09/2/14

Common Sense



When men yield up the exclusive privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

Thomas Paine, 18th century political activist and political philosopher, wrote that line. It struck me as particularly cogent in light of modern politics and the rise of fanatic, fundamentalist organizations: people who give themselves over to ideologies or to any monolithic cause lose their liberty because they stop thinking for themselves. They allow others to do the thinking for them, rather than question matters for themselves.

This is true, of course, at all levels, local to international. We should never allow partisan politics to replace our independent reason.

The line appears in the early part of his controversial booklet, Common Sense. That pamphlet helped inspire the thirteen American colonies to declare their independence in 1776. Although it was originally published anonymously, Paine’s name became linked to it after three months. He donated the royalties from its sale to help fund George Washington’s Continental Army.

How much the title and the contents match is open to discussion. In my own observations what most people call “common sense” isn’t very common at all. Paine’s work strikes me more an inciting work of political propaganda than common sense.

While the booklet was really all about the reasons for creating a new republican state, separate from the monarchy of Great Britain, Paine indulged in a bit of philosophizing outside that narrow political sphere, including many comments on the nature of government, especially hereditary government (which he clearly detested as unnatural).

Although he quotes from the Bible and includes many examples and stories drawn from scripture in his short work, and he was careful to support religious freedoms, Paine decried the mixing of religion and government, writing:

It is of the utmost danger to society to make it (religion) a party in political disputes… Mingling religion with politics may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America… As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.

In his appendix, Epistle to the Quakers, Paine challenges their own pamphlet against taking arms to fight for independence, and adds about religion in general that it is

“…the utmost danger to society, to make it a party in political disputes.”

While he was thinking historically of the contentious involvement of religion in European politics, I suspect he would be angry and shocked at the increasing interference in politics and education by the fundamentalist right in modern America.

Paine argued for simpler forms of government (which makes me think of our proposed governance changes here in Collingwood):

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered…

This next quote strikes me as appropriate for our dynamic, new face of economic development, here in Collingwood:

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world.

Paine speaks optimistically (perhaps overly so) of youth. Or perhaps he just hoped:

Youth is the seed time of good habits…

And this quote rings true when one contemplates the gun madness of our southern neighbour that has wrought so many deaths, so many tragedies yet no change in the gun laws:

The present state of America is truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflexion.

Of course, these quotes are all taken out of context and should not be seen as Paine presaging any modern situation or state.

It’s a short read, important mostly for its connection with the American Revolution. But it’s also interesting to read how Paine and his peers were looking at alternative forms of government. You can browse it online here.

08/31/14

Taoist Lessons for Politicians


Verse 29Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.

That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**

There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.

Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.

Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in his Art of Worldly Wisdom.

A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25

Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.

The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Other translations concur, albeit offer alternate renderings. Regardless of specific wording, or which translation you prefer, all have a similar message that resonates in today’s politics. ***
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08/29/14

Sonnet 103



Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,

So begins Shakespeare’s sonnet number 103 (I started rereading the sonnets recently because, well because it’s Shakespeare, damn it all, and what other reason would anyone need?).

It’s a sentiment I well know. The impoverished Muse thing, I mean. There are three dozen pieces in draft mode I’ve started here, then hesitated, and left incomplete. Unable to pull the threads together into a coherent tableaux because my muse is busy somewhere else. I have numerous unfinished stories, novels and even two books in progress on my hard drive. And a basement full of hardcopy of older efforts. Novels, even – several, in fact. Awful stuff, really.

I should delete them all, except that they remind me that writing is not just talent: it’s work. And maybe one day my Muse will return and kickstart me to finish them, not simply relegate them to the “chronicle of wasted time” (Sonnet 106).

True, some of it is trash: mad ramblings, naive, amateurish, even puerile. I can’t spout high literature or tell sad tales about the death of kings. For every piece of deep cogitation – be it feigned or heartfelt – there is a piece wading in the shallows of triviality. Sonnet 110:

Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,

It’s odd: some days I could spend the whole day writing, hardly ever leaving my chair. Some days I could pen a dozen pieces on as many topics without losing vigour, darting back and forth between them without losing a single thread. Some days the words just fall into place and every one is like a brick in a well-built home. I love those days, love crafting posts with a sense of coherency and logic, writing stories and essays with consummate ease.

And other days it’s crap. Nothing works. Words collide. Thoughts clatter about like shopping carts pushed through a Wal-Mart by anxious shoppers hunting for the bargains. That’s frustrating. Annoying. Writing consumes me. Where Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” I would have to put it as Scribo, ergo sum: “I write, therefore I am.”

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08/29/14

Machiavelli and Xenophon


Another piece posted on The Municipal Machiavelli this week; this time a short comment about Machiavelli and Xenophon, the ancient Greek writer who Niccolo referred to in The Prince and The Discourses:

ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/machiavelli-and-xenophon/

This recent post was sparked by a review of a new book on Xenophon aimed at the business-management reader: Larry Hedrick’s Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War. The review by Richard Feloni, on Business Insider, noted:

Niccollò Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a guide for the ideal ruler, made his name synonymous with a ruthless pragmatism based on the manipulation and total defeat of an enemy. But the ancient book that significantly influenced Machiavelli, Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” — which translates to “The Education of Cyrus” — depicts a leader who believes quite the opposite…
Xenophon depicts Cyrus as a leader who kept a cool head and knew when to be severe and when to be compassionate. The book survived antiquity and became a favorite of not just Machiavelli, but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

Feloni is not accurate in his simplistic reduction (reductio ad absurdum) of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting topic to research.

08/28/14

How to Run a Country


I’ve posted a review of Philip Freeman’s book, How to Run a Country on the Municipal Machiavelli site, here:

ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/how-to-run-a-country/

Freeman’s work is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero, thematically chosen around the topics of governance, politics and war. It’s billed as a sequel to his “How to Win an Election”, but I didn’t feel it lived up to that title.

However, I hope it can help introduce an audience of modern readers to the Roman writer Cicero and spark some interest in reading further and deeper. Certainly it’s an easy read – probably no more than an hour’s effort to get a peek into one of the sharpest minds in classical times.

There’s one good line in the book worth sharing, from the section “On Leadership” (p.12):

The ideal state is one in which the best people desire praise and honor while avoiding humiliation and disgrace. Such citizens are not deterred from wrongdoing by a fear of punishment as laid out in the law as much as by an inborn sense of shame given to us by nature itself that makes us dread the thought of justified criticism.

As a local politician who understands the effect of unjustified criticism, I understand this sentiment.

08/27/14

Montaigne’s cat and Descartes’ reality


“When I play with my cat,” wrote French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.*

That statement encompasses two very distinct paths of contemplation.

First is one of animal sentience. The recognition that animals are conscious, that they are sentient creatures, with feelings and intelligence, not simply biological machines, is fairly new. Most of our modern awareness of animal intelligence and consciousness comes only in the last century (although the debate was opened in Darwin’s time). The 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, believed animals were machines that acted out of reflex only (or not… what he meant by his statements is a hotly debated issue, it appears – although the Cartesian view is still cited to justify use of animals in research).

Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.

The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**

Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?

Sara Bakewell, writing in The Guardian, explains it:

One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.

Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.

What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:

The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?

Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.

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