Thursday, December 10, 2009

Standing Down

The sad events at Fort Hood last month underline an obvious yet unthinkable fact for most: Had we no standing army, and the vast tax draining vampire that assures us of its necessity, such events need never have occurred.  The American people have long allowed themselves to believe that a support of the military and that insidious word, patriotism, go hand in hand.  This was not always so.

Both World Wars found an American citizenry deeply reluctant to become involved in over seas conflicts.  The less well informed and more poorly educated Americans of the past however, required little puppet-mastery to cajole into hating, murderously, people on the other side of the globe.  The modern citizen, though not too different from his predecessors, more often than not requires a more subtle and sophisticated form of enthrallment, one that he absorbs passively everyday in the form of newspapers and television.

I am not implying secret government cabals meeting in darkened rooms of the Pentagon bent on world domination, but simply ask the obvious question: cui bonoWhom does a standing army benefit?  Not the people, many of whom are already better armed than the local police.  And with vast oceans and friendly borders to guard us, whom are we to fear?  The events of September eleventh were not aimed at the American people, but at the government which entangles its self in foreign affairs, and backs brutal dictatorships with American arms. 

Of the soldiery, who are they?  I have known many veterans and too few could pass for the super-human demi-god image the military propaganda machine foists upon us, and which the passive public imbibes seemingly without dissent.  Yet it is obvious much of the nation hasn't fallen for the show, for a majority believe themselves unworthy of the distinction of soldier, leaving that glorious title to gang members and high school drop outs.

With the Presidents ill-judged announcement of a surge in Afghanistan comes the signal to bring an end to this bloody spectacle by stepping off the world stage as glorified policemen and truly earning his prize for peace.  Otherwise these tragedies may again be repeated, only next time as farce.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Marketplace of Ideas

In the new film Agora, Rachel Weisz plays the proto-feminist philosopher/mathematician Hypatia.

From what I've read the title seems appropriate.  The agora was the open air marketplace of Greek cities where the merchants traded their wares.  Obviously the movies creators are making a larger connection to the marketplace of ideas in which Hypatia works, and for which the great Library of Alexandria was meant to encourage.  In contrast, it appears the early church, in the guise of the ironically titled Saint Cyril, will play the antagonist when his fanatical world-view brings them into conflict.

Although Hollywood is not typically known for documenting the life of the mind, what ever its merits, I look forward to seeing a depiction of the ancient world that concerns its self with ideas instead of battles, and the wrestling of conscience over the wrestling of armies.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Battle of the Books Redux

Battle of the BooksWhen I began this article, it was to be nothing more than a review of the new Amazon Kindle I recently purchased. Instead, the period since I acquired it and this writing has given that little time for deeper reflection uncommon in the typical review. However, I will quickly give the appearances of a review.
Having tried both the Sony PRS-700, and now its chief rival, they are tied in my heart for prominence. I will not descend to the gutter, as many feel necessary, and denigrate one at the expense of the other. In fact, I feel blessed to live in an age when any such device is available, whatever limitations they may have for the moment. The last time mankind knew such a revolution in the exchange of ideas was five-hundred years ago when a little German goldsmith attempted a faster means of producing icons for credulous pilgrims.
I am of course speaking of Johannes Gutenberg and his seemingly accidental printing press. Like the new e-book technology, Gutenberg’s press was an odd transition, at first glance appearing like a wine press, which it was indeed inspired by. The method he invented was so revolutionary that its creator did all he could to hide the fact, apparently for fear of scaring off potential buyers. His bibles were handed over to the illuminators to be brightly painted (the lack of color being a major complaint then as now) and made for all the world to appear as written manuscripts. These early books are known as Incunabula, meaning out of the cradle, and represent that awkward phase before any new technology works out the kinks.
Likewise, we have entered a period of digital Incunabula, and as this new child begins to take baby steps, there are many who would wish to knock it down simply because it has yet to brake out into a run. I believe this is less a dislike of the new reading than it is a fear that the child shall one day stalk their beloved book stores and libraries like a colossus, leaving them like Cassius to: “peep and look about for dishonorable graves.”
The e-book’s critics lack an understanding of the history of their medium. They cite digital piracy as a major drawback to any real adaptation by the publishing industry as a whole. Pirates were a problem for early printers as well, but this did not hamper their profits and, in time led to the development of copyright law and international cooperation. However, such technical concerns over-shadow what are deeper intellectual ones.
What is being “changed” is not merely a matter of technology but one of mind-set. The scholarly habits and traditions of five-hundred years are seemingly at threat, and to the true bibliophile this is the greater matter.
It led me to recall that piece of satire by Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books. Written at a time of similar conflicts, it treated the debate between old and new. A battle breaks out in St. James’s Palace in the Kings library between the “ancients” and the “moderns”. The episode encapsulates the argument over whether modern knowledge had surpassed that of the ancient writers and, though Swift had no ultimate position for or against, it highlights for us today’s entrenched bias for the merits of tradition. This is not to say that tradition is bad and all innovation good but, as in Swift’s story, we can see the proponents of tradition often exaggerating their claims to deference.
As a lover of books myself, I am still astounded by my own quick turnabout on the matter. Computers played little if any role in my life until well after High School. I was curious about the Internet, but felt certain it held no wonders for me, until the ease it lent me in communication with absent friends worked upon my mind. All technology exists to ease the burdens of life, however, their presence too often becomes a comfort in and of its self and any attempt at change appears a threat.
This watchfulness is sometimes laudable, but in the end often becomes counterproductive. We do not hold the world to a way of thinking simply because we are too long accustomed to it. The fact that Gutenberg’s little wine press remained with us for four centuries virtually unchanged is a miracle of human genius, but even four hundred years does not guarantee a technologies survival. Nevertheless, I see a long future for print yet remaining, and don’t believe it necessary to kill the still reigning king of the Republic of Letters.
Perhaps it is time to call a truce and bring the books home from the battlefield, returning them to our hands where they may continue their purpose, regardless of their form.
Published on September 6, 2009.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Johnson's Inner Child

Johnson Doing Penance Samuel Johnson as Doctor Spock?  The "Great Cham" of eighteenth  century English letters is not the first person to come to mind in regard to child rearing, but his own upbringing gave him much to reflect upon. 

In an essay for that classic series of meditations, The Rambler #148, Johnson gives us an unwitting autobiographical sketch when he writes: "Capricious injunctions, partial decisions, unequal allotments, distributions of reward, not by merit, but by fancy, and punishments, regulated not by the degree of the offence, but by the humour of the judge, are too frequent where no power is known but that of a father."  And that's just a taste of his discourse upon the tyranny of parents.

James Boswell's Life shows us a Johnson at odds with his stern patriarch, and in later years he was repentant of his childhood disobedience when he famously returned to the town of his birth, and stood in the rain as penance for refusing to man his father's bookstall.

Though he is often portrayed by Boswell (a young man when they first met and who saw in Johnson a father figure) as a gruff and imposing "bear" of a man, many of his contemporaries found him actually loveable.  He never had children himself, but his possible Tourettes and OCD, his rough country ways and lowly accent, no doubt gave him an aura of childlike naivety even into old age.  Likewise, he retained that vital enthusiasm and curiosity of childhood that surely helped enliven the talk of the master conversationalist of the age.

Johnson is too much neglected at the present.  If he is spoken of at all it is often only in the light of Boswell's masterpiece.  Perhaps that monument looms above its subject, but in his essays Johnson can still speak to us with a fatherly patience and gentle humor he no doubt wished his own father had shown himself.  Perhaps the inner child did more to shape the man than we know.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Truth and Consequences


Charles Darwin Emma Darwin

Among the greatest dangers to the freedom of thought is not the bonfires of tyrants, nor the sharp strokes of the censors pen, but the gentle state of matrimony.  If a spouse cares anything at all for their beloved they will always do their utmost to spare hurt feelings.  

This is an expected and laudable thing to do in most marriages.  No one would remain long with someone who continually appeared at odds with them in the deepest sense, that is, in what they believe.  But at a certain point this may become less an inconvenience than a neglect of the greater good.

It has for this reason become a cliche that philosophers don't marry.  Socrates was the perennial example of the hen-pecked house-mate who's wife, concerned merely with the day to day concerns of this life, was unable to understand those of her husband's for the life of the mind.

I can think of few better examples of this in modern times than that of Charles and Emma Darwin.  Their's was a truly deep and respectful love that continued unbroken through the whole of their marriage.  However, late in life when Darwin had dispensed with the religion of his childhood, his wife remained a devout Christian.  It was for this reason perhaps more than any other that he delayed the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, until professional pressures at last forced it to the press.

"When I am with you" she writes before their marriage. "I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain."

Such gentle words can do more to bring a man to rethink the truth then all the lashings of the scourge and heckles of the crowd combined. 

In the end, Darwin of course published and set a conversation going between faith and science that has yet to have an end.  It is a testament to the strength of their feeling for one another that the ensuing controversies did not dim that love, however much it may have tested it. 

Their example is both as beautiful as it is, sadly, rare.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Viva la E-Book Revolucion!

Some few days ago I received my Sony PRS-700 in the mail.  Like a kid on Christmas morning I was a quiver in expectation, and it did not disappoint.  I have watched for over a year now the advances that e-book reading technology has taken, and finally decided that it was time to take the plunge.  After some thorough research, I discovered that the Sony Reader was more suitable to my needs than the much hyped Kindle.

It features a touch screen with native PDF compatibility, which was of the utmost importance since the majority of my e-books are PDF, and Amazon charges a fee (at least if you want them delivered wirelessly) to convert them to the Kindle format.

Sony has prided themselves upon being an "open" device, compatible with a wide range of different formats.  Though the Kindle does have an Internet connection where you can buy your books online and have them wirelessly downloaded to the device, I felt the price of being a slave to their system was simply too high.

Some have complained that the different readers on the market are too expensive for having but one function.  I was seduced by this argument myself at first, and bought a Netbook thinking it would work just as well.  I was wrong.  Laptops are fine things but unwieldy objects for comfortable reading.  The LCD screen was just as bad for eye-strain as my desk top, and the difficulty of booting it up and shutting it down disinclined me from reading at all.  The Reader is quick to start up, taking only seconds from sleep mode, and you're reading your favorite title in moments.  Besides, if you are a true bibliophile like me, the advantages of having dozens of volumes at hand is empowering.  And after all, did anyone ever complain that print books had but one function?

Having now tried the technology for myself I can only see great potential for it.  As with all things digital, e-book readers will only become cheaper and better, so it will not be too far off before everyone can afford to keep a library in their pocket.  Until then, I will be thankful for my PRS-700 as we sail into this new world of digitized delight.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Edward Said's Beard

Some time before he died, the great Palestinian author Edward Said grew a beard.  Now, for anyone else this would be a trivial event, but for a world renowned intellectual it signaled to me that simple vanity that even the best of us cannot escape.  It also brought to mind the age old debate over whether or not philosophers should be above worldly things. 

We know from Diogenes Laërtius that Aristotle was fond of his rings, and kept his hair well groomed.  Wittgenstein read detective novels and loved watching Westerns.  Marx enjoyed a good dirty joke and crawling through pubs.  The list could be endless, but the point is the same: thinking is a  human endeavor, and even those who are its finest practitioners, remain, very much human.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Amor Vincit Omnia

René Magritte, The Lovers   I have always been inclined to Romanticism.  Daydreaming and child-like enthusiasm are hallmarks of my character.  I was always shy and bashful around girls but felt a kinship and a sympathy with them I did not share with the boys.  They seemed more right-headed and just.  And the fact that many of them hated sports as I did put them high in my esteem.

I was too emotionally preoccupied in high school to dare consider courting one, but naively believed that, if I merely treated them kindly they would, one day, realize I was a good an honorable man and beat a path to my door.  What fools we are in youth!

As I grew older, and the reality of just how truly isolated we really are began to press upon my consciousness, I began a series of relationships, each doomed to failure.  Incompatibility was the main reason.  Either too old or too young, and neither sharing my vision of the world.

With the discovery that I could no longer hold on to the myths of religion, I had to abandon the solace of those pleasing myths.  When one first begins to reason it is inevitable there will be a stripping away of illusions.  Mostly this liberated me.  I never felt dependent upon the religion of my childhood so there was no sense of loss, largely because I never really believed in the first place.  However, I did feel another sense of loss, the departure of my ideal of true love, the thought that there is someone made to love us and, we in turn, to love them.  At last I felt a twinge of pain.  Was all this empty magic too?

For many years, I hesitated to accept this gnawing thought.  Love is the last holy thing we surrender to knowledge.  I finally became so consumed in finding an answer I began to dedicate all of my energies to reflect upon one.  Then, one day while ruminating in the shower (excellent place for thinking by the way), and troubling myself with the implications of Existentialist freedom, it came to me in a flash so much like that cliche of love at first sight.

It is precisely because there is no god that it is up to us to give meaning and make real those abstract things: virtue, justice, joy, but above all, love.  Like a romance version of Kant's Categorical Imperative, we must live the life we wish to see reflected in the world.

The task then became fairly straight forward for every lonely soul: Never give up.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Atheist Theatre

As someone who loves the theatre, especially the theatre of ideas, I was thrilled to learn of the philosopher A. C. Grayling's new play.  The eponymous main character, Grace, is a college professor and atheist who comes into conflict with her son when he decides to become an Anglican priest.  Certainly a more stimulating concept than the usual Broadway fare.

The idea of a philosopher as dramatist is not as unusual as it first appears.  Voltaire wrote for the stage, as did Camus and Sartre, and dramatizing ideas is a wonderful way of presenting them to a large audience.

As Grayling highlights in a New York Sun article:

"The reason I'm a philosopher is that philosophers are allowed to stick their noses into everything," he said. "I believe that when we compartmentalize everything into history and literature and science, that's only for the purpose of a syllabus so we can teach people things and get them to take exams. Actually, everything is all one thing: Everything I write and do is part of the one great endeavor of trying to understand this world and understand ourselves."

Writing plays, he said, is just "another way of articulating that perspective — to try to get people to see and to think for themselves."

And few things open the mind and relates it to that larger world like the communal experience of a play.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Well, I Never!

Victoria, Queen of Prudes With the dawning of a new year I am yet reminded that there are still bastions of regression from which there are those who cry out for a return to “the old ways” to spite progress. One in particular I came upon not too long ago, proving that the old Tories are not yet dead, and may come back to bite us should we be seduced by their eloquence.

Anthony Daniels, writing under the pseudonym of Theodore Dalrymple, comes across as the very epitome of the tight-cheeked conservative. A retired prison psychiatrist, he is eager to give us the benefit of his experience among the less fortunate. To hear him speak, which I did recently on a Canadian radio program, is to be more than a little taken aback at just what a stereotype he sounds.

First let me say I am not interested in the individual so much as what he represents, and what he represents is what many liberals have always said of the conservative mind---they have no passion.

During the aforementioned interview I was astonished at how a so-called world traveler could be so prudish and old-fashioned. I can imagine him walking the streets of London in bowler hat and Victorian apparel, walking-stick in hand and passing Oliver Twist with a dismissive sneer.

At one point he becomes disgusted when, during a visit to an Italian soccer game, he was astonished that so many Briton's with disposable income (amazed, I can only guess, by the behavior of his own class) had come merely to shout obscenities at the team. How terribly uncivilized to use dirty words and show such enthusiasm---such engagement with life. No doubt Mr. Dalrymple would have found the ancient Olympics too outré, and walked out of Plato's Symposium when the talk went bawdy.

When the conversation turned to homosexuality, he spoke the word almost as if he feared being caught in the act, as he labored to get it out. He longs to make us see that it's all the liberals fault for the state of the world today, and I agree. Liberalism gave us the Civil Rights Movement, and the strides of feminism that opened the work place to women and gave them the independence to make their own choice's. It's due to liberal ideas of progress that we have the advances in the Sciences that have made our lives so much healthier and easier, as I would argue that the Scientific Method is in its self a liberal idea with ties to the freedom of inquiry and the enthusiasm of discovery, that same enthusiasm poor Mr. Dalrymple seems to have never been burdened with.

If this appears as an ad hominem, as I said, it is meant to be, for Dalrymple demonstrates in his person, in the very tone of his voice, the lie of the “compassionate conservative”. Perhaps genetically predisposed to see the glass always half-empty, they suck the joy out of life with their continual paean to “the good old days”, and devalue the present in search of a past that never was.

Theodore Dalrymple---never was a more gloomy or morose pseudonym conceived to perfectly reflect the spirit of an author and his ideas.