Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman


June 21, 2015

Introducing Philosopher Susan Neiman and hear her talk on the subject of Moral Clarity.

Susan Neiman was born in 1955; she studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Today she is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Professor Neiman received critical acclaim for her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, published in 2002. This magnum opus was alternative in many ways, let me underscore two of them. First, it took the theme of evil as a lens for understanding the history of philosophy, and thus broke away from the traditional approach to modern philosophy as divided into rationalist or empiricist responses to the problem of knowledge. Second, the book was alternative in emphasizing the importance of narrative interest in working with the history of philosophy.

Neiman’s skills as a storyteller of the philosopher’s struggle for meaning are impressive, and support her claim to write for both professional philosophers and those who are not. The added value of that ‘storytelling’ approach is not only that philosophy thus becomes accessible to a wide audience. Neiman also shows that we cannot live without philosophy: the fundamental question whether and how we can make sense of the world has to be conquered by every individual herself.

This tireless engagement with the public at large, was one of the reasons why the jury considered Susan Neiman an outstanding candidate of the International Spinoza Award. That remarkable quality of her work is well illustrated in Neiman’s essay about the book of Job, which is the final essay in a collection published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and publishing house Boom, for this special occasion. (The collection’s title is Afgezien van de feiten.)

In her next book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, published in 2008, Neiman applies her fundamentally Kantian insights to the political agenda of this century. Neiman positions herself on the political left, but the book is critical of both the right and the left, and it is boldly ambitious in this endeavor. As Neiman formulates it herself, her book on Moral Clarity ‘aims to offer a twenty-first-century framework for an Enlightenment standpoint that no twentieth-century political direction succeeded in making its own.’ Neiman’s goal is, first, ‘to take back the Enlightenment from the claims that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future.’ In doing so, she retrieves values – happiness, reason, reverence and hope – (values) that were fundamental to Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, but also offer a moral vocabulary for today.

In very simple words appealing to many people who are engaged in politics, she explains why the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is the most important distinction we have to draw, and why we have to draw it carefully and thoughtfully. Let me quote: ‘For we are indeed torn. We want a worldview that doesn’t blink when confronted with reality, that doesn’t wish away what it doesn’t wish to see. This is not pragmatics but pride: grown-up men and women look the world in its face. At the same time, we want a view that allows us not merely to resign ourselves to the reality that’s shaping us, but to play a role in shaping it. And most of us want to do so neither with weapons nor with soft power, but with the real power that the ideas of Enlightenment once possessed.’ (p. 90).

In reconnecting with the Enlightenment, Neiman also offers an answer to the problem of fundamentalism and religious terrorism, which she sees as fueled, in part, by the desire for transcendence. A cynical response, which interprets fundamentalism as merely reflecting a need for certainty, will not be able to answer it. ‘It will not work if we don’t understand that the longing for transcendence is a longing for freedom as least as much as it is a longing for certainty. (…) Immanuel Kant’s work can be used, according to Neiman, to provide a metaphysics capable of meeting our needs both for truth and for freedom.’ (p. 117-118).

Whether or not one agrees with this diagnostic – I, for one, agree with it, but you may discuss it – the jury of the International Spinoza Award highly values this drive to understand a key challenge of our time through the philosophical resources we do have at our disposal, and to formulate credible answers embedded in robust philosophical thinking. The role of ideas, ideologies and ideals is indeed crucial in politics.

In one of the essays published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and Boom, Susan Neiman revisits Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. She concludes as follows: ‘While new revelations about Eichmann do not undermine Arendt’s core claim that evil intentions are not necessary for evil action, they do suggest how important it is to think more seriously about the role ideologies play in intention. Eichmann was not a bureaucrat, but neither was he a sadist nor a psychopath, or even in an ordinary sense corrupt; rather, he organized mass murder in service of an ideology to which he was completely devoted.’

According to Neiman, the standard liberal reaction – so much for ideologies, let’s focus on self-interest – will not carry us through the 21st century, if only because few people can live on bread alone. The jury couldn’t agree more.

In her most recent book (Why Grow Up?), Susan Neiman returns to the question what it means to grow up. Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge. Courage is needed to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us. We must learn the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, without ever giving up on either one. Thus, Neiman challenges the thrust of many of our educational debates today, with their single-minded focus on skills needed here-and-now in contemporary labour markets. The fundamental educational question is: ‘How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?’ We look forward to hear more about this in Susan Neiman’s lecture today.

http://www.boomfilosofie.nl/actueel/artikelen/magazine_artikel/105/Susan-Neiman-wint-de-prestigieuze-Spinozalens-2014

Sunday Book Review

‘Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

by A. O. SCOTT (June 15, 2015)

LOOKING-YOUNGA great deal of modern popular culture — including just about everything pertaining to what French savants like to call le nouvel âge d’or de la comédie américaine — runs on the disavowal of maturity. The ideal consumer is a mirror image of a familiar comic archetype: a man-child sitting in his parents’ basement with his video games and his “Star Wars” figurines; a postgraduate girl and her pals treating the world as their playground. Baby boomers pursue perpetual youth into retirement. Gen-Xers hold fast to their skateboards, their Pixies T-shirts and their Beastie Boys CDs. Nobody wants to be an adult anymore, and every so often someone writes an article blaming Hollywood, attachment parenting, global capitalism or the welfare state for this catastrophe. I’ve written one or two of those myself. It’s not a bad racket, and since I’m intimately acquainted, on a professional basis, with the cinematic oeuvre of Adam Sandler, I qualify as something of an expert.

In the annals of anti-infantile cultural complaint, Susan Neiman’s new book, “Why Grow Up?,” is both Susan Neimanexemplary and unusual. An American-born philosopher who lives in Berlin, Neiman has a pundit’s fondness for the sweeping generalization and the carefully hedged argumentative claim. “I’m not suggesting that we do without the web entirely,” she writes in one of her periodic reflections on life in the digital age, “just that we refuse to let it rule.” Elsewhere she observes that “if you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal,” a ­hypothesis I for one am eager to test.

But the present and its technological lures and discontents, thankfully, are not really her concern, any more than the jeremiad is her chosen form; she comes across as a patient pedagogue rather than an angry scold. She sprinkles in a few musical references — to Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones — and occasional nods to unspecified “studies.” In spite of these, “Why Grow Up?” isn’t an exercise in pop-culture polemics or pop-sociological cherry-picking. It’s a case for philosophy of an admirably old-fashioned kind. Neiman is less interested in “The Catcher in the Rye” than in “The Critique of Pure Reason,” and more apt to cite Hannah ­Arendt than Lena Dunham.

Nor, in spite of its subtitle, is her book a critique of contemporary mores. The “infantile age” she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. “Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,” she writes, “and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs” than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way. Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, “the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.”

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s “Emile” supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development.

Rousseau and Kant are Neiman’s main characters, and she conveys a vivid sense of their contrasting personalities in addition to providing an accessible survey of their relevant ideas. The Geneva-born Rousseau traveled across Europe on foot, fathering and abandoning at least five children. Kant rarely left his native Königsberg and never married. Between them, they mapped out what Neiman takes to be the essential predicament of maturity, namely the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be.

NY times book reviewIn infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the “is” and the “ought.” Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, “requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.” It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.

When she sticks close to her favorite philosophers in describing this state, Neiman provides a useful and engaging tutorial, much as she did in her earlier book “Evil in Modern Thought.” But when she ventures into the concrete domains of the “is” — offering practical advice and polemical warnings — “Why Grow Up?” turns a bit fuzzy. The introduction and the last two of the book’s four chapters wander through meadows of half-baked observation, trading rigorous Kantianism for the nostrums of tote-bag liberalism. Neiman believes in the virtues of travel, in limiting time on the Internet, in good government and progressive education. She doesn’t like mass tourism, advertising or authoritarian politics. She wants you to think for yourself.

And who could argue? But the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking, in its genuinely subversive defense of philosophy in an age besotted by data. You don’t have to read Kant to be a grown-up, but it couldn’t hurt.

WHY GROW UP?
Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age
by Susan Neiman

A. O. Scott is a chief film critic at The Times. His book, “Better Living Through Criticism,” will be published in early 2016.

Related coverage:

Meghan Daum reviews “The Prime of Life,” by Steven Mintz

Heather Havrilesky reviews “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

A version of this review appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Why Grow Up?.

The Stove of Consciousness


June 4, 2015

NOTE: Things can get pretty dull and numb in Malaysia. Day in day out we read about politics of opposing camps within UMNO and between Pakatan Rakyat and UMNO-Barisan National over the 1MDB financial scandal. The infantile mudslinging  antics will not get us anywhere.  Najib himself is playing games to remain in power. Governing takes a backstage right now. After all, loss of power can be disastrous for him and more so for his ambitious and greed driven spouse Rosmah Mansor, the self-styled FLOM.

For Najib Razak all options are now on the table. It is rumored  that since the country is a mess and paralyzed neck down, he may–to save himself being charged for corruption, conflicts of interest and abuses of power–declare a state of emergency, suspend Parliament and rule the country NOC-style like what his father Tun Razak did after the May 13, 1969  tragedy, albeit under different circumstances.

The government has stalled and no body is in charge. Usually, like in Japan, the Chief Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the civil service takes control and the government functions. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, our Chief Secretary is busy with consoling the Prime Minister in stead of ensuring that  his civil servants do their work. Perhaps, he is preparing himself for the right time to abandon the incumbent captain and reach out to Najib’s successor. Carma.

We ourselves have become very agitated and frustrated since we have been pushing for change since 2008; yet we are no closer to the goal of removing the present lot of leaders from the seat of power.  So if I may suggest, let us just sit back , have tea tarik and relax at least for today.

What better way to find relief than to engage in some philosophical banter. Maybe, after reading about Rene Descartes and his stove, sanity can return and we will back to do battle. Let not fatigue make us abandon our mission to make our blessed country better. –Din Merican

The Stove of Consciousness

http://www.consciousentities.com/?p=1169

by Peter Hankins

Decartes

I have been reading A.C. Grayling’s biography of Descartes: he advances the novel theory that Descartes was a spy. This is actually a rather shrewd suggestion which makes quite a lot of sense given Descartes’ wandering, secretive life.

On balance I think he probably wasn’t conducting secret espionage missions – it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure, of course – but I think it’s certainly an idea any future biographer will have to address.

I was interested, though, to see what Grayling made of the stove.  Descartes himself tells us that when held up in Germany by the advance of winter, he spent the day alone in a stove, and that was where his radical rebuilding of his own beliefs began.  This famous incident has the sort of place in the history of philosophy that the apple falling on Newton’s head has in the history of science: and it has been doubted and queried in a similar way. But Descartes seems pretty clear about it: “je demeurais tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avais tout le loisir m’entretenir de mes pensées”.[I sat all day shut up alone in a stove, where I had ample opportunity to nurture my thoughts.]

Some say it must in fact have been a bread-oven or a similarly large affair: Descartes was not a large man and he was particularly averse to cold and disturbance, but it would surely have to have been a commodious stove for him to have been comfortable in there all day. Some say that Bavarian houses of the period had large stoves, and certainly in the baroque palaces of the region one can see vast ornate ones that look as if they might have had room for a diminutive French philosopher. Some commonsensical people say that “un poêle” must simply have meant a stove-heated room; and this is in fact the view which Grayling adopts firmly and without discussion.

Personally I’m inclined to take Descartes’ words at face value; but really the question of whether he really sat in a real stove misses the point. Why does Descartes, a rather secretive man, even mention the matter at all? It must be because, true or not, it has metaphorical significance; it gives us additional keys to Descartes’ meaning which we ought not to discard out of literal-mindedness. (Grayling, in fairness, is writing history, not philosophy.)

For one thing Descartes’ isolation in the stove functions as a sort of thought-experiment. He wants to be able to doubt everything, but it’s hard to dismiss the world as a set of illusions when it’s battering away at your senses: so suppose we were in a place that was warm, dark, and silent?  Second, it recalls Plato’s cave metaphor. Plato had his unfortunate exemplar chained in a cave where his only knowledge of the world outside came from flickering shadows on the wall; he wanted to suggest that what we take to be the real world is a similarly poor reflection of a majestic eternal reality. Descartes wants to work up a similar metaphor to a quite different conclusion, ultimately vindicating our senses and the physical world; perhaps this points up his rebellion against ancient authority. Third, in a way congenial to modern thinking and probably not unacceptable to Descartes, the isolation in the stove resembles and evokes the isolation of the brain in the skull.

The stove metaphor has other possible implications, but for us the most interesting thing is perhaps how it embodies and possibly helped to consolidate one of the most persistent metaphors about consciousness, one that has figured strongly in discussion for centuries, remains dominant, yet is really quite unwarranted. This is that consciousness is internal. We routinely talk about “the external world” when discussing mental experience. The external world is what the senses are supposed to tell us about, but sometimes fail to; it is distinct from an internal world where we receive the messages and where things like emotions and intentions have their existence. The impression of consciousness being inside looking out is strongly reinforced by the way the ears and the brain seem to feed straight into the brain: but we know that impression of being located in the head would be the same if human anatomy actually put the brain in the stomach, so long as the eyes and ears remained where they are. In fact our discussions would make just as much sense if we described consciousness as external and the physical world as internal (or consciousness as ‘above’ and the physical world as ‘below’ or vice versa).

If we take consciousness to be a neural process there is of course, a sense in which it is certainly in the brain; but only in the sense that my money is in the bank’s computer (though I can’t get it out with a hammer) or Pride and Prejudice is in the pages of that book over there (and not, after all, in my head). Strictly or properly, stories and totals don’t have the property of physical location, and nor, really, does consciousness

Does it matter if the metaphor is convenient? Well, it may well be that the traditional inside view encourages us to fall into certain errors. It has often been argued (and still is) for example that because we’re sometimes wrong about what we’re seeing or hearing, we must in fact only ever see an intermediate representation, never the  real world itself. I think this is a mistake, but it’s one that the internal/external view helps to make plausible.  It may well be, in my opinion, that habitually thinking of consciousness as having a simple physical location makes it more difficult for us to understand it properly.

So perhaps we ought to make a concerted effort to stop, but to be honest I think the metaphor is just too deeply rooted. At the end of the day you can take the thinker out of the stove, but you can’t take the stove out of the thinker.

Here are two responses on Peter Hankin’s Views of the Stove:

Scott Bakker says:

Coming out of the Continental tradition I was literally trained to regard the metaphorics of inside/outside as a conceptually bankrupt way to consider subjectivity. Moving onto Wittgenstein only reinforced this outlook. But I’m nowhere near so convinced anymore. Just for instance, how should we make sense of ‘shut ins’?

The stove, like the skull, is simply a convenient way to understand the flow of information. Hiding in a stove allowed Descartes to conceal information regarding his existence. Hiding in the skull, it seems fair to reason, allows consciousness to do the same more generally. You could say this is why we find neuroscience so flummoxing: it’s like hearing Descartes voice, then finding the stove empty when we throw the door open. An externalist approach to consciousness is simply one of the ways we can explain the ’empty stove problem.’ Descartes was never there in the first place! He’s actually a larger system that includes the kitchen, the village, what have you. My preferred approach is just to say that Descartes simply isn’t what we thought he was, that what we see locked up in our own stoves doesn’t exist.

Imagine if Descartes, like Plato’s prisoners, was *born* in his stove, then just ask the question of information flow. The most he could see (access) of himself in the stove would be cramped shadows, indeterminate shapes which would *have* to be his informatic baseline for ‘self,’ whereas through the cracks of the door he could see bright swathes of the external world. Now if he were placed opposite another stove and watched it open, would he recognize the high-fidelity, unbounded figure revealed as a version of himself?

Probably not, *especially* given his genius for rationalization. He can’t trust what he sees through the cracks, but these cramped shapes he knows with certainty – How could he not when they are all the information he has ever had?

I bake, therefore I am.

Nowadays I’m inclined to think the problem isn’t so much the metaphorics of inside/outside generally so much as the way they are posed. We just need to look at the inside/outside in the proper way.

Vijay Vikram says:

I do so agree with you about the internal vs external. It is a habit we inherited from Descartes. It is the mind/body problem.

Alternately, one may posit that internal and external are both aspects of a something we may call experience, awareness, dasein or manifestation or narrative or being or some such. Or to take it further, anything that shows up is, in effect, the world, the universe. And it shows up in what? Therein lies the paradox, for anything we may posit as a fundamental ground for manifestation– anything prior to manifestation– cannot be described since any description belongs to manifestation itself and so cannot be prior to manifestation. And the notion “prior to manifestation” is manifestation too. So, is there such a thing as “prior to manifestation” that could be a fundament for the world?

This issue is, however, a red herring. For the fundamental characteristic of the universe and of any particularity at all–is that it is. In other words, any and all of universe exhibits its fundamental character to us moment after moment, inescapably in the simple fact that it is–whether thought or thing or sense or feeling or objectivity or subjectivity and so on.

To put it more simply—-the fundamental character of the universe is ever and everywhere and always–patent.

This Side of Paradise

http://www.godwardweb.org

The only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets is this: that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.– Alan Watts

Your inside is out and your outside is in.
 Your outside is in and your inside is out– The Beatles

Where do philosophers get their ideas? In the case of René Descartes, who is regarded as the founder of modern philosophy, he literally cooked them up. Once, in a bid to escape the cold, he had crawled into a large stove* and spent the day there. He was then 23 years old, en route to Ulm while serving in the Bavarian army. Alone with his thoughts, he began laying the intellectual groundwork for his famous cogito: “I think, therefore I am.”

This was not intended as a stand-alone statement but as the culmination of a chain of reasoning that began when he wondered what he could know for certain. He rejected everything he could know through his senses, since his senses could deceive him. Even his own body might be a mirage. But his thoughts were another matter. He could doubt just about everything, but he could not doubt his own doubts. And so the stuff he thought about when he was alone with his thoughts became the foundation for his existence.

Descartes concluded that mind and matter were two different “substances,” each occupying its own realm. The mind was immaterial, a “thinking thing” with no extension in space, whereas matter had extension but could not think. The two could causally interact, but it remained unclear how a mental event could affect a physical one, or vice-versa. As a byproduct of Cartesian dualism, Descartes had introduced a problem that has occupied philosophers ever since: the so-called mind-body problem.

The mind-body problem is not the only issue that arises when you give the mind a life of its own. Descartes had wondered whether his senses were playing tricks on him, conjuring up an external world that was actually a dream or the work of a demon. Addressing the same question, the 18th-century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant concluded that we can never truly know what lies outside ourselves, since our perceptions of the world are mediated by our senses. Even time and space, in Kant’s view, are not attributes of the eternal world but part of the perceptual framework through which we apprehend it. The notion that reality is to some degree in the mind rather than outside it is common currency not only among many modern philosophers but also among quantum physicists. As the physicist Erwin Schrödinger expressed it, “Mind has erected the objective outside world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff.”

While Kant and others were raising doubts about the independent existence of the outside world, the Scottish philosopher David Hume was calling into question the “me” inside – the one entity that Descartes believed was beyond doubt. Looking within himself, Hume found no evidence of a single, simple and continuous self, only a bundle of perceptions in perpetual flux. He wrote, “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” At no time was he able to catch a glimpse of the self that was supposedly having all these perceptions. In the theater of the mind, it would appear, the show is always on, but for all we know it may be playing to an empty house.

Kant and Hume between them had not only demolished Descartes’ neat certainties about the world, but they had effectively demolished the world itself, whether inside or out, depending on whom you asked. Not only was the self unknowable and perhaps illusory but so also was the world beyond the self. How could this be? Perhaps the problem stems from the notion that there is an “inside” and an “outside” to one’s experience. Like Descartes, alone with his thoughts inside a stove on a cold day in November, we imagine the thinking part of ourselves exists somewhere “in here” and everything else is “out there” in the world. We may arbitrarily assume “in here” is inside our bodies, but the part we can see is just as much “out there” as the chair we are sitting in or the tree outside our window. And the things that are “out there” may, in fact, be entirely contained within our consciousness, which is “in here.” So where do we draw the boundary between the two?

Make no mistake: it is we who draw the boundary. We cannot carve out a space for ourselves “inside” without simultaneously creating an “outside.” This bifurcation of consciousness occurs naturally at around age two with the development of an autonomous self. And although this process may occur naturally, it does not come without cost. The price we pay for acquiring a bit of personal space is that we now find ourselves on the outside of everything else. The psychic toll is dramatized in the biblical creation story, when Adam develops a will of his own and is expelled from Eden. So what would happen if we could once again experience life whole? We would find ourselves back in paradise, no longer on the outside looking in

*There is some dispute as to whether it was a stove or a room heated by a stove; however, the word Descartes used in relating the incident was poêle, or stove, in the original French: “Je demeurais tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avais tout le loisir m’entretenir de mes pensées.” (“I sat all day shut up alone in a stove, where I had ample opportunity to nurture my thoughts.”) Regardless, it makes for a good story. 
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 
Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature,  
Genesis 3.

Alfred Lord Tennyson–Ulyssses


May 24, 2015

Phnom Penh

Alfred Lord Tennyson–Ulysses

This epic poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson has been one of my favorites because it is inspirational, especially the last few stanzas (below). It seems appropriate that I should to read this poem again, given time and circumstance.I believe in destiny. –Din Merican

Ulysses

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysess

Edmund Burke: Conservative at heart


May 22, 2015

Phnom Penh

Edmund Burke: Conservative at Heart

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/opinions/a-c-grayling-edmund-burke-jesse-norman

Commentary by AC Grayling

AC GraylingConservatives in the United States began a post-mortem on their defeat with predictable calls for a return to the first principles and basic tenets of their political faith. High on the rhetorical list was a demand to revisit (or as some pointed out, to visit) the ideas of the man whom some call the father, others the patron saint, of conservatism: Edmund Burke.

What makes this 18th century Irishman, a Whig sympathetic to American independence, the patron saint of conservatism? Was he a political conservative before the French Revolution and its excesses? How does one square his tender sympathy for the Queen of France with his support for rebellion against the King of England?

Some of the answers to these questions are found in Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins, £20), a lively new biography by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, Policy Advisor to David Cameron. The book is not a comprehensive academic work, but rather an affectionate account of the life and thought of one of Norman’s heroes. “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years,” says Norman in the book’s opening sentence, setting the tone for what follows. Norman seeks to defend Burke from the familiar charges that he is inconsistent, irrelevant and reactionary. His Burke is the man who “forged modern politics” by establishing the principles of the party system and setting out the case for representative democracy. He highlights Burke’s arguments in favour of religious tolerance, his criticisms of liberal individualism, and his hatred of the injustices perpetrated by the British in America, Ireland and India.

In his bid to claim this 18th century figure as a light for our own century, Norman sometimes overstretches, as when he describes Burke as “the earliest postmodern political thinker.” But Norman’s biography is an engaging attempt to show how the intellectual debates of the 18th century can be deployed in today’s politics.

Burke was a conservative in his bones, and this means that it was not the sanguinary aspects of the revolution in France that made him one. Both of the great revolutions that occurred in his time prompted conservative responses in him, and similar ones. To see how, consider his outlook.

For Burke, the great opposition in political attitudes is that between respect for tradition and Burke by J Normanespousal of metaphysical abstractions. He was in favour of the first and emphatically opposed to the second. His thinking went as follows. Revolutionaries are motivated by the thought that reason can change and improve both people and institutions. But the problems generated by abstracting and idealising uses of reason are such that it would be better for people to rely on tradition, in which is deposited the accumulated experience of the past—“the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” as Burke put it.

Reason leads people to postulate principles of morality and politics which, because they are a priori idealisations, are disconnected from historical realities and their particularities. Principles only have their life and meaning in context, in relation to each other and the facts on the ground—and any attempt to thwart the course of history and its traditions by means of fancy new notions is “sophistical” and “delusive” and will lead to disaster.

On these grounds Burke dismissed the idea of equality between people, urged the importance of belief in a god, argued that the meaning to be found in life comes from such belief together with tradition and folklore, and committed himself to the somewhat Jungian idea of a collective mind, which is marinated in the old wisdom, beliefs and ways of living that traditions bring down to us.

He was, therefore, a Counter-Enlightenment figure, and in invoking the geist that informs tradition he was a political Romantic before the letter. The Enlightenment saw reason—in the form of scientific method applied to society and morality—as the liberator of humanity from the hegemonies alike of crowns and churches, those profiteers from beliefs about how sacrosanct we must think tradition to be. This is why Burke rejected that core Enlightenment thought. For him the nation is to be modelled on the family: social relations are or should be as close as blood relationships, and the forms and principles of political life should be like the “little platoons” of family, church and community, which pass down the traditions which alone, he claimed, give us meaning. One therefore sees why Burke attracts not only moderate British Conservatives such as Jesse Norman, but also the modern American right: God, family, tradition, and—in line with Burke’s “little platoon” notion (could it be stretched to cover gun possession?)—“little government,” too.

Too many people today know so little history and have such little awareness of the influence of ideas on its realities that they fail to gather the full implications of invoking names and theories given heroic status by the passage of time. Burke opposed the tendencies of political thought that gave us democracy, regimes of human rights, collective provision of such fundamental social goods as education and healthcare, which together help to promote social justice and to protect the weak against the strong; that is the respect in which he was a conservative.

Islam needs reform says French Muslim Philosopher Abdennour Bidar


January 12, 2015

In Open Letter To Muslim World, French Muslim Philosopher Says Islam Has Given Birth To Monsters, Needs Reform

http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8206.htm

In an essay published October 3, 2014 in the French newspaper Marianne, French Muslim Philosopher Abdennour Bidar, author of  Self Islam: A Personal History of Islam (Seuil, 2006); Islam without Submission: Muslim Existentialism (Albin Michel, 2008), and A History of Humanism in the West (Armand Colin, 2014), wrote that Muslims cannot make do with denouncing and repudiating terrorist barbarism, but must acknowledge that its roots lie within Muslim society, and especially within the Islam that is prevalent in the Arab world today.

He points out that Islam, like all religions, has throughout its history been a source of much good, wisdom and enlightenment, but that today’s mainstream Islam rejects the freedom and flexibility that are advocated by the Koran and instead promotes rigidity and regression that ultimately give rise to terrorism. The Muslim world, he concludes, must therefore reform itself, and especially its education systems, based on principles of freedom of religion and thought, equality, and respect for the other.

abdennour-bidarFrench Muslim Philosopher

The following are translated excerpts from his essay:

“I See That You Are Losing Yourself And Your Dignity, And Wasting Your Time, In Your Refusal To Recognize That This Monster Is Born Of You”

“Dear Muslim world: I am one of your estranged sons, who views you from without and from afar – from France, where so many of your children live today. I look at you with the harsh eyes of a philosopher, nourished from infancy on tasawwuf (Sufism) and Western thought. I therefore look at you from my position of barzakh, from an isthmus between the two seas of the East and the West.

“And what do I see? What do I see better than others, precisely because I see you from afar, from a distance? I see you in a state of misery and suffering that saddens me to no end, but which makes my philosopher’s judgment even harsher, because I see you in the process of birthing a monster that presumes to call itself the Islamic State, and which some prefer to call by a demon’s name – Da’esh. But worst of all is that I see that you are losing yourself and your dignity, and wasting your time, in your refusal to recognize that this monster is born of you: of your irresoluteness, your contradictions, your being torn between past and present, and your perpetual inability to find your place in human civilization.

“What do you [Muslims] say when faced with this monster? You shout, ‘That’s not me!’ ‘That’s not Islam!’ You reject [the possibility] that this monster’s crimes are committed in your name. You rebel against the monster’s hijacking of your identity, and of course you are right to do so. It is essential that you proclaim to the world, loud and clear, that Islam condemns barbarity. But this is absolutely not enough! For you are taking refuge in your self-defense reflex, without realizing it, and above all without undertaking any self-criticism. You become indignant and are satisfied with that – but you are missing a historical opportunity to question yourself. Instead of taking responsibility for yourself, you accuse others, [saying]: ‘You Westerners, and all you enemies of Islam, stop associating us with this monster! Terrorism is not Islam! The true Islam, the good Islam, doesn’t mean war, it means peace!'”

“The Root Of This Evil That Today Steals Your Face Is Within Yourself; The Monster Emerged From Within You”

Oh my dear Muslim world, I hear the cry of rebellion rising within you, and I understand it. Yes, you are right: Like every one of the great sacred inspirations in the world, Islam has, throughout its history, created beauty, justice, meaning and good, and it has [been a source of] powerful enlightenment for humans on the mysterious path of existence… Here in the West, I fight, in all my books, [to make sure that] this wisdom of Islam and of all religions is not forgotten or despised. But because of my distance [from the Muslim world], I can see what you cannot… and this inspires me to ask: Why has this monster stolen your face? Why has this despicable monster chosen your face and not another? The truth is that behind this monster hides a huge problem, one you do not seem ready to confront. Yet in the end you will have to find the courage [to do so]...

“Where do the crimes of this so-called ‘Islamic State’ come from? I’ll tell you, my friend, and it will not make you happy, but it is my duty as a philosopher [to tell you]. The root of this evil that today steals your face is within yourself; the monster emerged from within you. And other monsters, some even worse, will emerge as well, as long as you refuse to acknowledge your sickness and to finally tackle the root of this evil!

“Even Western intellectuals have difficulty seeing this. For the most part they have forgotten the power of religion – for good and for evil, over life and over death – to the extent that they tell me, ‘No, the problem of the Muslim world is not Islam, not the religion, but rather politics, history, economics, etc.’ They completely forget that religion may be the core of the reactor of human civilization, and that tomorrow the future of humanity will depend not only on a resolution to the financial crisis, but also, and much more essentially, on a resolution to the unprecedented spiritual crisis that is affecting all of mankind.”

“I See In You, Oh Muslim World, Great Forces Ready To Rise Up And Contribute To This Global Effort To Find A Spiritual Life For The 21st Century”

“Will we be able to come together, across the world, and face this fundamental challenge? The spiritual nature of man abhors a vacuum, and if it finds nothing new with which to fill the vacuum, tomorrow it will fill it with religions that are less and less adapted to the present, and which, like Islam today, will [also] begin producing monsters.

“I see in you, oh Muslim world, great forces ready to rise up and contribute to this global effort to find a spiritual life for the 21st century. Despite the severity of your sickness, you have within you a great multitude of men and women who are willing to reform Islam, to reinvent its genius beyond its historical forms, and to be part of the total renewal of the relationship that mankind once had with its gods. It is to all those who dream together of a spiritual revolution, both Muslims and non-Muslims, that I have addressed my books, and to whom I offer, with my philosopher’s words, confidence in that which their hope glimpses.”

“Forward-Looking Muslims Understand All Too Well That Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, AQIM, And The Islamic State Are Only The Most Visible Symptoms Of An Immense Diseased Body”

“But these Muslim men and women who look to the future are not yet sufficiently numerous, nor is their word sufficiently powerful. All of them, whose clarity and courage I welcome, have plainly seen that it is the Muslim world’s general state of profound sickness that explains the birth of terrorist monsters with names like Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, AQIM, and Islamic State. They understand all too well that these are only the most visible symptoms of an immense diseased body, whose chronic maladies include the inability to establish sustainable democracies that recognize freedom of conscience vis-à-vis religious dogmas as a moral and political right; chronic difficulties in improving women’s status…;  the inability to sufficiently free political power from its control by religious authority; and the inability to promote respectful, tolerant and genuine recognition of religious pluralism and religious minorities.”

“Could All This Be The Fault Of The West? How Much Precious Time Will You Lose, Dear Muslim World, With This Stupid Accusation[?]”

“Could all this be the fault of the West? How much precious time will you lose, dear Muslim world, with this stupid accusation that you yourself no longer believe, and behind which you hide so that you can continue to lie to yourself?

“Particularly since the eighteenth century – it’s past time you acknowledged it – you have been unable to meet the challenge of the West. You have childishly and embarrassingly sought refuge in the past, with the obscurantist Wahhabism regression that continues to wreak havoc almost everywhere within your borders – the Wahhabism that you spread from your holy places in Saudi Arabia like a cancer originating from your very heart. In other ways, you emulated the worst [aspects] of the West – with nationalism and a modernism that caricatures modernity. I refer here especially to the technological development, so inconsistent with the religious archaism, that makes your fabulously wealthy Gulf ‘elite’ mere willing victims of the global disease – the worship of the god Money.

“What is admirable about you today, my friend? What do you still have that is worthy of the respect of the peoples and civilizations of the world? Where are your wise men? Have you still wisdom to offer the world? Where are your great men? Who is your Mandela, your Gandhi, your Aung San Suu Kyi? Where are your great thinkers whose books should be read worldwide, as they were when Arab or Persian mathematicians and philosophers were spoken of from India to Spain? You are actually so weakened behind [the mask of] self-confidence that you always display… You have no idea who you are or where you want to go, and it makes you as unhappy as you are aggressive… You persist in not listening to those who call on you to change by finally freeing yourself from the dominion that you have granted to religion over all [aspects of] life.

“You chose to define Islam as a moral, political, and social religion that must rule as a tyrant in the state as well as in civilian life, in the street and in the home, and in every man’s conscience. You chose to believe that Islam means ‘submission’ and to impose that belief – while the Koran itself declares that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’… You have made [the Koran’s] cry for freedom into the reign of coercion. How can a civilization so betray its own sacred text? I say that, in Islamic civilization, the time has come to institute this spiritual freedom – the most sublime and difficult of all [freedoms] – in place of all the laws invented by generations of theologians!”

“Numerous Voices That You Refuse To Hear Are Rising Today In The Ummah To Denounce This Authoritarian Religion That Cannot Be Questioned”

“Numerous voices that you refuse to hear are rising today in the ummah [Islamic nation] to denounce this authoritarian religion that cannot be questioned… Many believers have so internalized the culture of submission to tradition and to the ‘masters of religion’ (imams, muftis, sheikhs etc.) that they don’t understand us when we talk to them about spiritual freedom or personal choice vis-à-vis the ‘pillars’ of Islam. This is a ‘red line’ for them – so sacred to them that they dare not allow their own conscience to question it. And there are so many families in which this confusion between spirituality and servitude is implanted from such an early age, and in which spiritual education is so meager, that nothing concerning religion may be discussed.”

“But this [taboo] is clearly not imposed by the terrorism of some crazy fanatics… No, this problem is infinitely deeper. But who is willing to hear this? In the Muslim world, there is only silence regarding this matter; in the Western media, they listen only to all those terrorism experts who increase the general myopia day by day. Do not delude yourself, my friend, by pretending that by eliminating Islamist terrorism we will settle all of Islam’s problems. Because what I have described here – a tyrannical, dogmatic, literalist, formalistic, macho, conservative, and regressive religion – is too often the mainstream Islam, the everyday Islam, which suffers and causes suffering to too many consciences, the irrelevant Islam of the past, the Islam that is distorted by all those who manipulate it politically, the Islam that always ends up strangling the various Arab Springs and the voice of the young people who are demanding something else. So when will you finally bring about this revolution in society and conscience that will make spirituality rhyme with liberty?

“Of course, there are pockets of spiritual freedom in your great territory: families that hand down [to their children] an Islam of tolerance, personal choice and spiritual depth. There are places where Islam still gives the best of itself: a culture of sharing, honor, pursuit of knowledge, and spirituality in search of the sacred place where man and the ultimate reality called Allah meet. In the land of Islam, and in Muslim communities worldwide, there are strong and free consciences. But they are condemned to exercise their freedom without the recognition of real rights, facing the peril of community control or sometimes even of the religious police. Never has the right to say ‘I choose my Islam’ or ‘I have my own relationship with Islam’ been recognized by the ‘official Islam’ of the dignitaries, who fight to impose [the view] that ‘the doctrine of Islam is unique’ and that ‘obeying the pillars of Islam is the only right path…’

“This denial of the right to freedom of religion is one of the roots of the evil from which you suffer, oh my dear Muslim world; it is one of those dark wombs in which, in recent years, monsters have grown, and from whence they leap out at the frightened faces of the whole world. For this iron religion imposes excruciating violence upon all your societies; it too closely confines your daughters and your sons in the cage of good and evil, the lawful (halal) and the illicit (haram), chosen by none but imposed on all. It traps the wills, it conditions the mind, it prevents or hinders every personal life choice. In too many of your countries, you still tie together religion with violence – against women, against ‘bad’ believers, against Christians and other minorities, against thinkers and free spirits and against rebels – so that religion and violence ultimately blend within the most unbalanced and vulnerable of your own sons – in the monstrous form of jihad.”

“You Must Begin By Reforming Education… Based On Universal Principles”

“So, I beg of you, don’t pretend to be amazed that demons such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’ have taken your face. Monsters and demons steal only those faces that are already distorted by too much grimacing. And if you want to know how to refrain from bringing forth such monsters, I will tell you. It’s simple yet difficult: You must begin by reforming the education you give your children, in its entirety, in all your schools and all your places of knowledge and power. You must reform them according to [the following] universal principles – even if you are not the only one violating or disregarding [these principles]: freedom of conscience, democracy, tolerance, civil rights for [those of] all worldviews and beliefs, gender equality, women’s emancipation from all male guardianship, and a culture of reflection and criticism of the religion in universities, literature, and the media. You cannot go back, and you can do no less than this. For it is only by doing so that you will no longer give birth to such monsters. If you do not do so, you will soon be devastated by [these monsters’] destructive power.

“Dear Muslim world: I am but a philosopher, and as usual some will call the philosopher a heretic. Yet I seek only to let the light shine forth once again – indeed, the name that you have given me commands me to do so: Abdennour, Servant of the Light. If I did not believe in you, I would not have been so harsh in this essay. As we say in French, ‘He who loves well, punishes well’ – and those who today are not tough enough with you, who want to make you a victim, are doing you no favors. I believe in you. I believe in your contribution to build the future of our planet, to create a world that is both humane and spiritual!

Salaam, peace be upon you.”