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Monday, June 20, 2022

The right age

In the last essay of Book I of his Essays titled “Of Age” Montaigne talks about age and ageing. In this essay he discusses two themes: The right age to die and the right age to do something. As for the first, he tells us about Cato the Younger, who “said … to those who would stay his hand from killing himself, am I now of an age to be reproached that I go out of the world too soon?” And then Montaigne adds: “And yet he was but eight-and-forty years old.” This remark is a bit strange, for when in 1571 Montaigne retired from public life to this castle, he wrote on the wall of his study that he would spend there “what little remains of his life”. However, Montaigne was then only 38 years old, but he did as if he was already an old man. This illustrates that age is a relative idea and that you are as old as you feel. Some are apparently already old at the age of 48, while others are still “young” at the age of 100. I told you once about Robert Marchand, who stayed cycling almost till his death at the age of 109. 105 years old, he still felt fit enough to set up a world record in one-hour track cycling (see here), so at an age that most of us will not reach. Nonetheless, if a person dies “already” at the age of, say, 96 or 87, nobody will call this a premature death, though one would say so nowadays when a person dies at the age of 48, like Cato, or 59, like Montaigne. This raises the question what a “normal” age to die is. I think that such an answer cannot be given. It depends on the time in which you live, the country and the average age of dying in your country and on some other factors.
If there isn’t a normal age to die, is there then something like a “normal” death? I think that most of us will consider a normal death dying in your own bed in your own house, weakened by a high age, weary of life. Is it really normal? No, so Montaigne: Isn’t it “a kind of death of all others the most rare and very seldom seen? We call that only a natural death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with a fall, be drowned in shipwreck, be snatched away with a pleurisy or the plague, and as if our ordinary condition did not expose us to these inconveniences. … [However]; we ought rather, peradventure, to call that natural which is general, common, and universal. To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular, and, therefore, so much less natural than the others.” What should I add?
The other theme in “Of Age” is the right age to do something. For instance, what is the legal marriage age? In the Netherlands you must be 18 years old at least. Once your parents had to consent when you were not yet 30 years old; later this age was 21, and now you don’t need your parents’ consent any longer. However, the marriageable age varies according to country, culture and time. Even child marriages happen or happened. Other examples of age limits are the compulsory school age, the age to get a driver’s license, the age that employers must pay an adult wage, or, on the opposite side of life, the retirement age.
Many age limits separate young and adult, and they illustrate that adulthood is a relative affair. Montaigne himself thinks that “our souls are adult at twenty as much as they are ever like to be, and as capable then as ever.” Even more, Montaigne thinks that “a soul that has not by that time given evident earnest of its force and virtue will never after come to proof. The natural qualities and virtues produce what they have of vigorous and fine, within that term or never.” And if it is not when you are 20 years old, “of all the great human actions I ever heard or read of, of what sort soever, I have observed, both in former ages and our own, more were performed before the age of thirty than after”. It’s what many people often thought and maybe still think. True, many scientists did their most important discoveries before the age of 30 (Einstein is a case in point), but generally it is not so, also not for scientists. Many qualities need time to ripen, and many people often become good just at a later age, when the right combination of creativity, knowledge, reflection, social experience and the like has developed.
Anyway, after the age of 30 the physical decay of human beings sets in. And mentally? Many older people say, for example at the age of 60: Physically I have become older. My body cannot do any longer what I could do when I was young. Mentally, however, I am still the same as when I was 20 years old. Is it true? Maybe it feels so, but it’s an illusion. Also your mind gradually decays; or at least it changes. Also in your head you don’t stay the same young girl or guy you once were. As Montaigne says, it can even happen that the mind faster submits to age than the body, but when this happens, people often don’t notice it and then “so much greater is the danger”. It’s an illusion to think that mentally you don’t change through the years. You shouldn't fool yourself.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Random quote
It is one of the demerits of the traditional theory of causality that it has created an artificial opposition between determinism and the freedom of which we are introspectively conscious.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Monday, June 13, 2022

What do I know?

Montaigne’s Essays remain interesting, also more than 400 years after its first publication. I cannot stop taking them in my hands now and then and read one or another essay. I have underlined many passages and I have marked those essays that I find most interesting. One of them is essay 27 (or 26 in some editions like the Gutenberg translation; but this time I’ll quote from the translation by Charles Cotton). This essay is very relevant to the present situation in which the world is amid a pandemic and in which a war in Europe undermines the social and economic order. In this situation there is much confusion about what is true and what is false; what is fact and what is fake. Scientific facts are being opposed to alternative ideas about the origin of the pandemic. It is not always clear what is happening on the European battlefield or what the real reasons behind the war are. In this confusing situation, Montaigne gives us useful advices that help us finding our way.
Essay 27 (26) is titled “It is folly to refer truth and error to our own capacity”. Montaigne says here that we tend to believe what we already think to know and to reject what seems unlikely to us. However, he wonders whether this is right. At first sight it is, for we believe what we believe not without reason. However, when we take a closer look at the reasons for our beliefs, it is often so that our beliefs are only a matter of custom. When we try to find out why we believe something that someone else may consider weird “assuredly we shall find that it is rather custom than knowledge that takes away their strangeness”. We tend to think that people who hold different views are less reasonable than we are. But even if this would be true, “tis a foolish presumption to slight and condemn all things for false that do not appear to us probable; which is the ordinary vice of such as fancy themselves wiser than their neighbors.”
Of course, we must not automatically accept anything that is told to us, but on the other hand, we must not reject it in advance, just because it seems unlikely. According to Montaigne we must try to find a middle course between credulity and scepticism. It is arrogant to consider impossible everything that seems unlikely to us. “If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?” Much of what we consider unlikely seems unlikely to us because of our prejudices is what Montaigne apparently wants to tell us here.
Now it often happens that otherwise reliable people tell us unbelievable things. If we don’t want to believe them, even then let us not reject as impossible what they told us. Who knows what evidence we’ll get later for it? Better is, so Montaigne, to suspend the judgment. “[T]o condemn [something] as impossible, is by a temerarious presumption to pretend to know the utmost bounds of possibility.” For there is a “difference betwixt the impossible and the unusual, and betwixt that which is contrary to the order and course of nature and contrary to the common opinion of men”. On the one hand, one must not believe rashly and on the other hand not be too incredulous. What now seems unlikely, can later turn out to be true. “Tis a presumption of great danger and consequence, besides the absurd temerity it draws after it, to contemn what we do not comprehend.” We, too, continuously change our minds. What we once considered true, may later be proved to be false, and the other way round. Moreover, what we think is full of contradictions. “Why do we not consider what contradictions we find in our own judgments; how many things were yesterday articles of our faith, that to-day appear no other than fables? Glory and curiosity are the scourges of the soul; the last prompts us to thrust our noses into everything, the other forbids us to leave anything doubtful and undecided.”
So far Montaigne in essay 27 (26). Montaigne lived in a time when science began to develop. Eternal truths were overthrown. What once were facts was uncovered as fake. Or fake was shown to be fact. People of both sides denounced each other. That’s also what we see in the present world; a world full of confusion and contradiction. I think that I don’t need to explain this here. We hear many half-truths and half-lies; facts that later had to be changed into other facts; conspiracy theories; and who knows what more. But Montaigne tells us that we must be open to all views. He does not say that we must believe everything, but we must lend an ear to other views, and often we’ll see that it’s better to suspend a definitive judgment than just state that the truth is on our side. How often isn’t it so that a fact becomes fake (or vice versa)? Not without reason Montaigne’s motto was “Que sais je?”. What do I know?

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Random quote
There is a difference between the impossible and the unusual, and between that which is contrary to the order and course of nature and contrary to the common opinion of men.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Monday, June 06, 2022

The Pinocchio Sensation

Most of us tell the truth most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes we lie, for good reasons or for bad reasons. For some people lying belongs to their profession. Or they tell half-truths, which is the same as telling half-lies. I think that politicians belong to this category, and I think that politicians tell half-truths and so also half-lies more often than the average person does. Also they can have good or bad reasons for doing so. They can lie in the interest of the state, but often they lie in the interest of themselves. For politicians strive for power; otherwise they wouldn’t be politicians. It can be that they want to promote a certain idea and they think that they can best do so in politics, or they can strive for power simply because they want to have power. Often it’s a mixture of both. But then it would be interesting to know what the real motives and plans of politicians are, especially in a state where we elect our representatives. Then we would like to know whether our representatives tell the truth or try to mislead us by telling lies, so that, once in function, they can execute their own agendas. Therefore, it would be nice to have a kind of lie detector. For example, did the Russian president Putin really want to chase away the Nazis from Ukraine in the present war or is it a pretext for his strive for power or for something else? Or, to give an example from my own country, the Dutch prime minister Rutte often says “I don’t remember; I haven’t an active memory of it.” Then, we would like to know, whether he really had forgotten the case concerned, or whether he doesn’t he want to tell the truth. Since we cannot force a politician to do a test with a lie detector, it would be nice if there were a kind of innate lie detector. The Italian writer Carlo Collodi tells us the story of Pinocchio, whose nose became longer, when he lied. But alas, it’s a fairy tale, not something that really happened. In this sense it’s a lie that Collodi told us, although for most people it’s an acceptable lie, since they like fairy tales. There are no noses that grow when lies are told. So, politicians and human beings in general can go on lying and we must simply believe them, unless we can prove that they lie.
Is it really so that noses cannot enlarge in this way? Yes and no. Noses don’t grow when people lie, but there is a psychological phenomenon that gives you the illusion that your nose grows, although not because you are lying, but because your nose is stimulated in a special way. The phenomenon is called the Pinocchio Illusion or Phantom Nose Illusion. There are several ways to evoke the sensation that your nose grows. Here is one way that you can practice yourself (quoted from this website, where you can also find other ways to evoke the Pinocchio Illusion):
Ask a friend to help you. “Since you will be the one experiencing the illusion, you will sit in a chair behind your friend. You should cover your eyes by either using a blindfold, or simply closing them. Next, you will reach out with whatever hand and simply find the nose of your friend, while using your other hand to touch your nose. At the same time stroke your nose as well as your friends using the same movement. In roughly thirty seconds to one minute, you may get a weird sensation that your nose is displaced from your body, or that your nose has grown super long. It is also possible that you might experience both of these outcomes!” (here you find another description with an illustration)
Did you try it and succeeded to enlarge your nose? Then you have enlarged your nose without telling a lie. In fact, it’s a way to become Pinocchio without lying. But, alas, it’s an illusion; your nose didn’t change and stayed as short or long as it was before you applied the trick. You simply confused your brain. The trick made your brain think that your nose became longer, while in fact nothing changed. Your nose doesn’t grow when you tell lies and it doesn’t grow when you apply psychological tricks. Nevertheless, you had the sensation that it did, and if you hadn’t known that you were applying a trick, you really would have thought that your nose had become longer.
There are many interpretations of the Pinocchio Illusion, but in the context of my blogs I think that this one is important. Besides the Pinocchio Illusion there are many other illusions that can mislead you, but I chose this one because it is clear and funny. In this case you know that you are deceiving yourself, but for many illusions you are not aware that they happen, if you are not told so, like the Muller-Lyer Illusion. Then you’ll probably think that the illusion is reality, and then fake has become fact for you. Things are no longer what they seem to be. If you then say that such and such is the case, this is not true, and so you are not telling the truth and so you are lying in a sense. You “lie” then, seriously thinking that you tell the truth. This can happen to everyone, including to politicians. If you mistakenly think that something is the case, but it doesn’t guide your actions, the consequences of this false belief are presumably limited. However, politicians like it to act and actions based on false beliefs can be fatal. Therefore, beware of politicians, for also when they don’t intentionally lie, their beliefs may be illusions. 

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Random quote
There is not a great deal of difference between a financier who puts big sounding concerns on the market which come to grief in a few years, and the politician who promises an infinity of reforms to the citizens which he does not know how to bring about, and which resolve themselves simply into an accumulation of Parliamentary papers.
Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

Monday, May 30, 2022

Doing justice

Maximilien-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre

Nowadays many people are highly indignant when people are prosecuted only because they use their right of freedom of expression; because they expose abuses by the state; or because they want to live their own lives without interference by higher authorities who consider them a threat for the state just because of this. In modern society, it is the individual that comes first and not the state. I became again aware of this, when I read Reflections on Violence by Georges Sorel, written more than a century ago; especially when I read chapter III-II, where Sorel explains why Robespierre used so much violence against his opponents. It made me clear that oppression by dictatorial regimes is not simply a matter of the exercise of power by tyrannical rulers in favour of themselves, but that it is a different way of thinking what is right. Since I think that it’s good to understand this other way thinking in order to be better able to fight against it, let me share with you what Sorel wrote.
Although in a democratic country, basically the state is subordinate to the individual, in France of the Old Régime, so in France before the Revolution of 1789, it was just the other way round: the individual was subordinate to the state. This meant that any action not supporting the state might be considered subversive and criminal. “One of the fundamental ideas of the Old Régime”, so Sorel, “had been the employment of the penal procedure to ruin any power which was an obstacle to the monarchy. … [P]enal law … was a protection granted to the chief and to a few privileged persons whom he honoured with special favour … and … the courts of justice [were] considered as instruments of royal greatness. … The king constantly demanded of his courts of justice that they should work for the enlargement of his territories. … Justice, which seems to us nowadays created to secure the prosperity of production, and to permit its free and constantly widening development, seemed created in former days to secure the greatness of the monarchy: its essential aim was not justice, hut the welfare of the State.” [italics by Sorel] And so it could happen that feudal manors were confiscated for arbitrary motives, or that individual acts were not judged from the point of view, whether the individual had the right to act so but whether they undermined the state. The State, not the individual, was central in law.
The French Revolution didn’t simply change this mentality. Such a mentality doesn’t simply change by a regime change. After the fall of the Old Régime the new leaders came from the same social layer of dignitaries that had applied the law before the Revolution. (also Robespierre was a lawyer) So, although the regime had changed, much remained the same. The ideas changed but the mentality didn’t. Following Sorel again: “The Revolution piously gathered up [the old] tradition that gave an importance to imaginary crimes …; it seemed quite natural to explain the defeats of generals by criminal intentions, and to guillotine people who had not been able to realise hopes fostered by a public opinion, that had returned to the superstitions of childhood. … [N]owadays it is not easy to understand how a citizen can be seriously accused of plotting or of keeping up a correspondence with foreign powers or their agents in order to induce them to begin hostilities, or to enter into war with France, or to furnish them with the means therefor. Such a crime supposes that the State can be imperilled by the act of one person; this appears scarcely credible to us. Actions against enemies of the king [before the Revolution] were always conducted in an exceptional manner; the procedure was simplified as much as possible; flimsy proofs which would not have sufficed for ordinary crimes were accepted; the endeavour was to make a terrible and profoundly intimidating example.” All this was also found in the new legislation after 1789, for example, as quoted by Sorel: “The proof necessary to condemn the enemies of the people is any kind of document, material, moral, verbal or written, which can naturally obtain the assent of any just and reasonable mind. Juries in giving their verdict should be guided solely by what love of their country indicates to their conscience; their aim is the triumph of the republic and, the ruin of its enemies.” [italics by Sorel]
So, although the Old Royal Regime had fallen and the citizens had taken power, this didn’t involve as yet a transition to a modern democratic state. Far from that. The regime had changed, but the personnel hadn’t. In a sense it was old wine in new bottles. After a promising start, soon the mentality of the Old Régime returned, leading to much chaos and bloodshed and to Napoleon’s restoration of the former autocratic France. It was a new “Cult of the State” (Sorel). The Old Régime had been replaced by a “democratic despotism”, in which “the Government would have been in theory the representative of everybody, controlled by an enlightened public opinion; practically it was an absolute master.” (Tocqueville)
Once I had read this section of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, it was easy to see the similarities with present dictatorships. Then I think in the first place of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. You can see the same phenomena (less so, but they clearly are there) in several Eastern European countries. Also in countries like the Netherlands and modern France still relics of the old state mentality have been left. Comparing the Russian regime change in 1991 with the French Revolution: After the fall of the Soviet Union, first there was a period of (economic) chaos and then Putin’s Restoration followed. Look how there organisations that receive foreign money are considered “foreign agents”. Look how the press is curbed by the state. The structure of the country has changed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the same personnel stayed and by that the Soviet mentality. Also in many other countries the state continuously tries to subject the individual. The Old Régime mentality keeps reigning everywhere. Often the law of the individual is still subordinate to the law of the state, while it should be the other way round. 

All quotations are from section III-II in Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Random quote
One must be very simple to suppose that the people who would profit by the demagogic dictatorship would willingly abandon its advantages.
Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

Monday, May 23, 2022

How to become a dictator

Everyone should read the newest book by the French neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik. Recently, I saw an interview on the French TV in which Cyrulnik talked about his book and although I had something else to do, I couldn’t stop watching till the program had ended. The book is basically about inner freedom and voluntary servitude. This duality and the way you develop into one direction or the other makes that the book is about how you become the person you are. However, it also helps understand the rise of new dictatorships in this world, after a period in which democracy had been spreading. And just this aspect makes that the book is not only important to understand yourself but that it is also politically relevant. In view of the present war in Ukraine, which is actually a fight between a new democracy and a new dictatorship – the latter is new after a short democratic intermezzo –, it is not surprising that just this aspect of the book has drawn my attention. It’s not mere chance that you can interpret the book this way, for Cyrulnik’s personal experience as a Jewish child that survived the Second World War is continuously in the background of this book, which can also be seen as Cyrulnik’s way to understand these experiences. The book is so rich in ideas and analyses that I cannot do justice to it in this blog. Therefore – with the Russia-Ukraine War in my mind – I’ll pick one aspect of it: How to become a dictator.
When talking of dictators, I think that now most people will think of the Russian president Putin, but the tricks I am going to present exist already since it has become possible to manipulate your public and followers with the help of modern media. So, maybe Hitler and Mussolini were the first dictators who used them, but here there is no need to discuss about this historical question. Modern dictators mentioned by Cyrulnik are the ayatollahs in Iran, Putin in Russia and the Turkish president Erdoğan, although, to my mind, the latter is not yet a fully-fledged dictator, for in Turkey there is yet so much democracy left that it is still possible to stop Erdoğan. I want to add to these names the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, although also in Hungary it is still possible to stop his dictatorial manipulations by democratic means; even more so than in Turkey.
Most modern dictators or semi-dictators like those just mentioned didn’t get their power by a kind of coup d’état. Hitler, Putin, Erdoğan and Orbán were all elected by normal democratic procedures. Only once in power they made the steps to a dictatorship by misusing their power or by manipulation. It’s also not so that statements by future or settled dictators are not true, like statements that, for example, they have “saved” the country. The point is that dictators use such true or false statement to pretend to have reasons to break the law, to suppress the freedom of the press, to manipulate the people, to form an inner circle of supporters in order to undermine the democratic rules and institutions, to establish their personal power, and to eliminate their political opponents (event by arresting or killing them), despite the presence of laws that protect democracy and especially legally protect their opponents.
What then must a politician do to try to become a dictator? Here is Cyrulnik’s recipe:
- Say “I will be your hero”.
- Say “I am prepared to die for you”.
- Use simple words and use often the word “people”.
- Make popular allusions and insinuations, but not too many. Just for rhetoric reasons and for showing that you don’t belong to the “arrogant elite”.
- Say that there is a domestic enemy (the traitor) or a foreign enemy (like immigrants or a foreign power), and when doing so sustain your words with much drama like an opera singer dying on the stage killed by another singer.
- Finish your speech with words like: “If you want that I liberate you, obey me, follow me, vote for me.”
Present yourself as the liberator, speak the language of the people, promise fantastic results, make the people enthusiast and say that you are going to free them from the humiliations by others and from the corruption of those in power. Then, once you have been elected, you can begin to undermine democracy in favour of yourself and your future dictatorship. How? There are many who can show you the way, like Orbán, Erdoğan and Putin. 

Boris Cyrulnik, Le laboureur et les mangeurs de vent. Liberté intérieure et confortable servitude. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2022; esp. pp. 96-99.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Random quote
Repression itself produces the counter-forces that will eventually defeat its instigators.

Willem Frederik Wertheim (1907-1998) 

Monday, May 16, 2022


1914 *)

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin**),
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.

For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

Wilfred Owen

*)   Read: 2022
**) Read: Moscow


Thursday, May 12, 2022

Random quote
If he is of an exalted temperament, and if, unfortunately, he finds himself armed with a great power, allowing him to realize an ideal he has forged, the optimist can lead his country to the worst catastrophes.

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

Monday, May 09, 2022

War rhetoric

Peace Palais in The Hague, Netherlands, the seat of one of the
international courts of justice in this town that tries to combat
 war and its excrescences. 

Gradually the words of the politicians of the parties involved in the Russia-Ukraine War become harder. For instance, some time ago the American president Biden called the Russian president Putin a killer and recently he called him a war criminal. Now it is so that pres. Biden is a free citizen and like any citizen of the USA he is free to express his opinion. However, pres. Biden is not just a citizen of his country, but he is a political leader who has responsibilities towards his country, especially bringing welfare and peace there. Is it therefore right to call his political opponent a war criminal, even though and even if there are good reason to think so?
Let me first say something about the term “war criminal”. “War criminal”, or rather “war crime”, is a legal term. I’ll not go into detail here, but what a war crime is, has been determined by international treaties and law, like the Geneva Conventions. In short, it is a superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering inflicted upon an enemy like wilful killing, extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity, deliberately targeting civilians, deliberately killing innocent civilians, etc. If there is a suspicion that a war crime has been committed, the International Criminal Court in The Hague can start an investigation and prosecute the suspected offender. Recently, the Court has started such an investigation in Ukraine in order to find out whether war crimes have been committed there (by both sides). So, at the moment the case is, what we call, sub judice. However, judicially it still has to be proven that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine and who the offenders are. When a case is sub judice, it is common practice that politicians refrain from making statements about it in order not to influence the investigation and the verdict. Therefore, politicians like pres. Biden should not say whether pres. Putin is a war criminal or isn’t.
So far the juridical side. However, there are also practical reasons not to call pres. Putin a war criminal. Some people may not think so, but we need politicians for many reasons. Restricting myself to the present Russia-Ukraine War, it is their task to bring this war to a decent end. As president Zelensky of Ukraine stresses again and again, this war can end only with negotiations. But who wants to negotiate with a war criminal? Can you make it to negotiate with a war criminal? Of course not. You talk only with a war criminal, if it is the easiest way to get the person in prison. In other words, calling Putin a war criminal makes negotiations to end this war impossible. That’s why you shouldn’t do so, even if you think he is. That’s why, for example, neither pres. Zelensky nor pres. Macron of France does so.
In addition, calling Putin a war criminal can also backfire on the war and even prolong fighting and atrocities. There is a psychological effect that people accused of bad behaviour may shield themselves off from the accusations instead of getting the insight that they are on the wrong way. They can even become proud of what they are doing. Accusations of bad behaviour can also make that they are just supported in their behaviour by their inner circles (who often also are implicated in the crimes). This can make that war criminals not only continue their crimes but even increase them, because they don’t give a damn about what others say. So, war crime accusations can lead to more war crimes.
Calling Putin a war criminal, and, sadly enough, also the investigations, whether war crimes have been committed by the Russian army, can also backfire in another way. As Joseph Wright and Abel Escribà-Folch write in The Conversation: “Leaders who face the prospect of punishment once a conflict ends have an incentive to prolong the fighting. And a leader who presides over atrocities has a strong incentive to avoid leaving office, even if that means using increasingly brutal methods – and committing more atrocities – to remain in power. When losing power is costly, leaders may be more likely to fight to the death”, like when they risk to be prosecuted for war crimes.
In view of all this, it is important that politicians should moderate their words when involved in a war, certainly in a war like the Russia-Ukraine War that will be difficult to end, as it seems now. Hard words, like calling Putin a war criminal, will make this war last longer and will make it difficult to solve the conflict. But what we see is that the rhetoric becomes harsher and harsher. Now pres. Biden and others say that Russia must be weakened, but an analysis like the one just given will make clear that also this statement probably will make that the war will last longer. Do I want to say then that Western politicians must keep their mouth shut? Of course not. They must say what their limits are, and I think they have said so already clear enough: Western democracy, for short, and the internationally accepted borders, like the borders of Ukraine and the other European countries with Russia. This plus real support to Ukraine is a clear sign. To my mind, by starting this war, Russia has weakened itself already so much that it will need a long time to recover. Why then spend words on it that only will make the problem bigger? Politicians must solve problems, not make them. They must bring problems to a good end and find decent solutions, once problems are there.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Random quote
The fame of great men ought always to be estimated by the means used to acquire it.
François Duc De La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

Monday, May 02, 2022

Killing in war

Malinowski on Trobiand Isles, 1917/1918 (Source)

Hundred years ago the First World War (1914-1918) had just ended. Then it was called the Great War. It was one of the cruellest wars ever in number of victims. How many people died because of this war is not known and figures vary from about 10 till 20 million people dead. Let’s say that 15 million people died because of this war, half of them being soldiers, half of them being civilians. In those days – it was in 1917 or 1918 – the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski had a conversation with a cannibal on the Trobriand Islands. This is what Malinowski tell us about it:

“I remember talking to an old cannibal who from missionary and administrator had heard news of the Great War raging then in Europe. What he was most curious to know was how we Europeans managed to eat such enormous quantities of human flesh, as the casualties of a battle seemed to imply. When I told him indignantly that Europeans do not eat their slain foes, he looked at me with real horror and asked me what sort of barbarians we were to kill without any real object.” (Source)

I think that the cannibal was right.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Random quote
Socratic wisdom can be best reached by sympathetic insight into the lives and viewpoints of others.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942)

Monday, April 25, 2022

Terror in war

Hiroshima, Japan, Atomic Bomb Dome

Terror is an often-happening phenomenon both in daily life and in war, but what actually is terror? I’ll try to explain this with the help of Peter Sloterdijk’s Luftbeben (especially pp. 7-28) plus my own ideas (without separating which ideas are his and which are mine).
The word “terror” goes back to the France Revolution. It’s used to indicate the period of extreme violence and massacres of the first years of the revolution, between 1789 and 1794. The attempts and murders by anarchists at the end of the 19th century and during the first years of the 20th were a second period of terror in Europe. The best-known case is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914. However, following Sloterdijk, the present idea of terror goes back to an event in the First World War (WW1) on 22 April 1915. On that day, near Ypres in Belgium, the German army launched the first large-scale gas attack in war against the French and Canadian troops on the other side of the front line. The front line broke, but the Germans didn’t succeed to take advantage of this local victory. However, by this attack the Germans introduced a new phenomenon in war: terror; a phenomenon that would not be limited to acts of war against enemy soldiers, but soon it would be directed also against civilians, and soon it would be practiced also by those who were no regular soldiers.
The new gas weapon was not a new weapon as any other new weapon, such as, for instance, the tank, which appeared in 1916 in WW1 on the battlefield. No, it was substantially different, for while till then (see note 1) fighting in war was directed against the person of the enemy soldier, now a weapon had been developed that attacked the environment of the soldier. Killing the enemy became indirect. Moreover, there was another effect: fear. Often, a gas weapon didn’t kill the soldier, but it made him suffer for a long time (some soldiers died many years after the war from a gas attack during WW1); or it could make him blind. Moreover, you often didn’t know whether the gas was there; it could be invisible or you could hardly smell it, if you could. It was quite abstract compared with a gun. You never knew where it was and whether it was there. The fear of the fear became bigger than the fear of the weapon itself, so to speak. Also the French and British forces developed gas weapons during WW1 and also Hitler became a gas victim and he was blind for some time. Was it why he refused to use chemical weapons in World War 2, fearing that he, too, could be hit again, if the enemy would use them, too? Was it why he used gas to murder the Jews?
So the essence of terror is not so much that it kills people but that it kills their environment; literally, as chemical weapons do, or psychologically, in the sense that people become afraid of places where an invisible enemy or weapon might kill you. The weapon is invisible for you, and you cannot notice that it is there. You have no idea from which direction an attack can come and in extreme cases you even don’t know whether there is a weapon or whether there isn’t. Terror is invisible like a ghost: it’s not there and it’s there.
Since 22 April 1915 the weapon of terror has been further developed and increasingly used. It has been used against soldiers but even more against civilians. During WW1, the Germans bombed London and other cities in England and the French and English bombed German towns. The same happened during the Second World War. Also legal military objects like weapon factories were then attacked, but not only. Rather the civilian population was the target of the bombardments. A main idea behind these bombardments was: Surrender, for if you don’t, we’ll destroy your life world. Even if you survive, we’ll make life for you impossible. Also the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of that kind. Modern attacks by Islamic extremists on the Twin Towers, on cartoonists and so on are also terrorist attacks in the sense just described. They are not only meant as “punishments” of the persons killed or of the USA or of whoever else, but these attacks contain a message: We are everywhere, but you don’t know where we are or where we are not and we’ll kill you if you don’t stop to draw those cartoons that we don’t like or when you don’t accept our interpretation of the Islam. We’ll make your life impossible if you don’t accept our world view.
And that’s what we see now also in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Often civilian objects like houses, flats and residential quarters are hit by Russian missiles, bombs and grenades. There can be all kinds of reasons for that. The Russian army may think that there are military objects at the site targeted; the missile missed the target; it was a case of collateral damage; it was a mistake; etc. But often in this war hitting a civilian target is intentional. The message sent is: Surrender, for nowhere you are safe. Give in to our demands, for if you don’t, we’ll make your life impossible. When this happens, it’s pure terror. 

(1) Also before WW1, even in Antiquity, sometimes it has been tried to contaminate the environment, for instance by means of dead animal bodies, which was also a kind of terrorism. But the modern idea of terror goes back to WW1.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Random quote
When a scheme simplifies a situation to better explain it, a slogan gives a certainty that stops the thought.

Boris Cyrulnik (1937-)

Monday, April 18, 2022

Preventing war crimes

Oradour-sur-Glane (F)

At the moment there is much to do about mass killings of civilians by Russian soldiers in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Soldiers who had retreated from the Kyiv region apparently have killed many innocent civilians during the weeks that they occupied the area. In other regions the Russian army has attacked apparently intentionally places where civilians live or where these had gathered in order to leave the war zone. Also this has made that many innocent civilians have been killed. In future, Bucha will be named in one line with Oradour-sur-Glane and Lidice. Also the Ukrainian army is not free from atrocities (see here), albeit it on a much smaller scale and albeit it that in this case the persons intentionally wounded or killed are not civilians but prisoners of war, so soldiers (which doesn’t make it less objectionable). There is great indignation at these facts (supposing that they are facts, and most likely they are), especially at the killing of civilians. Rightly, for intentionally killing innocent civilians and prisoners of war is a war crime. Now it is so that much can be said about why soldiers perform war crimes, but in the end soldiers have mortal weapons at their disposal, which they can or are ordered to use in certain circumstances, and this makes that they must be very aware of when and why to kill. In other words, maybe more than any other person a soldier must be a “moral agent”, so a person who is able “to refrain from behaving inhumanely [and who has] the pro-active power to behave humanly.” (Bandura) Following Aristotle in his Ethica Nicomachea, we can also say that a soldier must be a virtuous person who has the professional skilfulness to apply his virtues. A soldier must know what acting morally is and how to act morally. Which moral virtues then must a soldier possess? That’s what Plato tells us, who distinguishes four so-called cardinal virtues: Prudence (the ability to do the appropriate thing at the right time in the right situation), justice, temperance (moderation or self-restraint), and courage.
Now you may think that this is quite abstract and typically comes from the brain of a philosopher in his ivory tower. Then I can tell you that I found the idea that a soldier is a moral agent and the reference to Aristotle and Plato in this context in a textbook on military ethics written for classes of the Dutch Royal Military Academy. Apparently, also for soldiers nothing is more practical than a good theory. One practical problem is, however, that many soldiers don’t realize that they are moral agents and don’t behave that way, with the result of the possibility of war crimes, when soldiers are in situations that easily make them behave immorally. Even then many do behave morally but too many do not, with terrible consequences as we see now in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Nevertheless, war crimes can be prevented. To my mind, the essence of the methods to prevent war crimes and immoral behaviour is making soldiers aware of the problem during their training plus good leadership. The latter means that commanders at all levels must not be only aware of the problem, but they must also be attentive to the problem before, during and after an action. So education and awareness are the essence of preventing war crimes. But let’s look what the textbook on military ethics says about it, which is in fact an elaboration of what I just said. The book mentions four ways to prevent war crimes:
1) Application of national and international wartime offences acts. However, in war situations it is difficult to arrest war criminals; war crimes done by own soldiers are seen as less important; war criminals are often arrested only long after the act; and war criminals usually don’t think of the possibility of being arrested when committing their crimes. So the preventive effect of wartime criminal acts is often insufficient.
2) Education, training, learning skills and doing practical exercises how to apply what you have learned. So soldiers and commanders must be taught and trained to behave morally in difficult situations.
3) Soldiers must learn that it is something special to wear a uniform; that it’s an honour to wear a uniform; and that the crime of one soldier is seen by others outside the army as a crime done by the whole army.
4) Moral character building. Soldiers must learn which values are important to defend and which values the army stands for and he or she must be aware why s/he wants to defend them. The soldier must learn that there are situations in which “there is something worth living for that is more important than one’s own skin”.
Maybe war crimes can never be completely prevented, but they are not natural phenomena. Human beings must learn to behave morally, and they can. 

A.H.M. van Iersel, Th. A. van Baarda (red.), Militaire ethiek. Morele dilemma’s van militairen in theorie en praktijk. Budel: Damon; chapter 2. Quotes are from this chapter.