His historical and cultural clumsiness aside, Horgan seems increasingly unclear of his subject as the book goes on. Does war refer only to military conflict between nation-states, or also the actions of paramilitary groups, spats of social antagonism, or all inter-personal violence? What is to be gained by shrinking such a wide and complex field of interactions to a three-letter word? Besides, that is, making it easier for Horgan to answer with the even smaller word no.“If we all want peace — and every sane person does — surely we’re smart enough to achieve it. Or rather, choose it,” Horgan writes, describing his overall task.
Alain de Botton is the Coldplay of philosophy. Earnest and sensitive, adequately talented if not stunningly original, yet somehow capable of provoking intense rage in his detractors, seemingly all out of proportion to his unimposing, nondescript gentility.
His latest mission to rescue religion from both the faithful and the faithless don’t make no nevermind to me; I think it’s needless if well-intentioned, but I don’t think it does any harm to the cause of atheism, and for all I know, maybe there are enough people who want the kind of structure he’s trying to offer. Take your coffee with extra spoonfuls of ritual and camaraderie if it makes you happy.
But I will comment on an odd little tic of his I noticed:
I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
Or from another recent article:
“I once very politely raised the thought that one reason philosophy departments have been cut is the fault of philosophers. The answer always comes back: ‘The point of philosophy is to ask questions, not to give answers.’ I can’t help but think ‘No. It can’t be!’
Oof. I have to say, I feel a bit embarrassed by the irony of his speculation that atheists like Dawkins are the ones who have some sort of psychological trauma at the root of their disbelief. Poor guy’s got his prescriptive all knotted up with his descriptive. Is it possible? Sure, but a lot of things are possible without being actual, so that’s probably going to be cold comfort to you. Must it be possible? Uh, no, and what a weird question. It either is or it isn’t, but more importantly, whom are you making demands on?
How many there are who still conclude: “life could not be endured if there were no God!” (Or, as it is put among the idealists: “life could not be endured if its foundation lacked an ethical significance!”) – therefore there must be a God (or existence must have an ethical significance)! The truth, however, is merely that he who is accustomed to these notions does not desire a life without them: that these notions may therefore be necessary to him and for his preservation – but what presumption it is to decree that whatever is necessary for my preservation must actually exist! As if my preservation were something necessary! How if others felt in the opposite way! If those two articles of faith were precisely the conditions under which they no longer found life worth living! And that is how things are now!
You said it, man.
Everywhere we look offence is being taken, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones, but always in a way that seems to imply that offence is something terrible in itself.
…Increasingly, the statement ‘I find that offensive’ is taken as an argument in itself; the complainant is not called upon to justify his feelings. But without some debate about why it is that we find certain attitudes or words offensive, the quality of public debate is degraded. Indeed, we become so comfortable in our positions that we are in danger of forgetting why we are offended. This is a recipe for intellectual laziness. By engaging with other points of view, we call into question our own positions, refining them when they need refining and discarding them when they are shown to be flawed. That is why the philosopher A.C. Grayling says that the right to freedom of speech is the most important right of all because, without it, it is simply impossible to subject all our other rights to scrutiny.
To ban an opinion is to ban not only the right of a person to express that opinion but also everyone’s right to hear it. In such circumstances the claim to be offended is no more than an assertion of moral superiority—an article of political faith, which, like religious faith, will brook no challenge.
I recall a progressive political blogger once impatiently brushing off comparisons of politically-motivated boycott campaigns to more traditional forms of censorship by saying that the 1st amendment simply guarantees you the right to be free from overt government censorship. Which is true, strictly speaking. Private organizations and righteous mobs are not legally obligated to provide everyone and anyone a soapbox and a respectful silence. But it also shows that if people are determined not to listen, they’re just not going to. It’s not difficult to make unpopular views known or heard, but it’s impossible to prevent ideologues from caricaturing or simply refusing to engage them.
Sometimes these strict defenses of free speech from a more-or-less legal standpoint strike me as slightly archaic, in the sense that its defenders don’t seem to recognize that perhaps a more prominent threat to communication and understanding in consumer democracies comes not from tyrannical bureaucrats but from the freely-chosen echo chamber. Absolutists find themselves making incoherent arguments aimed at the culture of offense-taking while using the vocabulary of rights and freedom, all without taking into account that their opponents don’t see themselves as literally “censoring” anyone. Convincing people that moral indignation is not an argument and that offense is not necessarily a terrible thing is a different, and far more difficult, point to get across than convincing people to grudgingly allow an unpopular opinion to be voiced.
It isn’t a eureka moment in which Nietzsche comes to understand that God does not exist. Indeed, he is not all that interested in the question of God’s existence. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently told me that he would be an atheist even if God walked into the restaurant. Similarly for Nietzsche, it’s not a question of evidence or the lack of it.
He is in a completely different place to the new atheist brigade of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. If God walked into the room, Nietzsche would stab him – for his “God is dead” revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine. Christianity is not a mistake. It is wickedness dressed up as virtue.
…Nietzsche’s case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he’s sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It’s the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will.
…Nietzsche hated Christianity with all the intensity of someone who had once been caught up in its workings, but he would have equally loathed the high priests of new atheism and their overwhelming sense of intellectual superiority. “How much boundlessly stupid naivety is there in the scholar’s belief in his superiority, in the simple, unsuspecting certainty with which his instincts treat the religious man as inferior and a lower type which he himself has evolved above and beyond”, he wrote. Nietzsche’s big idea goes much deeper than a belief that there is no God. His extraordinary project was to design a form of redemption for a world beyond belief. And to this extent he remained profoundly pious until his dying day.
Nietzsche took for granted that most intelligent people had outgrown the need for a personal god and proceeded accordingly; that much is true, that his atheism was not the kind that’s interested in amassing a collection of logical proofs for and against. But his view of morality was a bit more nuanced:
Thus I deny morality as I deny alchemy, that is, I deny their premises: but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these premises and acted in accordance with them. I also deny immorality: not that countless people feel themselves to be immoral, but there is any true reason so to feel. It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.
This is one of the most important things he ever wrote, and you can tell by the way he went out of his way to be as clear as possible. Are you getting this? Taking notes? There is no true reason to feel one way or the other. There is no objective, external moral authority. But – but! – this is where so many superficial readers start wailing about “everything is permitted” and rambling about how there’s nothing left but raping, robbing and pillaging, and you can sense the palpable disgust in the above excerpt at having to spell it out for such dimwitted nihilists (for all the good it did). The desire to proclaim that, in the absence of monotheistic certainty, nothing has any meaning anywhere, anytime, is still a grasping after objective moral truth. Nihilists still yearn to submit to some “higher” universal law that commands them how to act, and they’ll settle for Bizarro World morality if they can’t have the real thing anymore.
Up to now, the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not actually want to impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.
Is all that clear? You and I may, after a period of rigorous introspection and dialogue, agree that conventional bourgeois morality suits us just fine as opposed to the alternatives. But we have to do the work to come to that conclusion; we can’t just look for a surrogate authority figure to tell us so. No one else can take that responsibility from us, and weakness consists in trying to give it away. He’s not urging immorality on anyone; he’s trying to tunnel underneath and destabilize the very ground beneath the authority of such ideas. He’s asking people to consider why they’re so eager to be told how to behave in the first place.
He probably would think very little of most atheists, but not because of an anti-elitist antipathy to people who think they’re soooo smart; he was an aristocrat with no love for democracy, after all. His criticism of scholars mentioned by Fraser is based on his suspicion that many secular humanists who think they’ve evolved beyond religion still parrot Christian precepts without having done the sort of serious examination of them we were just talking about. You might say that, as one who respected Christianity as a worthy opponent, he considered it crass for people to loot God’s corpse with no appreciation of the significance of what they’d done.
It does make a certain amount of sense to describe him as pious and concerned with redemption for a world beyond belief, though. I’ve always found this to be a particularly stirring passage, in which he expresses, yes, a faith in the potential of heroic striving:
All those brave birds which fly out into the distance, into the farthest distance – it is certain! Somewhere or other, they will be unable to go on and will perch on a mast or a bare cliff-face – and they will even be thankful for this miserable accommodation! But who could venture to infer from that, that there was not an immense open space before them, that they had flown as far as one could fly! All our great teachers and predecessors have at last come to a stop and it is not with the noblest or most graceful of gestures that weariness comes to a stop: it will be the same with you or me! But what does that matter to you or me? Other birds will fly farther! This insight and faith of ours vies with them in flying up and away; it rises above our heads and above our impotence into the heights and from there surveys the distance and sees before it the flocks of birds which, far stronger than we, still strive whither we have striven, and where everything is sea, sea, sea! And whither then would we go? Would we cross the sea? Whither does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why just in this direction, thither where all the suns of humanity have gone down? Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India – but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or – ?
In adults, the old Puritan attitude leads us to treat fiction as the delivery mechanism for instructional or inspirational messages. Whenever a novel’s merits are described in terms of the “life lessons” that it “teaches,” you can detect that old uneasiness over the “sporting lie” being appeased. In movies and television, literature class discussions almost always consist of students earnestly announcing that what Fitzgerald (or Hemingway or Shakespeare) is really saying is that you should follow your heart (or face your fears or be true to yourself — pick your empty nostrum).
…Ultimately, all of these attitudes — and the standardized tests that Stone and Nichols complain about — boil down to the belief that reading can only be the means to an end, whether that end is moral betterment or worldly success (two classic Puritan preoccupations). For some of us, however, reading is an end in itself, and what fiction has to offer isn’t lessons but an experience, a revelation, a sudden expansion of the spirit. Like any art, it can teach or motivate, but it doesn’t have to, and it’s often better when it doesn’t.
Now, that’s funny, not least of all because I’m sure Miller can’t help but be aware that seemingly every third article on Salon (or Slate, or any other similar webzine) is cut from that cloth. Rarely do I visit those sites without asking the silent rhetorical question at least once during my stay: who the hell are you and why should I care what trite lesson you learned?
To silence free speech is not simply removing an expression that upsets you: it is shutting down the only means we have to convey to another person what we think. If we cannot tell others what we think, then we are being told what to think. If we are dictated to, then we have lost an important – if not the most important – aspect of freedom: the ability to engage fully with an idea.
If the idea is wrong, then that can be shown, through argument and engagement – in other words, it can be destroyed through the very same mechanism that brings it into existence: free speech and engagement. If all that you can do to oppose an idea or view is to restrict others knowing it, then it is a sign of your own viewpoint’s weakness, not that of your target. If your argument is better than the one proposed, I for one would want to know what it is: you are doing the world a disservice if all you do is cut an idea off by the root, rather than indicate why it is, in fact, a weed. You are denying knowledge that is, perhaps, needed. You do yourself and everyone a favour by indicating the stupidity or ineptitude of a view. But you help no one by merely censoring the view.
I agree totally, but the older I get, the more I despair of most people ever setting aside their righteous outrage and world-saving urges. Everyone has internalized the understanding that “censorship” is a terrible thing, but they justify the boycott/quarantine approach to eradicating bothersome opinions by saying that only heavy-handed government interference can truly be considered censorship. I got sick of the whole charade around the time that the progressive political blogosphere launched a pathetic, ineffective boycott of Whole Foods because the CEO offended their tribal sense of faux-hippie identity by publishing an op-ed in the WSJ in opposition to Obama’s health care plan.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: being offended is not such a terrible thing, and can even be a useful stimulus if you just take a deep breath and relax your sense of self-importance.
Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.
I always thought that was one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, and so at odds with the crude stereotype of his philosophy. I was reminded of it while reading this passage from American Nietzsche:
Bourne worried, however, that Nietzsche needed rescuing from his friends more than from his enemies, and he turned to Mencken’s Nietzsche-derived critique of American Puritanism as a case in point. Bourne argued that Mencken exemplified the tendency among anti-Puritan “crusaders” to resort to the very morality-based essentialism they set out to destroy. “One wishes Mr. Mencken had spent more time in understanding the depth and subtleties of Nietzsche,” Bourne wrote, “and less on shuddering at Puritanism as a literary force.” Had Mencken done so, Bourne argued he might have understood that the “attack must be, as Nietzsche made it, on that moralism rather than on its symptoms.” According to Bourne, the value of Nietzsche’s analysis of the priestly zealotry of Christian slave morality was that it enabled the critic not to ferret out the zealotry of others but to recognize it within one’s self. Nietzsche didn’t respond to finger-wagging with more of the same, nor did he advocate a simple inversion of slave morality for master morality. Rather, he employed genealogy to demonstrate the relativity of all moral values.
That relentless moralizing sneer certainly is one of the more tiring things about reading Mencken; see also George Bernard Shaw. I mean, look: even in an age of widespread literacy and easy access to education opportunities, most people are not intellectually inclined. It’s just how it is. But the familiar pose of the disappointed idealist really is the mirror image of the judgmental, provincial busybody. In both cases, there’s an unquestioned assumption that there is an ideal type of personality and lifestyle that all people should aspire to. One of the most valuable concepts I first encountered in Nietzsche was that we should check our proselytizing instinct at the door and think about what a great thing it is that other people are different from us, since it gives us that much more room to develop our own distinctive lives, using them for contrast and relief.
On Black Friday, the true colors of the Occupy Wall Street movement really shone through. Premised on the idea that it speaks on behalf of 99 percent of Americans, the Occupy movement is in fact deeply contemptuous of the masses. In no way was this made clearer than through the alignment of the Buy Nothing Day campaign and the Occupy movement.
…But of course Occupy Wall Street never spoke for 99 percent of Americans. This was always a fantasy figure that lent itself well to sloganeering and to presenting a black-and-white view of the world, according to which the powerless masses struggling to get by are on one side, and the fat cat CEOs and reckless bankers are on the other. In this Star Wars-like narrative, the Occupiers serve as the heroes who will purportedly save the masses from their downfall by enlightening them and campaigning on their behalf.
The message that the Occupiers want to send through their anti-consumption campaign is that Americans have been brainwashed by corporations, that they have been induced to blind over-consumption and unthinking acceptance of the messages put out by ‘the 1%’. This is the Occupier’s Burden, a kind of re-vamped version of the civilising mission described by Rudyard Kipling: to ‘de-program’ Americans and, in the meantime, render them voiceless and clueless so that the apparently enlightened Occupiers can justify stepping in to define their interests for them and to speak on their behalf.
The message of Buy Nothing Day follows in this vein. Initiated by Adbusters, every anti-consumption hipster’s must-have mag, the campaign is essentially promulgation for mass austerity — a point well-made on the American Situation blog — and it is an elaborate way of telling people they are stupid, irresponsible, greedy and shallow.
I’m not sure if she’s more upset by the anti-consumption message or the masked elitism, but she does apparently write for Spiked, so maybe she just has to be contrary the way most people have to breathe.
Anyway. The idea that there can ever be a perfectly horizontal social movement, appearing everywhere at once from nowhere in particular, is indeed a silly one. It’s impossible to get even a tribe or a village to move as one without some type of coercion being involved; it’s a pure pipe dream to think that a nation of 310 million could possibly be run through General Assemblies and consensus and mic checks. Anyone with the sort of grand vision and charismatic personality to set themselves up as revolutionary leaders should probably be tranquilized and confined before they freedom and liberty the shit out of you for your own good.
But there’s nothing hypocritical about pointing out that within American society itself, the overwhelming majority have indeed been getting brutally fucked over and made to pay for the privilege by the unrestrained greed of the ultra-rich, while within the global community, Westerners in general and Americans in particular have been benefiting from the misery of a few billion other people in order to fill their empty, grasping lives with shit they don’t need, financed by money they don’t have.
Frankly, a lot of this kind of tired gotcha-style accusation could be buried if people would finally stop acting as if the very concept of elitism is radioactive, but I guess that’s a whole ‘nother topic.
Once you know how to spot it, “anticipated reproach” is everywhere, and it bedevils people who want to lead morally. Argue on behalf of an environmental cause, and non-environmentalists, anticipating your moral reproach, will think you’re stuck-up and self-righteous. Often, the anticipated reproach — driven, as it is, by fear — is exaggerated and caricatured: vegetarians, Monin finds, aren’t nearly as judgmental of meat-eaters as meat-eaters think they are. Unfortunately, one or two genuinely judgmental do-gooders can put everyone else on a hair-trigger, twisting discussion about moral issues into a vicious circle, in which both parties anticipate reproaches from one another, and put each other down in advance.
‘He forgets nothing but he forgives everything’ — in that case, he will be doubly hated, for he makes doubly ashamed — with his memory and his magnanimity.– Nietzsche