May 18, 2014

1. Miscellaneous

A. I discovered an American novelist named John Williams. He was born into a working-class family in Texas in 1922, and he died in Arkansas in 1994. He won the National Book Award in 1973 for a historical novel called Augustus. He also wrote a novel called Butcher’s Crossing, which is set in Kansas in the 1870’s. Much of his life was based in what might be called the south-central U.S. — Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas. Williams earned his Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Missouri, and he taught for many years at the University of Denver. He’s best known for a novel called Stoner, which is about an English professor at the University of Missouri. A 2013 article in the New Yorker called Stoner “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” and said that Stoner “has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe.” Williams wasn’t a prolific writer, perhaps because he wrote slowly, perhaps because he put most of his energy into teaching.

B. I discovered a British academic, Roy Porter, who wrote numerous books about the history of medicine, the British Enlightenment, and British social history. Among his works is The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, and London: A Social History. “My ambition,” Porter said, “is to stay healthy, fit and active — then suddenly drop dead. I can’t bear the thought of being physically enfeebled.”1 Porter died at 55 while cycling. He was married five times. According to Wikipedia, “He was known for the fact that he needed very little sleep.”

C. It’s widely believed that the new currency, Bitcoin, was created by one person, but there’s much debate about who that person is, just as there’s much debate over who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. According to Wikipedia, “Bitcoin was first mentioned in a 2008 paper published under the name Satoshi Nakamoto.” But is that a pseudonym? (Is “William Shakespeare” a pseudonym?) Three traits are attributed to the Bitcoin creator: “genius, reclusiveness and English ability.”2 He is said to write “lucid English,” and there’s no evidence that he ever wrote any Japanese. Newsweek suggested that the Bitcoin creator was a Japanese man living in California.
[Update December, 2015: Now it is said that the Newsweek report is wrong, and the creator of Bitcoin is an Australian, Craig Steven Wright. Wright may have been helped by an American, Dave Kleiman.]

D. Warren Buffett, the investing wizard, set up a trust fund for his wife. He put 10% of the fund in short-term government bonds, and 90% in a fund that indexes the S&P 500. He says that this approach will outperform most investors. This approach requires no time, no effort, no research; as Buffett says, “it takes care of itself.”3 But people are rarely satisfied to index the market, people usually think they can beat the market. Imagine how much time and energy would be saved if people bought index funds, and then forgot about them, let them take care of themselves!

E. I recently saw a PBS documentary called “What Plants Talk About,” part of a series called Nature. It describes the intelligence of plants — their strategies of offence and defence. Scientists seem unable to explain how such intelligence can exist in organisms that possess neither brain nor nervous system. I’ve argued, though, that everything in the universe — even inanimate matter — possesses a kind of consciousness. In the last issue, I discussed The Double-Slit Experiment, in which particles display an awareness of their surroundings. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if plants display intelligence.

F. I’ve been watching the new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Wikipedia describes it as “a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was presented by Carl Sagan.” The new Cosmos is presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who describes meeting Carl Sagan when he was 17, and Sagan was a Cornell professor. The new Cosmos is a good mix of science history and current science. But it takes a completely rational view of science, and pays no heed to the mystical, the mysterious, the occult; Newton and Einstein are heroes, quantum physics is largely ignored, Bohr and Heisenberg aren’t even mentioned.3B

2. Railroad Stations: Penn and Grand Central

I saw an excellent documentary about Penn Station, which was built in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The president of the railroad, and the driving force behind the construction of Penn Station, was Alexander Cassatt, brother of painter Mary Cassatt. Penn Station was a remarkable engineering achievement — tunneling under rivers, etc. It was also a remarkable aesthetic achievement, designed by architect Charles F. McKim, who was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla. And its destruction was a remarkable act of folly, an irreplaceable loss for New York City (it was demolished in 1963 to permit the construction of a skyscraper, and a new Madison Square Garden). As architecture critic Vincent Scully put it, “[Through the old Penn Station] one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Penn Station

Grand Central is also the subject of an excellent documentary. Like the Penn Station documentary, the Grand Central documentary is part of the American Experience series (a PBS series). But unlike the Penn Station documentary, the Grand Central documentary can’t be viewed online.

The Grand Central documentary says that Grand Central was built by the New York Central Railroad, in which the Vanderbilt family had a major interest (they also had a major interest in the Hudson River Railroad, the Harlem Railroad, etc.). The Vanderbilts wanted to match the artistic achievement of Penn Station, which was built three years before. Grand Central was designed for the new electric trains, which didn’t create as much pollution as the old coal/steam trains. It was also designed to bury the trains underground, allowing for the sale and development of property on Park Avenue. Two underground levels were created to accommodate the profusion of tracks. All this underground construction made it an expensive project, but the cost was defrayed by the development of Park Avenue.

The Grand Central documentary quotes Thomas Wolfe (without attribution), though Wolfe was writing about Penn Station. One might say that, with Penn Station gone, Grand Central has inherited Wolfe’s words.

The station, as he entered it, was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Great, slant beams of moted light fell ponderously athwart the station’s floor, and the calm voice of time hovered along the walls and ceiling of that mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath. It had the murmur of a distant sea, the languorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men. They contributed to it as drops of rain contribute to a river that draws its flood and movement majestically from great depths, out of purple hills at evening.

Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and now it seemed to George that there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railway station. For here, as nowhere else on earth, men were brought together for a moment at the beginning or end of their innumerable journeys, here one saw their greetings and farewells, here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of the human destiny. Men came and went, they passed and vanished, and all were moving through the moments of their lives to death, all made small tickings in the sound of time — but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof. (You Can’t Go Home Again, ch. 5, also in the Ric Burns documentary on New York, Episode 4, Section 6)

In 1968, it was proposed to replace Grand Central with a skyscraper, but a group of citizens (a group that included Jackie Kennedy) resisted the proposal. Grand Central was given “landmark” status, and the Supreme Court upheld this status. Grand Central avoided the fate of Penn Station.

3. The Disappearance of Flight 370

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still hasn’t been found. According to Wikipedia, “There has been no confirmation of any flight debris and no crash site has been found.” [Update 2016: Debris has been found on Réunion Island.]

When I first heard about Flight 370, I thought it was a case of anti-Chinese terrorism; in recent months, there have been several cases of anti-Chinese terrorism. (Such incidents are usually perpetrated by Chinese Muslims who live in central or western China.) It appears now, however, that this wasn’t a case of anti-Chinese terrorism, and it probably wasn’t any kind of terrorism.

I suspect that it was a case of pilot suicide. Terrorism and suicide often overlap; a suicide-bomber may want to end his life and strike at his enemies simultaneously. Some intentional plane crashes are a mixture of revenge (“I want to strike at my enemies”) and suicide (“I want to end my life”). Flight 370 seems to be more an act of suicide than an act of revenge; I’m not aware of any enemies that the Flight 370 pilot would have been striking at by crashing the plane. Shortly before the flight, the pilot’s wife told him that she was moving out. Apparently the pilot was having an affair, “and that relationship was reportedly also in trouble.” (One thinks of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter, in which a man has a troubled marriage and a troubled affair, and commits suicide.)

Assuming that Flight 370 is a case of pilot suicide, how was it carried out? Most cases of pilot suicide involve one pilot leaving the cockpit, perhaps to go to the bathroom. The remaining pilot, now alone in the cockpit, locks out the other pilot. But usually this “lock-out” only lasts for a short time; Flight 370 is unusual insofar as the crash was a long process, the plane apparently kept flying until it ran out of fuel. Could the pilot have locked everyone out for such a long time? Or did he have a way of manipulating the air in the plane to render everyone but himself unconscious, or to kill everyone but himself? Someday the plane will probably be found, on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Will the cockpit recorder still contain data? Will it reveal that one pilot was banging on a locked door? Apparently the recorder only contains the last two hours of sound, earlier sounds are overwritten, so the recorder may not provide definitive answers.

There are always a certain amount of people who find life burdensome, and want to end their lives. Both Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky said that many people would commit suicide if they could do so quickly, easily, and painlessly.4 A pilot is able to commit suicide quickly, easily, and painlessly. It isn’t surprising, then, that there have been several cases of intentional plane crashes.

One such case is EgyptAir Flight 990. In 1999, Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic 60 miles south of Nantucket, killing all 217 people on board. It was apparently crashed by a co-pilot when the pilot went to the bathroom. The co-pilot disengaged the auto-pilot, pointed the plane down, then repeatedly said “I rely on God.” When the captain returned to the cockpit, he said, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”5

Just before the flight, the co-pilot was demoted by an EgyptAir executive, an executive who was on the flight. If we acknowledge that pilot suicide is a constant threat to planes, we should be careful not to anger a pilot (or co-pilot) just before a flight. In the case of Flight 990, the co-pilot was probably eager to strike at his enemies, and his desire to live wasn’t as strong as his desire to strike.

About six months ago, a plane crash in Namibia killed 33 people. Apparently the co-pilot went to the bathroom, returned to find the cockpit door locked, then pounded on the door. Meanwhile, the captain changed the auto-pilot from an altitude of 38,000 feet to below ground level.6

In 1997, an Indonesian flight crashed, killing 104 people. The U.S. investigation “concluded that the crash had been the product of deliberate flight control inputs, likely by the captain. [The plane] fell from 35,000 feet into a river in one minute, a dive so fast that it reached supersonic speed.... The cockpit voice recorder had been cut off, something that can only be done by willingly disabling a circuit breaker.”7

In 1994, a Moroccan flight was steered into a mountainside, killing all 44 people on board. The 32-year-old captain was said to have a “troubled love life.”8

In 1982, a Japanese flight was steered into the ocean, but only 24 of the 147 people on board died. The captain, who intentionally caused the crash, survived. Two years earlier, the captain had suffered from a “psycho-somatic illness.”9

The U.S. has been quite successful at avoiding pilot suicide; “the Federal Aviation Administration maintains very strict guidelines for evaluating the mental health of aircrew.”10 Pilot suicide seems to be more frequent outside the U.S. Foreign governments usually won’t admit that a crash was intentional.

4. Social Scientists

In recent years, several books have been written about scientific societies. One of the most acclaimed is The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, by Jenny Uglow (also called The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future: 1730-1810). The five friends are

  1. James Watt (an engineer and inventor who made improvements to the steam engine)
  2. Matthew Boulton (a manufacturer and the business partner of James Watt)
  3. Josiah Wedgwood (a manufacturer of pottery and grandfather of Charles Darwin)
  4. Erasmus Darwin (a physician, scientist, poet, and grandfather of Charles Darwin)
  5. Joseph Priestley (a chemist, clergyman, and political radical)
They called their group The Lunar Society because they met when the moon was full, so the moonlight would facilitate their drive home. They met for about 50 years.

Uglow has written numerous biographies — George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Fielding, William Hogarth, and the engraver Thomas Bewick; she also wrote a short study of Samuel Johnson and his friends.

Lisa Jardine wrote a well-regarded book about the Scientific Revolution, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution. (I mentioned Jardine in my Realms of Gold and in an earlier issue of Phlit.) John Gribbin focused on the English role in the Scientific Revolution in The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution. Edward Dolnick wrote The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World.11 (Dolnick also wrote The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece, which deals with the 1994 theft, and eventual recovery, of Edvard Munch’s The Scream; it won the 2006 Edgar Award for Best Crime Fact.)

I’m currently reading a book about science in the Romantic period: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder is a nice blend of history, biography, and science; it pays special attention to the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy. Holmes also wrote acclaimed biographies of Coleridge and Shelley, and a book called Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage.12

5. Cicero on Divination

I’ve long been interested in Cicero’s book On Divination, which I hoped would describe ancient views of the occult. But when I looked at it recently, I found it rather dull, and I didn’t finish it; Cicero is neither a deep thinker nor a lively writer, and his reputation reflects this.

But he did have a few interesting insights to offer. He says that prophecy is possible when the mind is “in an irrational and unconscious state” (sine ratione et scientia),13 and a footnote speaks of “the prophecies of those in a frenzy or under the influence of great mental excitement.”14 One might say that the art of the prophet or shaman is the art of connecting with the unconscious. This can be done by inducing a state of excitement/frenzy, or by dreaming.

Cicero points out another way to attain prophetic power. In addition to frenzy, one could cooly and calmly read the signs — the flight of birds, “rumblings and roarings and quakings of the earth,”15 meteors, etc. This is what Cicero calls divination by art, as opposed to divination by excitement (“there are two kinds of divination: one, which is allied with art; the other, which is devoid of art”16).

When the signs seem clear, one might suppose that some intelligent being, some god, is making these signs, is communicating with mankind through a kind of sign language. So divination was often viewed as a proof that gods exist. “Divination” comes from the word for god, it was viewed as a way of communicating with the gods. “The belief in a superintending care of the gods seemed to [the Stoics] to imply a means of communication between God and man, whereby the latter might know the divine will in advance and obey it.”17 I prefer to ascribe intelligence to the universe, to nature, rather than to an anthropomorphic being. So I don’t regard divination, synchronicity, life-after-death, etc. as indications that God exists. And Cicero himself doesn’t believe that divination, if it’s real, indicates the existence of God: “It is possible,” Cicero says, “that nature gives signs of future events without the intervention of a god, and it may be that there are gods without their having conferred any power of divination upon men.” I agree with this view.

Cicero’s book is written in the form of a dialogue between himself and his brother, Quintus. In Book One, Quintus defends divination; in Book Two, Cicero criticizes it.

In the last issue, I said that one of Hermetism’s chief principles is that “we shouldn’t say that something is impossible because we can’t explain it.” Quintus makes this point repeatedly: “I am content with my knowledge that it does, although I may not know why.”18

Quintus says that most philosophers believed in divination:

Socrates and all of the Socratic School, and Zeno and his followers, continued in the faith of the ancient philosophers and in agreement with the Old Academy and with the Peripatetics. Their predecessor, Pythagoras, who even wished to be considered an augur himself, gave the weight of his great name to the same practice; and that eminent author, Democritus, in many passages, strongly affirmed his belief in a presentiment of things to come.19

Not only philosophers, but also the people as a whole believed in divination, and they did so because it often proved true:

The oracle at Delphi never would have been so much frequented, so famous, and so crowded with offerings from peoples and kings of every land, if all ages had not tested the truth of its prophecies.... The oracle at Delphi made true prophecies for many hundreds of years.20

Cicero says that the Delphic oracle was inspired by gases; he speaks of, “those subterraneous exhalations which used to kindle the soul of the Pythian priestess.”21 Modern science has discovered those gases at Delphi.

The ancients believed that people near death could see into the future:

Proof of the power of dying men to prophesy [is] given by Posidonius in his well-known account of a certain Rhodian, who, when on his death-bed, named six men of equal age and foretold which of them would die first, which second, and so on. [According to Homer,] Hector, as he was dying, prophesied the early death of Achilles.22

Posidonius is one of several ancient philosophers who wrote about divination; divination seemed to be a common topic of philosophical writing.

6. Heidegger

The recent publication of some of Heidegger’s notebooks (the so-called “black books”) has called attention to his Nazi sympathies.

He joined the Nazi party in 1933, and in a 1935 lecture notoriously spoke of the “inner truth and greatness” of national socialism, a passage he saw fit to include in a collection of his work published in 1953. Heidegger never resigned his party membership during the war, and after it never publicly repudiated his pro-Nazi statements.23

Heidegger was critical of modernity, industrialism, and democracy.

“Agriculture is now a motorized food industry,” Heidegger said in 1949, “the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.” Heidegger saw no difference between Nazism, communism, and what he called Americanism.24

Heidegger’s criticism of industrialism reminds one of the Unabomber, his criticism of democracy reminds one of Nietzsche.

Heidegger was apparently an admirer of the pre-Socratics, and felt that Western philosophy took a wrong turn with Plato. Strauss, on the other hand, was an admirer of Plato and Aristotle, and felt that Western philosophy took a wrong turn during the Renaissance with Machiavelli, etc. Nietzsche admired renaissance-type philosophers wherever he found them, and he found them sprinkled through the history of Western philosophy; Nietzsche admired the pre-Socratics, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Bacon, Montaigne, the French aphorists, Spinoza, Goethe, Emerson, etc.

The Weekly Standard compares Heidegger to the American poet Ezra Pound, and describes Pound as

a supporter of Mussolini who wrote that Western civilization was “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” The problem with modernity as they saw it was that it was nothing but a great leveling. The lawmakers, poets, and artists that any sane society would beg to rule over it were pushed aside in favor of the mobs. To the aristocrats of spirit like Heidegger, liberal democracy was aesthetically offensive and fundamentally corrupt. The only solution was to bring it down and start again, with the philosophers and poets in charge. Thus, for close to a century now, some of the West’s greatest minds have taught that the privilege, and duty, of the Western intellectual is to unmask and unmake the West, even — or especially — through violence.

Heidegger viewed the Nazis as “the necessary agent of apocalypse and rebirth.”25 One of his disciples, Michel Foucault, said that “Industrial capitalism [was] the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” In 1978, Foucault said that the Iranian revolution was “perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems.”

© L. James Hammond 2014
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1. back
2. New York Times back
3. Forbes 3/2/14 back
3B. Brian Cox made several science documentaries, such as Wonders of the Solar System (2010, 5 hours), Wonders of the Universe (2011, 4 hours), Wonders of Life (2013, 5 hours), Human Universe (2014, 5 hours), and Forces of Nature (2016, 4 hours). The only Cox documentary I’ve seen is Wonders of the Universe. In that documentary, Cox ignores the “quantum occult,” and pays little attention to the history of science, focusing instead on our current understanding of galaxies, the Big Bang, etc. back
4. Nietzsche: “The only decisive argument that has at all times prevented men from drinking a poison is not that it would kill them but that it tasted nasty.” (Assorted Opinions and Maxims, #41) Dostoyevsky wrote, “I only seek the causes why men dare not kill themselves.... Two prejudices restrain them, two things.... Pain [and] the other world.” (The Possessed, I, 3, viii) back
5. See the Wikipedia article and this article. back
6. “Pilot Suicide: When It’s The Captain Who Crashes The Plane,” by Alberto Riva, December 24, 2013, International Business Times back
7. ibid back
8. ibid back
9. ibid back
10. ibid back
11. Another recent book about Newton is James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I mentioned Gleick in an earlier issue. Louis Menand and Laura Snyder both wrote books about intellectual clubs; I mentioned these books in an earlier issue. back
12. Humphry Davy’s protégé was Michael Faraday, who in turn was a mentor of the young James Clerk Maxwell. Faraday and Maxwell are the subjects of a book by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon: Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics. And Mahon wrote a short, readable book called The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell.

Holmes’ remarks on Schelling reminded me of Schopenhauer:
“[Around 1820,] a group of young writers, gathered at the University of Jena, began to explore the philosophical ideas of Friedrich Schelling and what he called Naturphilosophie. This doctrine, perhaps best translated as ‘science mysticism’, defined the entire natural world as a system of invisible powers and energies, operating like electricity as a series of ‘polarities’ [such as life- and death-instincts]. According to Schelling’s doctrine, the whole world was indeed replete with spiritual energy or soul.” back

13. I, 4, Loeb Classics edition back
14. See footnote 17 back
15. I, 35 back
16. I, 34 back
17. Introduction by William Falconer, #4 back
18. I, 16 back
19. I, 5. One of the few ancient philosophers who didn’t believe in divination was Epicurus. back
20. I, 38 back
21. I, 38 back
22. I, 64, 65 back
23. The Weekly Standard, “Being and Naziness: The authentic Heidegger,” by Lee Smith, April 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 back