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David Brooks & Secularism

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York

David Brooks

David Brooks

times, recently wrote a provocative piece about secularists. Ordinarily, his

focus is politics; he’s well connected in Washington, he’s reasonable and he writes well. Brooks occasionally comments on society and culture, and there his conservative vision can lead him astray. His column on secularists sprang from his reading a book, Living the Secular Life, by the sociologist Phil Zuckerman. Brooks didn’t review the book, but used it as a jumping off point for his own views on “secular individuals” and “secular people.”

He makes a number of observations which we can agree with, or debate, or think are plain silly. Here they are in his own words:

•“Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”
•“Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”
•“Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.” It’s hard to believe but, yes, he’s serious here.
•“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. Religious people are motivated by their love of God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

As you can see, secular people have a very hard life, having to build their own philosophies, communities and rituals, having to make choices, needing to decide when to reflect on life, and having to create their own moral motivations. On the other hand, religious people have it, oh — so easy.

Brooks comes to the point of his piece, beginning with a couple of things that it is not:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

So that’s the point,  that life is really, really really hard for secular people, even if they don’t know it — like when they’re bored with their lives and aren’t even conscious of their boredom and go around thinking that they’re not bored.

In his conclusion, Brooks offers some suggestions to secular people.

“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Of course, secularism isn’t a religion and it doesn’t have a creed the way religions have creeds and one wonders how a religious person, like David Brooks, would respond to a secularist’s suggestions for ways to improve religion. Because Brooks is religious, he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks about a certain kind of spiritual inspiration and feeling. But he doesn’t understand the secular temperament and his his characterization of the secular person is a clownish caricature. And although his lines about Christianity and Judaism speak powerfully, he strangely portrays religious people as passive sheep.

Christianity and Judaism impose the same ethical “burden” on their faithful as is imposed on the secular person. Though religious and secular people may phrase the process differently, they both, at times, have  difficulty in distinguishing the right moral choice and both recognize their self-deception and folly.

Yes, being part of a religious group does give meaning to the lives of many people, but it’s witless to think it gives meaning to all of them. Furthermore, many secular minded people find meaning in their family, in their love for their husband or wife, their children, in their daily work for their daily bread, in their pursuit of justice and social good – there are numberless ways in which people find meaning in life  without being affiliated with a church.

Brooks concludes by saying “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

Only David Brooks knows what an “enchanted secularism” is. Maybe there is in each of us a spiritual urge, a drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification. But in the context of his essay those words have specific religious meanings and a secularist wouldn’t use those words that way. The secularism and the sanctification he’s been defining throughout his piece are clearly incompatible.

David Brooks isn’t a dummy. Liberals read Brooks and generally can follow his reasoning even when they disagree with views.  So it may be that a newspaper column isn’t large enough to allow a well reasoned exploration of secularism and religion.  But one thing’s sure, on this subject his writing — though serious and well intended — is a confused and confusing muddle.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels of Our Nature cover image 235While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.

There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.

In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.

Eighty-five very, very rich people…

Eighty-five very, very rich people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom  half of the entire population of the world.

In the United States, the 400 richest have more wealth than the 150 million citizens who comprise the poorest half of the population.

Maybe you’re wondering if these crazy statistics were produced by a wild-eyed radical group intending to overthrow the capitalistic system No, these facts come from a briefing paper, “Working for the Few,” prepared by Oxfam International.

Just to be on the safe side, let’s take a closer look at that organization. Oxfam was founded in 1942 in Oxford, England, as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It was organized by a group of Quakers, Oxford academics, and social activists. Over the years it has spread and now has many affiliates around the globe. Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam International, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of – to quote them – “a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.” Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization, and gifts are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the law. Definitely not radical. You can make a donation without worry.

Here are some of the other interesting statistics from the Oxfam briefing paper:

• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

I’m sure there’s a way of looking at this data and believing that we can’t do anything about it. Capitalism is the dominant economic system around the globe — in some places it’s more regulated than others, but it’s still capitalism. And some people believe that capitalism is a “natural” system of economics, that it simply comes into being all by itself, naturally.  But none of that is true. Capitalism is an economic structure created by people, not by nature nor by God and angels. Like legislative or judicial systems, it’s devised and brought into being by people. For a long time, monarchy was considered the natural system of governance, part of the divine order of things created by God. It wasn’t and neither is capitalism. We can change it. We can make it better, fairer, more broadly productive.

Horizontal line 460pxIs the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art?  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man  deeply interested in these questions:

I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

                                      —The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & DocumentHorizontal line 460px

Messy Flower Garden (2)

Messy flower gardenReaders of Critical Pages may recall that we believe in messy gardens — messy vegetable gardens, messy flower gardens. The gardens at Versailles give us a splitting headache, and as we pointed out in our previous post on this subject, the people who delighted in the gardens of Versailles got their heads split from their necks. French aristocrats liked the idea of Nature tamed, contained and obedient to the Gardener. The gardens at Versailles reflected the aristocracy’s ideal on how to rule not only unruly Nature, but also the unruly lower classes. But we at Critical Pages are believers in fair democracy, so we let our garden grow any which way it pleases. If one flower gets watered, all flowers get watered.  No  one percent hogging 80 percent of the nutrients in this garden. And the flowers appear to be happy.

The Right to Privacy

Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren  were friends and classmates at Harvard Law School. They graduated in 1877 —

Samuel Warren, 1875

Samuel Warren, 1875

Warren was second in that class, second to Brandeis who not only was first, but also had the highest grade average in the history of the school, a record that lasted for 80 years.  In 1879 the two young lawyers founded the Boston law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish. At the end of 1890 they published their famous law review article “The Right to Privacy.” It has remained a landmark in American legal history. What follows is a brief excerpt from  that famous article:

Brandeis, Louis

Louis Brandeis, 1900

The common law secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions shall be communicated to others. Under our system of government, he can never be compelled to express them (except when upon the witness stand); and even if he has chosen to give them expression, he generally retains the power to fix the limits of the publicity which shall be given them. The existence of this right does not depend upon the particular method of expression adopted. It is immaterial whether it be by word  or by signs, in painting, by sculpture, or in music. Neither does the existence of the right depend upon the nature or value of the thought or emotion, nor upon the excellence of the means of expression. The same protection is accorded to a casual letter or an entry in a diary and to the most valuable poem or essay, to a botch or daub and to a masterpiece. In every such case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public.

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In 1916, Louis Brandeis — by that time a well known advocate of progressive causes — was confirmed by the Senate and became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.  His nomination by President Woodrow Wilson was controversial; there was opposition from some because of his “radical” views and from others because he would be the first Jew on the Supreme Court. The vote was 47 to 22. Forty four Democratic Senators and three Republicans voted in favor,  21 Republican Senators and one Democrat voted against.

Philosopher’s Dilema

Mind And Cosmost book cover imageThe philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with an admirably  short and engaging book, Mind And Cosmos, with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Readers unfamiliar with Nagel might assume that his book is an attack on contemporary Darwinism by a person of faith arguing that biological evolution reveals the work of an intelligent designer — God himself. But the author, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, removes any such misunderstanding at the start by declaring himself an atheist.

In Nagel’s view, Neo-Darwinism — biological evolution as we understand it today – is fundamentally incomplete, because it doesn’t explain how life originated and, says Nagel, it  won’t ever have the ability to explain the emergence of human consciousness. Nagel believes that a better way of thinking about nature, and specifically about biological evolution, would be to search out nature’s purpose and goal. For while insisting that he is not theistic – quite the contrary – he nonetheless believes that evolution is teleological. That is to say, it has a purpose and it intends to reach a specific goal.

Nagel’s book was recently reviewed — rebutted may be the better word — across three of those very large pages that make up the New York Review of Books. The reviewer, H. Allen Orr, is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, an evolutionary geneticist. These two, the biologist and the philosopher, are well matched in intelligence, prizes and distinguished positions in the republic of the intellect. But you needn’t be either a biologist or a philosopher to read Mind And Cosmos. Although Nagel writes at the highest level of abstraction and rarely yields to the concrete example, he write with pristine clarity and is quite understandable. (more…)

Charles Darwin and Paul Johnson

Darwin - portrait of a geniusHardly anyone actually reads Charles Darwin nowadays, but most people know about him and his work. In the world of science, his ideas are foundational for an understanding of how different species come into existence, how they change, become dominant or get wiped out. Big thinkers, especially in science, cause a big stir, and occasionally their ideas become points of fierce controversy. But if their theories withstand critical scrutiny they become part of the way we understand the physical world; then controversy subsides and withers away. Not so with Darwin.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species — that they were not created individually, as we are told in the Old Testament, but have evolved from earlier species — created controversy when it was first published in 1859. And his ideas continue to be heatedly attacked and passionately defended even today, chiefly in the United States. Furthermore, his theory of evolution in nature provided the scientific premise for Social Darwinism and eugenics policy. So it’s handy to have a deft little book about Charles Darwin’s life and achievements and that’s what we have in Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius.

The book, published by Viking within the past year, is short, only 150 or so pages. It’s nicely bound in black and red with a handsome slip cover showing the old man himself, a white bearded grandfather in a black fedora and Chesterfield coat. Paul Johnson is an experienced writer with considerable knowledge of the subject at hand, and many other subjects as well. This book, being as short as it is, has the feel of an extended essay — a beautifully clear and concise essay.

It’s all here. Darwin’s extraordinary family background (Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a polymath genius; father Robert, a brilliant doctor of medicine, maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, another genius), his five-year trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his minute observations of different species, his gradual recognition that different species were not created independently and whole, but evolved from earlier models, his reluctance to publish, and finally his two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. (more…)

The Pink Cloud of Evening

December has its merry and bright times — evergreen trees with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments, the festive foods, the plum pudding, spicy cakes, and eggnog. All along the roof the eves are hung with fairy lights pretending to be icicles, and there are candles in every window. But December is also the month with the shortest days and longest nights. The dark encroaches. Marilyn Robertson’s poem, “The Pink Cloud of Evening,” has something to say about that.

Sometimes I feel I could live forever —
Like right now, listening to a Norwegian choir on the radio
and watching the last pink cloud of evening
drift over the neighbor’s field.

My ancestors came from Norway.
But they’re long dead — and I’ll die one day, too,
no matter how many clouds and choirs there are.

I ought to quit calling death the Grim Reaper.
I ought to invite him, or her, over once in a while,
like I used to invite my friends.

Can Carol come over to play, Mrs. Townsend?
Can Dorothy spend the night?

What is it about time anyway—
Whizzing through every place I’ve ever lived
as if it’s doing the hundred-yard dash?

Children are born.  And their children, grown.
The little triumphs.  The winter rains.
The voices of other children on the hill.

Twilight deepens and I start to dance,
humming a little something from Cole Porter.
Perhaps I’ll live forever after all.

You might want to rethink that,  says the dark,
coming in for its solo on the bass,
always so mellow, so sure of where it’s going.

—Marilyn Robertson

Would It Have Been Better Not To Have Been Born?

Sun in an Empty Room by Edward Hopper Considering our life, would it have been better for us if we had never been born? Maybe you wondered about that. You weren’t alone, though it may have felt that way. The question is very old. In fact, it was debated almost two thousand years ago between the followers of two Jewish philosophers, the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Both men were learned scholars and each established a schools of thought on Jewish law, but they differed greatly on certain points.

In general, Hillel was flexible and generous,  liberal in his views. Shammai, on the other hand, took a strict, narrow view in deciding issues and was zealously conservative. Their followers, like the sage Hillel and Shammai,  frequently differed with each other. For over two years these two opposing groups, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, debated the question: Would it have been better never to have been born? Surprisingly, these opponents agreed: It would have been better never to have been born.

Now that’s a desolating answer.

We  aren’t rabbinic sages. Far from it.  And if we were to choose a school of thought it might be the  house of the skeptic Michael Montaigne. (We’ll sum up Montaigne for you: The human mind is limited and contradictory. Get used to it.) For solace, we’ll leave you with this stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.