Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Max Weber once suggested our society was haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs. Sociology is more haunted than most. For the last century and a half of its existence, sociology has repeatedly told us that the rise of capitalism and decline of religion has left us lacking community and miserably alone. The great sociologists have found many different ways of describing the prison of modern isolation. Weber suggested we are trapped in ‘the iron cage’ of capitalist productivity; Emile Durkeim wrote that we have lost the capacity for ‘collective effervescence’ and are suffering from suicidal ‘anomie’; while Thorsten Veblen and Norbert Elias both insisted that we are imprisoned in an over-civilised concern for the approval of strangers. Our lives have become boxed-in and one-dimensional (Herbert Marcuse), our characters are corroded by the rat-race (Richard Sennett), we are cut off from nature and each other (Charles Taylor), we no longer dance together (Barbara Ehrenreich) or even go bowling together (Robert Putnam).
OK, we get it! We’re alone and depressed. So how do we get out of the iron cages we have constructed for ourselves. On that subject, sociology is oddly silent. Sociology, after all, is a social science, very prickly about its scientific status, and it’s not the job of science to lay out a grand moral vision. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx tried that, and it didn’t work. Science describes, it doesn’t prescribe. Thus sociology describes, very intelligently, the bars of our prison-cage.
From a certain perspective, sociology is itself part of the prison. Let me explain what I mean, with reference to that fascinating bundle of contradictions, Max Weber. What an interesting figure he is. Someone should make a film about him, starring Viggo Mortensen. Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage. His catchphrase could be: ‘It’s Weber time!’
Mad Max’s mother was a Calvinist religious enthusiast and his father was a worldly bureaucrat. They didn’t get on. Max spent his life working out the struggle between religious charisma and rational bureaucracy. His mother wanted Max to be religious too, but Max preferred the army and then academia. In 1897, he had an argument with his father, who then died, and this plunged Max into a suicidal depression – he seems to have had the same melancholic-enthusiast temperament as his mother. Except he didn’t come out of this emotional crisis religiously awakened. Instead, he threw himself into academic work and found a salvation of sorts there. For the rest of his career, he subjected religious phenomena to a pitiless rational analysis and classification, pounding it to death with his rubber-stamp, as if to revenge his dead bureaucrat father upon the irrational animist beliefs of his mother.
Weber’s great theme is the disenchantment of the modern world, and the historical shift from religious charisma to rational bureaucracy. A charismatic world-view – from the Greek charis, meaning gift – implies that God or the gods connect with humanity through the gifts of revelation and ecstasy. Yet over time, Weber suggested, the magic dust has seeped out of the world. In religion, the charisma of prophecy evolved into the rational religious ethic of priests. In politics, the charisma of tribal leaders evolved into the rational bureaucracy of civil servants. This might not sound much fun, indeed modernity may sound like an iron cage of rational technology, but we need to face up to this like adults, and accept that we live in an age without the consolation of gods, rather than taking flight into irrational mysticism like children.
Weber warned, in 1919, that young Germans were rejecting rationality and instead finding consolation in the ‘sterile excitation’ of revolutionary politics, and in ‘windbags…who intoxicate themselves with Romantic sensations’. This was dangerous. As Tina Turner put it, we don’t need another hero. You can see Max’ point – the politics of charismatic heroism cost millions of lives over the next thirty years. Yet Weber’s own more rational world-view has a potential flaw. Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that rational bureaucracy can become so focused on the smooth running of the machine, it loses sight of the ultimate end or telos that it was designed to serve. Life without any sense of passion, conviction, inspiration or faith becomes meaningless, a machine going round and round without a driver or a map.
This brings me to Weber’s thoughts on the role of the academic, which is something I’ve been pondering since coming back from Wales.
Weber discusses the role of the academic in a fantastic lecture he gave in 1919, called Science as a Vocation. He starts by telling the assembled students that he must disappoint them (modern life, for Weber, is one long disappointment, and maturity is accepting that). He is not going to unfurl some grand redemptive moral vision for them. That’s not the academic’s job. The academic is not a seer, nor a revolutionary. Their proper role is not to impose any particular ethical world-view (or ‘weltanshauung’) on their students, and they only render themselves ridiculous when they try to become ‘arm-chair prophets’.
Instead, the academic specializes, and bends over their own small square of scholarship like a monk. They ruthlessly suppress their own passions and prejudices, and subject their chosen topic to dispassionate critical analysis. They may feel the occasional throb of religious ecstasy or political outrage, but such feelings have no place in the sober rational analysis of academia. The academic excises everything personal – their character, their emotions, their convictions, their life.
This is not to say the academic is soulless. Far from it. The academic may feel a ‘vocation’, a ‘passionate devotion’ to their craft, an ‘enthusiasm, ‘inspiration’ or ‘intuition’ which has ‘nothing to do with cold calculation’. They may even feel a ‘frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’), a sort of academic ecstasy which Weber compares to the Pentecost – he speaks of the academic feeling a ‘strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider’. So even that cold fish, the modern academic, is still haunted by the ghost of dead religious beliefs – in this case, the old Renaissance ideal of the ecstatic Platonic scholar.
But what God or demon does this academic ecstasy serve? Academics, Weber suggests, are tiny cogs in the great ‘process of intellectualization’, which helps to disenchant the world and make us realize there are ‘no mysterious incalculable forces’, therefore we can ‘master all things by calculation’. Academics, then, have a vocation for disenchantment, a passion for the dispassionate. But as the academic sits wearily through yet another departmental meeting, they may wonder, does this long ‘process of intellectualization’ really make life better?
Weber is uncertain. He’s dismissive of those who think that science brings more meaning into our lives. ‘Who – aside from certain big children from the natural sciences – still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?’ He’s equally dismissive of those ‘big children in university chairs or editorial offices’ who think the progress of science makes us happier.
So what’s the point? It’s not for academics to say what the meaning of life is, what god or values we should serve. But Weber suggests academics can, at least, help to clarify what serving a particular god (or moral goal) would mean, and the sympathy or conflict between a particular world-view and empirical reality. An academic can be compared to a civil servant, who does not tell the Prince what values or ends to pursue, but explains the consequences and ramifications of any particular decision. The academic cannot, finally, tell us what god we should serve, and any choice involves a leap of faith.
From relationships to concepts
I have sympathy with this rather tortured position. I took a similar stance in Philosophy for Life, in which I explored various ethical world-views (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism etc) without forcing any particular one on the reader. I pursued the same tack when I taught the book as a course at Queen Mary. I also felt it was not for me to impose any particular ethical vision onto the students, other than the academic virtues of rigour, honesty and openness to criticism.
Yet what of my own beliefs and experiences, my own emotions and character, my own relationship to God (or the absence of God)? Are such concerns and experiences properly left out of academic work? Every academic faces the question of whether and to what extent to include their own feelings and experiences in their work, but a historian of emotion researching (and experiencing) ecstasy faces these questions in a particularly acute form!
C. Wright Mills, a great American sociologist who inspired many a Sixties radical, offers one solution. He tried to build a more engaged and ‘passionate’ model of academic work, where one works not just on one’s thesis, but on one’s character and society as well. He suggests academic research is ‘the most passionate endeavour of which a man is capable’ (tell that to your colleagues at the next departmental meeting).
Yet Wright Mills is also aware that passionate scholarship, or ‘felt knowledge’, has its pit-falls. In a review of James Agee’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which is about the suffering of farmers during the Great Depression), he applauds the book for its passion, its indignation, its ‘sociological poetry’. But he also criticises Agee for getting too ‘in his own way’, ‘obscuring the scene and the actors’, for being ‘over-whelmed’, ‘indulgent’ and gushing. In other words, if you’re going to include yourself and your own feelings in your work, you have to be able to hold yourself and your emotions at a critical distance, and consider when to put yourself ‘in shot’, when to leave yourself out.
All of that is very well, and useful for me as a writer. But we are still faced with the wider social question: how do we escape from the iron cage of our isolation and anomie, and build stronger communities? I am not sure sociology can be much help here, because its tools of rational analysis and critical distance are, perhaps, themselves somewhat inimical to community. The way to love your neighbour or wife is not by holding them at a critical distance. Sociology studies the bare ribs of community, but tells us nothing of the heart which once beat within it. It tells us everything we need to know about the concepts of ecstasy, caritas, bonding and love, except what they feel like.
Weber praises Plato for inventing academia, for inventing the rational concept, and turning religion (man’s relationship with a living, breathing God) into theology (the articulation of abstract concepts). That achievement, he says, was when the long process of intellectualization and disenchantment began. All the -ologies that academics serve grew from Plato’s invention of theology, and are part of that same evolution from living relationships to abstract concepts. But was that not a terrible falling off? Can a concept love you? Can the concept of community keep you warm at night?
Did you make it this far? Well done!
Here’s an article on baking and its benefits for mental health, which should be headlined Knead You Tonight, but isn’t.
Here’s a new study from the Maudsley of CBT for psychosis-like experiences in children. It suggests that ‘over half of children in the general population report unusual or psychosis-like experiences’. Surely, then, they’re not…er…unusual? Personally I had a toy Papa Smurf that spoke to me and there was absolutely nothing weird about that. Right, Papa Smurf? (He’s nodding.) Also here’s an episode of RadioLab about hearing voices.
Todd Kashdan and Robert Diesner-wotsit wrote an article about what happy people do differently for Psychology Today.
The Church of England is growing in London, as this video and report explores. Humanist communities are growing too – I’m playing the drums at Sunday Assembly this Sunday (then going to church after…It’s all good!)
Here’s a brilliant New York Times magazine article about Jason Everman, and his journey from Nirvana to Soundgarden to the US Special Forces to a Bachelors in philosophy.
I saw Bruce Springstreen perform last Sunday. It was amazing. Here’s a former captain of England’s cricket team on why he’s seen the Boss perform more than 70 times. And here, on the excellent blog ‘Rock and Theology’, a theologist ponders how the Spirit is so strong in Bruce, despite him not being a Christian.
I had a big break in my journalism career last weekend, with this cover story in the Telegraph Weekend. Thanks to the Telegraph team for that.
Finally, let’s end with some ecstasy for the weekend. Here’s a track from Daft Punk’s new album, called Giorgio by Moroder, which is a song and also an interview with synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder. I love its combination of historical education and musical ecstasy – good combo!
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
He’s thus one of several English philosophers (AC Grayling, John Gray, Alain de Botton) currently trying to re-invent religion for a secular age. I’m not certain his attempt will be more successful than these earlier attempts, but before we criticize the project, let’s first outline his argument, because it’s certainly interesting.
1) Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology
Firstly, Critchley argues that all modern political ideology involves a reformulation or metamorphosis of the sacred. In this he follows the German philosopher and ardent Nazi, Carl Schmitt, who wrote in an influential 1922 essay, ‘Political Theology’, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.
The Age of Reason might have congratulated itself on doing away with the old superstition of Christianity and the Divine Right of Kings. But Enlightenment political philosophies simply created new ‘sacred fictions’ to put in the old gods’ place: The People (or Volk), the Fuhrer, Representative Democracy, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand, and so on.
So, for example, American democracy is built on the strange Deism of the Freemasons / Illuminati. The Invisible Hand, meanwhile, was taken by Adam Smith from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – at the end of the play Oedipus is carried up by an invisible hand to the Gods. Sophocles took the image from the ancient fertility myth of Demeter. So an image that originally symbolised the divine power of Nature over human affairs came to be used to symbolise the divine power of the Market.
In seeing Enlightenment politics as competing ‘sacred narratives’, Critchley follows John Gray, who made a similar critique of neoliberalism as a Utopian religion in his 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. It’s also, interestingly, in line with the recent work of the social scientist Jonathan Haidt, which has looked at how different political narratives of the sacred push different emotional buttons within our psyches. Haidt wrote last year:
The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
2) Rousseau’s civil religion
The Enlightenment philosopher who best understood the irrationalism of politics and the need for a conscious reformulation of the sacred was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau understood, better than most Enlightenment philosophers, that man “consults solely his passions in order to act”. The challenge of passionate politics (as Rousseau sees it) is how to transform a handful of alienated and selfish individuals into a mystically fused whole, in which no citizen is subordinated to any other, because all are united in the General Will. How can this mystical transformation happen? Rousseau writes in his Considerations on the Government of Poland: “Dare I say it? With children’s games: spectacles, games, and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’”. As Critchley notes, this idea “had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fetes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution”.
Rousseau was also the only Enlightenment political philosopher to follow Plato in seeing music as absolutely crucial to the formation of the national soul. In his ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages, Melody and Musical Imitation’, he blamed the decay of melody for the loss of political virtue, and expressed some hesitant hope that music might be revived and once again used as an organ to shape the national genius. Again, Rousseau’s Romantic nationalism was prescient, anticipating not just the importance of the Marseillaise and of national anthems in general to 19th century Romantic nationalism, but also the zenith of Romantic nationalism in the Nazi regime’s use of Wagner.
The crucial ‘fiction’ in Rousseau’s civil religion is the fiction of the legislator, an almost superhuman Leader who will guide the people to their mystical oneness in the General Will. The Leader is a ‘superior intelligence who saw all of man’s passions and experienced none of them, who had no relation to our nature yet knew it thoroughly” – not a man, so much as a God.
While one can applaud Rousseau’s prescience in understanding the power of the passions in politics, his plan for a civil religion is also a little chilling, bringing to mind Robespierre’s Dictatorship of Virtue and, even more, Goering’s Myth of Hitler, which likewise relied heavily on grand festivals, parades, games, music and cinema. Critchley admits: “It would seem there is little to prevent the legislator from becoming a tyrant, from believing that he is a mortal god who incarnates the General Will. Such is the risk that is always run when politics is organized around any economy of the sacred”.
Another risk of this politics of the sacred, of course, is that the politics of national ecstasy quickly turns into a bad trip of paranoia and bloodletting: Woodstock mutates into Altamont. To keep the people ‘high’, to keep the national festival going, at some point you need to start finding scapegoats to murder.
Critchley recognises the risk of bloody totalitarian dictatorship is a bit of a problem with Rousseau’s politics. He notes that the French philosopher Alain Badiou is happy to follow Rousseau and advocate violent dictatorship. Badiou writes: “Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of political will.” But Critchley, noble fellow, decides this “is a step I refuse to take”. So if a cult of the Fuhrer doesn’t appeal, what other models are there of passionate politics?
3) John Gray’s passive nihilism
Critchley’s search for what Wallace Stevens called an ‘acceptable fiction’ – some myth we can believe in even when we know it’s not true – brings him onto similar terrain as John Gray, whose new book, The Silence of Animals, also quotes Stevens heavily and is also a search for a myth we can believe in. But Critchley wittily rejects Gray’s sacred narrative:
[Gray’s pessimism] leads to a position which I call ‘passive nihilism’…The passive nihilist looks at the world with a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening, or, as was the case with the aged Rousseau’ botany. In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling into a meaning. In the face of the coming decades, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge… Nothing sells better than epigrammatic pessimism….
4) Mystical anarchism
So what form would Critchley’s more positive and optimistic politics take? He looks to medieval Millenarian anarchist movements, like the People’s Crusade of the 11th century and the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit of the 14th century. He uses Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium as a source, and notes the power of various self-proclaimed Messiahs – Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, John of Leyden – “to construct what Cohn calls…a phantasy or social myth around which a collective can be formed”.
Once again, there are some risks to such Millenarial movements: like the French Revolution or the Nazi regime, the fires of political ecstasy were stoked by identifying scapegoats and declaring a Holy War on them. Violence, Critchley notes, “becomes the purifying or cleansing force through which the evil ones are to be annihilated”. But Critchley hopes to build an ‘ethical anarchism’ that rejects such violence, or rather, than seeks to violently annihilate the self, rather than the Other. He looks to Marguerite Porete, a mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, and how she tried to annihilate herself to become one with God. He’s also interested in Christine the Astonishing, who also tried to annihilate herself: “she threw herself into burning-hot making ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days”. Astonishing indeed.
We might simply reject such movements as Medieval nuttiness, but Critchley sees them as anticipating modern anarchist movements, particularly the Paris Commune, and the Situationism of Paris 1968. He doesn’t discuss the Occupy movement, but it also struck me as having something of the Millenarial uprising to it, not least in its occasional Woodstock-esque emphasis not on process reform but on a radical transformative politics of love. This is what Critchely is groping towards. He writes: “love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty and engage with its own annihilation”. Mystical anarchism, then, is an annihilation of the self and an attempt at the ‘infinite demand’ of love – not of God, but of one’s fellow men.
Critchely also explores St Paul’s writings at length, partly through the interpretations of Heidegger and Alain Badiou, and sees in Paul a role model of sorts for the Utopian anarchist in late capitalism, longing for another world which is not present, and suffering in anguish in a fallen world that is so alien to one’s desires. And yet Paul somehow manages to hope, to believe and have faith in the not-yet, which is an attitude that the mystical anarchist also clearly needs.
6) Critchley’s spat with Zizek
The last chapter summarises an argument Critchley has been having with Slavoj Zizek, who is supposedly one of the top ten thinkers in the world, according to Prospect magazine’s new poll (if anything exposes the limits of representative democracy, it is that assertion). Zizek sees Critchely’s politics of anarchist protest (for example, his advocation of protest against the Iraq War) as simply playing into the hands of the ruling regime. It makes the protestors feel better, and even helps the regime by giving the appearance of lively liberal disagreement.
Zizek by contrast, in Critchley’s words, asserts that “the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby”. Go to bed, like John and Yoko. However, Zizek also dreams of “a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed”. Yikes. Stay in bed Slavoj!
Critchley rejects this position, arguing it involves a misinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. This seems a weird reason to reject it: surely one can reject it simply because it’s evil? Why is Walter Benjamin suddenly granted biblical authority? Critchley can sometimes get lost in critical theory’s jargon and guru-worship, and not see the ethical wood for the semantic trees. I’m glad he rejects Badiou’s call for a Maoist dictatorship, for example, but why does he still quote Badiou so reverently? He called for a Maoist dictatorship! Why quote Carl Schmitt at such length, without fully spelling out quite what a book-burning Nazi anti-Semite he was? Critchley comes across as a sympathetic and decent voice (I have no idea how the man actually lives) but the philosophers he looks to (Rousseau, Heidegger, Schmitt, Badiou, Lacan) hardly inspire confidence in the ethical authority of philosophers. You sometimes feel Critchley is too reverent before charlatan bullshit merchants like Lacan, that he lacks common sense, lacks Orwell’s ability to see through intellectual bullshit and to recognise a scoundrel when he sees one.
7) Problems with Critchley’s politics of the sacred
My main problem with Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless – similar to my problem with Gray’s new mythology – is that, for an attempt at a ‘passionate politics’, it is far too intellectual, tepid and, well, theoretical. Take this passage, where he attempts to formulate his faith of the faithless:
Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.
How is such airy-theory ever going to inspire an ecstatic popular uprising? The problem, I think, is that both Critchley and Gray are trying to construct a faith or myth and give it sacred power, but for a myth to have that power, you have to really believe it. You can’t just suspend your disbelief. This is the major difference between Critchley and St Paul or Christine the Astonishing. The latter two were perfectly happy to risk their lives for their sacred narratives, because they really believed in Jesus and in the after-life and so were happy to give up the world, even to see the world destroyed. And, crucially, they didn’t think it was possible to meet the ‘infinite demand’ of love without God’s help. They are weak, but God is strong. Critchley embraces Paul’s sense of human weakness, but is not capable of accepting the idea of God’s strength, which renders the ‘infinite demand’ of love even harder to meet. This, to my mind, is a problem with humanism in general: how to meet the infinite demand of ‘love thy neighbour’. I think Tobias Jones may be right: it is much easier to love thy neighbour when you have a common God above you and within you. Beneath modern cosmopolitanism, after all, is the Stoics’ sacred belief that we are all citizens of the City of God.
More broadly, do Critchley or Gray really believe their myths, or are they just playing? What are they prepared to sacrifice for them? Likewise, what are the followers of De Botton’s Religion for Atheists prepared to sacrifice, other than the occasional Sunday morning? It all seems very post-modern, very cafe-cosmopolitan, ironic, safe, non-committal, and a million miles away from either medieval Millenarianism or modern fascism or Jihadism. It seems like cafe chat. Talk is cheap.
My second issue with this new postmodern embrace of religious myth is this: let’s say you succeed in creating a Supreme Fiction which people really do believe in, which pushes their sacred emotion buttons and mobilises a mass movement. How can you be sure that your new religion doesn’t veer into the orgy of scapegoat-sacrificing that previous ecstatic politics have veered into? How do you make sure your Woodstock doesn’t turn into Altamont? How do you make sure the leaders of this movement don’t start believing, as Hitler started to believe, that they really are the Messiah, the embodiment of the national genius, Wotan? As I said in my review of Gray’s book, myths are slippery things – they take hold of us and use us as vessels, like the alien face-suckers in Prometheus.
My final concern is that it seems like the Two Cultures are getting further and further apart. On the one hand, philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) seems to be rejecting the Enlightenment, rejecting liberal humanism, and looking to irrational and often violent religious myths for consolation and inspiration. On the other hand, the social sciences are informing a new ‘evidence-based politics’ – what Carl Schmitt would perhaps say as the deification of the Randomised Controlled Trial. The Two Cultures seem more and more incapable of talking to each other.
We need both! Critchley looks out into a bleak future likely to be characterized by “religious violence and environmental devastation”. In such a future, I am certain we will need good myths. But we also need a way to preserve scientific literacy and a respect for scientific evidence. That’s why I find Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics one optimistic meeting ground, bringing together both philosophers and social scientists. I think we should be wary of entirely rejecting Socratic humanism and completely embracing an irrationalist or Dionysiac politics. We are a generation that didn’t experience Nazism, and so have a more optimistic attitude to the politics of ecstasy. I like Dionysiac ecstasy as much as the next man, but I prefer it in church to a nationalist Fuhrer rally. As Eric Voegelin put it, don’t immanentize the eschaton.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
To talk about David Bowie, first we need to talk about Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher who, near the beginning of the 19th century, recognised that rationalism was undermining the mythical foundation of society – Christianity – without putting any new myths in its place. In Sartor Resartus, his unusual and wonderful book of 1830, he called for new myth-makers to form new stories, new images, new icons, which could hold society together and connect us to the divine. He initially thought poets could achieve this – they could be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, as Shelley put it. But Carlyle decided later in his career that what society really needed were heroes – Byronic figures who, through the sheer strength and charisma of their personalities – could control historical events and command respect and obedience in the masses. He thought Napoleon was the last such Great Man of his time.
Looking back today, we can see the potential dodginess of Carlyle’s thinking. He seems to be arguing that the only thing which can hold society together is some sort of emperor-cult, some irrational worship of a military hero. He ignores the message, in Jesus and Socrates, that the kingdom of heaven is within us – not in external forms and icons to be worshipped. His ideas were bad, but prophetic: in the 20th century, the cult of Napoleon evolved into the Cult of Hitler, the Cult of Stalin, the Cult of Mao, the Cult of Kim Jong-Il, the Cult of Putin – though historians will dispute whether these strong men really held their society together, or rather blocked their progress and tore them apart. They certainly didn’t connect them to the divine, if that’s what Carlyle thought would happen.
Luckily, western democratic societies took a different path from dictator-cults. Through no form of central planning, no grand vision, western societies discovered that the masses could be amused, placated and joined together by a different form of icon or hero: the celebrity entertainer. I think of Oscar Wilde as one of the first self-invented celebrity icons, and he developed his own theory of cult personalities: charismatic and dazzling people who give the masses an archetype to dream about, and a pattern to imitate. He created a cult for himself, changing his name, generating his own publicity, creating a legend around his life. He also discovered that celebrity icons, unlike dictators, are easily disposable. We can smash them and find new ones, to assert our power, we, the people. This is fun for us, less fun for the celebrities.
A few years after Wilde died, the mass manufacture of celebrity icons took off with the rise of the dream factory, cinema, and of mass icons like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Yet, even with the arrival of sound and a new generation of stars like Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, cinema only allowed a certain amount of immersion. You could go to the cinema repeatedly, collect magazines and photographs of your favourite star, but there was still something of an emotional separation – compared to the old cult of Christianity or violent new cults like Fascism.
Then rock music happened. It was a total immersive art form, particularly live, combining music, poetry, theatre, dance, art, design and costume and, later, film, video and animation. Suddenly, a handful of rock stars were plugged into the cultural mainframe and channeling the dreams and desires of the masses. Through radios, TVs, walkmans and now iPods, they had a direct line to the national psyche further and deeper than any communist dictator.
This was a shock for everyone – especially the rock stars. There was no planning, no grand vision. Intellectuals, the guardians of high culture, were particularly miffed, because they thought they were the keepers of the nation’s soul, and then suddenly these young men – teenagers really – came along and commanded such utter adulation. And no one gave much of a damn about poets, playwrights and novelists any more. Power had been passed over, to a small group of young musicians who were not prepared for it. There was a moment in 1956, for example, when Enoch Powell was on an evening talk show with Bill Haley. And after the show Powell went up to shake his hand. Him, Enoch Powell, a man of such high culture that, when he was on Desert Island Discs, every one of his song selections was from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. ‘Why did I want to shake his hand?’ Powell said when asked. ‘He is the most influential character of our age.’
Elvis Presley found himself subjected to the most intense religious adulation, and he couldn’t handle it. Then Bob Dylan found himself seized upon as ‘the voice of a generation’. And he couldn’t deal with it either. Watch him in interviews, as fans and journalists try to get him to pronounce on society like he was Jesus or Marx. It’s intensely uncomfortable for a young singer in his 20s, utterly unprepared for such epic cultural influence to be placed on his shoulders. So he disappeared, and converted to Christianity. He decided that ‘you gotta serve somebody’, and he’d rather serve God than have people bow to him. He thought the rock cult was inane. As he told two pestering fans in 1965: ‘If you needed my autograph I’d give it to you.’
The Beatles and the Stones were also subject to intense quasi-religious hysteria, teenage girls competing with each other in their screams, wetting themselves, so that rivers of urine flowed down between the seats (I’m not making that up). They were also wooed by politicians (the Beatles in particular) who recognised that, abruptly, rock stars wielded far more cultural power than politicians or anyone else for that matter. They could instigate cause riots, even topple governments.
And they were also pondered over by intellectuals, the guardians of high culture. Look, for example, at this video of Mick Jagger, being interviewed by a bishop, a judge, and the editor of the Times. They’re trying to figure him out, but he’s just as surprised and unprepared himself to be channeling the dreams of the masses. He’s not so much an unacknowledged legislator as an unqualified one. As Kanye West would put it 40 years later: ‘No one man should have all that power‘ (particularly not a loveable dufus like Kanye…)
The rise of pop to the heights of unchallenged cultural influence presented a challenge to the old intelligentsia. It was a cultural revolution, less bloody but no less powerful than the cultural revolution occurring at the same time in China. It was a revolution of hierarchies. Suddenly, teenagers were empowered and low culture – pop stars – was raised on high. They had the public’s attention. Their art was the art that was really soaking into and shaping the nation’s psyche. So how should the old guard react to this?
Pop music and the Culture Wars
From the 1960s to the 1990s, if you were an intellectual, your attitude to pop music decided which side of the barricade you were on in the Culture Wars. On one side of the barricade were those who decided that pop culture was worthy of serious academic attention, because, after all, culture is culture. Everything is culture – from toothpaste to Titian. Everything is part of our lives, and if explored intelligently it reveals interesting things about our social, emotional and economic attitudes. That was the idea behind Cultural Studies, a field arguably begun by George Orwell with his essay on Boys’ Weeklies, and then pioneered by the likes of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdidge, who wrote a famous book analysing the sub-culture of punk music. Later on, you had postmodernist critics like Camille Paglia declaring that Madonna was the leading feminist of our times, thanks to the saucy video for Justify My Love. The flowering of Cultural Studies led to all sorts of PhDs on Lady Gaga or Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or other pop artifacts.
On the other side were the brave defenders of High Art, protectors of The Canon, people like Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom and Roger Scruton, who insisted that we have lost any sense of the hierarchy of the good. Our tastes have become debased. Allan Bloom wrote a famous chapter on pop music in his 1989 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he identified it as ‘the youth culture’ against which ‘there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit’. Pop is the triumph of narcissistic infantilism, Bloom suggests, which makes children the arbiters of society’s taste and gives them ‘everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for’. Pop burns people out, ruining their imagination, barbarising their emotions, and making it ‘very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education’. Roger Scruton is a little less harsh on pop, but only just. He also sees it as the triumph of infantilism, and criticises (in his book Modern Culture) the gross inarticulacy of Oasis lyrics (no argument from me there) and the crude angry robotics of ‘The Prodigy’s latest techno-slam’.
And, between these two extremes, there are a few intellectuals in the middle, who try to insist that there is good pop and bad pop, and to direct our taste to the good, so that we begin to ascend the ladder of taste. Such intellectuals insist that pop needn’t ruin our emotional and cultural palette, as long as we listen to good pop. Indeed, the best pop can be considered great art, some argue. This is the position of Christopher Ricks, one of the leading critics of poetry, who wrote a book on the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. It’s also the position of Tom Stoppard, probably my country’s greatest living writer, who celebrates the power of pop in his play Rock N’ Roll.
Which brings us to David Robert Jones, born in Brixton in the 1940s, who went to technical school to study art and design before surprising his parents by telling them he planned to be a rock star. And to me, he is the greatest British rock star there’s been. His body of work is unrivaled – for a decade he produced incredible albums, like Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Low, Station to Station, Space Oddity and Aladdin Sane. His lyrics are right up there with Morrissey and only just short of Dylan. His live shows were an incredible mix of dance, mime, costume and film, and Ziggy Stardust is one of the greatest concert movies made. But what really makes him the best British rock star, in my opinion, is that in his own songs, he conceptualises and comments on the cult of the rock star and its relationship to power, more intelligently than anyone before or since.
Bowie studied the cult of the rock star, hung out in Andy Warhol’s Factory – a sort of think-tank for the modern obsession with celebrity – and then went and made Hunky Dory (1971), an album in which he imagines homo sapiens being succeeded by a super-race of ‘pretty things’. The album contains two particularly interesting songs, Life On Mars and Quicksand. The former paints a scene of mass post-war culture as a sort of sordid spectacle put on at Butlins:
It’s on Amerika’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
If you want to watch him sing the words, here’s the vid
Then in Quicksand he thinks about the role of the rock star in this mass spectacle, as a conductor for the dreams and desires of the masses:
I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
I’m living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
No I ain’t got the power anymore
I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes
Living proof of Churchill’s lies
I’m destiny I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Should I kiss the viper’s fang
Or herald loud the death of Man
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore
Don’t believe in yourself
Don’t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death’s release
I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I’m living on
I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
This is pretty heady stuff – he’s suggesting the rock star is a Nietzchean or even fascist superman, while also sensing a void of nothingness beneath him. After that album, Bowie went out and lived his art, by creating a sort of fascist monster in the character of Ziggy Stardust, who walked out on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo to the theme from the Clockwork Orange, a totemic symbol on his face and on the wall behind him, and a mob of teenage imitators and worshippers screaming before him. It’s a performance-piece, a comment on celebrity culture, its power and nihilism. But the line between performance and reality rapidly became blurred, as Ziggy / Bowie became a global superstar. As he discusses in this BBC documentary from 1975, Ziggy took him over. He was no longer performing ironically.
So he killed Ziggy off, and then created a succession of other alter-egos: Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke. But they’re all, really, variations on the same theme of the celebrity ego and the hero-worship of the masses. They’re all riffs on that line from Ziggy: ‘Making love to his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind’. What other message is there, in terms of ethics or how to live, besides the worship of brute charisma? In the BBC documentary, Bowie reflects that Ziggy is about a guy who becomes ‘an almighty prophet-like superstar rocker who found he didn’t know what to do with it once he got it. It’s an archetype really.’
In other words, the real theme of Ziggy is the strangeness of our society giving so much power and cultural influence to these young, inexperienced and unqualified legislators of the world, who have nothing much to say apart from the glorification of ego, sex, fame, wealth and power. Perhaps that’s harsh. Bowie says he hopes his multiple personalities have also allowed people to express the different parts of themselves. And that’s what pop music has really taught us, over the last 50 years: that we can be ‘a million different people from one day to the next’. We can endlessly re-invent ourselves, like Madonna or Lady Gaga or Bowie. But we’ve learnt that now, and we already do it, on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else.
After strange gods
Meanwhile pop music seems to be getting more and more banal and brutal. Bowie was the best of it, and made haunting wonderful complex music. But now, there’s nothing avant-garde about Lady Gaga’s music. It’s the same brutal maximilist dance-pop as you hear in Rihanna or David Guetta or Flo Rida or any of today’s stars. Imagine being a teenager today when your emotional range is limited to that music. It reminds me of the line from George Orwell’s 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ That’s what every David Guetta single sounds like to me: a boot stamping on a human face forever. Bowie was at least aware of that (Diamond Dogs, his eighth album, is actually a musical version of 1984), and saw it coming . But we don’t need any more ironic commentaries on the cult of celebrity. We need something else, we need someone to lead us beyond it. I can’t help feeling the cult of the pop star might be wearing out. We don’t believe in it any more, and we have grown numb to the latest shocks. The age of the superstar is fading, to be replaced by a rapid shuffle of disposable stand-ins, and all we’re left with is the Cult of Me.
PS, I read that Bowie’s The Next Day is partly about a dictator, and is inspired by his interest in contemporary Russian history, so sounds like Bowie is interested in the Cult of Vladimir Putin…can’t wait to hear it!
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Plato thought a desire for honour and recognition was one of the driving forces in the human psyche. In The Republic, he presents his famous tripartite model of the psyche: we have a thinking faculty, which desires truth; a ‘spirited faculty’, which desires recognition; and a lower appetite, which desires food, comfort and money. In a well-ordered psyche, and a well-ordered society, these three human drives are all there, but in their proper hierarchy. Reason controls the other two drives and steers them in their proper direction, towards God.
This is the difference between Platonic and Stoic philosophy by the way – the Stoics thought that reason should completely overcome the passions, while Plato (and Plutarch, and Aristotle) thought the passions should rather be steered in a certain direction. I agree with Plato, for what it’s worth.
A sick psyche, and a sick society, is one in which one of the two lower drives has got the upper hand, and people become ruled by the desire for fame or money or luxuries, rather than the desire for truth and justice. Plato thought this was what had happened to his own society. He thought the Athenian Enlightenment had done away with the gods, and put the judgement of other people (or the Demos) in place of the judgement of God. His fellow Athenians had become obsessed with fame, status and reputation, with looking good to others, rather than being good. They put all their effort into their public image rather than their inner moral selves. They longed for fame and celebrity at any cost.
This pathological longing for fame reached an extreme during Plato’s lifetime, in the notorious case of a man called Herostratus. He was an arsonist who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world, a temple 120 years in the making, 400 foot long and 40 foot high. In his trial, Herostratus boasted that he did it so that his name would live forever. The Ephesians executed him, and also forbid anyone to mention his name, on pain of death, in an attempt to deny his wish.
Angie Hobbs suggests that the riots emerged not from shameless or amorality, but from a distorted value system, in which the lower goods of money and fame have become upper-most in our desires. This warped morality is not confined to the underclass. The rioters correctly ascertained that we live in a society in which honour is conferred to those with money, luxury and celebrity, and they sought those things through the most direct route. The value culture that celebrates these things is ubiquitous, from the Financial Times supplement ‘How To Spend It’, to the vain attention-seeking antics of politicians like Lembit Opik, George Galloway, Nadine Dorries or the Speaker’s wife, Sally Bercow, all the way down to street culture.
The good life in street culture
In street culture, we sometimes see the same desire for money and status as is found in general culture. It’s just more crudely exposed. If you look back to early rap in the 1980s, you can see the desire for basic material goods. In Eric B and Rakim’s Paid in Full (1987), for example, Rakim dreams of one day getting “a nice big plate of fish, which is my favorite dish, but without no money it’s still a wish”. It’s poignant in the simplicity of its desire, and sort of reminds me of post-war austerity Britain, where working-class families would dream of eating chicken.
Then gangster rap took off in the 1990s and rappers started making serious money. But even then, there is a sweet sort of innocence to their material dreams. Take the Notorious BIG, supposedly this gangster-dealer living the glamorous thug life, yet in his single Juicy (1994), he raps: ‘Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, when I was dead broke man I couldn’t picture this’. That’s the extent of your ghetto dream? You realise quite how poor Biggie must have been to get so excited about possessing two games consoles.
By the Noughties, rap had become the biggest-selling music in the world. Rappers graduated from aspiring to be gangsters to aspiring to be corporations, which I guess is a good thing. They worked out that the Mafia don’t run the world – Wall Street WASPs do. So the smarter rappers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams started dressing like WASPs and going on about their Versace pillows. You find rappers like Rick Ross rapping about their yachts and wine collection (‘spilling champagne or is it Merlot?’, asks Rick in one song, betraying a worrying lack of oenology).
The Economist would probably celebrate all this as Adam Smith’s invisible hand in operation – we long for the approval of others, so we slave away to make money and acquire status items, which is all to the good of the economy (ignoring the occasional riot). But the desire for money can, of course, become too dominant a part of our culture. So can the desire for fame and celebrity. I am a big fan of Tinie Tempah’s debut album, Disc-Overy, and of UK hip hop in general. The best of it – like Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal – is not amoral in the slightest. On the contrary, it extols the virtues of hard work and hard graft. Dizzee Rascal for example raps ‘don’t give it half-hearted, give it all, pull your socks up stand up tall…can’t run the marathon without training…whole lotta money little maintainin’, whole lotta complainin’, no plan.’ Norman Tebbit would be proud.
Tinie Tempah’s album is also a hymn to the human desire to make it, to rise above humble origins. Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu, as he is called, grew up in the Aylesbury estate in Walworth, and become rich and famous. Good for Patrick – he worked hard and he made it. But there’s a line in the song ‘Wonderman’ that makes me sad. He talks of how he was ‘bored of being nameless, bored of feeling local, when you walk up in the mall and can’t afford a pair of trainers’, and then he rejoices that he has become famous and has ‘traded friends for fans’.
My god, is that the dream? To trade friends for fans? It sounds so lonely. The desire for fame is a desire to be loved, but misdirected, so that you’re loved by strangers, people who don’t know you, while cutting yourself off from the people close to you. If you’re ruled by the desire for fame, by the spirited appetite, then you can turn yourself into a commodity, an artefact, like a statue or icon. You become bigger and bigger in the eyes of strangers, but also lonelier, cut off from genuine relationships, because people can’t talk to you just as you, they can’t see past your glamour. If we look at some of the icons of our culture, at its most famous figures, this is precisely what happens to them. They follow our culture’s overweening desire for fame, and they become lifeless statues, who only come alive on stage. It’s reflected in their own art work, like this album cover of Michael Jackson’s:
Or Robbie Williams.
These are both terribly lonely, depressed people, cut off from their humanness because they have followed a false value system and have been unable to free themselves from it. And their fame ends up sucking other people into this same false and harmful value system. The smarter artists reflect on this. Like Drake, whose album cover for his second album shows him surrounded by gold, looking completely bereft. As someone put it to me last night, his whole album ‘Take Care’ is about someone making it and realising ‘it’ isn’t what he thought:
Yeah I be yelling money over everything, money on my mind / Then she want to ask when it got so empty / Tell her I apologize, happened over time / She says they miss the old Drake, girl don’t tempt me / If they don’t get it, they’ll be over you / That new shit that you got is overdue / You better do what you supposed to do.
It reminds me of Oscar Wilde, someone who did so much to invent the modern cult of celebrity – he even changed his name, like Tinie Tempah. He fed his lust to be discussed, but at the cost of turning himself into a commodity, an icon, a statue, lonely and cut off like his Happy Prince:
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. He was very much admired indeed.
Wilde was trapped in his own legend, isolated up there like his lonely Prince. His boyfriend Bosie once said to him, ‘when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting’. Can you imagine how crushing that would be to hear? That he’s not allowed to be himself, he must continue playing a part. That’s what happens when you trade friends for fans.
The Director-General of Education
Our personalities and psyches, then, are deeply shaped by our culture. Plato recognised this. He writes in The Republic that there is a profound relationship between a culture’s morality and its taste in the arts. Music, he wrote, “is the most decisive factor in one’s upbringing..it sinks deep into the soul and takes the strongest hold of it”. That’s why in his dream society, he says the most important public position would be the Director of Education, who has absolute control over everything a society reads, watches and listens to.
We used to have a Platonic view of culture. John Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, was basically a Christian-Platonist. He thought the masses should be force-fed Bertrand Russell through Radio 3, and if they absolutely must have entertainment, it should be wholesome entertainment. The public’s morality would be shaped by its improving culture. But then ITV came along in 1955, with its game shows and its American comedies, to the absolute horror of high culture champions like Richard Hoggart, and suddenly ordinary people could watch and listen to whatever they want rather than what intellectuals thought was good for them.Sir Hugh Greene then modernised the BBC in the 1960s to make it compete with ITV in popular entertainment. And from there it is a mere hop and skip to X Factor, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and the total collapse of western morality. It’s all the fault of ITV.
Do we need to bring back Plato’s Director of Education, to re-enforce the hierarchy of the good? Obviously not. But people both making and consuming culture today (that’s to say, all of us) need to take responsibility for ourselves and the messages we put out. As the Platonic philosopher Myles Burnyeat puts it in this interesting lecture on Plato and culture (a lecture dedicated to John Reith, by the by):
Plato’s problem is still with us. It needs a modern solution…If we agree with [Plato's analysis of the huge power of mass culture] but disagree with his authoritarian solution, then democratic politics has to take responsibility for the general ethos of society.
My own desire for recognition
I write all this, really, to myself, in so far as I recognise that I am very driven by the desire for recognition (I blame my love of hip-hop). This drive, in fact, is probably what messed me up when I was in my early twenties – social anxiety, or the terror of being criticised, is really the dark side of Oscar Wilde’s lust to be discussed. I came through that crisis, got my moral equilibrium back, but the old drive, the passion for recognition, is still there, pretty strong, and I’ve noticed it grow this year as the impulse is gratified. The more you feed the horse, the stronger it gets. Sometimes you have to give the reins a yank and check your motivation.
I wonder if the desire for fame and recognition gets out of control more easily in liberal, secular societies. That’s what Plato thought. If you replace God with other people as the ultimate arbiter of self-worth, you’re creating a false economy of incentives (he believed), and you can end up with a culture of vain narcissists who put all their effort into publicity rather than improving their inner selves. Even religion becomes a public spectacle, as in the book ‘The Year of Living Biblically’. We need a genuine devotion to God, Plato thought, to free ourselves from enslavement to our public image and need for applause. I think this may be true, in my case any way. In the words of Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. If God is not your master, then you can easily find yourself pursuing the applause of strangers.
Martin Luther King spoke of this in his final sermon, where he discussed the Drum Major Instinct, “the desire to be out front, to be leading the parade, to be first”, in man and in himself:
We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse…Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention…Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it.
Like Plato, King argued that “if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted”. And it can lead to all kinds of bad things: boastfulness, name-dropping, status-seeking, and the desire to put other people down, or even whole races.
Then right at the end of the sermon, this last sermon, just a few days before he was shot, King imagines his own funeral. He says:
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important.
I find that revealing – he’s using a rhetorical device called paralipsis, in which you mention something while saying you won’t mention it. To me it reveals the fact that, yeah, he’s proud he has won all those awards. It reveals that he’s human, that he is driven by the same Drum Major Instinct as the rest of us. But then he goes on:
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.
In other words, he recognises the desire in him for recognition. He admits it. He does not try to deny or remove it, as the Stoics would. Instead, like Plato and Plutarch recommends, he tries to rein it and steer it in the service of God and humanity. That’s pretty difficult to do. It’s even harder when you’re not a member of a church or religious community. When there’s no God above you, you can end up worshipping yourself.
Here are some more links for you to chew on over Christmas:
Here’s Jeffrey Sachs arguing with Republicans over the interpretation of happiness measurements.
David Brooks is going to teach humilityat Yale. What next…Russell Brand on chastity?
More argie-bargie between philosophy and science. Here’s a good piece in the New Atlantis arguing against scientism among scientists. And there was a bit of a Twitter dust-up between Brian Cox and various philosophers of science, discussed in this piece (with Cox responding in the comments).
How to improve the world? Educate more girls.
Is Christianity a philosophy? Bill O’ Reilly claimed it was. Jon Stewart disagreed. What it certainly is, as these Washington Post graphics show, is by far the biggest religion on the planet.
Jon Cruddas, head of policy in the UK’s Labour party, gave a big speech on why he’s an Aristotelian. Graeme Smith was not impressed.
A piece in Prospect by a former member of the Bank of England’s MPC, on why George Osborne must to more to reform finance and raise the UK’s declining levels of business investment.
Finally, a lovely piece by Zadie Smith on joy.
I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, whatever philosophy you hold or God you love. I hope we survive the rest of today, and that we can use this NAE (near-apocalypse-experience) to learn to love one another and help each other through the storm.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The book is by five Tory MPs who joined the House of Commons in 2010: Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss. It’s generated a fair amount of headlines, as its central message is a popular one for the right-wing press: “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. We need, the authors say, to emulate the rising economies of China, Brazil, South Korea and Canada, by working harder, slashing taxes, embracing free enterprise, and no longer paying out such generous welfare benefits.
It all sounds like Mitt Romney speaking off the record and praising Chinese labour camps where the teenage workers sleep on bunk beds. But these young Tories are willing to say the same as Mitt while on the record – witness Kwasi Kwarteng, the intellectual leader of the group, telling the Guardian how impressed he was by a visit to a Chinese factory, where if a worker met their productivity target for the hour, they were allowed two whole minutes to rest.
I read the book because I wondered what it might mean for the politics of well-being. David Cameron has, to some extent, embraced the well-being agenda, and suggested we should not focus so relentlessly on wealth, status and GDP growth, but instead seek higher goals like well-being, fulfillment and the common good. Well, that all sounds incredibly wet to the authors of Britannia Unchained. To them, the well-being agenda is the sickness, not the cure. It’s an example of how the defeatist British have somehow come to think that “business is a dirty word”, economic growth is an illusion, and we should all work less. The new economics foundation, pioneer of the well-being agenda, is not their favourite think-tank, as you can imagine.
So what is the book like? Not good. It has a feeling of being dashed off by busy young people. Most of its sources are newspaper articles, as if they’ve just googled their ideas and used the first media source they find to support them. There are typos: on the third page, ‘if we are to prosper in the future, we have to much learn’.
The book’s central claim – that we’re the worst idlers in the world – is made on page two, where the authors insist that “5.7 million people receive some kinds of benefits, which is one of the highest proportions in the OECD”. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, writes:
What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.
As the Economist points out in its cover story this week, the UK has the highest employment rate in the G7. Still, unemployment is at 8%, and there are thousands of Brits who were left behind by the bourgeoisification of the working class over the last 50 years. They became ‘chavs’ – an object of fear and hatred for the newly-expanded middle class. But demonising the underclass is not the solution. I would suggest we need to create the same networks of public services and mutual support groups that helped the first working class to raise itself into the middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries. While Kwarteng slags off the poor, his school-mate and fellow young Tory, Danny Kruger, left politics and set up a charity to work with (and even live with) former prison inmates. That’s doing more good than simply shouting abuse from the ramparts.
The authors are right to worry about the size of the national debt, and to emphasise the need for us to balance the books, as families and as a country. If your debt gets too big, you lose control of your national policy, and are dictated to by foreign lenders. Imagine having Angela Merkel tell us how to live. That’s why we need to reduce our public and private debt over time.
But it’s a bit rich to blame that national indebtedness on the working class, while also claiming that the City is ‘a small pocket where the work ethic still exists’. That’s an obviously inaccurate and unfair description of what’s happened in the last five years. It wasn’t worker welfare that increased the national debt by £1 trillion in two years. It was corporate welfare – bailing out the banks, their shareholders, their private bond holders, their high net-worth investors. That corporate welfare is still going on, through the Bank of England’s cheap lending support for the banks.
The authors say blithely that financial crises are “a fact of life”. If you criticise the bank system for being under-regulated and for rewarding reckless incompetence, you’re giving in to “national defeatism”. Well, that’s just nonsense. The reason trade union militancy has increased in the last two years is not that British workers are idle. It’s that the trade unions, along with the rest of us, think it’s deeply unfair that our public services are being slashed while the private financial sector has received such incredible beneficence from the tax-payer. We want our money back, and we want protection against further crises (in fact, George Osbourne’s bank levy is a good step in this direction).
The BRICs want quality of life too, not just economic growth
Perhaps the most glaring mistake of the book is the way it holds up the rising economic powers as paragons of “individual initiative and free enterprise”. This betrays a serious ignorance about what is driving economic growth in China, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Russia, India and elsewhere. These economies are far more state-dominated than ours, and growth has been driven by enormous state companies like Gazprom, Petrobras and Bank of China, or chaebols like Samsung. These are not economies full of plucky individual entrepreneurs. And much of their economic growth comes not because they’re innovating incredible new technology. They’re simply catching up with the West, rolling out pre-existing technology like modern banking, cars, mobile phones, TVs and so on to their large populations.
Once their material quality of life has caught up with ours, much of the new middle class in BRIC economies are asking the same post-materialist questions as we are: what’s the point of working incredibly hard if you make yourself ill, harm your family and damage your environment in the process? Is it worth ruining your mental health for bling and credit card debt? See, for example, this article on South Korea’s existential crisis:
Chief among their concerns is the stress and expense of putting their children through “exam hell”, even in the knowledge that there are too many graduates chasing too few well-paid jobs. No wonder Korea’s birth rate has plummeted — to 1.23, well below the 2.2 replacement rate and lower even than Japan at 1.4.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD because of pressures at work and in education. It also has very high levels of personal credit card debt (35% of GDP). And Koreans are now asking the same questions about quality of life as we are. The global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ is a satire on South Korea’s obsession with bling, and you see the same sort of anti-bling satires appearing in other BRIC countries. Koreans are looking to ancient sources of wisdom for stress cures, like philosophy: a local publisher paid around $200,000 for the School of Life’s self-help series, my book’s doing well there too, and Seoul recently hosted the 11th International Conference on Philosophical Practice. In the words of Dr Oh Kyung-Ja, professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University, Koreans are “desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”
Likewise, China may have an unquenchable appetite for bling, but many of the new middle class are also asking questions about what it means to live well: witness the national fondness for the ideas of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius and the government’s interest in the politics of well-being. We also read, in the FT, that the Chinese rich are “starting to spend more on wellness as opposed to luxury goods”.
So I suspect that the new rising powers are moving very rapidly from bling to post-bling. They are rising rapidly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and arriving at the same quality of life questions we’re asking in the West.
Truss is right that we need to improve science education
The best chapter in the book is Elizabeth Truss’ chapter on the importance of improving science education to help us compete in the global knowledge economy. I agree that too many young people choose arts or social science subjects as cushy options. We may have too many students taking psychology A-Level and psychology degrees, and are in danger of turning into a nation of life coaches (I count myself among the growing ranks of well-being obsessives so mean no offence to life coaches, just…there’s a lot of you!) Some of these psychology grads have a remarkable lack of respect for scientific evidence.
But Truss doesn’t offer radical ideas about how to improve the level of scientific education in this country. I’d suggest, for example, that we reform the undergraduate degree system, so that students don’t study just one subject for three years – that degree of specialisation is harmful to their intellectual growth and to the country’s culture. If you study a humanities subject, you should be expected to take science subjects as well, and vice versa. We have too many arts graduates who leave university like me: desperate to write a novel and with an ingrained prejudice against scientific evidence. I’d also like to see the Baccaulaureate replace A-Levels, which demand too much specialisation too early. And the debate on education shouldn’t be framed as well-being or academic results: critical thinking, reasoning skills and creative thinking are good for both.
We should also acknowledge what’s good about our arts culture – how it fosters excellent journalism, writing, theatre, film, art and fashion. Our culture sector is one of the best in the world, so it’s bizarre that it should be so uncelebrated in a book on reclaiming national pride. It’s also a good example of combining creative and technical expertise, as in our flourishing computer games industry, or music production, or film special effects. It may be that the authors ignore our creative economy because it doesn’t fit their Thatcherite model of self-reliant entrepreneurs – instead, it flourishes through a mixture of public and private funding, and through state-sponsored schools like RADA. Or it may be that they are simply deaf to culture, like many old Thatcherites. Hopefully Boris Johnson is less so.
Another point which the book could have made more strongly is the importance of attracting skilled immigrants into our country, including into our universities. The Home Office is doing its best to repel such immigrants from our borders through its heavy-handed treatment of London Met University. And there’s no discussion about the importance of adult education and community learning to a knowledge economy. Nor do the authors consider the one policy that would really improve our education sector: take away public schools’ charity status. That would encourage more middle class people to send their children to academies, and open up social networks of privilege and excellence. If that’s too un-Conservative, then at least insist public schools do more to support academies.
The book does express something in the British national mood. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that only 28% think governments should spend more on benefits, down from 58% in 1991. More than half think people would “stand on their own two feet” if benefits were less generous, compared to 20% believing that in 1993. But I don’t recognise the book’s claim that Britain is weighed down by defeatism and pessimism. The authors clearly wrote that before the Olympics, which were a resounding affirmation of our country’s strengths – our belief in individual excellence and our belief in fairness, volunteerism,technology, creativity and fun. You can believe in Britain’s greatness without wanting it to turn into a Chinese labour camp.
In other news:
Here is a great piece from Intelligent Life on the ‘mass intelligent’ – we’re not dumbing down, it argues, we’re wising up. Here is an online debate The Economist did on the subject. And the CEO of the Economist Group referenced it in a recent presentation on the ‘mega-trend of the mass intelligent’ (here’s a slide from it, below).
The young Spanish boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama talks of why he left the monastery and abandoned his monastic vows.
Here’s a review of a new book on the Quantified Self movement and the digitization of medicine.
Here’s a good Re-Think pamphlet on recovering from mental illness:
Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post and the author of a new book on Cato, gives five reasons why Stoicism matters today.
More Stoicism: here’s a piece by Ian Hislop on the history of the British stiff upper lip (based on a program which will be on BBC 2 on Tuesday October 2)
Here is a piece on how technology is about to disrupt and transform academia, and here, by way of counterblast, is a good piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education challenging the hype around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).
Finally, here on the left is an ad from the 1970s offering nude psychotherapy. ‘Be the first on your block to get nude psychotherapy!’ Ah, those were the days.
See you next week,
PS I have a brief segment about self-help on the Culture Show on Wednesday, BBC 2, 10pm. It’s somewhat ridiculous and may be the last thing I get asked to do on TV, so check it out. And also some American publishers have finally made offers for the book. Hooray! Thanks for your positive thoughts and kind reviews on Amazon (I didn’t write any of them, in case you’re wondering…)
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>