Monday, 22 July 2019

On The Importance of Past Civilizations

Liberty can make people capable of mastering the natural world, but it’s not helpful for mastering one’s emotions, desires, and passions—for the latter you need a culture with a positive sense of history and philosophy that inspires people to lead the life of a moral, hardworking, aspiring, and caring man. Such a culture is developed through centuries of civilization. That is why the countries which enjoy a fairly good culture of liberty are generally an offshoot of the long-established civilizations; they have a strong sense of their own history and traditions.

The nations that cannot develop connections with the past civilizations often prove incapable of developing a culture of liberty. If liberty (or democracy and a free-market system) is imposed on them by an outside force, then it has the effect of ripping the nation apart. The nation splits into factions which often use violent tactics to achieve their agenda, and this inevitably leads to political instability and a fall in the quality of life. Therefore liberty can bring progress in some nations but in some others it will lead to large-scale destruction.

Galileo Versus Aristotle

  Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636
In my recent post, “On The Anti-Aristotelianism of the Renaissance,” I talk about the anti-Aristotelianism of Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Francis Bacon. But the anti-Aristotelianism that was sweeping Europe in the time of the Renaissance reached its zenith with the publication of Galileo Galilei’s famous work the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. The book is written in the form of a Platonic dialogue and the purpose of the dialogue is to debate the fundamental scientific principles which govern the universe.

The conversationists in Galileo’s Dialogue include a scholar of Copernicus, a man called Salviati, who makes a presentation of Galileo’s own scientific views, calling him a respected academician, and an Aristotelian scholar called Simplicio who presents the arguments for the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the universe. Galileo’s contempt for Aristotle becomes clear from the name that he has given to the Aristotelian scholar—“Simplicio” means simpleton. Galileo thought that the Aristotelians were a bunch of simpletons or fools.

The Dialogue of more than 600 pages is a direct confrontation between Galileo and Aristotle—the arguments that Simplicio presents are demolished one by one by Salviati who presents a series of evidence in the form of scientific graphs, mathematical equations, and information derived from the direct observations through the telescope. They discuss the movement of heavenly bodies; the craters and mountains on the moon; the phases of Venus; the relation between ocean tides and motion of the earth; and much else. In the end, Galileo (through Salviati) manages to establish that while Copernicus was right on most things, Aristotle (and Ptolemy) had an erroneous view of the universe.

The book became very influential during the Renaissance; its first edition was sold out immediately after publication. But it alienated Galileo from the religious establishment of his time. The Dialogue was placed in the list of forbidden books and on October 1, 1632, Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition to face prosecution for trying to defame the religious order.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Anti-Nationalism is Anti-Individualism

Ayn Rand’s objectivist followers have wild nightmares about the future—they foresee an apocalyptic future where the world is being ruled by nationalist and religious dictators. They attack nationalism in the name of saving the world from the apocalyptic future that only they can foresee and to promote individualism.

They are downright convinced that nationalism is incompatible with individualism. But I believe that you cannot promote individualism by attacking nationalism. Whenever nationalism is destroyed, there is a rise of the worst form of collectivism—it’s called identity politics. If people are not allowed to identify with their nation’s history and culture (which is what nationalism is), then they will identify with their race, religion, social status, political ideology, sexuality, or cult.

The rise of identity politics divides the nation into a number of warring factions, which try to further the interests of their own group at the cost of other groups. This provides the intellectuals and politicians with the opportunity of acquiring power by playing one faction against the other. When everything in the country becomes politicized, then there is a sharp fall in the nation’s political and cultural standards. All this has a baleful impact on the nation’s quality of life.

By saving the country from the menace of identity politics, nationalism can be conducive for creating an environment in which individualism can prosper. It is to her credit that Rand has admitted in a few articles and interviews that nationalism is in general a good thing, but these articles and interviews are not popular with the modern objectivists.

On The Anti-Aristotelianism of the Renaissance

Horatio, Hamlet, and the ghost
(Henry Fuseli, 1789)
The leading thinkers of the Renaissance have made trenchant criticisms of Aristotle.

Erasmus and Martin Luther despised Aristotle because they believed that he was the fountainhead of Scholastic philosophy that was polluting their religion and culture. Francis Bacon thought that Aristotle’s philosophy was barren, disputatious and wrong in its objectives. He held Aristotle responsible for the decline in scientific thinking in Europe.

Due to the work of these influential thinkers— Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Francis Bacon—the Renaissance became a period of anti-Aristotelianism. The religious as well as the scientifically minded people were convinced that Aristotle was having a baleful influence on their society and culture. The word “dunce”, derived from the name of the Aristotelian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, Duns Scotus, became a term of abuse and a synonym for Aristotelian scholars.

Even playwrights like Shakespeare became caught in the wave of anti-Aristotelianism that was sweeping across Europe. In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In the play, Horatio is inspired by the ideas of Aristotle.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

My Doubts About the “Men of Reason"

A “man of reason” is someone who develops his understanding of the world through his perception and not through his projection.

But most people who claim to be a man of reason fail on this very account—their belief in reason leads them to project an ersatz world in which they are always right, always moral, full of knowledge, and capable of holding better opinions than everyone else. An analysis of most votaries of reason will reveal that their thinking is warped and so is their projection of themselves.

More often than not, the man who claims to be a “man of reason” is an ignorant person who is clueless of the great complications that a man faces in the use of reason and verifying the knowledge derived through it.

The Libertarian Notions of Liberty are Impractical

The libertarians believe that liberty is a magic wand that can cure society of all its woes. But history of last 2500 years shows that most city-states and nations where people enjoyed a high level of liberty were remarkably short-lived. Several examples can be considered to establish the point that greater the liberty, shorter the lifespan of the society: Ancient Athens after the Peloponnesian War, Ancient Rome, and Florence during the time of the Renaissance.

The good thing about liberty is that it leads to flowering of art, science, and private enterprise—it brings prosperity and comfort to the people. But liberty has its unintended consequences; it leads to the rise of a libertine society. After enjoying prosperity and comfort people lose their character and their passion for hard work—they become complacent, lazy, degenerate, and arrogant; they start taking their freedom for granted. A stage comes when a significant part of the society’s population becomes uninterested in being free and they start lusting for a statist political system.

The libertarian notion that liberty is the cure of all social problems is wide of the mark—liberty solves some problems, but not all, and it gives rise to several new problems. Liberty has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. A self-governed society which allows a high degree of liberty to its people might be good in the short term, but in the long term such societies prove to be very unstable. A free society with minimal government can only survive for a minimal amount of time.

Political freedom can lead to more harm than good if a significant part of the population is not culturally united to defend their way of life from internal and external enemies. The campaign for liberty through a political process must go hand in hand with the campaign for strengthening the bonds of culture, tradition, and history.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Objectivism’s Like That

The objectivists have a negative view of humor. But I am not an objectivist, so I can write a couple of jokes. Here they come:

Question: How many objectivists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Two. One newbie objectivist to do the actual changing of the lightbulb, and the other, an old and experienced objectivist, who will offer directions after going through the relevant passage in which Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff have explained the perfect way of changing lightbulbs.


There is an objectivist who is trying to find the number of udders that a sheep has. He has spent three months going through the texts of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff to find the relevant passage where they discuss sheep udders. He won’t go to a farm and take a count on a sheep because he knows that the ultimate truth can be found only in the texts of Rand and Peikoff.

Thoughts on Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli
Leo Strauss, in his analysis of the Chapter 10, “That contrary to the vulgar opinion, Money is not the Sinews of War,” in Discourses on Livy by Niccolò Machiavelli, makes the following observations:
“Almost exactly in the center of the Discourses, Machiavelli tries to prove, as he indicates at the outset in the heading of the chapter in question, that money is not the sinews of war, as it is thought to be by common opinion. After thus openly challenging common opinion in the very heading of the chapter, and refuting that opinion within the chapter, he turns, near the end of the chapter, to the authority of Livy: "But Titus Livius is a truer witness to this opinion than anyone else. In the place where he discusses whether Alexander the Great, if he had come to Italy, would have van­quished the Romans, he shows that three things are necessary in war: many good soldiers, prudent captains and good luck. Examin­ing there whether the Romans or Alexander were superior in these things, he then draws his conclusion without ever mentioning money." Livy does not mention money in a context in which he would have mentioned it if he had regarded it as important. This fact by itself establishes not only a vague presumption in favor of Livy's having held the sound opinion on the subject of money; it makes him the truest witness, the most important authority for that opinion. Livy's silence is more impressive than his explicit statement would have been. Livy reveals an important truth most effectively by silence. The rule which Machiavelli tacitly applies can be stated as follows: if a wise man is silent about a fact that is commonly held to be important for the subject he discusses, he gives us to understand that that fact is unimportant. The silence of a wise man is always meaningful. It cannot be explained by forgetfulness. The view from which Livy deviates is the common view. One can express one's disagreement with the common view by simply failing to take notice of it; this is, in fact, the most effective way of showing one's disapproval.”
The above passage is from Strauss’s book Thoughts on Machiavelli, Chapter 1, “The Twofold Character of Machiavelli’s Teachings.” (Page 30).

Thursday, 18 July 2019

On God, Religion, and Science

It’s not necessary for religion and science to be antagonistic to each other—they can have a symbiotic relationship.

If the religion is dominated by good thinkers and it seeks to explain to its adherents the nature of the universe, and it views god as the entity that has given birth to the material world by creating the laws of science and mathematics, then an investigation into the nature of god is in essence an investigation into the nature of the universe and the laws of science and mathematics—isn’t this what science is supposed to do?

The cooperation between religion and science is one of the reasons behind the progress that mankind has achieved—we have risen from the Stone Age level of existence to modern civilization in mere 3000 years, a relatively small span of time. The “Iron Curtain” between religion and science is a recent development—it came up in the 20th century when atheism became the world’s most dominant intellectual and political force.

The Renaissance—Was There One?

Portrait of Lorenzo de Medici
In his lecture, "The Great Ideas in Philosophy," Daniel N. Robinson says:
Intellectual historians point to a “renaissance” in the 13th century partly to call attention to the fact that the term Renaissance, used of the 15th century, was itself an invention of the 19th century, coined chiefly by scholars in the fields of the history of art and architecture. What does one mean by a renaissance? A “rebirth” presupposes that something once born in the past has died and is now to be revived. The Italian Renaissance considered the ancient and humanistic values of Greece and Rome to have been set aside during the “medieval” period. But in light of the rich philosophical undertakings of the later medieval period, there is no basis on which to suggest that this part of the classical achievement had in any sense “died.”  
It would be no exaggeration to say that if we wish to consider the rebirth of one of the denying features of the classical world, our attention should be focused on the commentators on Aristotle in the 11th century and on the medieval universities of Britain and the European continent in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is in these developments that we and a more secure and settled West recovering its own traditions. 
I think, if one period of history is labeled as the Renaissance and another period of history as the Dark Ages, then it is natural that in the future historians will be less interested in exploring the age that is already proven to be “dark”. Why should anyone be interested in exploring a period in which there is nothing to find except darkness? But the truth is that the Dark Ages were not so dark—as Prof. Robinson has argued in his lecture, the Early Middle Ages were actually a period of significant achievements. The so-called Dark Ages are shrouded in darkness because historians have been less interested in exploring the intellectual and cultural achievements of this period.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Next Revolution in Philosophical Movements

A philosophical movement is the outcome of a revolution in the mind of its scholars and followers. But the first revolution is never sufficient to make a philosophy popular. A next revolution, and a series of other revolutions, is necessary to take the philosophy to a larger section of the population.The next revolution happens when the followers start asking questions to which they cannot find the answers from the movement’s traditional texts or its scholars.

A few of the followers (those with the capacity for independent thought and judgement) then start exploring avenues outside the movement for finding the answers that they seek. Over a period of time they may come across new knowledge that contradicts the knowledge that is being preached by the movement—this creates controversy and divisions. If the movement’s leaders are unable to quickly resolve the contradictions, then their position becomes untenable.

It’s not necessary that the next revolution will make the movement stronger. A revolution can lead to any kind of outcomes—it may make the movement stronger by bringing into existence a superior system of philosophical thinking or it may wipe out the movement forever. However, if there is no next revolution, the philosophy will surely stagnate and become irrelevant.

The History of Peter Abelard’s Calamities

Peter Abelard
Peter Abelard, born in Brittany in 1079, was a great poet, logician, and Aristotelian philosopher of the middle ages. He is known for his use of dialectics and for his solution to the problem of universals. Nominalism gets its name from his claim that only words (nomen) are universal. He was the first to formulate the central nominalist tenet: only particulars exist.

Abelard arrived in Paris in 1100 and after wandering from school to school to get himself taught, he opened his own school and within a couple of years he was attracting a large number of students. By 1108, he had gained the reputation of a leading intellectual figure in the city and a popular teacher of logic.

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell notes that Abelard used to teach that the word “logic” comes from the “Logos,” the divine word in St. John’s Gospel. He taught his students that by using logic and dialectic they could have a deeper understanding of theology. He is credited with being the first to coin the term “theologia” (logic plus “theos”, or God). He developed the techniques for making theology a rational and logically disciplined branch of philosophy—the technique later flowered under the banner of “Scholasticism.”

Russell says that Abelard created a great controversy by teaching that nothing that is of this world is infallible and that it is was for the students to judge each case on the basis of evidence and their own reason. In one of his lectures, Abelard told his students, “You are Gods!” His students cheered him and hosting him on their shoulders they carried him through the streets.

David Knowles, in his book The Evolution of Medieval Thought, says that when Abelard was told that penetrating logical analysis might become the breeding ground for skepticism, he replied, “Careful and frequent questioning is the basic key to wisdom.” He also delivered what is regarded as his most famous maxim, “By doubting we come to question, and by questioning we perceive the truth.”

Abelard’s downfall came when, at the age of forty, he entered into a relationship with seventeen year old Héloïse d’Argenteuil, the niece of Canon Fulbert, a member of the clergy of the cathedral of Paris. Fulbert was furious, but he relented when Abelard got married to Héloïse in a secret ceremony. They had a son whom they called Astrolabe. But Abelard was not ready to publicly acknowledge his marriage with Héloïse because he believed that it would ruin his career.

Héloïse withdrew into the convent of Argenteuil outside Paris, but when her uncle Fulbert learned that Abelard was still seeing her secretly, he hired some thugs to castrate him. After this Héloïse became a nun, and Abelard embraced monistic life. They continued to write letters to each other. Their very interesting letters are collected in the book The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.

In my opinion, Abelard’s best writing is his book Historia Calamitatum (The Story of my Calamities) and the letters that he has written to Héloïse. Sic et Non is also a famous book, but I have not read it. In Historia Calamitatum, Abelard describes his rise to fame and his fall and gives an account of his interactions with Héloïse. Her letters to Abelard and religious correspondence have earned Héloïse a special place in literary history.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

The Three Ways of Philosophers

There are primarily three ways by which a philosopher can convince his audience that his philosophy is good: first, he can try to show that his philosophy is logically consistent; second, he can try to prove that his philosophy works; third, he can assert that my philosophy is perfect because it is “my philosophy” and I am never wrong. A good philosopher will adopt the first way; a mediocre philosopher will adopt the second way; and a bad philosopher, who is of a cultist mindset, will adopt the third way.

Meno: The Paradox of Inquiry

Socrates and Meno are discussing what virtue is and whether it can be taught in Plato’s dialogue Meno. This dialogue offers a good impression of the Socratic dialectical style. In it Socrates rephrases something that Meno has said in the form of a paradox. Here’s an excerpt:
MENO: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? 
SOCRATES: I know what you want to say, Meno. Do you realize what a debater’s argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for. 
(Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson; “Meno,” translated by G.M.A. Grube; Page 880)
If you know what you are looking for, there is no need for an inquiry; if you don't know what you are looking for, then an inquiry is impossible—this is essentially a sophistical argument; it is possible for someone to know the question and not have an answer. But Socrates takes the argument seriously and goes on to propose his famous doctrine of recollection.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Philosophy is a Series of Footnotes to Plato

In her 1961 essay, "For The New Intellectual," Ayn Rand writes, "Plato’s system was a monument to the Witch Doctor’s metaphysics." What an outlandish assertion! If she had read a single Platonic dialogue, she would not have attacked Plato without any rhyme or reason. She does not provide a reference to any quote or work of Plato—so it is impossible to understand what she is talking about, but I suspect that she herself didn’t know what she was talking about and neither do her followers.

Along with his master Socrates, and his pupil Aristotle, Plato has defined the nature and scope of the entire modern system of philosophy. It’s difficult to imagine modern philosophy without taking into consideration the work that Plato has done along with his master and his pupil. I am a believer in Alfred North Whitehead’s statement, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology; Part II; Chapter 1; Section 1)

In his next lines, Whitehead puts his statement on Plato in its proper context: “I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”

Whitehead is not saying that Plato has singlehandedly given birth to every idea or methodology that we have in modern philosophy—rather, he is pointing out that Plato is the towering figure who has identified almost all the major issues of philosophy, and that he has presented an outline of the philosophical method. Modern philosophers continue to grapple with the questions that Plato has raised; they continue to use his methodologies.

On The Socratic Way of Philosophizing

Statue of Socrates
In his Introduction to Plato: Complete Works (Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson), John M. Cooper writes:

"Socrates was a totally new kind of Greek philosopher. He denied that he had discovered some new wisdom, indeed that he possessed any wisdom at all, and he refused to hand anything down to anyone as his personal ‘truth’, his claim to fame. All that he knew, humbly, was how to reason and reflect, how to improve himself and (if they would follow him in behaving the same way) help others to improve themselves, by doing his best to make his own moral, practical opinions, and his life itself, rest on appropriately tested and examined reasons—not on social authority or the say-so of esteemed poets (or philosophers) or custom or any other kind of intellectual laziness. At the same time, he made this self-improvement and the search for truth in which it consisted a common, joint effort, undertaken in discussion together with similarly committed other per- sons—even if it sometimes took on a rather combative aspect. The truth, if achieved, would be a truth attained by and for all who would take the trouble to think through on their own the steps leading to it: it could never be a personal ‘revelation’ for which any individual could claim special credit."

In the following paragraph, Cooper talks about Plato’s way of writing the dialogues:

"In writing Socratic dialogues and, eventually, dialogues of other types, Plato was following Socrates in rejecting the earlier idea of the philosopher as wise man who hands down the truth to other mortals for their grateful acceptance and resulting fame for himself. It is important to realize that whatever is stated in his works is stated by one or another of his characters, not directly by Plato the author; in his writings he is not presenting his ‘truth’ and himself as its possessor, and he is not seeking glory for having it. If there is new wisdom and ultimate truth in his works, this is not served up on a plate. Plato does not formulate his own special ‘truth’ for his readers, for them to learn and accept. You must work hard even to find out what the author of a Platonic dialogue is saying to the reader— it is in the writing as a whole that the author speaks, not in the words of any single speaker—and the dialogue form demands that you think for yourself in deciding what, if anything, in it or suggested by it is really the truth. So you have to read and think about what each speaker says to the others (and also, sometimes, what he does not say), notice what may need further defense than is actually given it, and attend to the author’s manner in presenting each character, and the separate speeches, for indications of points on which the author thinks some further thought is required. And, beyond that, you must think for yourself, reasoning on the basis of the text, to see whether or not there really are adequate grounds in support of what it may appear to you the text as a whole is saying. In all this, Plato is being faithful to Socrates’ example: the truth must be arrived at by each of us for ourselves, in a cooperative search, and Plato is only inviting others to do their own intellectual work, in cooperation with him, in thinking through the issues that he is addressing."

I think this is a good way of looking at Socrates and the Platonic dialogues.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

On Philosophical Judgements

A philosopher is judged by his intentions and vision. A philosophy is judged by its methodologies and the quality of its arguments. A philosophical movement is judged by the character of its leaders and followers, and the outcomes that they achieve.

Critias: On Plato’s Atlantis

In Critias, Plato offers a brief account of the political order in the island of Atlantis, its layout, and the way of life of its citizens. But the dialogue ends abruptly—either Plato left it unfinished or rest of the dialogue is lost. Critias suggests in the beginning of the dialogue that there was a war between Athens and Atlantis, after which Atlantis was destroyed in an earthquake—but he does not get to the point of providing the details of the war and earthquake.

In the dialogue’s final paragraphs, Critias talks about the people of Atlantis coming together to create a great society because they are virtuous and they have respect for their laws—but when they lose their virtue and their respect for the laws, Atlantis is doomed. This point of view connects this dialogue with Plato's Republic in which Socrates draws a similar conclusion about the importance of virtue and rule of law for the ideal city-state.

Here are the final two paragraphs from Critias:
For many generations and as long as enough of their divine nature survived, they were obedient unto their laws and they were well disposed to the divinity they were kin to. They possessed conceptions that were true and entirely lofty. And in their attitude to the disasters and chance events that constantly befall men and in their relations with one another they exhibited a combination of mildness and prudence, because, except for virtue, they held all else in disdain and thought of their present good fortune of no consequence. They bore their vast wealth of gold and other possessions without difficulty, treating them as if they were a burden. They did not become intoxicated with the luxury of the life their wealth made possible; they did not lose their self-control and slip into decline, but in their sober judgment they could see distinctly that even their very wealth increased with their amity and its companion, virtue. But they saw that both wealth and concord decline as possessions become pursued and honored. And virtue perishes with them as well.  
Now, because these were their thoughts and because of the divine nature that survived in them, they prospered greatly as we have already related. But when the divine portion in them began to grow faint as it was often blended with great quantities of mortality and as their human nature gradually gained ascendancy, at that moment, in their inability to bear their great good fortune, they became disordered. To whoever had eyes to see they appeared hideous, since they were losing the finest of what were once their most treasured possessions. But to those who were blind to the true way of life oriented to happiness it was at this time that they gave the semblance of being supremely beauteous and blessed. Yet inwardly they were filled with an unjust lust for possessions and power. But as Zeus, god of the gods, reigning as king according to law, could clearly see this state of affairs, he observed this noble race lying in this abject state and resolved to punish them and to make them more careful and harmonious as a result of their chastisement. To this end he called all the gods to their most honored abode, which stands at the middle of the universe and looks down upon all that has a share in generation. And when he had gathered them together, he said…
(Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson; “Critias,” Translated by Diskin Clay; Page 1306)
We don’t know what Zeus said at the conclave of the gods. Significant part of this dialogue is missing because in the beginning of the dialogue Socrates says that the fourth person in the dialogue, a man called Hermocrates, will have a chance to speak after Critias. But we never hear from Hermocrates.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Ethics is the Art of the Approximate

Being a master of ethical philosophy and being capable of mastering yourself are two different things which seldom coexist in a man. There is not a single philosopher of ethics who has demonstrated through his conduct that he is capable of practicing the ethical ideas that he preaches.

When judged on the basis of their own ethical principles, all philosophers of ethics appear unethical.

I think, Aristotle was right when he defined virtue as the “golden mean” between the two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. The identification and the practice of perfect virtue is beyond the scope of the human mind—we can only hope to approach the approximate or the “golden mean”.

The Disagreements Between Classical and Modernist Thought

Eric Voegelin
In his essay, "The Classical Studies,” Eric Voegelin notes that Plato and Aristotle have created philosophy as the science of the nature of man, but the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy is in conflict with the contemporary climate of opinion. Voegelin lists nine points of disagreement between classical thought and modernist thought. Here are five of his principal points:

1. Classic: There is a nature of man, a definite structure of existence that puts limits on perfectibility.

Modern: The nature of man can be changed, either through historical evolution or through revolutionary action, so that a perfect realm of freedom can be established in history.

2. Classic: Philosophy is the endeavor to advance from opinion (doxa) about the order of man and society to science (episteme); the philosopher is not a philodoxer.

Modern: No science in such matters is possible, only opinion; everybody is entitled to his opinions; we have a pluralist society.

3. Classic: Society is man written large.

Modern: Man is society written small.

4. Classic: Man exists in erotic tension toward the divine ground of his existence.

Modern: He doesn’t; for I don’t; and I’m the measure of man.

5. Classic: Through the life of reason (bios theoretikos) man realizes his freedom.

Modern: Plato and Aristotle were fascists. The life of reason is a fascist enterprise.

Friday, 12 July 2019

On The Failed Project to Create New Intellectuals

A good philosophical movement will impart such an extensive training to its students that a few of them will become expert philosophers in their own right. After 20 years in Plato’s Academy,  Aristotle learned enough philosophy to become Plato’s greatest rival—they have always been seen as the two distinct poles of western philosophy. Plato was a good teacher of philosophy; he taught his students how to think for themselves. Immanuel Kant too was a good teacher of philosophy and several of his students went on to become powerful philosophers.

Ayn Rand started objectivism with the creation of the NBI (Nathaniel Branden Institute) in 1958. She created the NBI before writing a single essay or book on philosophy because the focus of her philosophizing was not on the development of new thought or treatises in diverse areas of philosophy, but on inspiring a number of young men to join her, become her “new intellectuals,” and dedicate their life to transforming society by spreading rational ideas. But instead of creating new intellectuals, she managed to create a few clones of herself.

There is not a single scholar trained by her who has shown any will or capacity for independent thinking—for them she is the alpha and omega of philosophy; they abhor any opinion that is not in line with Rand’s thinking.

Nationalist Sparta Versus Democratic Athens

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite
(5th century BC); Maybe Leonidas
Classical Athens was a noisy democracy in which people were not well organized. Sparta, on the other hand, was a highly organized nationalistic state whose political system was devoted to maximizing military power at all costs. They fought devastating wars—during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the alliance led by Sparta was victorious over the Athenian alliance.

For reasons that are unclear, the Athenian society, which was crippled and demoralized by the defeat in the Peloponnesian War, gave rise to several brilliant minds, including philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The militarily powerful Sparta did not produce a single major thinker, but it played a critical role in keeping Athens safe from invaders—this, I think, was the key contribution that the Spartans have made to the cause of philosophy, literature, and art. In 480 BC, the Persian King Xerxes would have wiped out Athens and rest of Ancient Greece if the Spartan King Leonidas had not stopped the Persian army comprising of more than 200,000 soldiers at the narrow passageway of Thermopylae.

Without nationalistic and militaristic Sparta, there would not have been any democratic and liberal Athens—and without Athens, it is possible that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and several other artists and writers might not have found a conducive social environment for doing their work. By protecting Athens from the Persians, Sparta granted the brilliant minds of Athens the opportunity for completing their work.

The learning that we can draw from the history of Classical Athens and Sparta is that a democratic and liberal environment is necessary for the flourishing of literature, art, and philosophy, but such an environment cannot survive without the support of a nationalistic force.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

On The Frustrated and Clueless Atheists

The people who are the first to hop aboard the bandwagon of a philosophy which claims to possess the “one and only truth” are usually the frustrated and clueless atheists who feel alienated from their own culture and have started yearning for a new “god”.

Their need for a new god is both psychological and spiritual. They want to lose their personal identity (and with it their frustrations and cluelessness) in a movement that provides them with the satisfaction of denying religion while assuming a godlike persona—of a being who is perfectly moral, perfectly intelligent, and full of knowledge about the past, present, and future.

I am not negative on all atheists, many of them are good thinkers, but I think that to be part of a philosophical movement which claims to posses the “one and only truth” while being an atheist is a sign of alienation and psychological derangement.

Timaeus: The Platonic View of God and Creation

The Timaeus is part of the group of dialogues that Plato composed in the last 20 years of his life. It offers an enigmatic account of the nature of the physical world and human beings. This dialogue, between Socrates, Timaeus, Hermocrates, and Critias, takes place after Socrates has described his ideal city-state (the Republic) and he inquires about the situation in other city-states. Then Critias talks about a lost civilization on the island of Atlantis.

However, the thrust here is not on Atlantis, but on the Platonic view of God, creation of the universe, birth of mankind, and nature of afterlife. Socrates takes a back seat in this dialogue and Timaeus, who was once was a high public servant and is now a wandering astronomer and scholar, acts as the spokesperson for Plato. Timaeus’s description of the universe as the creation of a rational God, acting as a Supreme Creator, is strikingly similar to the view propagated by several modern religions.

According to Timaeus, the ideal Forms, from which God has crafted the universe, are actually numbers. Plato’s doctrine is heavily influenced by the teachings of Pythagoras and offers a grand vision of the ordered way—a purely mathematical way—in which the universe was created by a Supreme God. Here’s an excerpt from Timaeus’s explication:
“Now when the Creator had framed the soul according to his will, he formed within her the corporeal universe, and brought the two together, and united them centre to centre. The soul, interfused everywhere from the centre to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine beginning of never ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all time. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible, and partakes of reason and harmony, and being made by the best of intellectual and everlasting natures, is the best of things created.” 
Timaeus is the one of the most fascinating Platonic dialogues—it is certainly the most influential. A parallel of macrocosm and microcosm runs throughout the conversation and Plato points out that human morality is not a matter of human wills; it is based on cosmic order.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The Philosophical Movement: Between God and Devil

A philosophical movement which claims to possess the “one and only truth” is like a religion in the sense that it operates between two poles: the good ideas/acts of the movement’s god (the founder) and the bad ideas/acts of the movement’s devil (the founder’s greatest enemy).

But when the founder passes away and the movement matures, the realization dawns on the new leaders of the movement that the standards of their god are too high and that they are lacking in intellect, knowledge, passion, and also the stature to occupy the same space that their god once used to occupy.

Since they are incapable of emulating their god, they, intentionally or inadvertently, start emulating the devil. As time passes, the movement acquires all the traits of the same devil that the founder once detested.

On The Invention of Fanaticism

The British scientist and philosopher J.B.S Haldane counts religious intolerance among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D. In his essay, “Is History A Fraud?” (Page 56; The Inequality of Man and Other Essays by J.B.S Haldane), he writes:
“Between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1400 there were probably only four really important inventions, namely the general use of iron, paved roads, voting, and religious intolerance. Perhaps I should have added coinage and long-distance water supply. Gunpowder had been known for a long time before A.D. 1400 in China, but did not begin to win battles in Europe till the seventeenth century. Some­ what before that date, however, it had helped to acceler­ate the decay of feudalism by diminishing the military value of castles.”
I am not a fan of Haldane, but it is an interesting thought that fanaticism which is widely seen as a cause of political violence in our times was in the early days of civilization a miraculous instrument for energizing men and inspiring them to give rise to new societies and nations. The first major nations in the history of humanity were the creation of the religious fanatics.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Unexpected Consequences of The Enlightenment

The School of Athens by Raphael
Eric Hoffer notes that when existing beliefs and institutions are discredited, and people are in the grip of the idea of change, then the society is ripe for the rise of a new fanatical faith. The Renaissance, he notes, was followed by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, and the French Enlightenment gave birth to Marx’s communist revolution. Here’s an excerpt from True Believer (Chapter 15, “Men of Words”):

"A wide diffusion of doubt and irreverence thus leads often to unexpected results. The irreverence of the Renaissance was a prelude to the new fanaticism of Reformation and Counter Reformation. The Frenchmen of the enlightenment who debunked the church and the crown and preached reason and tolerance released a burst of revolutionary and nationalist fanaticism which has not abated yet. Marx and his followers discredited religion, nationalism and the passionate pursuit of business, and brought into being the new fanaticism of socialism, communism, Stalinist nationalism and the passion for world dominion."

He goes on to make the following observation:

"When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man of words becomes the precursor of a new faith."

I think Hoffer is right. All movements, cultural, political, or philosophical have unexpected consequences. It is noteworthy that Marx was not a Marxist, but his ideas helped create Marxism.

Monday, 8 July 2019

On The Problem of Contradictions

It is easy to stridently proclaim that contradictions cannot exist in nature, but it is difficult to resolve all the contradictions in your own philosophy. There has not been a single philosophy in the last 2500 years that is not full of contradictions. The process of identifying and resolving the contradictions in the work of a good philosopher can involve a multitude of scholars working over a period of centuries.

On Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf has a unique style of writing. I like the way she makes use of similes and metaphors in her sentences, which vary in length, some are short, while others are quite long, covering an entire paragraph, and at times incorporate symbolisms. Here’s an excerpt from Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Part II, “Time Passes”; Chapter 3):
But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore. 
It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking; which, did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only. 
The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.
I think Woolf's writing style can be compared to that of Marcel Proust. She was an admirer of Proust, but she disliked James Joyce for his “whirls of obscenity”.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

On the False Deification of Individualists

Only the naive can dream of a political movement spearheaded by individualists. An individualist is someone who does not consult, does not cooperate, and does not collaborate—how can a man like this be expected to spearhead a political movement or even participate in one? Politics is all about consultation, cooperation, and collaboration—it is about finding a common agenda—it is about talking to people, giving an ear to their problems, and offering solutions—it is about trying to change the mind of the people who may not think like you or even hate you. An individualist is incapable of doing all this and so he is useless and irrelevant in the political context.

Many people believe that the individualists are brave, innovative, and creative. But this is not correct in every context. When a nation is attacked by a powerful enemy, the individualists are usually the first to flee, surrender, or get mired in depression over the hopeless situation. It is the people who are motivated by love for their nation’s religion, history, and culture who risk their lives to fight the enemy. When it comes to innovation and creativity, some of the most productive people in the history of humanity have been the non-individualists—these are people who love their family and friends, have respect and admiration for their nation’s religion and culture, and are often active in the affairs of their community and nation.

I am not saying that individualism is bad; it can be a good thing. But individualism can bring benefits only when it is practiced in a limited and judicious manner and in appropriate contexts—it is not advisable to take the individualist approach to everything in life.

Labors of The Objectivist Sisyphus

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
The labors of the objectivist followers of Ayn Rand has distinct parallels with the labors of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the Gods to roll an immense boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down to the bottom when he is close to the top. Sisyphus must keep repeating the labor for eternity without any hope of success.

The objectivists too are condemned by their “God” to roll the immense boulder of reason, individualism, and liberty up the “mountain of reality”. It has been prophesied that the one who can make the boulder stay at the top of the “mountain of reality” will have the keys to the promised land. So far all the objectivists have failed to complete the Sisyphean labor.

Rand’s novels have some good teachings; the problem is primarily with her movement of objectivism in which two of closest followers Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff have made significant contributions. Both Branden and Peikoff were intellectually, morally, and temperamentally unsuitable for the job—and they have made a complete hash of the Randian enterprise.

The objectivist conception of reason, individualism, and liberty is not accurate, and neither is their view of man’s psychology, his purpose, and his place in the universe. The world of objectivism, with its flawed principles, petty conflicts, and cultist methods, appears vastly different from the vibrant world that the readers discover in Rand’s novels. There appear to be two Ayn Rands’ — the one who wrote the novels and the one who got mired in objectivism.

Since the 1950s, when objectivism got launched, the objectivists kept rolling the boulder up the mountain but it kept coming down. Eventually some prominent and not-so-prominent objectivists lost faith, or got exhausted and bored, and they gave up and drifted away from the unending Sisyphean labor. Some were excommunicated because the Randian-elite wanted to monopolize the Sisyphean labor—and its ultimate fruit, the keys to the promised land.

The objectivists who remain in the fold appear tired, garrulous, and peevish. Their mind is a cauldron of the pent-up anger of the decades. They keep performing the Sisyphean labor even though they are filled with the dread that they may never find the promised land.