Poem: Only the gods are wise

Only the gods are wise
The living imitations we ought not idolize
Refracted lights that shine quite dim
Emptiness overflows unto the brim

Seeking hungrily new knowledge
We eagerly provide a stage
The crowd is quickly hushed
So to listen to some sage

But the guru has no answers
And leaves no lasting impression
What was long anticipated
Becomes hardly worth a mention

What then is this philosophizing for?
We seem not to get too far
All these public intellectuals
And their speeches seem bizarre

Only the gods are wise
And our philosophizing is mere play
We must decide to live the questions;
They are not going away.

Amanda Achtman
May 4, 2013
Vancouver, BC 

Reading Week Part 3: On Hunting by Roger Scruton

This evening I finished reading Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting. It was a delight to read this short memoir indoors on a Saturday snuggled with a blanket and beside a fire. It reminded me of reading books about gruesome trench warfare in cafés while sipping cappuccinos. The circumstances in which I read books on topics like war and hunting are so radically removed from the contents of the books, which makes non-fiction books and autobiographical memoirs seem more like fantasy.

When I was a child, I didn’t like pretending very much. I was very much obsessed with accuracy and with reality. Tea was obviously an indispensable condition for a tea party; juice could not possibly be a substitute. So books that are based very much on reality, but on a reality which is utterly or significantly foreign to me make for very enjoyable reads. Being transported to the world of fox-hunting in Scruton’s book is a bit like being transported to a world of elves or wizards, except the foreign reality is not an imaginary one, but rather an existent one in our world.

When this book was lent to me, my first comment was that it is short. Scruton prefaces his especially autobiographical anecdotes saying, “The length of a biography ought to be dictated by the greatness of the deeds recorded in it. Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature – especially when written by politicians themselves.” Scruton weaves together an engaging narrative emphasizing the centrality of hunting to his experiences. He says he “resolved to take up hunting during this, the best part of my life. The next ten years were given to fulfilling that ambition, along with two others: to be employed by no-one, and to live by my wits. The three ambitions were really one and the same: I was taking a step back from the modern world into a realm of ancestral freedoms. I was also discovering England.”

The three-fold resolution and the lofty, yet compelling description of what became of his goals lend a larger-than-life quality to his storytelling. Perhaps this is the case with all storytelling though. I think that one of the most insightful lines in C.S. Lewis is this:
“Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself  involve an exaggeration?”

Recently, a man I know, a hunter, was explaining to me that he is an atheist but that hunting is the closest he has come to believing in God. The reflection that hunting inspires on nature, on life, and on mortality orient the soul to contemplation of these things. Here is what Roger Scruton says on the matter:

“Of course, I was familiar with hunting prints, with lampshades, table mats and tea trays celebrating ‘the sport of our ancestors’. And being a mere intellectual, I had dismissed them as mass-produced kitsch. But what I observed was neither kitsch nor cliché. There by the willow-cumbered banks I saw the moving image of eternity. Here was an unselfconscious union between species, which was also a rejoicing in the land. It was neither Nature nor Heritage nor any other marketed thing. It was, like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comforting as soul is, and as durable. I know this more clearly now, in retrospect. But I sensed it then, and a strange apprehension came over me, like falling in love – the apprehension of the self taken hostage by an outside force.”

Occasionally throughout the book, I wondered how the book is received by other fox-hunters. After all, Scruton is an intellectual and his book centres around such themes as human nature and the human condition, all while referencing classical texts in politics, history, and literature. It reminded me of J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors, which was the most academic book that I read in my War and Interpretation class. Gray’s book is philosophical. It is fundamentally about human nature (of which war is an essential feature) and other eternal things. This is precisely what made Scruton’s book enjoyable for me too though. Because his book is about many more fundamental things than hunting (which is but one example of the deeper truths that are illustrated), the book resonated meaningfully.

Scruton’s book helps in discerning a proper understanding of human persons. Two important passages on this point include: one on looking at people as subjects and one on making distinctions between animals and humans based on what it means to be a moral being:

“God intended that we live in such a way, that we see into the subjectivity of the world – which is God himself. That we can do this is self-evident. How we do it is an unfathomable mystery. And if, in order to bring this mystery about, a process of evolution was required, so that the soul became incarnate at last in a creature which rose only by degrees to such an eminence, then so be it. God moves in a mysterious way. When you look on people as objects, then you see that Darwin was right. When you look on them as subjects, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory.”

[…]

“Animals are not moral beings: they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their lives, and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, then Kant’s categorical would apply to them: it would be wrong to kill them, capture them, confine them, harm them, or curtail their freedom. But it would also be wrong for them to do these things. Lions would be murderers, cuckoos usurpers, mice burglars, and magpies thieves. The fox would be the worst of living criminals, fully deserving the death penalty which we from time to time administer. For foxes kill not only for food, but with a wanton appetite for death and destruction. In short, to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them – is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.”

Like the books that I have studied on war last semester, Scruton’s book on hunting surprised me. It was engaging, witty, and persuasive. The book is not abstract, but personal. And from the particulars in Scruton’s experience, he points beyond the specifics to what is universal in human nature. He points to what any reasonable person should consider and that is the question: what is man’s place in nature?

Here are a few of my other favourite quotations from the book:

“Being unpopular is never easy; but being unpopular in a good cause is a shield against despair.”

“For hunting lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd – a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the chase.”

“It is a law of human nature that those with least to say spend the most time in saying it.”

“For this is how the suicide of nations begins, when sentimentality prevails over sense.”

“And here is the true reason why women ought not to fight in armies – that, in the moment of supreme danger, they might turn their hostility as much on their comrades as on their foes.”

“Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and the authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade – yes, and Heidegger, who appeals to the post-modern tutor largely because he makes so little sense.”

Reading Week Part 2: The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset

This evening I finished reading José Ortega y Gasset’s book The Revolt of the Masses.
Soon, I intend to write more reflectively on what I have read, but for now, here are my favorite quotations from this exceptional book:

“The masses, suddenly, have made themselves visible, and have installed themselves in the preferred places of society. In the past, the mass, where it existed, went unnoticed. It was a background to the social scene, to the stage of society. Now it has advanced to the footlights, and plays the part of the leading character. There are no longer protagonists as such: there is only the chorus.”

“The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes to impose itself wherever it can. […] The mass crushes everything different, everything outstanding, excellent, individual, select, and choice.”

“The very name is alarming: that a century should call itself “modern,” that is, ultimate, definitive, compared to which all others are merely preterite, humble preparations aspiring to the present!”

“We live at a time which feels itself magnificently capable of any realization, but does not know what to realize. Lord of all things, man is not master of himself. He feels lost in his own abundance. Equipped with more means, more knowledge, more technique than ever, the world today proceeds as did the worst and most unfortunate of all former worlds: it simply drifts.”

“It is false to say, therefore, that in life ‘circumstances decide.’ On the contrary, circumstances are the dilemma, always new, constantly renewed, in the face of which we must make decisions. And it is our character which decides.”

“I do not believe in the absolute determinism of history. On the contrary, I believe that all life, including historical life, is composed of purely momentary instances, each relatively undetermined as far as the previous moment is concerned, so that in each of them reality hesitates, vacilates, marks time, runs in place, paws the ground, and is uncertain of which possibility to choose. This metaphysical wavering, this humming uncertainty, makes everything alive seem to vibrate tremulously.”

“The primary, radical meaning of the word life is made clear when it is used in the sense of biography and not of biology. And this is true for the very good reason that any biology, in the end, is only a chapter in certain biographies, whatever biologists do in the course of their biography. Any other notion is abstraction, fantasy, myth.”

“The world is civilized, but the inhabitant is not: he does not even see its civilization, but uses it as if it were a part of nature. The new man wants his automobile, and enjoys using it, but he thinks it is the spontaneous fruit of some Eden-like tree. His mind does not encompass the artificial, almost unreal nature of civilization, and the enthusiasm he feels for its instruments does not include the principles which make them possible.”

“Philosophy needs no protection, nor attention, nor sympathy, nor interest on the part of the masses. Its perfect uselessness protects it.”

“But the specialist cannot be subsumed under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for his is formally ignorant of all that does not fit into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, for his is ‘a man of science,’ a scientist, and he knows his own sliver of the universe quite well. We shall have to call him a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, for it means that he will act in all areas in which he is ignorant, not like an ignorant man, but with all the airs of one who is learned in his own special line.”

“For philosophy to rule, it is not necessary that philosophers be rulers (as Plato first wanted) nor even that rulers philosophize (as he more modestly wished later). Both courses would prove fatal. For philosophy to rule it suffices that it exist, that is, that philosophers be philosophers. For over a century now, philosophers have been everything but philosophers: they have been politicians, pedagogues, professors, men of letters, and men of science.”

“Moreover, the mass-man sees in the state an anonymous power, and since he feels himself to be anonymous too, he believes that the state is something of his own. When conflict or crisis occurs in public life, the mass-man will tend to look to the state to assume the burden, take on the problem, take charge directly of solving the matter with its unusurpable means.”

“And this is the greatest danger threatening civilization today: the statification of life, state intervention, the taking over by the state of all social spontaneity. […] The mass tells itself: ‘The state is me,’ it’s own version of L’État, c’est moi. […] The contemporary state and the mass are only the same in being anonymous.”

“Without commandments obliging us to live in certain fashions, our lives become purely arbitrary, they become ‘expendable.'”

“Surely, the best that can humanely be said of any institution is that it should be reformed, for that implies that it is indispensable and that it  is capable of new life.”

“Such is the state. It is not a thing, but a movement.”

“If the state be a project for common action, its reality it purely dynamic: it is a doing, something to be done, the community in action.”

“But the same thing happens if the mass-soul decides to act the revolutionary: the apparent enthusiasm for the manual worker, for the afflicted, for social justice, serves as a mask to disguise the rejection of all obligations – such as courtesy, truth-telling, and, above all, respect for and just estimation of the superior individual.”

“This evasion of all obligation explains in part the phenomenon, half ridiculous and half disgraceful, of the promulgation of the platform of “Youth,” of youth per se. Perhaps our times offer no spectacle more grotesque. Almost comically, people call themselves “young,” because they have been told that youth has more rights than obligations, since the fulfillment of obligations can be postponed until the Greek calends of maturity. Youth has always considered itself exempt from doing or already having done great deeds or feats. It has always lived on credit. This has always been understood as being in the nature of humanity, a kind of feigned right, half ironic and half affectionate, conceded to their juniors by the no-longer young.”

“For morality is always and essentially a feeling of subordination and submission to something, a consciousness to obligation and service. […] Morality cannot be simply ignored. Amorality – a word which lacks even a proper construction – does not exist. If one wants to avoid submitting to any norm , one must, nolens volens, submit to the norm of denying all morality. And that is not amorality, but immorality. It constitutes a negative morality which conserves the empty form of the other morality.”