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Norman Douglas on Reification

“Now, leisure should be spelt with a capital ‘L’, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming materialized, like many similar things which have ceased to be abstractions. This is what they call ‘treating a concept as if it were an entity.’ The Unknown, for instance. I have passed that stage: the Hibbert Journal stage. We create a word for our convenience and forthwith, unless we are on the look out, there comes over it a horrid change. The word was made man. It puts on flesh and blood and begins to give itself airs. Soon enough, it stares us in the face, as though we were total strangers. ‘Know you?’ it jeers. ‘Know you for a fool!’ Many respectable men have been eaten alive by the words of their own creation, for their appetite exceeds that of Frankenstein’s healthful monster, and I have reasons for suspecting that, like the ferocious Scythians of old, they only drink milk.”

Siren Land – A celebration of life in southern Italy (J. M. Dent, 1911), p. 157.

Wikipedia: The Hibbert Journal was a large, quarterly magazine in softback book format, issued since 1902 by the Hibbert Trust, best described by its subtitle: “A Quarterly Review of Religion, Theology and Philosophy”


Norman Douglas on Misrule and the Neapolitan Enlightenment

This from Siren Land, the 1911 “Celebration of Life in Southern Italy” that is one of this master stylist’s greatest works.

[O]rdinary pestilences and famines and earthquakes are mere amateurs in destruction whose effects are healed in briefest time: there may even be witnessed, after occasions when the plough of affliction has violently disrupted the soil, a strange quickening of growth. But misrule strikes at the root of things, since the humane strivings in a people, those of its elements that actively make for good, are so sporadic that their annihilation is wholly different from a haphazard calamity. And there was a sinister thoroughness in the Bourbon system which ensured success. The effects of such a conscientious selection of badness must necessarily endure; it takes longer to rear up that which is humane than its opposite, seeing that there are a thousand wrongs for one right. ‘There is no town and there is no country’, says a Neapolitan historian, ‘which would not inevitably be impoverished by the loss of so many and such distinguished men.’ …

There had been tyrannies before in Naples, odious tyrannies; but despots, secular and religious, had been powerless to smother the grand traditions of Hellenic culture, the envy and delight of ancient and mediaeval Europe. A glance into early literature will show what Naples has done in the domain of philosophy – it was ever the first city of Italy for speculative thought; a glance into the works of pre-Bourbon travelers will afford a description of the inhabitants of Naples, and of the provinces, as they saw them. The Neapolitan Academy for the Study of Nature was the first to be founded in the world: it preceded the English Royal Society by nearly a century. One of the brightest pages in human history is the successful struggle of the Neapolitans against the inquisition. This, and much else, might be said in praise of pre-Bourbon Naples. But where philosophical books may not even be imported into a country, much less printed; where the reading of Voltaire is punished with three years’ galley-slavery, and that of the Florence newspapers with six months’ imprisonment – how incredible it seems, nowadays! – the flower of civilization withers and fades away. Despotism, priestcraft, and proletariat have ever been good friends; a kind of freemasonry, unintelligible to simple folks, has conjoined them from time immemorial against the honest and educated classes. Unable to stand alone, they lean against one another for mutual support, and thus in the mephitic calm of ignorance, the structure remains upright, a marvel of equipoise: like a child’s house built of cards, a breath of enlightenment – and it collapses.

Chuang Tzu – The material one needs

[This story was translated by Arthur Waley. I have preserved his transliteration of names. Hui Tzu was such a frequent presence in the stories of Chuang Tzu that one might think of them as fast friends, always challenging each other’s ideas. But, invariably, Chuang Tzu prevailed in their debates.]

Once when Chuang Tzu was walking in a funeral procession, he came upon Hui Tzu’s tomb, and turning to those who were with him he said, ‘There was once a wall-plasterer who when any plaster fell upon his nose, even a speck no thicker than a fly’s wing, used to get the mason who worked with him to slice it off. The mason brandished his adze with such force that there was a sound of rushing wind; but he sliced the plaster clean off, leaving the plasterer’s nose completely intact; the plasterer, on his side, standing stock still, without the least change of expression.

‘Yuan, prince of Sung, heard of this and sent for the mason, saying to him, “I should very much like to see you attempt this performance.” The mason said, “It is true that I used to do it. But I need the right stuff to work upon, and the partner who supplied such material died long ago.”

‘Since Hui Tzu died I, too, have had no proper stuff to work upon, have had no one with whom I can really talk.’

[from Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (1939)]

Arthur Schlesinger Jr – The continuing subservience of conservatism to corporatism

“Conservatism belongs to society as a whole,” Peter Viereck has written in “Conservatism Revisited,” “for its purpose is to conserve the values needed by society as a whole. Conservatism is betrayed when it becomes the exclusive property of a single social or economic minority.” It is precisely this betrayal which has reduced American conservatism to its current fatuity. For the Republican party as an organization has become in recent years so committed to the short-run interests of the business community that it has often tended to ignore what are clearly the long-run interests of the nation. …

[I]n the field of social welfare it is obviously essential, if capitalism is to survive, to hold the loyalty of the masses to the existing economic system. And it is obviously impossible to hold that loyalty if the existing economic system fails to feed, house and clothe all the people; to provide them decent medical care or adequate education. So the dictate of true conservatism would be to bribe the masses into loyalty, if you like, by assuring them the basic decencies of living.

As the British Tory Quintin Hogg has put it, “If you do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.” Yet the Republican party, in proclaiming its crusade against the “welfare state,” is abandoning the working masses to the radicals-and all in the name of a lower tax rate, again the short run triumphs over the long. …

Is American conservatism dead beyond recall? Has it become simply the political reflex of the fears and timidities of the leadership of business? …

It is not too hard to describe the positions a true conservative should take. It must, in the first pale, follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt and dedicate itself to the public interest as against the special interests of any single group This position would have particular potency at a time when many citizens are becoming apprehensive over the power of organized labor. But it is not a position which Republicans can convincingly assume until they have demonstrated that they have liberated themselves from a posture of entire subserviency before the business community. …

[T]he Republicans must remember that conservatism is not the private property of the National Association of Manufacturers. It is not a device for increasing the short-run security of business. It is rather a profound sense of national continuity, stretching deep into the past and forward into the future, and providing a protective membrane for all the people of society.

(excerpted to emphasize the long-term problem of the capture of conservatism by big corporations, from ‘The Need for an Intelligent Opposition,’ New York Times, April 2, 1950)

Casanova – No regrets

“Yes, death is the last line of the book. It’s the end of all, since with death man ceases to feel. But I am far from pretending that the spirit follows the fate of matter. A man should affirm no more than he positively knows. Doubt begins only at the last frontiers of what is possible.

Yes, you moralists morose and imprudent, there is happiness on earth, there is a lot of it, and each has his own. It’s not permanent, no. It passes, it comes back, and passes you again, by that law which is inherent in the nature of all created things, the movement, the eternal rotation of man and thing. And it may be that the sum total of ill, consequence of our imperfection, our physical and intellectual imperfection, surpasses the sum total of each individual’s happiness. All that is possible, but it does not follow that there is no happiness, and a great deal of happiness. If there were not happiness on earth, the creation would be a monstrosity, and Voltaire would have been right when he called our planet the latrines of the universe. An evil pleasantry, which is no more than an absurdity, or rather meaningless, if not a jet of poetic bile.

Yes, there is happiness, and much of it. I repeat that today I know it only by remembrance. Those who admit candidly what they feel are worthy of having it. Those who are not worthy of it are those who have it and yet deny it, and those who are able to get it, yet neglect it. I have no reproach to make to myself on either score.”

(from the Mémoires de J. Casanova de Seingalt : écrits par Lui-même, volume VI, p. 135, [Paris: Garnier frères, 1880 {1798}])

Montaigne – Take in quotes, put out thoughts

[T]aking upon me to write indifferently of whatever comes into my head, and therein making use of nothing but my own proper and natural means, if it befall me, as oft-times it does, accidentally to meet in any good author, the same heads and commonplaces upon which I have attempted to write (as I did but just now in Plutarch’s “Discourse of the Force of Imagination”), to see myself so weak and so forlorn, so heavy and so flat, in comparison of those better writers, I at once pity or despise myself. Yet do I please myself with this, that my opinions have often the honour and good fortune to jump with theirs, and that I go in the same path, though at a very great distance, and can say, “Ah, that is so.” I am farther satisfied to find that I have a quality, which every one is not blessed withal, which is, to discern the vast difference between them and me; and notwithstanding all that, suffer my own inventions, low and feeble as they are, to run on in their career, without mending or plastering up the defects that this comparison has laid open to my own view. And, in plain truth, a man had need of a good strong back to keep pace with these people. …

To reprehend the fault in others that I am guilty of myself, appears to me no more unreasonable, than to condemn, as I often do, those of others in myself: they are to be everywhere reproved, and ought to have no sanctuary allowed them. I know very well how audaciously I myself, at every turn, attempt to equal myself to my thefts, and to make my style go hand in hand with them, not without a temerarious hope of deceiving the eyes of my reader from discerning the difference; but withal it is as much by the benefit of my application, that I hope to do it, as by that of my invention or any force of my own. Besides, I do not offer to contend with the whole body of these champions, nor hand to hand with anyone of them: ’tis only by flights and little light attempts that I engage them; I do not grapple with them, but try their strength only, and never engage so far as I make a show to do. If I could hold them in play, I were a brave fellow; for I never attack them; but where they are most sinewy and strong. To cover a man’s self (as I have seen some do) with another man’s armour, so as not to discover so much as his fingers’ ends; to carry on a design (as it is not hard for a man that has anything of a scholar in him, in an ordinary subject to do) under old inventions patched up here and there with his own trumpery, and then to endeavour to conceal the theft, and to make it pass for his own, is first injustice and meanness of spirit in those who do it, who having nothing in them of their own fit to procure them a reputation, endeavour to do it by attempting to impose things upon the world in their own name, which they have no manner of title to; and next, a ridiculous folly to content themselves with acquiring the ignorant approbation of the vulgar by such a pitiful cheat, at the price at the same time of degrading themselves in the eyes of men of understanding, who turn up their noses at all this borrowed incrustation, yet whose praise alone is worth the having. …

[T]hese are my own particular opinions and fancies, and I deliver them as only what I myself believe, and not for what is to be believed by others. I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself, who, also shall, peradventure, be another thing to-morrow, if I chance to meet any new instruction to change me. I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others. …

Let him, at least, know that he knows. It will be necessary that he imbibe their knowledge, not that he be corrupted with their precepts; and no matter if he forget where he had his learning, provided he know how to apply it to his own use. Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: ’tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them. Bees cull their several sweets from this flower and that blossom, here and there where they find them, but themselves afterwards make the honey, which is all and purely their own, and no more thyme and marjoram: so the several fragments he borrows from others, he will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment: his instruction, labour and study, tend to nothing else but to form that. He is not obliged to discover whence he got the materials that have assisted him, but only to produce what he has himself done with them. Men that live upon pillage and borrowing, expose their purchases and buildings to every one’s view: but do not proclaim how they came by the money. We do not see the fees and perquisites of a gentleman of the long robe; but we see the alliances wherewith he fortifies himself and his family, and the titles and honours he has obtained for him and his. No man divulges his revenue; or, at least, which way it comes in but every one publishes his acquisitions. The advantages of our study are to become better and more wise. ‘Tis, says Epicharmus, the understanding that sees and hears, ’tis the understanding that improves everything, that orders everything, and that acts, rules, and reigns: all other faculties are blind, and deaf, and without soul. And certainly we render it timorous and servile, in not allowing it the liberty and privilege to do anything of itself. Whoever asked his pupil what he thought of grammar and rhetoric, or of such and such a sentence of Cicero? Our masters stick them, full feathered, in our memories, and there establish them like oracles, of which the letters and syllables are of the substance of the thing. To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it, or fumbling over the leaves of his book.

(from Essay XXV, ‘Of the education of children’, translated by Charles Cotton, edited by William Carew Hazlitt)

Walter Kaufmann – The Talmud story of Rabbi Akiba and his soul

“Let us begin with the Mishnah, which is the definitive codification of the so-called oral tradition, as determined and edited in the second century A.D., and quote a passage from the first treatise in the Talmud entitled ‘Blessing.’ In Section 9, paragraph 5, we find these words:

‘Man must give praise for the bad no less than for the good, for it is written [Deut. 6.5]: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with thy whole heart, etc. With thy whole heart: with both your impulses, with the good impulse and with the bad impulse. With thy whole soul: even when He takes your soul.’ The Mishnah was discussed for centuries until finally the discussions of the rabbis were written down. These discussions form the so-called Gemara which together with the Mishnah constitutes the Talmud.

From the Gemara for the passage cited we learn that it was Akiba who taught that the Biblical command to love God ‘with thy whole soul’ meant ‘even when he takes away thy soul.’ His reason: there must be a special meaning to ‘whole soul’ which adds something to ‘whole heart.’ After crediting this interpretation to Akiba, the Gemara proceeds:

‘The Rabbanan taught: Once the infamous government had given an order that the Israelites should no longer concern themselves with the Torah. Then Papos ben Yehudah met Rabbi Akiba as he held public meetings and concerned himself with the Torah. Then he said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the infamous government? He replied: I shall tell you a parable to which this is comparable. A fox once walked along the bank of a river, and when he saw fish congregating everywhere, he said to them: what are you fleeing? They replied: the nets that men put out for us. Then he said to them: Then may it please you to come on land, and we, I and you, shall dwell together as my ancestors once dwelled together with your ancestors. Then they replied to him: Is it you that is reputed to be the cleverest animal? You are not clever but stupid; if we are afraid even in the element in which we have our life, how much more in the element in which we die! Thus it is with us, too: if it has come to that even now when we sit an study the Torah of which it is written [Deut. 30.20], “for it is thy life and the length of thy days,” how much more if we go and withdraw from it!’

A very few days later, Akiba was apprehended. After a long imprisonment, he was led to his execution at the time o day when the liturgy calls for the reading of the so-called Shma: ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with they whole heart and with thy whole soul.’ This is how the Gemara relates his death:

‘His flesh was ripped off with iron combs, but he took upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. His students said to him: Master, so far? He replied to them: My whole life I have grieved over the verse in Scripture, with thy whole soul – even when He take your soul; for I thought, when shall this opportunity be given to me, and I shall do it. And now that it is given to me, I should not do it? He prolonged the word “One” so long that his soul expired on “One.”’”

(from Critique of Religion and Philosophy [1958])