July 29, 2010

1. Everything is Connected

I spoke recently to a woman who, with her boyfriend’s help, had built a house with her own hands. Neither of them had ever built a house before, and neither of them had much carpentry experience. It was to be a small, simple house, but for them, it was a big project.

When the project was about to start, they went for a walk on a dirt road, and encountered a turtle that was laying eggs. As the eggs came out, they quivered (their shell was soft).

Is it just a coincidence that they saw a turtle giving birth just when their building project was being born? Such “meaningful coincidences” are what Jung called synchronicity, an acausal connecting principle. We tend to think in terms of cause-and-effect connections, but perhaps there are also acausal connections. Not only did Jung believe in such connections, but the plays of Shakespeare are rife with them, Chinese culture was preoccupied with them, primitive man believed in them, etc.

Since the building project was a big project, an exciting adventure, perhaps the woman and her boyfriend were in a somewhat excited state, an inspired state. Perhaps this frame of mind helped to create the synchronicity. In general, an excited state of mind seems to call forth occult phenomena.

Let’s assume that the turtle birth and the house birth weren’t just a coincidence, let’s assume they were connected. What then? Then we begin to suspect that there’s some sort of connection, some sort of communication, between turtles and human beings. But why stop at turtles? The same synchronicities happen with all sorts of animals, hence the ancients would observe the flight of birds, and inspect the entrails of various animals, when starting a project; the ancients believed in connections — occult connections, acausal connections, synchronistic connections — between animals and people.

But why stop at animals? We also find synchronicities between inanimate objects and people. Poe deals with such synchronicities in his “Fall of the House of Usher,” in which a person’s death, and a building’s collapse, occur simultaneously; Poe mentions several philosophers who believed that everything was connected. According to an old story, when a person dies, the clock in his room stops. Jung often discusses connections between stars/planets and people (astrology). Quantum physics has proven the existence of inexplicable connections between distant particles.

So if we assume that the turtle birth and the house birth aren’t just a coincidence, we’re led to the conclusion that all things in the universe — animals, people, clocks, stars, etc. — are connected, though we can’t explain how such connections are possible. We need to develop the capacity for which Keats praised Shakespeare: Negative Capability, accepting the mysterious without reaching for a rational explanation.

If we believe that everything is connected, then our worldview is in harmony with the worldview of primitive man, with the worldview of the Chinese, with the worldview of Shakespeare and Jung, etc. On the other hand, such a worldview is at odds with the Western, rational-scientific worldview; in our society, the notion that “everything is connected” represents a radical view, a revolutionary view.

There are two ways you can view the world: you can believe that everything is connected, or you can believe that the world is made up of discrete objects; you can believe that the whole universe has a kind of life, a kind of consciousness, or you can believe that the universe is made up largely of dead matter. How we view the universe is as important as whether we believe in God. Indeed, how we view the universe may be more fundamental than how we view God; our view of God may be an outgrowth of our view of the universe.

The notion that “everything is connected” has a profound impact on religion — indeed, one might say that it is a religion. The notion that “everything is connected” also has a profound impact on art; all sorts of things become possible to the novelist, the film-maker, etc.

The notion that “everything is connected” is gaining ground in the West, and throughout the world, because of the influence of Jung, because of the impact of quantum physics — because of the general development of Western thought. The notion that “everything is connected” is an important part of what I call the Philosophy of Today.

(More connections here and here.)

2. Miscellaneous

A. Prefix Power As languages evolve, it seems that prefixes multiply, and simple “root words” gradually disappear. Take, for example, the Latin word “spirare,” to breathe. Various prefixes have been added to “spirare” to create various English words — conspire, aspire, respire, expire — but what happened to the simple root “spirare”? It seems to have disappeared. Or take the Latin “rodere,” to gnaw. “Rodere” is the root of erode, corrode, etc., but the verb “rodere,” without a prefix, hasn’t survived (I don’t count “rodent” (gnawing animal) since it isn’t a verb). Or take “monere,” to warn: we have premonition, admonition, etc., but where is the simple root form?

Just in the last few decades, we’ve seen an example of “prefix power” with the word “star.” The prefix “super” was added, creating “superstar,” and now “superstar” seems to be replacing “star.” The growth of prefixes is a kind of “language inflation.”

B. Wikipedia finally has an article on the Prince Tudor Theory, a theory that I’ve often discussed in this e-zine. Doubtless Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia that has an article devoted to Prince Tudor. Wikipedia is the biggest encyclopedia, and the one most receptive to new theories, like the Prince Tudor Theory. I believe it’s the best encyclopedia, though it’s the one that the establishment loves to hate.

3. Tocqueville

The local GreatBooks group recently read a chapter of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear.”1 Tocqueville says that despotism in antiquity “was violent, but its range was limited.” Modern despotism, on the other hand, is mild but extensive, degrading but not tormenting, reducing citizens to the level of children. It seems that Tocqueville foresaw the development of the welfare state, and decried this development. The more government does for citizens, the more citizens are degraded and weakened.

In an earlier issue, I pointed out how many American Presidents came from broken homes, homes in which a youngster was forced to grow up, forced to be independent and mature. Conversely, if parents do everything for their child, the child becomes less capable, less mature. Tocqueville seems to say that if the government acts like a parent, and provides for the citizens in many ways (old age pension, government health care, etc.), then “each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Tocqueville’s argument reminded me of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard said that if everyone is born a Christian, if everyone is given a faith at birth, if no one has to struggle to find faith, if no one receives faith in fear and trembling, if no one clings to their faith in the teeth of government persecution, then religion is too easy, and spirituality stagnates. So Kierkegaard decided that, while others were trying to make things easier, he would try to make things harder — make things more like they were in the early days of Christianity. And this was Tocqueville’s goal: to build character by making things harder. Tocqueville even advocated the conquest of Algeria in order to challenge the French people, to rouse the French middle classes from their comfortable lethargy.2

Tocqueville seems to have a classical education, a firm knowledge of ancient culture. On the other hand, he’s unfamiliar with Asian culture, Asian values. One might say that Tocqueville’s ethics are the ethics of glory that prevailed in Greco-Roman society. Now that the West has made contact with the East, now that the West has been influenced by Eastern philosophy, Eastern mysticism, what happens to the ethics of glory? What happens to our view of Tocqueville? Surely Tocqueville will still be regarded as a deep thinker, a shrewd observer, a great stylist, but will we take issue with some of his judgments?

Tocqueville notes the rise of individualism. In modern society, he says, each person

living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

If democratic society is peaceful and prosperous, then we do indeed “lose our country,” and sink into the apathy (apathy toward politics) that Tocqueville warns of. If, on the other hand, our existence is threatened by foreign attack, environmental problems, or economic collapse, then we may remember our country. After the September 11 attack, for example, there was a burst of patriotic feeling.

Communist societies, like Mao’s China, kept everyone thinking about the nation — even naming their children after political policies. No one in Mao’s China “lost their country.” Such a fever of nationalism is surely as unhealthy as an extreme of individualism. In his concern with the evils of individualism, does Tocqueville overlook the evils of nationalism?

4. Raghuram Rajan

An interesting piece in the Weekly Standard about an economist named Raghuram Rajan; the author of the piece is Christopher Caldwell (my former classmate).3 Caldwell’s piece gave me a new view of the 2008 financial crisis. Previously, I had thought that the cause of the crisis was the following: excessive lending by bankers who knew that they could sell their mortgages to Wall Street; Wall Street, in turn, knew that they could bundle these shaky mortgages into mortgage bonds; the bonds received a Triple-A rating from the ratings agencies, and therefore they could be sold to investors who put their faith in the Triple-A rating. But Caldwell’s piece argued that excessive lending was required by the government, which was eager to help working-class people who seemed to be left behind by the new economy. Caldwell’s piece is actually a book review; it reviews a recent book by Raghuram Rajan, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy. Caldwell says that Rajan’s writing is “clear as a bell, even to nonspecialists.”

Born in India, Raghuram Rajan became an economist at the IMF, and is currently a professor at the University of Chicago. Rajan anticipated the 2008 crisis, and issued a warning in 2005 at a FederalReserve conference; Rajan said that “incentive structures in the banking profession were leading to reckless credit expansion.”4 His warning was dismissed; Larry Summers, for example, called it “misguided.”

Rajan argues that politicians helped create the 2008 crisis by insisting that lenders make loans to low-income borrowers. Politicians were distressed by growing income inequality, and tried to distribute wealth by lavishly extending credit. Welfare had a bad name, credit had a good name, so politicians put brakes on welfare, and opened the floodgates of credit.

The trends that shook the world economy came out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, out of the Federal Housing Administration, and out of their “regulator,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. By 2000, HUD required that low-income loans make up 50 percent of Fannie and Freddie’s portfolios. Out of “compassionate conservatism,” perhaps, the Bush administration raised that mandate to 56 percent.... By 2008, “the FHA and various other government programs were exposed to about $2.7 trillion in subprime and Alt-A loans, approximately 59 percent of total loans to these categories.”5

Perhaps the root problem was the transition from an industrial economy to an information-and-service economy, a transition that caused a decline in high-paying jobs, and a rise of income inequality. Politicians, scrambling to address these problems, pushed lenders to extend credit excessively. Before I read Caldwell’s piece, I thought the financial crisis was caused by a poorly-regulated free market. Now, however, I think it was caused, at least in part, by government meddling in the market, meddling that was prompted by a desire to make wealth more equal.

© L. James Hammond 2010
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1. Book II, Part 4, ch. 6 back
2. Wikipedia back
3. “Easy Credit, Hard Landing: The financial insights of Raghuram Rajan,” by Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard, July 26, 2010 back
4. ibid back
5. ibid back