Thoughts for August 23, 2017
Two thoughts which fit together more tightly than you might at first suppose:
People think the basic conflict in society now is between liberals and conservatives. It’s not. Rather it’s between the sane and the insane. It’s just that “conservative” has transmogrified into a word designed to make lunatics feel respectable. In capitalism, “intelligence” is defined as the ability to cheat people and get away with it. As long as that’s the goal, cheating will be the norm.
Thoughts for August 22, 2017
I see that David Brooks has gone radically un-American in his column this morning. Just consider what he said:
Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.
How does that fit with the pontification that America is the greatest country there has ever been, and Americans are the greatest people there have ever been? Isn’t that the message we demand from our politicians? If we don’t get it, we kick them out of political life.
If we’re not the greatest, then what are we? How do you suppose the average American would answer that question? We have told ourselves that we’re great for so long, we probably can’t imagine being anything else.
The thought of merely being decent is such a pitiful goal, isn’t it?
Who cares about kindness and mercy, when greatness is in the offing?
Thoughts for August 21, 2017
The events of the past ten days compelled me to jot the following thought into my notebook (and when I say “compelled” I mean that literally).
At any point in history the surrounding atmosphere of thought, belief, and conviction about good and evil will exert gigantic influence on people’s behavior. Most people will be controlled entirely by their intellectual environment. We can rightly celebrate those who manage to rise above the prejudices of their times. But should we condemn utterly those who don’t? We need to recall that such condemnation will apply to about 99% of the human race.
Who are we to issue such a judgment? The only way you can get away with it is to dismiss the tragic features of history and view it instead as pure melodrama. History is not, primarily, a tale of good struggling against evil. It is far more a story of stupid and limited people contending with other stupid and limited people.
Thoughts for August 11, 2017
Of all the curiosities the world presents to us the most perplexing, perhaps, is what matters to people. If you started making a list you could go on virtually forever. Think of it: what kind of car one drives, what kind of shoes one owns, the particular gourmet food one relishes, how many Twitter responses one gets, how well known one is, the prestige of the organizations one is a member of, who one has been photographed with -- as I say, the list could scarcely ever be brought to an end.
I suppose it’s a fairly common experience, as one ages, to have the number of things he or she genuinely cares about to decline dramatically. That has certainly been the case with me. In fact, it seems I’m down to only four, which can be covered by the simple headings: loving, learning, the fairness and justice of the social system, and health. Nothing else counts for me much anymore, and certainly not fame, riches, power, or what the masses consider success.
Part of this comes from the increasing recognition that time -- at least time as we conceive of it now -- obliterates all things. It may well be that time will do away with not only humanity but all record of humanity. There will be nothing in the universe to testify that humanity once was. What will a politician’s fame be worth then?
Somebody could come back at me and ask, “What will your learning and loving be worth then?” My only answer would have to be, “I don’t give a damn. That ‘then’ will be outside my human radius; it won’t contain anything I can touch, or feel, or care about.”
Am I curious about it? Sure. I agree with Samuel Johnson that “curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” But curiosity is an element of learning. I want to learn as much as I can, but I’m more than ready to admit that there is much that I cannot learn. And it doesn’t bother me, seriously, that I’m limited in that way. It’s just a feature of my being.
It’s one’s being that is defined by what matters, and I suspect that we would all enhance our beings by concentrating on the things that really matter to us, and not worrying much about the things the world tells us are super important.
Thoughts for August 9, 2017
When I reflect, I realize I have no hard evidence that Americans now believe any more crazy stuff than they ever did. It seems they do but that may be just that they now have greater opportunities to publicize their thoughts.
I’ve just read Kurt Andersen’s long article in the September Atlantic, titled “How America Lost Its Mind.” It’s a prelude to his new book, which will be released in about a month: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a Five Hundred Year History. You can see from the book title that he doesn’t see American irrationality as a new thing. It derives, he believes, from American religiosity, which has been intense since the first European settlements here. He doesn’t come right out and say so but the implication is that if one believes in God, he’s a candidate to believe in anything, no matter how nutty it is.
Though Andersen is onto a significant feature of the American psyche, I don’t think his thesis about it is sound. He blames -- far too much it seems to me --our current lack of reason on what he calls the “anything-goes sixties,” and scoops up much of the popular literature from five decades ago as evidence for the American rejection of reality. In the process he links unlikely combinations of people, such as Jimmy Carter, Michele Foucault, and Rush Limbaugh, as being engaged in the same process.
As I just said to one of my friends, I suspect his book will get some gratifying publicity but, over time, will fail be viewed as a serious explanation for the state of the American mind in the first decades of the 21st century. Analyzing the latter will require far more complex and subtle thought than Andersen seems to be bringing to the task. The only part of his thesis likely to hold up is not original with him. He is just one among many who think the American psyche has become diseased.
I doubt that Americans will be, primarily, the ones to sort this problem out. The United States has now become the world’s difficulty, and so the whole world is going to have to decide what to do about it. Donald Trump’s rant yesterday that he is going to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” ought to be a wakeup call to all human beings. Though America has created this derangement it is now a human problem and all humans consequently have some responsibility for addressing it.
Thoughts for August 5, 2017
One of Nietzsche’s more significant claims was that a philosopher’s theories were simply expressions of his temperament. In other words, his philosophy was a statement of who he was.
When one considers the plenitude of philosophical theories down the ages this would seem almost to be obvious. Hundreds of brilliant minds over at least twenty-five centuries struggling to define the nature of things ought to have moved towards some sort of unity. Yet they haven’t. Doesn’t that suggest there is no unity to be moved towards? There is no thing -- commonly called philosophical truth -- to be found.
What there is to be found is a multiplicity of temperaments seeking to find concurrence between themselves and the world, or the universe. Desiring to be right rather than to be oneself is probably the most disastrous mistake humanity has made.
This was the essence of Nietzsche’s message. This is what he meant by the will to power. One cannot build his power without knowing who he is and what he wants. That’s because absence of self-knowledge is sure to lead to wasted, futile efforts, chasing down some path that’s never going to lead anywhere for that particular person.
The question left hanging in this proposition is whether a temperament is given or constructed. It would seem there has to be some element of givenness in order to begin to build, something there from the start providing the means to take a first step. But if this givenness exists, then where it comes from I do not know. I hope there is no givenness that leads inevitably towards viciousness, but I suppose there could be. If there is, it makes me sad to think about it.
Thoughts for August 4, 2017
Amongst conservatives nowadays we see quite a few calls for return to traditional foundations. What we need, supposedly, is to get back to something we once had, and then stick by it. But what if the foundations of the past, though they may once have offered some utility, are worn out so far as the problems of our immediate future are concerned?
A world with no foundations calls for radically transformed goals. If there are groundings which can be discovered, then the basic purpose of life is to find them, and once they have been found, to remain faithfully dependent on them. But if there are no such foundations, if belief in them rises from fear rather than from evidence, if foundational mythology has functioned mainly as a tool to keep the majority in thrall to small power elites, then the first priority of life is to cast false foundations aside in order to build something personal, something one can count on because it was constructed from within, because a person can own it.
The idea of owning God is absurd but the idea of owning oneself opens possibilities, if one is strong enough to insist on them, if one can refuse to bow down.
The reason Friedrich Nietzsche concentrated on the life of the self-creating individual was that he knew any group mind had to be based on false abstractions, in effect, mere notions that didn’t offer genuine help to anyone.
The notion that Nietzsche’s will to power was addressed to the power of groups, that it was directed to the goals of nations or other self-promoting organizations, was a product of childish misreading. It was a refusal to see that Nietzsche’s perspective on power was personal power, the determination and the strength to insure that you maintain power over yourself, regardless of how social power clots intend to bring you under their control. If Nietzsche was a prophet of anything, he was a prophet of radical freedom. He envisioned a world made up of interactions among free people.
Thoughts for August 3, 2017
Last night I waked up in the wee hours and went into my reading room to see if I could find something that would put me back to sleep. I picked up a book I had intended to start reading the next day -- another attempt to analyze an aspect of Samuel Johnson -- and thumbed through it to try to get a sense of its scope, its bibliography, and so forth.
This book attempts to sketch out a shift in epistemology brought about by empiricism which is linked to “the rise in biography,” Damn, I said to myself, does that mean anything, or anything I can possibly care about? The rise in biography? Before biography was lower, and now it’s higher? What the hell does that mean?
You might think this would have been more than enough to put me to sleep again. But though it should have been, it wasn’t. Instead it got me to thinking about words, which led me to scribble the following thought onto a little slip of paper, which is the main thing I want to tell you about here.
Here’s what I wrote -- at about 3:00 A.M.: “People for the most part don’t know what they mean by the words they use. They do tremendous harm by throwing words around recklessly. Education might best be defined as an attempt to reduce that harm. I hope the future will come to see that the denizens of the early 21st Century scarcely spoke at all. They gasped; they mumbled; they sought advantage over clarity. They failed to perceive that language is what makes humanity worthwhile. They spat on our reason for being. Not all of them, but too many. Far too many.”
Having written, I sat and read the little passage over several times. Gradually, I began to feel a little sleepy, so I went back to bed.
I don’t know whether it’s a good thing to get up in the middle of the night, or not.
Thoughts for August 2, 2017
A pair of friends and I have been having an e-mail discussion about American commonalities, and I was asked by one of them what I thought about commonalities and how to restore supposed commonalities of the past. I decided to paste my first answer here as a way, perhaps, to activate certain questions which, all in all, tend to be neglected. Here it is:
I think, first, that if one is calling for the people of the country to emphasize something then we ought to be able to say what that something is. Sloppiness of language has been a characteristic of the American Republic since its inception, and it has caused a great deal of misconception and, consequently, a great deal of strife.
The vague notion that there was once more “commonality” than there is now has no evidence behind it. It’s just a sentiment that people throw around, mainly to denigrate other people.
If we look at the literature of visitors to America, we find a fairly steady stream of criticism based on abhorrence of American braggadocio. Americans seem not able to grasp that when they pronounce that we are the “greatest” (another word that is almost never defined) country the world has ever known, we are insulting a vast number of people, billions, in fact. We are announcing that none of the other people of the world have anything in their background that even begins to approach the grandeur we have achieved.
It’s a bad habit, unmannerly, and essentially vulgar.
One thing we need to do is to approach our own history with a critical mind, sorting out what there is in our past that we want to build on, and what there is that we want to expunge. And if we don’t find quite a lot that falls into the latter category, then we’re not thinking straight. If we did get an honest sense of what we think of our past, that would be a step towards genuine commonality. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; I’m just saying it needs to be done.
Another thing is that we need to concentrate our political debates on basic question of who we are. It could be a reform that would clean a lot of falsehood out of our political culture. Some of the questions I would put forward are:
- Do we regard adequate health care as a basic human right that will be made available to every person within our jurisdiction?
- Do we think that a strong infrastructure which serves everyone is more important than a political economy designed to create billionaires, and to make them evermore wealthy?
- Do we think that incarceration in prisons ought to be applied only to those who pose a direct physical threat to others, and develop other means of supervision for those who have behaved badly?
- Do we believe that the mission of our military forces ought to be defensive or ought to be used aggressively to promote American wealth?
- Do we want our judicial system to be ever on guard against privileged treatment for some and vicious treatment towards others? And do we want to get clear in our minds what is privileged and what is vicious?
This just a beginning half-dozen, and there are many more queries we could add to the list.
The horror of our political system now is that our major political networks are working towards goals they will not admit to supporting. As long as that’s the case, the notion of commonality will remain absurd.
Thoughts for July 28, 2017
Elizabeth Carter, who was one of the leading figures of the group of women writers who came to be known as the “Bluestockings” in London during the 18th century, published in the 1750s a translation of the complete works of the stoic philosopher Epictetus. It was a very successful venture for her, establishing her as a leading intellectual figure, and earning for her the considerable sum of £1000 (equivalent to over $100,000 in today’s money).
It was a widely praised work, but one of her closest friends, the younger writer Catherine Talbot, was concerned that, in promoting Epictetus as a convincing moralist, Carter might be, quite unconsciously, undermining the potency of Christianity. There was already, she said, too much equating of Christianity with morality alone, and, by promoting the message of Epictetus, Carter could cause some people to suppose that adequate morality could be obtained absent the more important element of Christianity, that which is concerned with the essential procedures of salvation.
Talbot’s worries remind me of how much intellectual wreckage religion has thrown in the path of thinkers who have tried to sort out how we humans can best make our way in the world. Instead of struggling with what we know, and trying to use our knowledge intelligently, religion is generally trying to shove us down some path towards the unknowable and attempting to claim certainty for what we will find at the end of it.
The reason for this, I guess, is that the reality our knowledge presents to us is not perfectly comforting, and most people would rather be told happy tales than to confront truth. Whether this desire is so deeply embedded in the human makeup that it can never be flushed out is a thing I don’t know, and I suspect nobody else does either.
Still, we do know fairly well where faith in the unknowable leads -- to persecution, denial of liberty, torture and war. You would think we had had enough of those things.
There is, though, some satisfaction, for me at least, in knowing that Elizabeth Carter seems not to have been much disturbed by Catherine Talbot’s doubts. She was proud of the work she had done, and glad for the rewards it brought her. We could do worse than to take her for one of our models in how to confront the difficulties of human existence. She needs to be better known than she is, and that’s one of the reasons I have sketched out this little thought.
Thoughts for July 27, 2017
Today from Amazon I ordered a gigantic Kindle book titled The Complete Works of Frances Burney, which contains all of her novels and plays, in addition to her diary (which she kept all of her life from about age fourteen), and various memoirs and other matter which I haven’t yet sorted out. The whole thing seems to contain about two million, four hundred thousand words.
I did this because I began reading Norma Clarke’s Dr. Johnson’s Women, which was published in London seventeen years ago, and which I bought at Powell’s Bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago, on July 24, 2007. I own many books about Samuel Johnson which I haven’t yet read. In any case, Fanny Burney figures significantly in Norma Clarke’s book, so I thought I ought to try to learn more about her than I do already.
I decided to start with the diary, which has a very long introduction, written by someone from the late 19th century whose name I haven’t yet discovered. It’s a readable piece, but it leaves me a bit disconcerted since I don’t know how long it’s to go on, or what the status of its author is. I have been reading on it this afternoon for at least two hours.
In it, I learned that when Fanny was about ten years old (that is, around 1762), her father, Charles Burney, who was a well-known musician of the time, decided to leave his home in London, for health reasons, and take a post at a church in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, about a hundred miles north of the metropolis. He didn’t take his family with him. There he developed a patron named Sir John Turner, who had the reputation of being a very shallow fellow.
I wondered if this shallow John Turner might be a direct ancestor of mine, but as I thought about it, I decided probably not because, as far as I know, my line of Turners left England in the late 17th century to come to Virginia. Still, he could be a great, great, great uncle, or something. The confusing truth is that there are (and have been) a great many John Turners in the world. I have no influence over any of them, except, perhaps, one. And about that I remain uncertain.
©John R. Turner
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