Monday, January 26, 2015

Old quotes

Sometimes it is good to read my old blogs again. Actually, I do it quite often. Or rather I do not really read them but I browse my blogs in order to avoid that I write two blogs with the same contents, for my memory is like a sieve and soon I have forgotten what I have written. Then I see often interesting old ideas of mine or I stumble upon interesting quotes that I have used, like this one from Hannah Arendt’s The origins of totalitarianism (Harvest Book, Harcourt, San Diego etc. 1976; p. 447):
“The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done, on the one hand, by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law and forcing at the same time, through the instrument of denationalization, the nontotalitarian world into recognition of lawlessness; it was done, on the other hand, by placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the juridical procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty”.
The idea expressed here can have many interpretations and it can be put in many contexts. For Arendt herself the context was the German Nazi regime she had escaped from and the Soviet Union of Stalin. Eight years ago in my blog dated April 23, 2007, I related the passage to Guantanamo. However, I think that it can be applied also to Europe today or rather to the present European Union, and then especially to its attitude towards terrorism and terrorists. Although it’s not a new phenomenon, since “Guantanamo” we see that more and more people are placed outside the law because of their extreme acts. For instance, there is a growing support for the idea to deprive terrorists of their nationalities, which will make them stateless. The consequence is that they will be considered a kind of non-people or non-humans, and towards what is not human you don’t need to apply human standards. Guantanamo is a good example of what this leads to. My thesis is that what is done by humans is human and has to be treated that way. Extreme acts are often less extreme as they look at first sight, although it’s not an excuse for doing them. Certainly not!
Let me give an example. Many readers of this blog will know about the cruel acts of the Japanese guards towards their prisoners who had to work on the Burma Railway during the Second World War. I think that everybody who knows about it will call these acts cruel and criminal; acts that have to be severely punished. Recently I read the story of a Dutch prisoner, a soldier, who had suffered there. After the end of WW II he was serving again in the Dutch army where he took part in the Dutch effort to suppress the struggle for independence of Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. What became clear from his story was, however, that he (and other Dutch soldiers) applied towards the Indonesian rebels taken prison the same kinds of cruel and criminal methods he himself had suffered when working on the Burma Railway. Does this show that he has always been a non-human being in disguise? Or take the war crimes done by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Before these soldiers left for Vietnam most of them were honest civilians. After their return home many were honest civilians again. Are they wolves in sheep’s clothes?
In several older blogs I discussed the phenomenon, studied by Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prisons Experiment, that fundamentally almost any person can commit any kind of evil when the situation is there. “Zimbardo concluded”, and here I quote from my blog dated March 14, 2011, “that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil way but that it is the situation that brings people that far. Only very few people are able to resist the pressure of the situation that ‘leads’ them into a certain direction and also only very few display evil behaviour because of a disposition.” Even if only half of it is true, I think that it shows that extremist behaviour is of the kind that human beings do and that most of us have a latent propensity to it, although in most of us there are also enough counter-factors that make that we don’t behave so. Nevertheless human is what humans do and there is no reason not to treat some humans that way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dangerous ideas (5)

Freely expressing ideas with the pen can be very dangerous. Recently yet we have seen it in France. This danger is not something new. However, nowadays the freedom to express ideas is bigger than ever before. This now almost absolute freedom is a very recent phenomenon and it is limited to only a few countries. Terror against those who use the right of freedom of the word is not only performed by individuals and private groups. Its most important oppressor has always been the state, while individuals had to fight for this right. Nowadays it is often the other way round: It is the state that defends the freedom of expression, so that individuals can use it, although it is still so that individuals try to stretch the limits. For certain limits remain. That’s clear. It’s not allowed to offend others or to bring damage to them. But what is offending and when can we say that someone has suffered a loss? But laws change and only recently yet the Dutch law on blasphemy has been cancelled, for example. Actually, it hadn’t been applied since many years.
Not only journalists, artists and politicians have been victims of suppression of the free word and ideas. Philosophers has been as well. The German Nazi regime and the government of the Soviet Union even tried to get a hold on the thoughts of their citizens with the consequence that many philosophers kept silent or adapted their words (at least openly). Others fled, like Adorno and Benjamin. But already in the early days of philosophy freely expressing ideas could be dangerous. Socrates was sentenced to death because he was said to corrupt the minds of the youth and not to believe in the gods of the state.
Montaigne was a courageous but also careful man who didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. I know at least one case that he practised self-censorship. When he wanted to publish his Essays in 1580 he had asked and received permission to include a little book by his late friend Étienne de La Boétie. He wanted to insert it after his essay “Of friendship”, dedicated to his friend. In this little book, On voluntary servitude, La Boétie presented his theory of power and he showed how it was possible to undermine the power of rulers by refusing to obey them. (Later the book became famous among anarchists and non-violent activists). However, when Montaigne actually wanted to publish the Essays, the political situation had worsened a lot and the ghost of civil war and revolution was reigning in France. Moreover La Boétie’s book had been published already by activist reformers. Therefore Montaigne wrote at the end of his essay “Of friendship”: “Because I have found that that work has been since brought out, and with a mischievous design, by those who aim at disturbing and changing the condition of our government, without troubling themselves to think whether they are likely to improve it: and because they have mixed up his work with some of their own performance, I have refrained from inserting it here.” And instead of On voluntary servitude Montaigne published La Boétie’s twenty-nine sonnets in his Essays.
Descartes was another famous philosopher who chose to avoid possible persecution for his ideas in his country (France) and he went to live in the Netherlands. For the same reason, later Descartes accepted an invitation by Queen Christina of Sweden to come to her court, when his philosophy had been condemned at the University of Utrecht. Not so many years thereafter, Spinoza was expelled from Amsterdam, where he lived, after having been banned from the Portuguese Jewish community there because of his “abominable heresies that he practiced and taught,” and his “monstrous deeds”. A few years later Spinoza returned to his town but finally he moved to Rijnsburg and then to The Hague.
It will not be difficult to mention many other philosophers who met with the same fate or, even more, were “simply” murdered, as happened in 2003 to Zoran Djindjic, then Prime Minister of Serbia. Djindjic had been a long time opposition politician and he was a doctor in philosophy as well. He was assassinated by criminals because of his pro-democratic ideas and especially by the way he tried to put them into practice.
A German song says: “Thoughts are free, who can guess them?” Although not even this is always true – especially the first part of the sentence, but also the “who can guess them” may become something of the past one day –, real troubles can arise when you express your thoughts and write them down and try to apply them. In his play “Richelieu” the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton lets the cardinal say: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Wasn’t it Richelieu (among many others) who secretly read La Boétie’s On voluntary servitude, which was forbidden in those days? A book that inspired many known opponents of oppressive power, including Tolstoy and Gandhi (and that still inspires many today, directly or via Gandhi)? Even those in power or with powerful arms acknowledge the value of this saying in their hearts for otherwise they could simply ignore the pen and the words that flow from it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting started

Maybe it would have been more appropriate to write my last blog about making a new start than about age. For isn’t it just the symbolic value of the New Year that mentally we start anew? Many people feel that this is the moment to change life, to throw away bad habits, to begin new projects, and so on, which is expressed in the custom of making New Year’s resolutions.
Everything has a beginning but most things do not begin from nothing. What we consider a new beginning is in many respects a continuation of what already existed. This is also true for philosophy. Nevertheless, most writers on the history of philosophy say that Western philosophy has a clear beginning, namely the Milesian school of philosophy, which has been founded in the sixth century BC. Even more, most of these sources talk about a first philosopher: Thales of Miletus, who lived about from 624-546 BC. One of them who regarded him as the first in the tradition of Greek – and we can now say “Western” – philosophy was Aristotle.
Not much is known about Thales. We do not know his exact dates, for instance. Thales was born in the city of Miletus, a Greek commercial town on the west coast of Minor Asia. He seems to have been a businessman and a politician and he has travelled to Egypt, from where he brought the science of geometry to the Greeks. Actually the only certain thing we know about his own philosophy is that he thought that water is the original substance of all matter and that the earth rests on water. These ideas would soon be pushed away by better ideas, although Thales’s ideas are not as bad as they seem on the face of it, if one considers how important water is in the world.
However, it is not these ideas that made Thales the father of philosophy but it is the way he thought about the world. For Thales did not fall back on religion when he expounded his philosophical ideas and when he explained nature, as was usual in his days, but he formulated them in philosophical terms and he explained natural phenomena by referring to other natural phenomena and by examining nature. By doing so he laid the foundations of modern philosophy and science and so he made a new start in the way we think.
Without a doubt Thales has been influenced by others. Then we think in the first place of the Babylonians and the Egyptian mathematicians. But is this a defect and does it make him less original? Of course not. If for developing every new idea we should have to start from a bare basis, we would come to nothing. Being original is often not a matter of developing completely new ideas but it is a matter of developing new perspectives and putting old things in other lights. That’s what Thales did and what makes him important in the first place. It made that philosophy became both a new way of thinking and a carrying on of what already had been done for such a long time. In the end the result was that many old ideas faded away and that they were superseded by ideas acquired by the newly developing approaches of philosophy and science as a kind of paradigm shift before this term had been developed by Thomas Kuhn. In this way going on is often getting started.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Of age

Once I read a book with essays, in which the authors had been asked to write pieces with the same titles as the chapters in Montaigne’s famous Essays. However, they were free to develop the themes as they liked. I could do the same here in my blogs and it would solve my weekly problem what to write about. I would have stuff for more than two years. I’ll not do that systematically but now in my first blog of a new year I think it will not be inappropriate to write about age, which is the theme of Montaigne’s last essay in his first book, titled “Of age”. For isn’t it so that in some cultures people say that they have become one year older at New Year’s Day, and not on their birthday, as is customary in western countries, for instance?
Some people say that age is just a number. Although I think that there is much truth in it, I think also that it is not true. Age develops always and continuously in one direction. It is not possible to move backwards and become younger, despite what all advertisements on beauty products tell. Biologically there is a maximum length of life, which is about 115 years, and from the time perspective life is a steady count-down with the possibility that the count-down will come to an end already before this maximum has been reached. Actually, that’s what usually happens and nobody knows beforehand exactly when the end will be.
On the other hand, already the just mentioned fact that age is not counted everywhere in the world in the same way puts its absolute value into perspective. Even more, sometimes it appears to run in the wrong direction. At a certain age a person’s physical capacities gradually go down as every older sportsman knows. The process becomes clear when you are about 35-40 years old. And it is so that my average speed of my enduance runs has decreased with a third since then. Nevertheless, when I am riding on my race bike my speed has stayed quite stable through the years, and, to my surprise, it has a bit increased again during the past two-three years, despite my advanced age, and these years are “bikewise” among my best years ever. Does it mean that I am becoming younger again? But how then does this relate to my decreasing speed when I am running? This unequal development can certainly be explained, but it shows that there is also a grain of truth in the saying that age is just a number. Apparently age is not a one-dimensional phenomenon.
We see also a kind of uneven development when we compare our physical and mental capacities. Despite my personal experiences, generally our physical capacities follow a certain pattern of growth during the first 30 years or so and then a gradual decay sets in when you have become 35 years old. Individually there are big differences, also depending on a person’s physical history, but this is the common physical pattern of a human life. I don’t know whether there is such a pattern of our mental development, but what is clear is that a person’s physical and mental development seldom go together. Often you hear people of, say, 60 years old express the feeling that mentally they feel as if they were 20 years old. Even if it is not true that they are mentally that young – and I think that it isn’t true, although I have the same feeling –it shows that our mental age is not the same as our physical age. Have you ever heard a sexagenarian saying that he or she feels physically the same as when s/he was 20 years old? A person of that age knows that every substantially younger person will beat him by a mile, or what way we compare them. And many people who can hardly walk anymore and are physically afflicted with age are still young in spirit.
The upshot is that the assertion that age is just a number is not true. The higher the age the older a person is. Nevertheless it is also not true that age is merely a number. There are too many phenomena that refute it. And Montaigne? He wrote most of his essay on the question that in his days most people didn’t die of old age but by accidents and illnesses and that mental and social life had not been adapted to this fact. Much has changed since then. What Montaigne didn’t foresee and couldn’t foresee so what he didn’t discuss is that being young and staying young has become a cult. Keeping fit and looking well have become big business these days. Does it make sense from the perspective of aging?
Happy New Year! And how much have you become older (or younger) today?