PaddlinA Satisfying Solution is an answer to a philosophical or political problem that fulfills one’s emotional needs as well as, to one’s mind, its epistemic or material requirements. Sadly, these are often irrational as the universe was not designed for our comfort.

Giles Fraser opposes war on IS: a respectable position with good arguments on its side. What it does not have, though, is a great alternative. (There are steps that can be taken against IS but while some of them, like ending our love affair with Saudi Arabia, have far more long term potential than bombing could ever have, none of them have the immediate impact that makes war so very appealing to some.) This is not damning. Sometimes there are no quick fixes. Yet Fraser does not help his case with his Satisfying Solution: “education,” he writes, “is the best way to help inoculate the next generation against radicalism”. Education is a brilliant thing. It makes us smile to think of it. Yet how would it help in practice? Yes, there might be forms of teaching that help to stop young men from being seduced by jihadism but what they are and how, in an area of conflict and political turmoil, would Fraser and his comrades make sure that such things be taught? That a large proportion of the terrorists alleged to constitute ISIS went through European education systems is good evidence that book learning need not itself be the munificent influence that we like to imagine that it is.

There might be answers to such queries, and I would be pleased to see them, but one complaint that I have with Satisfying Solutions is that they can be no more than a salve for one’s conscience and a shot in the arm for one’s optimism.

ArmstrongThere is a danger of becoming so biased against people whose writings one dislikes that one finds it impossible to appreciate the worth of their new publications. As I wandered up the first slopes of an essay by Karen Armstrong on the “myth of religious violence” it struck me that I might have been unfairly biased against it. She begins with the important point that while politicised religion can be hard to understand for those dwell in Western nations it is our beliefs that are extraordinary. Secular liberalism is downright freakish in the life our species.

Before 1700,” Armstrong continues, “It would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began”. True, and worth remembering. Faiths, identities and institutions all emerged from human impulses and environments and developed in union. While adopting their own features they have also overlapped. Nationalism, for example, and religion can express the same inherited and acquired attitudes.

Yet here is an irony. Armstrong deals with both, yet where there are obnoxious manifestations of nationalism she attributes all blame to the concept and its adherents. Where there are obnoxious manifestations of religion she does not seem to hold the doctrine at all responsible. She writes, for example, of the fraught relationship between nation states and minorities – a difficult question that she treats as a damning indictment. “An intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the achilles heel of the nation-state,” she writes: “increasingly,” says, “As national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would come to be seen as rootless and cosmopolitan.” Jews had been regarded with suspicion for centuries: from the blood libels that followed the death of William of Norwich to the butchering of Jews claimed to have spread bubonic plague. Nation states can indeed develop in such a manner as to ensure that their ideology is toxic but it is odd to accuse them of creating the age-old phenomenon of tribal exclusion.

When it comes to religion, meanwhile, Armstrong writes as if the beliefs that underpin them have no effect whatsoever (or, at least, that if they do they are entirely beneficial). Fundamentalist religion, for example, is “rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life”. Often, yes, but she writes as if this fear need be in response to aggression rather than perceived degeneracy. The revivalism of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, for example, was not in response to fears of conquest or subjugation but a loathing of the spread of heresy and unbelief. While the fanaticism in the Middle East has been exacerbated by lamentable Western meddling in the region it is also affected by a fear of the West as a cultural force. Maududi and Qutb responded less to secularist aggression than secular influences, which they feared would degrade their religion. While I have almost innumerable problems with our culture, it is not obliged to make others feel relaxed.

As fundamentalists tend to be revivalists the beliefs that they return to are of clear significance. One can disagree with the interpretations of ideas and customs that they draw upon but it would be foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. (Armstrong makes a half-hearted attempt in noting that the ubiquitous veil “has no Qur’anic endorsement”, but this is itself controversial and omits the fact that several hadith do endorse it.) It is true in politics and in religion: ideas are not born in vacuums but they take on lives of their own.

I agree with Armstrong when, in closing, she enjoins us to avoid being arrogant in projecting our ideas across this strange and fevered world. But nor should we sink into a mire of relativism.

Instead of returning East by plane after a summer sojourn in the old country I decided to take the coach. Along with an assortment of tired migrants, I travelled from London to Dover to bid farewell to England near its most iconic scene.

Dover itself was looking a bit run down. Perhaps there is a limit to which one can monetise cliffs.

Nearby was the channel tunnel, which boasts this endearing sign…

Well, it is good to avoid confusion.

Travelling across Europe by coach is not a great way to experience its natural or urban beauty. The most common sight was bleak fields, which the Dutch appeared to specialise in…

Among the more pleasurable sights was the macho name of this Belgian petrol station…

But as a means of transport it has benefits. One has the chance for a long, hard think, away from the distractions that clutter our daily lives. One also gains appreciation of the scale of the world, as just a few of its nations appear to drag on forever. Our ancestors would cough at this, once they had finished coughing over the fact that while it took them days to travel to Scotland we can race across the continent in twenty-four hours. Yet they would choke at the fact that one can fly to the States over a few episodes of Breaking Bad or a copy of Murakami’s latest. While the globe once seemed unimaginably enormous, to people who can jet across it overnight it now seems rather small. This has doubtless made us a more arrogant people.

Having said that, I might have had no stomach for such lofty sentiments had I not had the blessing of an empty seat beside me. Shifting one’s backside is of obvious importance.

1. Talk about the British Empire. Portray it as an English empire and pretend that Scottish and Welsh people were uninvolved. Do not mention the empires of the Germans, Russians, Arabs, Belgians, Brazilians, Dutch, Japanese, Turks and Portuguese, but if they are brought up pretend that empires should be judged by their size and not their behaviour.

2. Accuse the English of being exceptionally parochial, as if the French, the Saudis and the Japanese are all distinguished by their cheerful cosmopolitanism.

3. Imply that English culture is dull. Do not mention Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickens, Turner, Moore, Hitchcock, Chaplin et cetera.

4. Do not mention science and engineering, unless you are against them.

5. Talk about food instead.

6. Deride the staid qualities of the English character. Do not mention that less conservative peoples have been more attracted to Nazism, communism and religious fundamentalism.

7. Act as if you are radical for expressing one of few hostile generalisations that carry no stigma.

Ray Monk’s biography of Bertrand Russell’s later life, The Ghosts of Madness, is among the most depressing books that I have ever read. For readers who think of Russell as the twinkly grandfather of liberal humanism it will come as a special shock, but even Catholic moralists should end it more sad than smug. This is, after all, a book that ends with the self-immolation of his granddaughter – the horrible climax to a study of a rationalist that is also an exploration of some of the most frightening forms of unreason.

The first book in Monk’s two-part biography, The Spirit of Solitude, ended with Russell sitting atop the ranks of academic philosophers. Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica had won him acclaim as a logician, but he had also been stung by the criticisms of his erstwhile protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. Insecure, and in need of a higher income than scholarship could provide, he began to devote himself to the more popular work that would dominate his life.

Russell’s books should be bound in two colours,” Wittgenstein once said, “Those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.” Monk shares this view of Russell’s popular work and is dismissive to an extent that I think is unfair. For all of the defects of A History of Western Philosophy, for example, it deserved more than a few paragraphs (one of which, ironically, reflects on its omissions). Russell’s periodic virtues of style, curiosity and clear-sightedness could align to good effect.

Nonetheless, Wittgenstein had a point. Russell’s political ideas were incoherent when they were not platitudinous. One year he advocated surrender to Nazi Germany, yet within months he was throwing himself behind the war effort. One year he was calling on the US to use the threat of its nukes to seize world supremacy, yet soon he was railing against its imperialism. There is no inherent shame in altering one’s views, of course, but Monk claims that Russell often avoided saying that he had done so. He made noble and sagacious stands – including forthright opposition to the Soviets, well ahead of most of his peers – and one must applaud the courage that forced him into jail cells up to the age of 90, but with more passion than understanding, and few doubts to restrain him, he lurched between convictions with only his self-assurance to provide consistency.

I do not think Russell was simply arrogant. There were times in his life when he sank into despair and self-hatred. What he did not have, though – and what hardly anyone does – was a consistent scepticism towards his ideas and impulses. He was dismissive of traditional ethics and attitudes, and assumed that he was able to replace them. His moral philosophy fetishised rationalism as a means of self-improvement – which is not to say that he was so reductionist as to believe that reason is all that humans need to satisfy themselves but that he felt that most people are prevented from being cheerful, loving individuals by irrational ideas that can be dispelled with proper thought.

This is often right. Who of us has not sweated with a fear or stewed with a resentment that could not have been eliminated with reflection? Yet our problems often lie too deep for reasoning, and our pleasures can arational. (Reason, indeed, can inspire misery depending on the conclusions it leads to. Faced with what he saw to be the simultaneous suffering and insignificance of human life, Russell endured more than a little “Byronic unhappiness” himself.) Inherited wisdom is by no means a faultless guide with which to navigate ourselves through the complications of human existence but Russell trusted his intellect and intuitions too much, and ran aground on the shores of his life.

The Spirit of Solitude displayed Russell mistreating his various wives and girlfriends (and the friends whose wives and girlfriends they had been at the time). In The Ghosts of Madness he is generally more sinned against than sinning when it comes to women: putting up with the fantasies of his second wife Dora and then bearing the fierceness of his third, Patricia. His children, though, are treated poorly.

Reviewers have suggested that Russell is portrayed as a monster. This is untrue. While Monk clearly disapproves of the man he is not like Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: stalking his subject with fire in his eyes and an axe in his hands. For much of this book Russell is shown as having good intentions. He loved his children, John and Kate, with a deep passion, and endured his second marriage so as to avoid damaging them.

That one is well-meaning, though, need not mean that one does well. Russell was afflicted with a common combination of intellectual naivete and assurance, and the latter vice was exacerbated by his disdain for convention. Thus, he had a habit of becoming enthused by intellectual fads and applying them to his thoughts and life with little caution. John and Kate endured his passing attachment to the behaviorism of the charlatan John B. Watson, who maintained that human traits are the result of environmental conditions. He believed, then, for example, that it was a simple matter to educate his children out of their phobias: dunking poor John in water to cure his fear of the sea.

Dora Russell was a radical progressive who refused to send her children to a school where they might be assimilated into the mainstream. With her husband, she established Beacon Hill School both to teach their children and to teach the world of their ideas. Later, in his Autobiography, Russell reflected that “young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine”, and “left to amuse themselves, they are bored and turn to bullying or destruction”. John, according to Monk, endured a lot of this bullying.

Dora, like Russell, applied her progressive ideals to her romantic life. Monogamy was a stale convention of religious moralists, and once old chains of guilt and jealousness had been unloosed people would be able to love all kinds of partners in and beyond their beds. As a noted philanderer, Russell quite agreed. As his wife formed an increasing number of attachments, though, and even bore children to another man, he found that jealousy was not easy to shed. After years of enduring their different dalliances, their marriage collapsed into a heap of grievances that were untangled in a long and frustrating legal process. Their children were caught in the middle.

Among the sad subplots in the book is John’s descent into madness. He stumbles through his life, pursuing different ambitions and inclinations that come to nothing, before his mental legs give way beneath him. Monk does not accuse Russell directly of provoking the disorder but one can infer that his should could carry the blame. It is not unfair to say that if environmental factors were significant it would be no surprise given his upbringing. Both parents were attached to their untried moral and psychological theories with an assurance that was totally unjustified, as well as being involved in their romantic pursuits to an extent that was irresponsible. Nonetheless, mental illness can strike the best of homes. Schizophrenia was ingrained in the genes of the Russell family, and may have been an inevitable feature of John’s life.

Russell’s mother had died young and his father had been depressed. He grew up fearing mental illness – states in which it becomes hardest to be rational. Tragically, it not only scarred his life and those of his loved ones but was opening new wounds up to and after his death. John married another victim of schizophrenia, and she bore two children. After their marriage collapsed, Russell and his fourth wife adopted them. It would not surprise Monk if their chaotic home contributed to their downfall. Perhaps. But perhaps they had always been doomed to suffering.

Sarah was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent much of her life in hospitals, but Lucy endured an even more hideous fate. A youth marked by self-destructive behaviour culminated in her self-destruction, as she poured fuel over herself in a graveyard and set herself alight. Dora is alleged to have claimed that this was a protest against the bombing of Cambodia but Monk concludes that if it was a protest against anything it was her own existence.

The two most haunting images in this book are of John as a plump, cheerful infant and Lucy as a thoughtful young girl – both of them enjoying the strangeness of the world without awareness of its threats. Kate, who had grown up frustrated with her inability to overcome the “irrational” impulses that her parents had claimed should be surmounted on the road to happiness, went on to embrace Christianity, attracted to a doctrine of Original Sin that informed her that human weakness was inevitable. (Russell, in a display of his essential good-naturedness, accepted this with tolerance.) I am not going to end on a theological note but there is wisdom in the acceptance of our propensities towards unreason and despair, of which mental illness is an exceptionally virulent example. Their effects can be ameliorated by thought, love and wisdom but they cannot be eliminated. We should remember this as we attempt to maintain our minds, hearts and knowledge.

limits of sincerityI am reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, which exposes the miserable private lives of famed philosophers in an attempt to undercut their claims to be authorities on how people should live. Sometimes these biographical observations are relevant to their ideas and sometimes they are glorified gossip. Rousseau’s startling selfishness is worth bearing in mind as one reflects on his claims to be a pillar of good conduct but Marx’s personal hygiene should not affect one’s judgement of the labour theory of value.

Still, it is of interest. In the chapter on Rousseau, Johnson notes something that interests me. The unstable romanticist was known to be a boor in public, and justified this on philosophical grounds…

He deliberately stressed sentiment as opposed to convention, the impulse of the heart rather than manners. “My sentiments,” he said, “Are such that they must not be disguised. They dispense me from being polite.”

Johnson draws a parallel between Rousseau and England’s “angry young men”, which Colin Wilson also did in The Angry Years. Their bumptious impatience with convention brings to mind a book that was brought to my attention by Robin Hanson. Ritual and Its Consequences, by Adam B. Seligman and others, stresses the importance of attitudes as well as ideas. It makes a distinction between “ritual”, in which our acts are institutionalised, and “sincerity”, in which all acts must be fulfilled with genuine conviction. “Ritual” demands that one celebrate Christmas. “Sincerity” dictates that one celebrate if and only if one is in the mood.

The authors do not judge either mode of living as good or bad but stress the need for both. Sincerity imbues our lives with passion; rituals give them coherence. I am awful at following other peoples’ traditions: a grumbler at dress codes, a grouch at family affair and, this year, even an absentee at Christmas. Yet if my birthday rolled around and all my friends and relatives informed me that they did not feel enthusiastic about celebrating I might be annoyed.

Societies need rituals as well. They give us reasons to unite and affirm unstated rules by which we live. I have written before of All Saint’s Day, for example, which, in Poland, has less religious significance than it used to but still reminds people of their responsibilities to family members old and young.

Our age has been marked by disdain for rituals. Their significance can be hard to define, and people have fun exposing their apparent worthlessness and proving themselves to be capable of seeing through illusions…

As a consequence, ritual has come to be seen from the perspective of sincerity claims, and has come to be relegated in our minds to a supposedly ‘‘traditional’’ order that the modern period has heroically superseded. Indeed, so pervasive have these sincerity claims become that even revolts against this so-called modern era are done in the name of finding ever-more-authentic forms of sincerity.

The authors cite fundamentalist religion as a symptom of this trend – and one could add other examples of people hunting for sincerity where it is toxic or vacuous – before continuing…

…we need to restore the balance between ritual and sincerity by once again taking seriously the claims of ritual. Among other things, taking ritual theorists from other traditions seriously helps teach us the tremendous dangers of trying to build a totally coherent world of authentic, individual truth-claims. It helps teach us instead to recognize the fragmented and discontinuous nature of the world, the endless work entailed in building and refining our multiple and often conflicting relationships within that world, and the ultimately tragic fate of that work.

Where “ritual” and “sincerity” should take precedence over each other is a question for debate. I rather like this quote, from G.K. Chesterton’s The Thing

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

It strikes me that if there is one lesson that shines through the lives of modern intellectuals it is the need for inherited wisdom. They have often tried to live on their own terms beyond their own capacities and this has made some of them, and the people they have known, extremely sad.

The Captive MindHow do intelligent men learn to love stupidity? How do artists come to appreciate barbarism? These questions troubled Czesław Miłosz as he wrote The Captive Mind. A Polish poet, in exile for his dissident stance, he wanted to explore the attitudes of those of his peers who had embraced Stalinism.

These men were different from the Stalinists of the West. They did not tend to have been Marxists by inclination, but had embraced the “New Faith” once the Red Army had arrived. At the centre of the book is a caustic analysis of four writers than Miłosz names as “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Gamma” and “Delta”; actually Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament and Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński.

Miłosz had always lived at a distance from his contemporaries. He was cosmopolitan and progressive – disdainful of national traditions – and had avoided the Warsaw Uprising to save himself from an insurrection that he thought was futile. Stalinist attempts to reshape man and his societies disgusted him regardless, but he could appreciate how men were tempted to accept them.

The young poets and novelists that he had grown up with were living in an age in which political and spiritual certainties had been abandoned. Many of them had been scarred by their experiences of the war, which had made everything seem far more urgent or absurd. The trivial thoughts and deeds of their compatriots repulsed them, and the threat of fascists often seemed to have endured. They swallowed the pill of communism as the Red Army occupied Poland.

Miłosz borrows the Islamic idea of “ketman” to describe their outward enthusiasm and internal conflict, before delving into the conflicts endured by his peers. Alpha, “the moralist”, is held to have sought purity in a strange, silent universe. He had embraced the right and the left, as well as Communism and the resistance, in his search for moral authority. (Miłosz blames him for inspiring young men to sacrifice themselves in a doomed uprising, though one would like to think that Krzysztof Baczyński and others could decide for themselves.) Miłosz seems to empathise with his longing but argues that looking for great truths he obscured actual facts: seeing fascist atrocities, and capitalist ills, but not Soviet crimes. Blinkers are a fine accessory is one’s struggle to ascertain the meaning of existence as a narrow view contains only data consistent with the meaning that one hopes to find. They are, however, not a worthwhile source of the truth.

BorowskiBeta, “the Disappointed Lover”, endured the concentration camps and is said to have emerged with resentment and fear towards mankind. Utopianism thrives in misanthropy. It inspires one to imagine a new form of man. Given the disgust that you and I – if we are honest – experience faced with the mean and tedious elements of our societies we should sympathise with those who felt disgusted after witnessing massacres. One must say, to begin with, that our cognitive programming is not easily adjusted. Man’s psychological habits are 0ld and unyielding, and cannot be changed as one might lose the habit of biting one’s nails. This is no defence of them. Miłosz suggests that his despair could have been tempered if he had “seen an individual man instead of a society. We have different impulses, which can be debased (or, indeed, ennobled) by torment, but should that lead us to define ourselves by our worst possibilities? Better, perhaps, to accept the conflict in our nature and strive to maintain conditions that support our better selves.

Gamma was a longtime communist who Miłosz portrays as a Soviet functionary, propagandising on behalf of the Stalinists in an attempt to expand their ranks and minimise “the number of internally free people who, by the mere fact of their existence, judged him”. He believes that Soviet triumph is inevitable, and that he is a slave to historical determinism, but Miłosz reflects that “the devil to whom men sell their souls owes his might to men themselves”. One makes a choice to empower him.

Delta, meanwhile, was a stylist with little regard for the content of his work. He brought the same exuberant flair to prose and poems on behalf of crypto-fascists and communists alike. Once he had declared his loyalty to the Soviets, however, their evermore overbearing demands for ideological conformity throttled his style and ensured that “his poems no longer differed from prose ground out by second-rate rhymesters”. Isolated aestheticism is impossible.

MiloszWith the exception of Borowski – author of the chilling This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, whose suicide might have shown the extent to which he was traumatised by his wartime experiences or the extent to which his soul dissented from his propaganda – I know little of the men whom Miłosz explored. Such is the man’s assurance in describing their psychologies that it might be that his diagnoses were somewhat presumptuous. They are grimly plausible, however, and one can appreciate the temptations that such men experienced. Ambition, horror, resignation and detachment can encourage us to accept idiocies and evil under less pressure than these men experienced and their portrayals should inspire not the smugness one can feel as one dismisses others as “useful idiots” but caution one is imbued with upon acknowledging our potential for weakness.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 193 other followers