New year resolutions come in strange forms (especially when they are begun before the new year), and one of mine is to expose myself to new texts and ideas. To be brand consistent, and in keeping with my site strapline Reading: everything I’ve already read, should have read and plenty I probably shouldn’t, below is an introduction to my project to work through Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.)
I love conspiracies.
And they don’t come much bigger than the Kennedy assasination.
(aka another attempt to get off the sidelines)
My last post here (on George Santanaya) was a year ago, so it’s probably fitting I start to try again with this blog. Over the last year, my reading list has grown eclectically and my original “Five Foot Shelf” has grown along with it, though not always in an organised way.
To give some examples, last night I read the whole of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, along with Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost. Thinking about it, probably not two people who would have a whole lot to agree on.
Has been a long time since I’ve blogged here, but decided I should start regurgitating some of my reading, pooping instead of just eating as someone put it. Have picked up a copy of John Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy as an attempt to get back into some solid thinking before I try to dig up the five foot shelf again on my Kindle, and hit chapter 3 about George Santanaya, who I’ve heard about, but don’t know enough about, and was struck by some of his (reported) thoughts on liberalism. My half translated interpretation of his thinking below:
Progress and Time Worship
“What is excluded in Santanaya’s moral conception is, in short, progress.” For me, the important thing here is he is talking about moral progress, not technical progress. I work in a technology field, and it’s the perfect example of things getting better. Faster computers, smaller phones, etc, etc, but this is not what it’s about.
“The idea of progress involves a sort of time worship“. In other words, as soon as you take a time perspective, things start to become valued for what they leading to rather than what they are, a means rather than an end, and that starts to make it possible to justify just about anything. And as we all have experienced, once we hav a fast computer, or a big screen TV, we immediately start to wonder if maybe it’s possible to make a faster one, a bigger one, or an even funnier cat GIF. As ooposed to something like art or entertainment – is this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad better than last years?
Progress becomes defined as physical, in part because that’s an easy way to experience that belief. Looking out into the world and seeing things constantly bigger, faster, more connected, it becomes impossible to see it any other way than as progress. This definition of progress makes it become self-defining, self fulfilling.
Of course, in technology, like fashion, change needs to happen, or what’s the point. people are after something new or novel. Twitter changing favourites to likes is an example of a change that has upset and existing ecosystem and messing with their value system to make something more commercial. It made a lot of noise in certain areas, but is it progress? I’m not sure it is. Companies reorganise constantly, centralise, decentralise, centralise, decentralise, it’s a cycle (or a circle), rarely is it progression. Sometimes the change is deemed good, and is kept, other times it’s bad and reverted, but either way, there’s no necessary progression, it’s just something different, and as something changes, so do expectations and desires around it and we move on to the next new thing, for better or worse.
The related issue Santanya takes with liberalism is that is it supposed to be about freedom, yet quickly becomes prescriptive when people try to push an agenda for the right kind of freedom. John Stuart Mill defined freedom as freedom to do what you like if it doesn’t harm others.
But the most earnest liberals are telling people what they need to do to make progress in this life, to make progress as a society. They are willing to use laws to make this happen. Should people be able to “protect” others from the consequences of the freedom they are trying to promote if it heads in a direction they don’t like.
All this seems to make instant intuitive sense, but the pain of thinking through issues is that as soon as you try to take a concrete example, things suddenly become less concrete. Smoking falls under the personal freedom banner, but it does have impacts on other people. As does global warming and most other issues I can think of.
Progress and Technology
More from John Gray on technology and progress, this time from his essay, Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary
The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can and will be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny.
Which brings me back to the dangers of progress being equated with technology, because a lot of the time technology is not bringing us the big or powerful things, it’s turned to the mundane. Like so many things in this Twitter-shaped world, entertainment is only a click away and fortunes have been made from not making people think to hard. We may never have had it so good, but I’ve seen a lot of writing recently about the lack of a moral purpose, with people devoting lives to inconsequential things to make money, how the 1950s visions of the science fiction visions of exploring new planets and creating new societies and generally saving the world have fallen away and are replaced with more mundane visions.
Allen Ginsberg may have seen the best minds of his generations destroyed, but they were destroyed in a hell of a lot more exciting way than by being diverted to find fulfillment in creating a better chat tool, or making a faster computer that can capitalise on high frequency trading.
Key here is the discussion of the afterlife, particularly proof that the soul exists after death, and is immortal. In Crito, one of the critical reasons for living a good life was that a person would be treated well in the afterlife. This means the pains of this life can be ignored or mitigated by the rewards to come. If there are no rewards after this world, there is no reason for restraint.
Cebes lays out the problem when he talks about the skepticism most people have about the immortality of the soul.
when she leaves the body her place may be nowhere, and that on the very day of death she may be destroyed and perish-immediately on her release from the body … if she could only hold together and be herself after she was released from the evils of the body, there would be good reason to hope …
But much persuasion and many arguments are required in order to prove that when the man is dead the soul yet exists, and has any force of intelligence.
This means Plato needs to find proof that the soul is immortal, and in The Phaedo, he runs through a set that seem convincing.
Socrates begins with the proposition, “Are not all things which have opposites generated out of their opposites?”, meaning “is there not an opposite of life, as sleep is the opposite of waking?” Death is the obvious answer – so far, so good; nothing to object to here.
He then leads Cebes neatly into a logical impasse
“What is generated from life?
And what from death?
I can only say in answer-life.
The rest of the loose ends are quickly tied up. If death is the release of the soul, birth must be the return of the souls of the dead into the world of the living. After all, “if all things which partook of life were to die, and after they were dead remained in the form of death, and did not come to life again, all would at last die, and nothing would be alive – how could this be otherwise? ”
One of the first proofs is recollection, or preknowledge. When we have an idea of something that does not exist insofar as it cannot be detected by the senses – truth, equality, beauty, etc. – where does it come from? Socrates’ answer is that we had it when we were born, lose it at birth and afterwards, remember it again.
Affinity (rejecting the body)
“The soul”, claims Socrates, “clings to that which itself resembles, the invisible, the divine, immortal and wise”; all those things that are the opposite of the body. And these things, or forms, are unchanging, they are the opposite of the physical world where a person can possess beauty, then lose it or be just one day and unjust the next.
The lovers of wisdom know that philosophy, receiving their soul plainly bound and glued to the body … gently exhorts it, and endeavors to free it.
This is such a necessary task, because “each pleasure and pain, having a nail, as it were, nails the soul to the body, and fastens it to it”, and when the soul and the body become close
the soul too is then dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is like a drunkard when under their influence … but when returning into herself she reflects; then she passes into the realm of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred.
For Socrates, it is this affinity of the soul with eternal things that signifies its immortality. In the same way that cold can never allow hot to approach it (because then it would not be cold) or an even number can never be uneven, the soul is the thing that brings the body to life, and when death approaches the body, the soul will withdraw to preserve its integrity.
The moral argument
To round things off, and to bring a precursor of Christianity, there is also a moral perspective. And it’s an appealing one.
If death were a deliverance from everything, it would be a great gain for the wicked, when they die, to be delivered at the same time from the body and from their vices, together with the soul; but now, since it appears to be immortal, it can have no other refuge from evils, nor safety, except by becoming as good and wise as possible.
This moral aspect ties together Socrates’ thinking nicely. there is a moral imperative to what we’re doing. In becoming a Socratic philosopher, there is a sacrifice of the body and pleasures, and this needs to have a definite reward.
Acting in opposition to the prevailing norms of society, whether it’s being a human gadfly or turning the other cheek becomes much easier if we are shown to be better than society because of that action. Or rather, not only that we are the better person, but that someone will recognise us as the better person, and reward us for it – not even in the most selfless world is anything done without thought of a reward.
Nothing is more appealing to have yourself vindicated, although drinking hemlock is a hard way of going about it.
Having resolved to accept his sentence, Socrates spends the last day of his life in discussion with his friends. To help resolve their fears about death, he explains that far from fleeing death, the goal of philosophy , and so the goal of the true philosopher is, in fact, death.
For the philosopher, the body, with its never ending physical and emotional desires is as an impediment in the search for the truth.
When then does the soul light on the truth – for when it attempts to consider anything in conjunction with the body it is plain that it is then led astray by it … must it not, then, be by reasoning, if at all, that any of the things that really are become known to it.
The answer for Socrates is clear, the important things, truth, justice and beauty are all the things that we can’t see. We can’t see them because the body (with its desires) is an impediment and a distraction, so the aim of philosophy is to separate soul from body as much as possible.
Of course, this leads neatly to the conclusion that death is not a thing to be feared, because what is death after all than the ultimate purification of the soul by separating it completely from the body in the most final means possible.
“Those who study philosophy”, says Socrates, “study to die”. Of course, this is making one huge assumption, namely that death is not the end and that the soul is immortal. If anything other were to be shown to be true, a warm, living, capricious body, with all its associated ills and desires (that same body that prevents us from seeing the world as it really is), suddenly wouldn’t seem such a bad thing to have.
Following his sentence of death, Socrates considers the relationship of the citizen to his country , returning evil for evil and comes to the logical conclusion that the laws of the country are binding to the citizen, and that he should accept his sentence, whatever the cost.
His first problem is considering the contradiction he is living through in a democratic society – in its crudest form, whether you are a wise or foolish person “the multitude may put us to death”. But there seems to be a clear argument against listening to the multitude
We ought not to respect all the opinions of men, but some we should, and others not – Nor yet the opinions of all men, but some we should, and of others not.
Does a man who practices gymnastic exercises … pay attention to the praise and censure of everyone, or of that one man only who happens to be a physician, or teacher of exercise … he ought, therefore, to fear the censures and covet the praises of that one, but not the multitude.
So we should listen to the experts, not the punters. But this raises the question that if Socrates, the “wisest of men” is condemned by the multitude, should he not try to escape their sentence?
This is neatly answered by returning to the objective of life – to live well. And when trying to live well, there are somethings more important than simply living; living honourably and justly.
Justice and democracy
Taking as his starting point that “whether the multitude allow it or not, and whether we must suffer a more severe or or a milder punishment than this, still is injustice on every account both evil and disgraceful to him who commits it”, Socrates shows how the just person will not return evil for evil. In this case, it means obedience to a judgement made within the rules of a society he has chosen to live in, even (or especially) when it means doing something we don’t want to do.
he who does not obey is in three respects guilty of injustice – because he does not obey us who gave him being, and because he does not obey us who nurtured him,and because, having made a compact that he would obey us, he neither does so, nor does he persuade us if we do anything wrongly.
Thought Socrates does not say it, this is one of the difficulties with democracy. Rule of the majority is fine if you are in the majority, but if you are in the minority, suddenly the contract is not so appealing. However, in choosing to be part of a society, there are rules you submit yourself to. Socrates believed he had freely chosen the society he lived in, and benefited from it, so if it chose to put him to death, he had an obligation to accept their ruling in the same way he had accepted their favour.
During the recent sub-prime crisis, there were stories about US banks playing the moral card with clients who found themselves in negative equity. There is a rule in the US that a mortgagee can hand in the keys to their house and walk away, but if everyone did this, the banks argued, society would fall apart. They told their clients they had an obligation to pay the debt, no matter that it made no financial sense (neatly ignoring the fact that they themselves had made a financial decision in making the loan in the first place). That feeling of obligation, of fairness to an institution, is incredibly powerful, and most people prefer to make what they believe to be the moral choice to honour their debt, even when an arguably more sensible option was legally open to them.
The importance of the next world
For Socrates, the contract with the city of Athens was more clear cut. While escape might have been possible (even tacitly encouraged), he felt he had duty to remain and face his sentence. Not least in his concerns was the next world. As in the Apology, escape in this world can be an easy thing, but it must be justified in the next world, and that is a much harder bullet to dodge.
But should you escape, having thus disgracefully returned injury for injury, and evil for evil, having violated your own compacts and conventions which you made with us, and having done evil to those to whom you least of all should have done it-namely yourself, your friends, your country and us-both we shall be indignant with you as long as you live, and there our brothers, the laws in Hades, will not receive you favourably knowing that you attempted, so far as you were able, to destroy us.
So, ultimately, Socrates’ beliefs and actions deriving from them are underpinned by a belief in the afterlife. Death is the one thing we can’t escape, so in life, we should attempt to position ourselves as best we can, whether purifying our soul, or acting in a consistent and honourable way, even if this leads to death.It’s an obvious precursor to the Christian belief that this world is not the important one, that the next world is the eternal one and the rewards there far outweigh anything this current world can offer us.
As with the “Apology“, there are things in which people should not compromise, but the important thing is that these things are those people should choose to believe through their reason. This is a personal truth in the sense that it has been reasoned out by the person holding it, and, importantly, that the person holding it should be constantly willing to accept a challenge and use reason to judge their position against any criticism or argument and to change it if something else is more convincing.
The important and the “merely pleasurable”
Just as importantly, they should be willing to live out the implications of to the fullest extent. In his books helping people achieve effectiveness, Stephen Covey emphasised the difference between what was important and what was “merely urgent”. In the same way, Socrates was aware of the divide between what was important, and what might be termed “merely pleasurable”.
It’s just a shame that the pleasurable is so, well, pleasurable.