October 22, 2006

1. Quickies

A. I found an interesting art book: American Art and Architecture, by a young Williams College professor named Michael J. Lewis. It’s concise, well-written, and copiously illustrated. Unlike many art books, it’s still in print, and it’s inexpensive. It can enrich your visit to major American cities like New York and Washington, DC, since many of the architectural comments deal with these cities. Of course, it can also enrich your visit to an American art museum. Since it was published recently, it deals with contemporary movements, as well as older works.

B. The intellectual in society  “[E. M. Forster] told me that, at parties, he always feels ‘self-conscious and contemptuous.’”1

C. In response to my debate with analytic philosophers, a reader wrote

I enjoyed your article and I acknowledge the point about the analytic approach and the deficiencies of process philosophy. I am also left with a question and this is most assuredly NOT intended to be facile: If “God is dead” then “Where is he buried?”

I responded thus:

Thanks for your feedback. I’ll try to answer your question (If “God is dead” then “Where is he buried?”). When God died, people transferred their faith to political utopias — nationalist, communist, etc. When God died, people lost touch with their soul, their unconscious, and began to follow their reason. People became sick — spiritually sick, psychologically sick.

When the utopian dreams were combined with the spiritual sickness, the result was the horrors of the 20th century — genocide, gulag, “cultural revolution”, etc. The death of God had negative consequences. Now, however, I believe we’re re-discovering God, or at least re-discovering our soul, our unconscious. We’re wary of reason. We acknowledge mystery and the occult. We’re developing new approaches to religion (Eastern approaches, Jungian approaches, etc.). We no longer subscribe to Nietzsche’s dictum “God is dead.” Perhaps this re-discovery of the spiritual dimension will have positive consequences in the political sphere, as the loss of the spiritual dimension had negative consequences.

2. Andrew Sullivan vs. David Brooks

Andrew Sullivan was recently interviewed on C-SPAN. Sullivan was born and raised in England, and attended Oxford. He did graduate work at Harvard, and became editor of The New Republic when he was only 27. Now he’s a professional blogger. Sullivan is openly gay and deeply Catholic. He’s also conservative; his Ph.D. thesis was on the conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott, and he supported Thatcher and Reagan.

Now, however, he’s passionately opposed to Bush, and to those whom he regards as religious conservatives. Sullivan is one of several prominent conservative writers who castigate Republicans for spending money too freely, for not trying to balance the budget, etc. Of course, Sullivan also castigates the Bush administration for mis-managing the Iraq war.

When I visited Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” I found a link to a debate between Sullivan and David Brooks (a conservative New York Times columnist); the debate focused on Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. Sullivan is a former president of the Oxford debating society (the “Oxford Union”), and he’s a good public speaker.

Sullivan began by sketching the history of conservative thought from Burke to Hayek and Oakeshott. He argued that conservatism is opposed to doctrinaire attitudes, opposed to dogmatism, opposed to certainty, opposed to attempts to re-make society according to a written plan. He criticized today’s Republicans for their dogmatic faith in the Bible, for their refusal to entertain doubts, for their attempts to write their religious principles into law. Part of his animus against today’s Republicans can be traced to their opposition to gay marriage, and their opposition to homosexuality in general.

Sullivan derides “Christianism,” and says it’s a kind of fundamentalism, not unlike Islamic fundamentalism. As an example of Christianism, he quotes a Republican leader who thinks that Armageddon is coming, and will happen in the Middle East, just as the Bible says.2 Sullivan compares this view to the view of the Iranian leader (Ahmadinejad), who not only thinks that the world will end, but may want to bring about the end with nuclear weapons.

Then Brooks took the podium. Brooks is a good public speaker, too. While Sullivan seemed intent on winning the debate, Brooks was content to participate, to have a civil exchange. While Sullivan was emotional, even violent, Brooks was serious and calm. Brooks began by saying that he totally disagreed with Sullivan, that today’s Republicans weren’t comparable to Islamic fundamentalists, that traditional religion enables us to grasp evil, and that a secular, rational worldview can’t grasp evil. Brooks insisted that Republicans had tried to be frugal with public money, and had shut down the government in 1995, but that Clinton had used this against them, so Republicans had no choice but to go along with big spending.

Sullivan retorted that he wasn’t criticizing the religion of pious Americans, but rather its exploitation by the Republican party. Sullivan insisted that the failure of the government shutdown in 1995 didn’t give Republicans the right to run up deficits in perpetuity. Sullivan ended by accusing Brooks’ former employer, The Weekly Standard, of connecting the Republican party to religion, and of exploiting religion for political gain. Brooks had much to say in response, but instead he held his tongue, and allowed the moderator to bring the debate to a close. It was a good debate, it ended too soon.

3. Jihad Philosophy

We tend to regard militant Islam as separate from other modern radical movements, such as Marxism and Fascism. It can be argued, however, that the roots of militant Islam are in the anti-Western, anti-capitalist ideologies of Western revolutionaries. Two of the leading philosophers of jihad are Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati. Qutb is influential with Sunnis and with Al Qaeda, while Shariati is influential with Shiites and with the Iranian leadership.

A. Ali Shariati

A recent article in The Weekly Standard discussed the roots of Shariati’s ideas.3 Born in Iran in 1933, Shariati was a student in Paris in the early 1960s. Impressed with Sartre, Shariati translated Sartre’s massive book Being and Nothingness into Farsi. He also co-translated a book by the revolutionary Frantz Fanon (a book called The Wretched of the Earth). Shariati appealed to Iranian Shiites by cobbling together the utopian, millennial strain in Shiism with the utopian strain in Sartre and Fanon.4 One wonders if Shariati, a student of the atheist Sartre, believed in Islam, or just used Islam to further his political goals.

Shariati returned to Iran in 1964, and his lectures in Teheran became very popular. Though Shariati reached out to Iranian religious leaders, they condemned his teachings as heresy. The only Iranian religious leader who didn’t condemn him was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Shariati, Khomeini wanted to create a political movement that would overthrow the Shah. Khomeini once said, “Islam is politics.”

Imprisoned by the Shah’s government, Shariati was released in 1975, and went to England. He died of a heart attack in 1977, two years before Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. The Weekly Standard calls Shariati “the acknowledged intellectual godfather of the Iranian revolution.”

If Sartre and other philosophers had an impact on the Iranian revolution, it’s an interesting case of philosophy having an impact on the world. Could a healthier philosophy have a more positive impact? My own philosophical labors have moved in a different direction, and I’ve paid no attention to Heidegger, Sartre, Fanon, Marx, etc.

B. Sayyid Qutb

Qutb has had a direct influence on Al Qaeda, hence he’s more well known than Shariati. Qutb’s personal life sounds like that of many intellectuals:

[Qutb] suffered from respiratory and other health problems throughout his life, and was known for “his introvertedness, isolation, depression and concern.” In appearance he was “pale with sleepy eyes.” Qutb never married.5

Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. His early writings had a secular perspective; the young Qutb was a novelist and critic, and helped the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz reach public attention (Mahfouz later won the Nobel Prize). From 1948 to 1950, Qutb studied in the U.S. Qutb found much to loathe in the U.S., including racism, materialism, enthusiasm for sports, and mixing of the sexes (even in church). His stay in the U.S. may have contributed to his evolution from a literary man to an anti-Western revolutionary and Islamic radical.

Qutb and his fellow radicals were part of a group called The Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood initially supported Nasser’s regime, but later realized that Nasser was a nationalist with no sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. Nasser imprisoned Qutb and other radicals; Qutb’s prison experience intensified his radicalism. He argued that

anything non-Islamic was evil and corrupt, while following Sharia [i.e., Islamic law] as a complete system extending into all aspects of life, would bring every kind of benefit to humanity, from personal and social peace, to the ‘treasures’ of the universe.... Whether he espoused dictatorship, or later rule by Sharia law with essentially no government at all, Sayyid Qutb’s mature political views always centered on Islam — Islam as a complete system of morality, justice and governance, whose Sharia laws and principles should be the sole basis of governance and everything else in life.6

To attain this Sharia paradise, Qutb advocated jihad:

The way to bring about this freedom was for a revolutionary vanguard to fight Jahiliyyah [i.e., ignorance, un-enlightenment] with a two-fold approach: preaching, and abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system by ‘physical power and Jihad.’ The vanguard movement would grow until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world.

One is struck by the similarities to Marxism: a violent, anti-Western vanguard movement that gradually spreads through the world, ending in the melting away of the state, and the reign of peace and bliss.

Qutb’s vision of struggle is that of a man with a tendency toward depression and masochism. His vision of struggle appeals to young Muslims who want to undertake heroic efforts:

Qutb emphasized this struggle would be anything but easy. True Islam would transform every aspect of society, eliminating everything non-Muslim. Jahili erzatz-Muslims, Jews and Westerners would all fight and conspire against Islam and the elimination of Jahiliyyah. True Muslims could look forward to lives of “poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice.”

In 1966, Nasser’s government executed Qutb and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. After Qutb’s death, his brother played a key role in promoting his ideas:

[Qutb’s] influence on Al Qaeda was felt through his brother, Muhammad Qutb, who moved to Saudi Arabia following his release from prison in Egypt, became a professor of Islamic Studies and edited, published and promoted his brother’s work. One of Muhammad Qutb’s students and an ardent follower was Ayman Zawahiri, who went on to be a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terror group and then the mentor of Osama bin Laden.

4. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 55

This sonnet is a classic expression of the familiar idea that poetry is immortal, that it will outlast statues and monuments, and that it will make the poet’s beloved immortal.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
   So, till the judgment that yourself arise,7
   You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

5. Frazer

In an earlier issue, I discussed quantum physics, and its connection to occult thinking. In a more recent issue, I discussed Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, and I said that primitive thinking often intersects with modern occult thinking; I said that primitive thinking deserves more respect than it usually receives, more respect than Frazer himself had for it.

Recently I dipped into the first volume of Frazer’s work, and I found that the primitive worldview is strikingly similar to that of quantum physics. Frazer says that primitive man believes that things can affect each other at a distance; in other words, primitive man believes in action-at-a-distance. This action-at-a-distance is facilitated when two things were once in close contact. This is the very issue that looms large in quantum physics: how can paired particles, in contact with each other, affect each other even after they’re separated? This is also the very issue that has long engaged students of the occult: how can a mother and child (or a pair of twins), once closely connected, read each other’s minds when they’re separated by a vast distance?

Here is Frazer’s summary of the primitive mind:

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.

Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.8

Primitive, magical thinking bears a striking resemblance to quantum physics, and to modern, occult thinking.

Another point on which primitive thinking intersects with The Philosophy of Today is the issue of the unity of the world. Primitive man believed that plants, animals and men were akin to each other, were parts of the same whole.9 We, too, believe that everything is connected; we don’t separate human beings from the rest of nature, and we don’t separate the living world from the inanimate world. We believe that everything in the universe is part of one whole, everything can be traced back to a common origin, and everything possesses the same energies. The wholeness of the world may help us to explain how distant things can affect each other, and how people can affect inanimate objects.10

A third point on which primitive thinking intersects with modern occult thinking is the importance of a person’s name. Primitive man thought his name was as much a part of himself as his body, and he tried to conceal his name so hostile magicians couldn’t contact him, and harm him. American Indians changed their name to avoid hostile magicians (just as you and I might change our e-mail address to avoid spammers). Strange as it may seem, modern psychics can communicate with people if they know their name, so it seems that names may be as significant as primitive man believed.

Frazer was apt to regard primitive beliefs as silly superstitions. He felt that by tracing modern religious practices (such as the Eucharist) back to primitive practices, he was discrediting modern religious practices. Frazer said that the study of primitive thinking was

a powerful instrument to expedite progress... if it shows that much which we are wont to regard as solid rests on the sands of superstition rather than on the rock of nature. It is indeed a melancholy and in some respects thankless task to strike at the foundations of beliefs in which, as in a strong tower, the hopes and aspirations of humanity through long ages have sought a refuge from the storm and stress of life.11

One is reminded of Freud, who also took a dim view of religion, and also saw himself as a destroyer of pleasant illusions.

Why does Frazer call his book The Golden Bough? When Joyce began Ulysses, he didn’t intend to write a big novel, he intended to write a short story. Likewise, Frazer didn’t intend to write a 13-volume work, he intended just to explain a strange custom at the temple of Diana at Nemi — namely, the custom that if you kill the priest, you’ll become the new priest. But before you kill the priest, you must first “pluck the branch of a certain tree which the public opinion of the ancients identified with Virgil’s Golden Bough.”12 To explain this strange custom, Frazer embarked on a wide-ranging study of primitive beliefs.

In unabridged form, The Golden Bough is excessively long, so it may be wise to read the abridged version, which was made by Frazer himself, and which Frazer recommended.13

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. E. M. Forster: Interviews and Recollections, by J. H. Stape; “The Diaries of Siegfried Sassoon”, 4/28/22 back
2. “As for Armageddon, I just note with interest that’s what the Bible says. That it’s on the Plains of Megiddo. Right there in Israel. And it makes you wonder where this conflict’s all going to ultimately lead. And I happen to believe it will ultimately lead to what the Bible says.” See Sullivan’s blog for October 17, 2006 back
3. “Why Is Ahmadinejad Smiling? The intellectual sources of his apocalyptic vision.” by Waller R. Newell, 10/16/2006, Volume 012, Issue 05 back
4. One of the basic teachings of Sartre and other Existentialists is that man has no nature, he makes himself, he makes himself through will and passion. Since Sartre was an atheist, he argued that man shouldn’t follow God’s rules, and man shouldn’t let God govern the world, man should take charge, make his own rules, and make his own world. Thus, Sartre’s teachings lend themselves to a revolutionary interpretation. back
5. See the Wikipedia article on Qutb. back
6. ibid back
7. I.e., “until judgment day, when you yourself will arise...” back
8. The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (in two volumes, Vol. 1), Ch. 3, §1. This book is the beginning of The Golden Bough, which was published in many different versions/editions. back
9. The Golden Bough, abridged version, ch. 29 back
10. For more on the unity of the world, click here. back
11. The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (in two volumes, Vol. 1), Preface to 2nd edition back
12. ibid, ch. 2 back
13. As an epigraph to the abridged version, Frazer chose a quote from Martial, who recommended that the emperor read a short book:

Longior undecimi nobis decimique libelli
   Artatus labor est et breve rasit opus.
Plura legant vacui, quibus otia tuta dedisti:
   Haec lege tu, Caesar; forsan et illa leges.

[Our eleventh and tenth books were rather long.
   The work is restricted and shaved to a concise form.
The idle can read more, the idle to whom you gave safe leisure:
   You read these, Caesar; perhaps also you can read those.]
            Martial, Epigrams, XII, 4

As an epigraph to the unabridged version, Frazer chose a quote from Macrobius, who lived about 400 AD and is known for a book called Saturnalia. According to Wikipedia, Saturnalia “contains a great variety of curious historical, mythological, critical and grammatical discussions.” In the passage that Frazer quotes, Macrobius says that he’s collecting various materials from old writers, arranging them, and making them his own, like a bee who gathers various flowers, then makes his own honey:

Nor have I haphazardly deployed these items that are worth remembering, as though in a heap: I have organized the diverse subjects, drawn from a range of authors and a mix of periods, as though in a body, so that the things I initially noted down all a jumble, as an aide mémoire, might come together in a coherent, organic whole. Please do not fault me if I often set forth the accounts I draw from my varied reading in the very words that the authors themselves used; the work before you promises not a display of eloquence but an accumulation of things worth knowing. You should, furthermore, count it as a bonus if you sometimes gain acquaintance with antiquity plainly in my own words, at other times through the faithful record of the ancients’ own words, as each item lends itself to being cited or transcribed. We ought to imitate bees, if I can put it that way: wandering about, sampling the flowers, they arrange whatever they’ve gathered, distributing it among the honeycomb’s cells, and by blending in the peculiar quality of their own spirit they transform the diverse kinds of nectar into a single taste.

Nec indigeste tamquam in acervum congessimus digna memoratu: sed variarum rerum disparilitas, auctoribus diversa confusa temporibus, ita in quoddam digesta corpus est, ut quae indistincte atque promiscue ad subsidium memoriae annotaveramus in ordinem instar membrorum cohaerentia convenirent. Nec mihi vitio vertas, si res quas ex lectione varia mutuabor ipsis saepe verbis quibus ab ipsis auctoribus enarratae sunt explicabo, quia praesens opus non eloquentiae ostentationem sed noscendorum congeriem pollicetur: et boni consulas oportet, si notitiam vetustatis modo nostris non obscure modo ipsis antiquorum fideliter verbis recognoscas, prout quaeque se vel enarranda vel transferenda suggesserint. Apes enim quodammodo debemus imitari, quae vagantur et flores carpunt, deinde quicquid attulere disponunt ac per favos dividunt et sucum varium in unum saporem mixtura quadam et proprietate spiritus sui mutant.(Saturnalia, I, 3)

I feel a certain kinship with Macrobius since I, too, try to make my books from a blend of old classics. back