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.

08/29/14

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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08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

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08/14/14

Re-reading Heraclitus


HeraclitusI started to re-read Haxton’s 2001 translation of Heraclitus last night. I came across references to him when reading introductory material on Montaigne recently and I wanted to flesh out my knowledge and understanding.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived during the transformational Axial Age, roughly contemporary with other philosophers like Gautama Buddha, Zarathustra, Confucius and Lao Tzu. He wrote a significant treatise (On Nature) consisting of three books, one on the cosmos, one on politics and the third on theology. It may have been, like the fragments, a collection of aphorisms and epigrams.

That master work vanished around the time of Plutarch ( 46-120CE) and has has long been lost. Heraclitus’ words only survive in the famous gnomic “fragments” which give but a small and incomplete glimpse into his thoughts. Still, Heraclitus was an important part of the development of Greek thought that led to Plato and Aristotle, and he influenced the later Roman philosophers and writers who still had his complete work to read.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus held that,

…(1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time.

Haxton’s is one of many translations into English (at the moment my sole printed version), making the fragments into a more poetic rendition than some of the more literal and drier translations. His version also includes the Greek – just in case you’re schooled in reading ancient Greek (I’m not; I took it for a semester when I started university, but found my facility for learning it was stunted…).

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08/10/14

Montaigne’s words on anger


“There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger,” Montaigne wrote in Book II of his Essays (Chapter 31). “It is a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.”

That strikes me a very Buddhist statement, a comment lifted from the Dhammapada, although Montaigne was a solid Catholic. It certainly has a similar wisdom.

I have seen that anger cloud the judgment of people in political debate, on many stages from national to local. It blinds people to the reality of the issues, and carries them on a wave of self-induced pleasure, as Montaigne saw.

When fuelled by anger, discussion degenerates into shouting matches where no one can win. They make of their anger a holy cause unto itself, closing themselves to any argument or fact that might challenge their self-righteousness. They no longer listen to compromise, or weigh alternatives. Anger outweighs all. Anger becomes ego becomes anger, a vicious feedback loop.

Montaigne also criticized those who bluster and bellow their self-righteous anger for the world’s attention:

“They go after their own shadow, and carry this tempest into a place where no one is punished or affected by it, except someone who has to put up with the racket of their own voice.”

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s line about “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

Anger displaces rational thought and ends any possibility of civil or civilized debate. It spews forth in puerile vituperation and accusation. We see it on social media every day.

Calm, rational thought, he wrote in that same essay, is the only way to engage one another.

“I observe in the writings of the ancients,” wrote Montaigne, “…that the man who thinks strikes home much more forcefully than the man who pretends.”

But it is difficult to crack that wall of angry self-justification.