November 29, 2006

1. Genocide

During the 1940s, when rumors about the Holocaust began to circulate, it seemed unbelievable. People couldn’t believe that a nation as advanced, as cultured as Germany was killing millions of people in death-factories.

One might suppose that Hitler alone conceived the idea of a death-factory, or that this idea was unique to the Nazis, or the Germans. In fact, the idea of a death-factory, the idea of genocide, was widespread in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of England’s leading intellectuals endorsed the idea, including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and D. H. Lawrence. Wells envisioned genocide on a far greater scale than anything seen in the Third Reich; Wells spoke of eliminating “those swarms of blacks, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people.” Lawrence wrote, “If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace.”1

The idea of genocide was doubtless as widespread in Germany as it was in England. Nietzsche speaks of, “the greatest of all tasks, the attempt to raise humanity higher, including the relentless destruction of everything that was degenerating and parasitical.”2 Gorky met many people in Russia who subscribed to these ideas; Gorky said that these ideas are “more persistent and more widespread than they are commonly thought to be.”3

Is it surprising that the idea of genocide, widespread among Western intellectuals, was eventually put into practice? The beliefs of one generation become the policies of the next; as Heine said, “thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder.” Hegel expressed the same idea in a less poetic way: “Once the realm of notion is revolutionized, actuality does not hold out.”4

The idea of genocide emerged when religious faith declined. In the early 1800s, Heine said that Christianity had restrained the Germans, and he predicted that the Germans would perpetrate genocide if “that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered.”5

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the idea of genocide was so widespread that you begin to wonder, “did any leading intellectuals in this generation not subscribe to this idea?” One who didn’t subscribe was E. M. Forster. Perhaps Forster didn’t subscribe because he was influenced by Whitman. Forster’s worldview (as I argued in an earlier issue) was Zennish, mystical, Whitman-esque, and he wasn’t attracted to political radicalism, utopian thinking, rationalistic schemes.

2. The Philosophy of Today

A. Our Adversaries

The Philosophy of Today will be criticized by hard-headed rationalists and by traditional monotheists, just as the Renaissance philosophy of Pico and Bruno was criticized by rationalists and monotheists. Bruno wanted to replace Christianity with a new, Hermetic religion. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition.

Bruno’s worldview not only collided with the Church, it also collided with the scientific worldview that was developing in the early 1600s. This scientific worldview was concerned with the visible and measurable, and was scornful of mysticism; like the hard-headed rationalists of today, these early scientists were uncomfortable with the occult and the mysterious.

Because Bruno’s Hermetic worldview was opposed by the religious establishment and the scientific establishment, it went underground in the 1600s, and inspired secret societies like the Rosicrucians and Freemasons. Now the Hermetic worldview is becoming widespread once again, as it was in the Renaissance.

Greek philosophers pioneered the rational approach, and were as fond of it as a child is of a new toy. Likewise, the pioneers of the scientific approach placed too much faith in their new methods, and were too contemptuous of the age-old wisdom of mankind, too contemptuous of mystics and alchemists.

B. The Cult of Genius

Unlike Nietzsche’s philosophy, the Philosophy of Today is democratic, and has broad appeal. We believe that Eastern practices, like meditation and yoga, can be useful for all sorts of people; these practices are effective in prisons, ghettos, etc. While Schopenhauer and Nietzsche developed a Cult of Genius, we’re more interested in spiritual growth, which is open to all, and is a challenge to all. Though we’re impressed by the achievements of genius, we’re also impressed by the wisdom of the unconscious — a wisdom that everyone possesses — and we’re impressed by the anonymous, folk wisdom of fairy-tales and myths — a wisdom that all peoples possess.

C. Practical Philosophy

The Philosophy of Today emphasizes the inner life, spiritual growth, and the art of living well. It doesn’t treat philosophy as a purely intellectual exercise; rather, it stays close to life itself.

One of the central questions of ancient philosophy was, What is the good life? Ancient philosophers sometimes discussed abstract, metaphysical questions, but usually ancient philosophers stayed close to life, tried to understand the world, and advised people how to live well. Ancient philosophers advised people how to accept poverty, how to accept illness, and how to accept death. Ancient philosophers tried to live in accordance with their philosophy. Their philosophy was relevant to life, even when it took a pessimistic view of life. (One ancient philosopher, Hegesias, advised people not to live at all, and many of his followers committed suicide. King Ptolemy prohibited Hegesias from lecturing, lest he depopulate the country.)

During the Middle Ages, philosophy no longer advised people how to live. Religion began to play the role that philosophy used to play. Philosophy was reduced to playing the role of “handmaid of theology.” Philosophy was no longer relevant to life; it became enmeshed in logic and in the process of thinking, like analytic philosophy today.

During the Renaissance, many people had more respect for Greco-Roman culture than for Christianity. Philosophy was no longer the “handmaid of theology,” it resumed the role that it had in ancient times. One Renaissance philosopher, Montaigne, restored the ancient tradition, tried to understand the world, and discussed topics relevant to life.

Emerson and Thoreau worked within the tradition of Montaigne. They stayed close to life, and didn’t become enmeshed in purely intellectual questions. Among their most important writings are their journals — a sign that their philosophical efforts weren’t divorced from their daily life. One of their contemporaries, Kierkegaard, is also known for his journal, and also tried to connect philosophy to everyday life. According to Kierkegaard, truth should make you a better person: “only the truth that edifies is truth for you.”6 Nietzsche, too, insisted that the life of the mind should be connected to life. Nietzsche thought that philosophy should be practical, not abstract:

I get profit from a philosopher, just so far as he can be an example to me.... This example must exist in his outward life, not merely in his books; it must follow the way of the Greek philosophers, whose doctrine was in their dress and bearing and general manner of life rather than in their speech or writing.7

The Philosophy of Today is even more practical than Nietzsche, even less interested in logic than Thoreau, even less abstract than Kierkegaard, even closer to life than Montaigne. The Philosophy of Today draws on the tradition of Jung and Freud, a tradition that stays close to life, a tradition that points us toward self-knowledge. We admire the Buddha, who advised his disciples not to be distracted by intellectual questions, but to focus on their inner life. And we admire those Zen sages whose approach is un-intellectual and un-bookish, those Zen sages “whose doctrine was in their dress and bearing and general manner of life rather than in their speech or writing,” those Zen sages whose wisdom manifested itself in arts and crafts and sports rather than in syllogisms and definitions.

D. Kierkegaard’s Quip

Kierkegaard saw that philosophy is often side-tracked by questions of process, and fails to address the big questions. “What the philosophers say about Reality,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a shop window, which reads: Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes to be pressed, you would be fooled; for the sign is only for sale.”8

3. Indonesia

Interesting piece in the Weekly Standard on Indonesia.9 It’s about a 34-year-old rock star, Ahmad Dhani, who has become a champion of moderate Islam, and an opponent of fundamentalism.

Since the Indonesian dictator Suharto was overthrown in ’98, fundamentalism and terrorism have been on the rise in Indonesia. Clashes between Muslims and Christians have claimed more than 10,000 lives. One of the leading terrorist groups is Laskar Jihad (“Warriors of Jihad”).

In 2004, Dhani released an album called Laskar Cinta (“Warriors of Love”). A terrorist group “accused Dhani of being an apostate and a Zionist agent.” One wonders if Dhani can survive.

Dhani’s father and grandfather were fundamentalists, and Dhani himself was long a member of the fundamentalist camp. He became a moderate after studying Sufi teachings. Dhani describes Sufism as “the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam that focuses not on what separates people from one another or God; but rather, on what unites us. Sufi Islam teaches Muslims to love and respect all of God’s creatures, and not to unnecessarily harm anyone.”10

Bernard Lewis, the renowned expert on Islam, says

The Quran speaks of peace as well as of war. The hundreds of thousands of traditions and sayings attributed with varying reliability to the Prophet, interpreted in various ways by the ulema [authorities on theology and Islamic law], offer a wide range of guidance. The militant and violent interpretation is one among many.11

Dhani hasn’t rejected Islam. Rather, he has chosen to emphasize its peaceful side.

The lyrics reflect Dhani’s Sufi faith: they are inspired by the Quran and ahadith (the sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad) with the intention of rebutting the hateful ideology that inspires Islamic terror. There is even an annotated version of the song online that makes the theological inspiration behind the verses explicit.

When Dhani was asked how to foster communication between Islam and the West,

Dhani replied that people in the West need to respect Islam: not to respect radical Islam or the ideology of al Qaeda, but to respect the faith itself. Dhani said that it isn’t just a matter of voicing respect for Islam, but that Westerners should actually feel this respect in their hearts because that language of love and respect will ultimately be communicated back to the Muslim community.

4. Selling Philosophy

I’m revising my chief book, my book of aphorisms. I’ve revised this book periodically ever since I began writing it in the summer of 1984. Every time I revise it, I think that this revision is the last, I can’t imagine revising it again. But after a couple years, my views change, and my earlier writings don’t seem as good, as final, as they once seemed. I’m able to go back to my book, and take a fresh look at it; some passages I like, and decide to keep, others I delete. Sometimes I write a new aphorism, sometimes I take a piece from an old issue of Phlit, modify it, and insert it into my book of aphorisms.

Some people tell me that I should stop revising, and write a new book. Every writer must choose whether to abandon old books, or go back to them and revise them. This is a question on which reasonable people can differ; some outstanding writers have chosen one path, others have chosen a different path. I won’t say that those who choose to abandon an old book are wrong, but as for me, I prefer to revise my old book.

I would like to contribute one small book to the eternal literature of mankind. If I think I can make my book better, I’ll revise it, improve it. I want to write a book that everyone can read, everyone can learn from, everyone can enjoy, a book that sums up the past and points to the future, a book that recaptures the spirit of the old classics, a book that resurrects forgotten writers from previous centuries.

Wherever my book has been published (China, Taiwan), it has been well received, and it has sold well. So why should I abandon it before it has been published in the West? Why shouldn’t I expect that, if it sold well in an earlier version, it will sell even better now that it has been enlarged and improved?

In 1997, I self-published my book of aphorisms, making it available in English, available in the U.S. In 1999, when I had sold or given away most of my copies, I self-published a second edition, a revised edition. Now, once again, I’ve sold or given away most of my copies, so I need to self-publish a third edition, in order to keep the book in print, and satisfy demand for the book, however limited that demand may be (sometimes it seems that demand has died out completely, but then I get some orders from Amazon, or from a distributor, and my hopes rise). Though I’m pleased when someone buys a copy of my book, it’s painful to send out a copy of the 1999 edition, since I think I’ve made important changes/improvements since that edition was printed.

Perhaps I’ll print a new edition within the next eight months, but I may try to find an agent or publisher before I self-publish. Self-publishing can make it harder to publish, because publishers think that the book has been published already, that it isn’t fresh and new. On the other hand, one experienced literary agent suggested that I self-publish and “test market” in order to prove the book’s potential, and impress publishers.

If I self-publish a 3rd edition, I’d like to keep the same title and ISBN, so if someone goes looking for my book, they’ll find it, they won’t be told, “that book is out of print, we can’t get it.” On the other hand, this 3rd edition is different, better than earlier editions, and I’d like to convey that by publishing it with a new title; as a “new book,” it would receive more attention. So perhaps I’ll publish it under two different titles. Perhaps the new title could have some additional essays, as well as the book of aphorisms — essays like my “Dispute With Analytic Philosophers,” my essay on the Kennedy assassination, my three essays on Shakespeare, perhaps even a longer work such as my Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature).

I’m optimistic. I don’t have many reasons for optimism, but my intuitions tell me that my hour has finally come.

5. Notes

I recommend the Museum of Science in Boston. Though it’s expensive, big, and tiring, it’s an excellent museum on the whole. In addition to exhibits on various subjects, it offers lectures/presentations by superb speakers.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned my first Wikipedia article, an article on Ed Banfield. I recently wrote my second Wikipedia article, an article on my sister, the artist Jane Hammond. [Later I wrote articles on Steven Sage and Enrique Ojeda.]

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. National Review Online, October 18, 2006, “Let It Grow: Population progression,” by Jonah Goldberg back
2. Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 4 back
3. My Universities back
4. Quoted in Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath, 1/19. Compare Emerson: “The ancestor of every action is a thought.”(“Spiritual Laws”) back
5. Religion and Philosophy in Germany back
6. Either/Or, last sentence back
7. Untimely Essays, “Schopenhauer As Educator,” 3 back
8. Either/Or, Part I, “Diapsalmata” back
9. “Warrior of Love: An unlikely champion of moderate Islam,” by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, 11/15/2006 back
10. When I discussed the 9/11 attacks, I wrote, “The Muslim poet Rumi often visited the temples of the Jews and Christians, believing that all three religions are fundamentally akin. The religious spirit unites, the mystical spirit unites, but a narrow religiosity clings to the book, clings to the past, clings to the holy place, instead of finding God within oneself. A narrow religiosity often has a political dimension, often becomes nationalistic.” back
11. “License To Kill,” Foreign Affairs (Nov. 1998) back