wiser for all time."

It is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well

From an essay by Graeme Wood in Foreign Policy, October 5, 2010: Travel Writing is Dead:
The simplest reason for this catastrophic turn is that it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well. In 1955, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that travel is "an unavoidable drawback" of acquainting oneself with the world: "There are hours of inaction . . . and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose. . . . The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross." The good news for travelers is that these inconveniences are disappearing. The bad news for readers is that those inconveniences are the very stuff that concentrates the mind and transmutes narcissism into something approaching insight.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic

From George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius:
National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling. Obviously such things don't matter in themselves. Nevertheless, nothing is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell something about the realities of English life.

Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic 'world-view'. Nor is this because they are 'practical', as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency. But they have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy - their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance - is bound up with this. Also, in moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated. The phrase that Hitler coined for the Germans, 'a sleep-walking people', would have been better applied to the English. Not that there is anything to be proud of in being called a sleep-walker.

But here it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever. What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker. It is obvious, of course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, 'co-ordinated'. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or 'spontaneous' demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ. The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people. They have never caught up with power politics. The 'realism' which is preached in Japanese and Italian newspapers would horrify them. One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers' shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as 'decadence' or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class. Successive wars have shaken it but not destroyed it. Well within living memory it was common for 'the redcoats' to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises. In peace time, even when there are two million unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army, which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians. The mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military 'glory', no Hymn of Hate has ever made any appeal to them. In the last war the songs which the soldiers made up and sang of their own accord were not vengeful but humorous and mock-defeatist. The only enemy they ever named was the sergeant-major.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You will never get away from the marks that it has given you

George Orwell is such an engima. Principled, stubborn, deeply insightful, startlingly obtuse. Reading his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius, there are all these traits on display. But always there is that wonderful capacity to observe and to turn a phrase. Rather than analyse, here are some of the snippets that caught me.
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.


One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.


Also, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another. Hitler’s June purge, for instance, could not have happened in England. And, as western peoples go, the English are very highly differentiated. There is a sort of back-handed admission of this in the dislike which nearly all foreigners feel for our national way of life. Few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.


When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning - all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Ah - there are too many. I guess I must split them apart.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Dash

The Dash
by Linda Ellis

I read of a reverend who stood to speak
at the funeral of his friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
from the beginning . . . to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth . . .
and now only those who loved her
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own;
the cars . . . the house . . . the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard . . .
are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left.
(You could be at "dash mid-range.")

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what's true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we've never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,
and more often wear a smile . . .
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy’s being read
with your life's actions to rehash . . .
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent your dash?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Men will never cease from toil and misery by day and night

From Peter Jones' column, Ancient & Modern in The Spectator, August 7th, 2010.
The 7th century bc Greek farmer-poet Hesiod laid down the marker when he lamented that he lived in the age of iron, when men 'will never cease from toil and misery by day and night'. The reason is that, in the pre-industrial ancient world, there were, effectively, no such things as 'jobs'. Virtually everyone, bar the rich, lived off the soil. So 'work' was not a matter of choice. If you did not work, you died, though an epitaph highlighted the benefits: sweet repose, no fear of starvation, permanent, rent-free accommodation - so never in debt! Popular morality rammed home the point. Aesop contrasted the ant who worked to prepare for the winter with the grasshopper who sang the summer away and paid the price.

Further, if you did work for a wage, you would be working for others. That implied you could not stand on your own two feet. You were dependent on someone else, i.e. no longer free. It was as if you were the lowest of the low - a slave. In other words, you were not regarded as a free man, freely and proudly selling your labour: you were in fact selling your person. Better to see yourself as a noble, hard-working, self-sufficient farmer - an image Romans keenly polished - than that.

A Roman word for 'work' makes the point with a terrible precision: negotium (cf. negotiate), from nego 'I deny' and otium 'leisure'. Far from being dignified or positive, work was a denial of everything man longed for - leisure to enjoy himself as he chose.

Where human judgment abdicates

From A Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray, the essay Toward a Fateful Serenity:
Where, then, is the enemy? Not where the machine give relief from drudgery but where human judgment abdicates. Any ossified institution - almost every bureaucracy, public or private - manifests the mechanical. So does race-thinking - a verdict passed mechanically at a color-coded signal. Ideology is likewise an idea-machine, designed to spare the buyer all further thought. Again, "methods" substituted for reading books and judging art are a perversion of what belongs to science and engineering: "models," formulas, theories. Specialism too turns machine-like if it never transcends its single task.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

English Teeth! HEROES' Teeth!

In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius, George Orwell mentions a couple of times the condition of English teeth (circa 1940).
The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd.


Nevertheless, nothing is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell something about the realities of English life.

Living in England in the 1960's there were still many fascinating instances of teeth absent, teeth oddly positioned, teeth disturbingly colored, to fascinate a young child. Coincidentally, I found myself having to explain the orthodontic history of England just the other day. I was working with a group of inner-city Boy Scouts. We have been exploring all sorts of forms of stories: jokes, riddles, poems, nonsense verse, sketches, stories, etc. I had brought along a collection of Spike Milligan's poems, Silly Verse for Kids. I had read a couple of poems which were well received. As often happens, each of the boys then wanted a chance to read from the collection so I handed it around, each picking randomly a poem to read. One of them picked the poem, Teeth.

by Spike Milligan

English Teeth, English Teeth!
Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage
Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!
Always having fun
Clamping down on bits of fish
And suasages half done.

English Teeth! HEROES' Teeth!
Hear them click! and clack!
Let's sing a song of praise to them -
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Gathered around were some of the poorest children in America but each with a fine mouth of straight, beautiful ivories. My explanation of the dental condition of England sixty years ago when it was at the height of its world dominance elicited blank stares of incomprehension. And they were right. It is almost as incomprensible for things to have changed so much in sixty years as it is to have encountered two instances in a couple of days of English writers incidentally commenting on the condition of English Teeth! HEROES' Teeth!

The first key to wisdom

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) the romantic lover remains reasonably known today, at least in some circles. Peter Abelard the forward scout of the Enlightenment remains lesser known. Paul Rosenberg has a post, Heroes of Liberty: Peter Abelard, that traces Abelard's role in the intellectual evolution of the West. Abelard's autobiography, Historia Calamatatum (The Story of My Misfortunes) is also available at Gutenberg.

What sent me searching for Peter Abelard was the following quote:

Constant questioning is the first key to wisdom. For through doubt we are led to enquiry, and by enquiry we discern the truth.

The quote is from the prologue of Abelard's Sic et Non, a boldly progressive step forward to expanding the boundaries of knowledge and wisdom in an era when all the weight of society supported certainty and stasis.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Where the pools are bright and deep

From James Baldwin's Fifty Famous People, in the chapter, The Ettrick Shepherd:
A Boy's Song
by James Hogg

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the gray trout lies asleep,
Up the river and o'er the lea,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the blackbird sings the latest,
Where the hawthorn blooms the sweetest,
Where the nestlings chirp and flee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the mowers mow the cleanest,
Where the hay lies thick and greenest,
There to trace the homeward bee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the hazel bank is steepest,
Where the shadow falls the deepest,
Where the clustering nuts fall free,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Why the boys should drive away,
Little maidens from their play,
Or love to banter and fight so well,
That's the thing I never could tell.

But this I know, I love to play
In the meadow, among the hay -
Up the water, and o'er the lea,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Friday, October 1, 2010

It does not require that scientists be unbiased

From Jonathan Rauch, In Defense of Prejudice:
"One of the strengths of science," writes the philosopher of science David L. Hull, "is that it does not require that scientists be unbiased, only that different scientists have different biases." Another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. "Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists," says Hull, "it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science," which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives--ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. "Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to 'get that son of a bitch,'" says Hull. "Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that 'showing that son of a bitch' supplied to their own research."