David Hume on a sense of proportion

April 7th, 2011

Such a reflection certainly tends to  mortify all our passions: But does it not thereby counterwork the  artifice of nature, who has happily deceived us into an opinion, that  human life is of some importance?

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More hume quotes.

March 25th, 2011

Comment superfluous
When a philosopher has once laid  hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural  effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and  reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd  reasoning

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Hume shows up his publishers

March 21st, 2011

Longinus thought  himself sufficiently justified, in asserting, that the arts and sciences  could never flourish, but in a free government: And in this opinion, he has been followed by several eminent writers  in our own country, who either confined their view merely to ancient  facts, or entertained too great a partiality in favour of that form of  government, established amongst us. But what would these writers have said, to the instances of modern Rome and of Florence?
This is in the edition published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis.

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Small moment of pleasure

April 13th, 2010

Yesterday my colleague David Shariatmadari was commissioning a comment from Richard Dawkins. “I’m so glad you’re not the notorious Andrew Brown” said RD and added, eagerly, “Has he been fired?” No: sorry to disappoint you, Richard.

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In other news, the Pope is Catholic

February 8th, 2010

The National Secular Society is a campaigning atheist organisation. Its members believe that religion is a force for wickedness in this world. For some reason these simple and one would have thought perfectly obvious statements produce paroxysms of indignation in some people.

Firstly you get the defenders who say that atheism is not secularism. This is true, but in the case of the NSS irrelevant. Both words have numerous shades of meaning, but they can certainly overlap, and the NSS is situated precisely where they do: to quote Terry Sanderson, “We are a society of atheists fighting for secularism”.

From its website you can download some histories of the society, including Godless and Glad of it, Fifty years of militant secular humanism by David Tribe, who was president of the NSS between 1963 and 1971. Through their Amazon associates link, they sell anti-theism: “The God Delusion”. “God is not great”, “God, the failed hypothesis”, and “God hates you. Hate him back”. They sell badges proclaiming the bearer is an atheist, and so on. I’m sorry to belabour the point, but the core membership of the NSS is hostile to religion. It is not neutral.

I don’t think anyone has disputed that the NSS is a campaigning organisation. It is currently running campaigns against religious education: Sanderson wrote in, as it happens, the Guardian, that he wants “to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”

It campaigns against NHS funding for hospital chaplains; against prayers in council meetings; against religious influence in government; against religious involvement in the school system … the list goes on. These causes are all atheist as well as secularist. (I know the Accord coalition wants faith schools open to everyone and has religious members as well as the NSS. But NSS policy goes further: “One of the National Secular Society’s primary aims is the secularisation of Britain’s education system. We want all state-funded schools returned to community control”).

The question is not whether these causes are good or bad. You can make rational arguments on both sides of all of them. But the arguments the NSS makes are all atheist ones. Again, that’s not a criticism. It’s a fact.

Terry Sanderson, as head of the organisation, leads from the front. He was, for example, an enthusiastic convert to the idea that liberal believers are every bit as dangerous as fanatics.

“The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute. But it’s no good the liberals trying to dissociate themselves from their wilder compatriots in faith … The poor, bleating liberals [have] spent a lifetime reinforcing in their heads the childhood brainwashing that they will never overcome … the delusions of the liberals are not qualitatively different from those entertained by the Pat Robertsons or Abu Hamzas of this world.”

I’m not arguing (here) that this is silly and unpleasant. My point is that it is unquestionably militant atheism, “godless and glad of it”, to coin a phrase. Writing about the future of religion, he concluded:

“The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, said: “No man sees a religion die”. That may be so, but religions do eventually die. History is littered with their corpses. Until now they have always been replaced. But one day the human race’s growing indifference to the gods will prove more lethal than any anti-clericalist dagger. Religion will die.

I am sorry I won’t be around to see it.”

That is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint for which there is – obviously – space on cif belief. In fact I commissioned that article. But you couldn’t call it neutral towards religion.

What seems to have roused particular anger is my suggestion that he thinks catholicism is a wicked religion and its followers consequently dangerous. Why would anyone think that? Well, perhaps because they had read what Sanderson wrote, on the NSS web site, in November last year:

“The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch. Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).

… The Catholic priesthood claims to disown its own erotic nature in order to remain “pure” – and yet endless court cases show many of the “fathers” to have been wallowing in a pit of unimaginable sexual depravity.

…Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.

Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.”

If this stuff – “poisonous tentacles“; “Monsters … who get away with murder”; “Unimaginable sexual depravity”involved in every conceivable immorality” – were written about Jews or gay people, it would look barely sane and possibly criminal. Why should it be respected when the victims are Roman Catholics?

It’s possible that he just writes these things for effect because they are expected of the president of the National Secular Society but I don’t think so. He’s not a a hypocrite.

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Avatar

January 24th, 2010

I went to see Avatar because of a subtle and enthusiastic review by Roz Kaveney; a pity that she must have watched it in another universe. The film I saw had no plot, no characters, no conflict, and no depth of field. The last complaint is literal as well as metaphorical. The 3D effect is in some ways even more two-dimensional than normal films, since there is only one plane where anything is in focus. Everything that protrudes into the theatre or recedes from it is blurry and insubstantial if you look at it directly. Read the rest of this entry »

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Will a grand and honest decade be any better?

January 1st, 2010

Around quarter to midnight I wanted to quote Auden and I couldn’t remember the word. It was “clever”: “As the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade.” Our hosts of the evening didn’t have much poetry written after about 1900 and their one anthology that might have done didn’t have September 1, 1939. Nor is it in his collected shorter poems, though I don’t remember it or even read it as a long one. It’s hardly epic; only just about perfect.

By the time I had run it down, I had read a lot more of his poetry than I set out to do: difficult to think of a better start to the year. And I had also found a remarkable piece of literary criticism: his review, in the New York Times, of The Return of the King. Auden was a huge fan of Tolkien’s, which I find unexpected, and what he wrote about the treatment of good and evil in fantasy is worth discussion:
To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.

This seems to me a wonderfully shrewd explanation of the way in which Tolkien is more involving than Milton emotionally. I can’t imagine reading Tolkien aloud for the sake of the language (I mean that almost literally: the words of some poems demand to be spoken) and I think that is the final test of poetry; but neither can I imagine anyone reading Paradise Lost to find out how it ends.

The first paragraph of Auden also repays admiring attention. He puts into three sentences one of the problems which the incarnation is supposed to solve in Christian thought. In fact they fit into the last sentence and a half: “physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. [yet] the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

Auden puts it in a way that doesn’t mention God, and I think the problem can be understood without reference to Her. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it couldn’t. But I don’t think it’s a universal. That is to say, there are people and cultures to whom it appears wrong or absurd to say that “the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

(For an experiment, I am crossposting this on the Guardian site, to see what difference it makes to the comments. The observant reader will have noted that it has no moral, and no bearing on the existence or otherwise of god, and may even feel these matters need no further comment)

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good riddance to 1819

December 31st, 2009

I’m not entirely sure when Hazlitt’s Table Talk was written, but I was reading it over Christmas, at my sister’s house, and discovered, to my horror and astonishment, the best description you could imagine of recreational comment pages. It comes in his essay on Coffee House Politicians which is a bitter denunciation of timewasting gossips by someone who has obviously spent far too long researching the subject.

No one here (generally speaking) has the slightest notion of any­thing that has happened, that has been said, thought, or done out of his own recollection. We may happily repose on dulness, drift with the tide of nonsense, and gain an agreeable vertigo by lending an ear to endless controversies. The confusion, provided you do not mingle in the fray and try to disentangle it, is amusing and edifying enough. Every species of false wit and spurious argument may be learnt here by potent examples. Whatever observations you hear dropt have been picked up in the same place or in a kindred atmo­sphere. There is a kind of conversation made up entirely of scraps and hearsay, as there are a kind of books made up entirely of references to other books. This may account for the frequent contradictions which abound in the discourse of persons educated and disciplined wholly in coffee-houses. …
A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest common-place, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction.

Isn’t it awe-inspiring to think that all the essential characteristics of internet discourse were in place 190 years ago; and to discover that the essential ingredient wasn’t TCP/IP but – all along – caffeine?

Happy New Year in whatever may be your chosen region of noise and empty rumours! May you float through it without difficulty or distraction.

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Academic manners

November 29th, 2009

The current LRB has a wonderful example of one style of academic review: the long essay outlining the book that ought to be written about the subject, concluded by a paragraph dismissing the work under review. But what a paragraph!

André Burguière does not want to admit this. For him Annales remains a cause to fight for. But his book will do the cause no good at all. It is written seemingly without any knowledge of the wider historiography. Lutz Raphael’s Die Erben von Bloch und Febvre, the best and most comprehensive account of the school, is mentioned in the bibliography, but there is no sign that Burguière has read it. Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy.

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Plugging Marek

November 20th, 2009

I had to call Marek Kohn the other day, because I was thinking about the Chief Rabbi’s eugenics, and this led me to reread A reason for everything. It really is good. The discussion of Bill Hamilton in particular is extremely subtle and penetrating. All of the faults and confusions are dissected: “for him the hospitals came to represent the inexorable modern menace that others see in immigrants or surveillance cameras”. At the same time, Kohn admires and understands the achievements, and sees all the ways in which Hamilton did in fact function emotionally and socially. This is how pop science ought to be written.

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