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.

09/1/14

Thirty years later…


In his book of aphorisms, Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche described “marriage as a long conversation” like this:

When entering a marriage, one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this woman right into old age? Everything else in marriage transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation.

In just under two weeks, I will celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary with Susan (and almost 33 years together). I can say with confidence that, yes, we still have engaging, stimulating, interesting conversations together. We always have, right from the start. Such is the nature of our relationship. We share, we talk.

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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.

08/27/14

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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08/23/14

Tricks of the mind


Reading

Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

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08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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