Thursday, 28 December 2006


People refuse to believe me when I tell them that there is great humour to be derived from the study of philosophy, but it is true. David Hume in his 'Dialogues concerning Natural Religion' said 'whether your scepticism be as sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: we shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window: and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall". In other words it is all well and good to have extreme or unorthodox philosophical beliefs, such as doubt in the existence of the laws of physics, no matter how logically argued, you will still approach your life with a little more pragmatism, something the philosophers call 'naive realism'. The life of Diogenes shows that Hume was not completely correct in that assertion.

Diogenes of Sinope, to give him his full name (well, one wouldn't want to confuse him with Diogenes Laertius or Diogenes the Stoic now would we?) was a member of the school of cynical philosophy and like Socrates it seems that he didn't write anything down himself, so what is known of him is gathered from the work of his followers. The etymology of the word 'cynic' is really rather appropriate when considering Diogenes. Its origins lie in the Ancient Greek word kunikos meaning 'dog-like'. Diogenes believed in the ultimate absurdity of social values and institution, culture and society were cause of greater evils then the ones they purported to cure so he yearned for man to be more in touch with its true, natural, animal self and these were beliefs he lived by.

Plato described Diogenes as 'A Socrates gone mad' and that makes for a good comparison. Socrates was short, bearded, bald and somewhat rotund. He wore the same cloak year in and year out and never wore shoes, even his most friendly acquaintances were short on tact when it came to describing his appearance. He also was known to wander the streets asking blunt questions of strangers whom he passed, often undermining their entire belief systems. Diogenes on the other hand was known to defecate in the streets. For a time he lived in a discarded tub by a temple; he masturbated in market places and urinated on a man with whom he had a disagreement.

The philosophers of Ancient Greece were the rock & roll stars of their time; on an encounter with Alexander the Great, Alexander was so thrilled to have met Diogenes that he was supposed to have said 'If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes'. He obviously could have been somebody with power and influence, had he wanted it but that was not his philosophy. He lived in profound poverty in the manner he thought was best and one, whilst not being wholly enamoured (if not a little amused) by the way he lived, can but respect him. I'm not sure the world would be a better place if everyone acted out the principles they claim for themselves -- there are some sick and twisted people out there, but there is no greater challenge to a philosophy than to live it.

Saturday, 23 December 2006


It has been a little while since I last wrote an entry, partly because I've been quite busy and partly because I couldn't think of anything to write so don't expect any insightful prose from me today. Spoonerisms seem to run in my family. If you don't know already a Spoonerism is a slip of the tongue in which the initial sounds or letters of two or more words are transposed to humorous effect. I am often known park my car in a 'par cark' or in a fit literary snobbery, mock readers of 'Happy Rotter'. Spoonerisms take their name from an Oxford scholar, the Reverend W.A. Spooner who is reputed to have made some wonderful examples of this. I do warn you that the stories are apocryphal and like most good historical anecdotes, most likely untrue, or at least a matter of historical probability rather than certitude.

My favourite of his has to be this one:

"The Lord is a shoving leopard"

Amongst the others attributed to him are 'You hissed all the mystery lectures', 'Let's raise our glasses to the queer old Dean' and this great one 'you'll soon be had as a matter of course'. Okay, I should go and shake a tower because I'm a bowel feast with mad banners. Enjoy the holiday period my dear readers...if you're out there , and remember wave the sails.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Mind Experiments

It is something quintessentially characteristic of me that I desire to talk about or indeed write about the things that I happen to learn and the lateral thoughts which sprout, this is going to be one of those posts. I make no claim at interestingness so feel free to jump ship, as it were, at this stage with due impunity.

John Rawls in his book 'A Theory of Justice' conducts what can only be described as a mind experiment. He wanted to ascertain what were the basic principles that people would agree on if they were completely unaware of their status. In this hypothetical forum people would be under a 'veil of ignorance' without knowledge of themselves, anything that would lead them to distort their principles so that they would not work only to serve their own ends. Ignorance would extend to their age, sex, class, colour, religion, where they lived or the status of their society, ignorant even of the degree of their own intelligence. Rawls reasoned that with all these restraints on their knowledge that the agreements they would come to, their conceptions of justice if you will, would protect the least advantaged in society because under that veil of ignorance, one could never know if that were a position in society reserved for oneself. This was Rawls' 'basic position' and one could sit and pick holes both in his method and his conclusion but that's for another time, it got me to thinking about the other 'mind experiments' philosophers are prone to.

Descartes, in his 'Meditations on First Philosophy', conducts what he calls a 'project of pure enquiry' and invokes the notion of a malign being, the devil if you are of a Judeo-Christian bent, who could be tricking him into believing in his own existence. Following on with the theme of philosophical scepticism Bertrand Russell asks whether we are not a brain in a jar in some mad scientist's experiment with the 'knowledge' we have of ourselves and the world around us, beamed directly into our brain.

Bertrand Russell had other unusual mind experiments which he used as philosophical tools, one was a teapot. Russell is what you can call a teapot atheist, he noted that many people believed in God because they had not been shown enough evidence to refute his existence. Russell argued that there was perhaps a teapot orbiting the earth, a small teapot, too small to be picked up by the most powerful of telescopes. Whilst you cannot prove the existence of the teapot you also cannot prove that it doesn't exist. There has been an updating of the teapot argument and that is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the argument works just the same but the imagery is that bit funnier. When I studied philosophy at a-level my tutor used an argument along these lines but she argued for the existence of a perfect pizza chef, it was an ontological argument of sorts. a) I have an idea of a perfect pizza chef in my head, b) it is more perfect to exist than not exist, c)for my pizza chef to be perfect he must exist, c) my pizza chef is perfect therefore exists. The argument is flawed for all the same reasons the ontological argument is flawed but it made me laugh.

When you challenge the dictates of common-sense as philosophers are prone to do, things like belief in one's own existence, you place yourself in the awkward position of coming up with other ideas and solutions. The result is a body of work rich enough mental imagery to compete with the most abstract fantasy novel. I'm not saying that if you dig manga then you should go pick up Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics because the chances are you will be disappointed. But if you enjoy journeying within your mind; philosophy could be a discipline for you -- consult your nearest philosopher for advice.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Aesthetic Relativism

In his book 'On Beauty' Umberto Eco asks the question 'what would a traveller from the future who came to our time identify as our aesthetic ideal?'. His answer was that "he will have to surrender before the orgy of tolerance, total snycretism and the absolute unstoppable polytheism of beauty". Such is the legacy of aesthetic relativism, a theory of beauty that can be explained by two succinct quotations. The first is the Shakespearean proverb 'beauty is bought by the judgement of the eye' and the second is from Immanuel Kant who said that aesthetic judgements are one's 'whose determining ground can be no other than subjective'. In other words beauty is a concept that is relative to individuals or indeed cultures or periods in time. Aesthetic relativism sounds rather sensible but it has the potential to create a crazy, confused and ultimately ugly world as complete freedom and chaos are inextricably linked.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the Viscount Bangor and his wife the Lady Anne Bligh, both people who were passionate about architecture, decided to have a house built -- the only problem was that they were unable to agree on the style and the result was the most hideous compromise.

The photo is the front elevation of Castle Ward in Northern Ireland, built to the specifications of the Viscount Bangor. As you can probably tell, the Viscount was a 'Classicist' favouring Doric columns, palladian proportions and triangular consoled pediments. The classical style wasn't limited to the front elevation, it was continued into the front half of the house which was complete with the appropriate friezes and yes, more and more columns. Now this is where things go slightly crazy and you begin to see the flaws in the principals of aesthetic relativism. Lady Anne Bligh was not remotely impressed with the classical style instead favouring the newly popular Gothic style.

This second photo is the rear elevation of Castle Ward designed to the Gothic specifications of Anne. Again the Gothic details were not limited to the pointed windows and quatrefoils of the rear elevation, the back half of rooms included such features as vaulted ceilings that fit in with the style. I hope you agree that this is more than simple compromise it is lunacy. But how do reconcile the two diametrically opposing ideas of beauty? I'm sure we all have an opinion as to whether the Viscount Bangor or the Lady Anne had a better vision of beauty but it is the tyranny of relativism which dictates that we are incapable of asserting that our beliefs are correct.

Without assertion of belief there can be no discussion let alone argument. If we are all right, who could possibly dare challenge our opinions? Thankfully compromises between individuals rarely lead to the extreme idiocy that led to the creation of Castle Ward but our built up environments are by and large ugly, without the ability to assert this nothing will ever change. So what am I saying? Have an opinion and don't feel afraid to express it because, well, some people's ideas of beauty are just plain wrong.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Proust and the Dreyfus Affair

Whilst ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ by Marcel Proust is a work of fiction there are some characters and indeed events depicted within which are real. There is a thread that pervades the novel, I do not think that there is a volume in which it is not mentioned, that is the Dreyfus Affair and it has given me cause to consider what Proust is implying in the frequent references he makes to it.

The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal which rocked France in the late 1890's and early 1900's which had the consequence of exposing the rampant anti-Semitism of the French establishment. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish artillery officer who was accused and subsequently convicted of the treasonous act of selling military secrets to the Germans. On his conviction he was sent to a French penal colony on 'Devil's Island'. I would go into the details of why his conviction was wrongful but they are unimportant, it is sufficient to say that the evidence was substantially flawed and the court-marshal itself was notable for numerous procedural errors. Someone who testified on behalf of Dreyfus was even convicted for his efforts.

Dreyfus' conviction divided public opinion between the 'Dreyfussards' who demanded a retrial, people who wanted to see that justice was done, and the ultra-nationalist and anti-semetic anti-dreyfussards. For many, including the press, the Dreyfus case was a means by which to express the growing hatred of the Jews in France. Proust was certainly not the first author to deal with the subject, Emile Zola wrote of it in his book 'J'accuse'. On its publication, Zola was forced to flee to England as he was tried and found guilty of 'besmirching the reputation of the army'.

So why did Proust deal with it? Well the first and seemingly obvious answer was that Proust himself was Jewish, it is possible he was trying to defend his people from the tirade of abuse they faced. In writing about the 1890's Proust makes a telling statement on the case "the Dreyfus case was shortly to relegate the Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder". Proust doesn't refer to his own origins in the novel but there are two characters who are both Jewish and Dreyfussards, Alfred Bloch and Charles Swann. As Charles Swann becomes unwell late on in Sodom & Gomorrah he is more and more isolated from the Parisian salon society for his Dreyfussard stance and it was the cynical reaction of people such as the crass Madame Verdurin, that Swann held on to his Dreyfussard beliefs as he was Jewish and well, those people stick together, a vulgar argument.

Another argument could be made that Proust was simply a champion of civil liberties. We have a man who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. But then why write about it? Proust was already helping out Dreyfus' lawyers surely that was enough for him to satisfy his conscience. Personally I believe that the frequent references to the Dreyfus case are to make a point about suffering; to draw a distinction between physiological and emotional suffering (a type that afflict many of his characters) and suffering of another kind of which there is perhaps some redress. Proust himself seems to hint at this in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1906, the year Dreyfuss was finally exonerated:
"I shall become more and more ill...more and more I shall miss the ones I have lost and all that I dreamed of in my life will be farther and farther beyond my reach. But for Dreyfus and for Piquart [the gentleman convicted for testifying on Dreyfus' behalf] it is not so. For them life has been 'providential' after the fashion of fairy tales and thrillers. That is because our suffering was founded on fact -- on truths -- physiological truths, human and emotional truths. For them, suffering was founded on error. Fortunate indeed are those who are victims of error -- judicial or otherwise! They are human beings for whom there are redress and restitution".
Marcel knew physiological suffering; throughout his life he was troubled with a severe case of asthma and his weakness was echoed in the narrator of his novel. Perhaps dealing with the Dreyfus case brought him to the realisation that there are some fates that, even with a country full of people baying for your blood, you can escape but some things in life that one can never escape from.

Monday, 27 November 2006

How to be alone

The title of my blog comes from a quote from the fantastic philosopher Michel de Montaigne so it is only right that I devote an entry to him but before I go on with the topic I must give my two favourite quotes of his.
"Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses"
The other quote deals with a pretty similar theme:
"Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies"
Montaigne was a man who believed that you can live a virtuous life even if you speak no ancient Greek, fart and not know the ancient philosophers, but as long as you strive towards wisdom (even if you never stray too far from folly). He spent a large amount of his life in isolation, locked up in the most wonderful library atop a tower in his estate in Perigord, France. He was not only surrounded by his amassed book collection but by sixty or so maxims from ancient Greek and Roman scholars (including the likes of Cicero, Seneca, Virgil and Socrates) carved into the wooden beams.

As you can imagine from Montaigne's style of life, he was not afraid to live alone, he was in fact keen to make the most of it:
"Now since we are undertaking to live, without companions, by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves; let us loose ourselves from the bonds which tie us to others; let us gain power over ourselves to live really and truly alone -- and of doing so in contentment"
His first piece of advice seems almost intuitive, to keep occupied though to tailor that occupation the best way to suit one's humour. Unusquisque sua noverit ire via -- let each man choose the road he should take. But, nothing should be done to excess:
"Whether we are running our homes or studying or hunting or following any sport, we should go to the very boundaries of pleasure but take good care not be involved beyond the point where it begins to be mingled with pain".
Montaigne and I share a method of occupation and he singled it out for a special mention:
"Books give pleasure: but if frequenting them eventually leads to loss of our finest accomplishments, joy and health, then give up your books."
His second piece of advice is not to expect too much from your time alone. He baulks at the ideas of Pliny the Younger and of Cicero, ideas of attaining glory for 'ambition is the humour most contrary to seclusion'.
"We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs...withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome you there"
Okay, I'd be the first person to admit that Montaigne's ideas for how to be alone are, well, pretty naff and if you asked Montaigne himself whether one should be alone he would in all probability say no but learning to be alone will always be an important thing to learn because it is an inevitability in life that we will spend time with only ourselves as companions.
"We should have wives, children, property and, above all good health...if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them"
So how should we be alone? Montaigne seems to say that's really up to you, find out what works and then do it, just not to excess. It's not a way of living that he would suggest we chose, but one we learn to accommodate. Life can throw up the most unexpected incidents, we may lose our families, be thrown in jail, in essence we are a slave to fortune. The most telling quote from his essay 'on solitude' comes from the founder of the school of cynical philosophy, Antisthenes, 'man ought to provide himself with unsinkable goods, which could float out of a shipwreck with him'. Learning how to be alone is Montaigne's unsinkable good.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Marx on the lash

I have the uncanny ability to remember random trivia and anecdotes and yet forget important things like what day it is or what I should be doing in an hour. That said, I still manage to keep myself entertained if not the people who have to listen to my stories. La Rochefoucauld in his maxims asked the pertinent question 'Why is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?' So if you have heard this one before then I apologise profusely.

Karl Marx spent a great deal of his life living in exile mostly due to the inflammatory rhetoric that characterised his journalism and his general work. Starting off in Prussia he set up or joined left-wing periodicals which led to his expulsion from Prussia itself, followed by Paris and then Brussels, he finally ended up in London in 1849 where he stayed until his death in 1883. The image we are presented of his time in England is that of a man living in the direst poverty undergoing the most horrific personal catastrophes (namely the loss of successive children) yet working every hour he could in the British Library writing the great epic, darkly gothic and frustratingly impenetrable 'Das Kapital' but it is quite reassuring to find out that life wasn't all poverty and politics.

At some point in the 1870's, I have not been able to ascertain the exact date, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Wilhelm Liebknecht went on what can only be described as a legendary pub crawl. They started off in central London and went down Tottenham Court Road through to Hampstead having a glass of beer in each of the eighteen pubs they passed. As they stumbled home Marx picked up some stones and smashed four of five street lamps before the Police gave chase. It was said by Marx's friend Liebknecht, that in evading capture "Marx showed an agility I could not have attributed to him".

Opinions of Marx will always been polarised and I don't think that an anecdote of 'drunk and disorderly' will act to change anyones' opinions but it is wonderful to hear the personal side to someone who, for better or worse, certainly shaped much of the twentieth century for a large proportion of the world's population.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Goethe the Murderer

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a particular hero of mine, anyone who can lead a literary movement known as the 'Sturm und Drang' movement has to be deserving of one's respect It was the wonderful book 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' that shot him to literary fame virtually overnight. The philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both big fans and Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have carried a copy of this book when he went on his military campaigns. The story of Werther, as the name suggests, is not a happy tale. It is the story of Werther's unrequited love for Lotte whom is betrothed to another, Albert. The story follows his descent into depression and indeed obsession before in a fit of torment he finally ends it all. As I've said, this book proved incredibly popular and following it being published there was a veritable 'Werthermaina'. To prove the power of literature it is thought that somewhere in the region of two thousand readers were thought to have killed themselves in what can only be described as 'copycat-suicides'.

In 1933 a Hungarian by the name Rezso Seress wrote the song 'Gloomy Sunday' after breaking up with his girlfriend. In an attempt at reconciliation he played her that song -- two days later she was dead. She left a two-word suicide note, the words being "gloomy sunday". On the release of the song it was thought that approximately one hundred suicides were directly as a response to hearing this song and it took on the rather macabre moniker 'the Hungarian Suicide Song'. There is a reported incident in which a beggar was playing this song as a gentleman passed, on hearing it he promptly gave him all his property and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment. So seriously is this song taken that until as recently as 2002 the BBC had banned it from being played on any of its channels.

This is the song but before you follow that link I'd like you to think happy thoughts and know that if you need an appropriate antidote there is always one available here. It is an interesting contrast between the two. Goethe wrote 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' back in the 1770's and it is easy to dismiss those who reacted to his work as being people of their time, perhaps not as well-rounded and intelligent as we like to think ourselves but the Hungarian Suicide song shatters that illusion as it shows that even (relatively) modern audiences can be so affected. Is Goethe a murderer? That's a difficult question, personally I'd like to think he isn't and applying a somewhat Kantian ethical analyses one could back up that belief. Though how far should one go absolve authors from the effects of their work?

I'd like to end on an even more macabre note (if that's possible) and ask the question what piece of music or indeed literary work do you find the most suicide-inspiring?

Friday, 17 November 2006

Proust and Women

As I struggle along with the reading of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ by Marcel Proust I came across something he wrote in ‘The Captive’ which brought me to consider Marcel’s attitude to women.

“Albertine has developed to an astonishing degree. This was a matter of complete indifference to me, a woman’s intellectual qualities having always interested me so little that if I pointed them out to some woman or other it was solely out of politeness.”

Women know your place – or at least it could be interpreted in that way. In real life Proust had an interesting relationship with women. In a rather blunt letter to his grandfather which he wrote aged sixteen Marcel describes the cure for a pastime that might otherwise have sent him blind:

“I so badly needed to see a woman in order to stop my bad habits of masturbating that papa gave me 10 francs to go to the brothel. But, 1st in my excitement, I broke the chamber pot, 3 francs, 2nd in this same excitement, I wasn’t able to have sex. So now I’m back to square one, constantly waiting for another 10 francs to empty myself and 3 francs more for that pot”.
Perhaps Marcel had a good reason why he was incapable of achieving détente. The character Albertine was thought to have been based on the relationship he had with his chauffer, Alfred Agostinelli whom he was said to have known well (yes, I do mean in the biblical sense). But perhaps too there is another reason:

“If prostitutes…attract us so little, it is not because they are less beautiful than other women, but because they are ready and waiting; because they already offer us precisely what we seek to attain.”

I hate to think that my selection of quotes will act to leave a bad impression of him and to be fair to him one must always remember to place him in his historical context and you must also place them within a literary context in that his characters are not necessarily deployed as a mouthpiece of his philosophical outlook.

Bearing all that in mind, I think for Marcel the essence of life, or at least one’s enjoyment thereof, lies in anticipation. A theme that is repeated throughout his novel is that the male characters (Swann, Saint-Loup, de Charlus and indeed the narrator himself) only begin to appreciate the charms of their women (and in some occasions men) once the threat of infidelity hangs over them. The worst thing that can befall a relationship is that it becomes a creature of habit and for Marcel’s characters it seems that only on anticipating some infidelity do they seem to reawaken an interest. Is Proust suggesting that the threat of infidelity is a necessity in a successful relationship – I don’t think so, but perhaps it takes outside influences to make you appreciate what you have:

“When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her; though it is true that the two sundered elements can be reunited by jealousy.”

If you conduct a relationship along the lines of any that take place within ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ then I can assure you that you shall be miserable. However if you remember that one can keep a relationship fresh and exciting without the threat if infidelity inspiring panicked response to an upsurge of jealous rage, then there is hope for you yet.