Bill Wilson was the co-founder of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). To preserve anonymity, he often went by “Bill W.” AA was founded in 1935, and is still going strong. Aldous Huxley called Wilson “the greatest social architect of our century.”
Wilson had what I would call an addictive personality — that is, a tendency to become addicted. He was addicted to both alcohol and cigarettes.
|A heavy smoker, Wilson eventually suffered from emphysema and later pneumonia. He continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s. He drank no alcohol for the final 37 years of his life.|
If Wilson had an addictive personality, one might ask, Why do some people have addictive personalities? Freud divided personalities into oral and anal; this seems to be an innate difference, not the result of experience or environment. Perhaps a person who’s addicted to cigarettes and alcohol is, more often than not, an oral personality.
Another possibility is that addictive personalities didn’t receive much parental attention. Wilson’s parents abandoned him when he was a child. A child who doesn’t receive much parental attention has less self-discipline; self-discipline means valuing yourself, and you value yourself if those around you, especially your parents, value you. Children like Wilson seem to have an emptiness inside, a hunger inside, hence they’re susceptible to addiction.
In my book Realms of Gold, I discussed the American therapist Scott Peck and his book The Road Less Traveled:
|Peck uses case histories to illustrate the importance of early childhood and of parental love. He says that parental love indicates to the child that he’s valuable. A child who feels itself to be valuable will take care of itself and discipline itself. Thus, parental love, according to Peck, is the source of self-discipline.1|
Perhaps Wilson’s penchant for addiction was the result of two factors:
In his early years, Wilson was prone to obsession and depression:
|As a teen, Wilson showed determination, once spending months designing and carving a working boomerang.... Wilson also underwent a serious depression at the age of seventeen following the death of his first love.|
Wilson overcame his alcoholism after having a conversion experience:
|While lying in bed depressed and despairing, he cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. He never drank again for the remainder of his life.|
Wilson’s conversion may have been triggered by his participation in The Oxford Group, a Protestant group. The Oxford Group was founded by an American missionary, Frank Buchman. Wilson believed that “The only way he was able to stay sober was through having had a spiritual experience.” The teachings of AA were influenced by The Oxford Group.
Wilson developed a “twelve-step program” for recovery. Wilson’s program became the template for other twelve-step efforts to overcome behavioral problems. Part of Wilson’s program was helping others; Wilson “decided that to remain sober he needed to help another alcoholic.”
Wilson corresponded with Jung. Jung felt that everyone has an innate drive toward balance and wholeness, toward what he called the “self.” Jung felt that the alcoholic’s “craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”2
When Wilson began drinking at age 20, alcohol seemed to be a shortcut to the unconscious and to wholeness. He was at a party, and after drinking, he “felt at ease with the guests and liberated from his awkward shyness; ‘I had found the elixir of life.’”
Later in life, Wilson tried LSD and found it useful.
|It is a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God’s grace possible. If, therefore, under LSD we can have a temporary reduction, so that we can better see what we are and where we are going — well, that might be of some help.|
Is LSD the road to God or the road to the unconscious? If we identify “God’s grace” with the unconscious, then we can translate Wilson’s remark as, “Ego reduction makes the influx of the unconscious possible.”
If you want to learn more about Wilson, consider the biography by Susan Cheever, and the documentary Bill W. (2012).
Wilson once said that, after “years of depressions” his “appreciation of beauty [was] almost destroyed.” This implies that we can only find beauty in the world if there’s a sun shining within ourselves, if there’s some happiness within ourselves. In other words, if we find beauty, that’s an indication that we have some inner sunshine. For the audience, beauty is a promise of happiness (as Stendhal said); for the artist, beauty may be a sign of happiness.
Perhaps this is why modern art is preoccupied with ugliness, and so rarely finds beauty in the world: modern man is unhappy, the modern soul is uneasy. We’ve lost faith in life. Perhaps depression is a condition not only of individuals but of entire societies. If our society is depressed, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that many individuals within our society are depressed.
The new Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns is an impressive work. It can teach one much about the Vietnam War, and it’s fair to both sides. But it’s a brutal, grisly film; I doubt it will ever be as popular as Burns’ CivilWar documentary.
Initially the U.S. government viewed the struggle in Vietnam as part of a larger struggle against international communism. We must stop the spread of communism in Vietnam, so the reasoning went, or all of Southeast Asia will become communist. Later it was argued that this view was a mistake, that the Vietnamese communists were fighting against colonialism, and that the Vietnam War was comparable to anti-colonial struggles in Algeria, India, etc.
When the U.S. began fighting in Vietnam, around 1963, we didn’t realize that communism would eventually collapse for internal reasons, and that communist countries would clash with each other — the Soviets quarreled with the Chinese, the Vietnamese communists fought with the Chinese communists and with the Cambodian communists, etc. In 1963, we didn’t realize that communism was neither a rising force nor a unified force. And we didn’t realize how difficult it would be to create a viable, democratic government in South Vietnam.
By 1968, however, the U.S. realized that the Vietnam War was a mistake, and that the North Vietnamese would eventually prevail. Morale among American troops was sinking, and American troops were attacking their own officers with increasing frequency. Nixon and Kissinger were very eager to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam. So why did the war drag on for more than five years? Why were the North Vietnamese so intransigent, so unwilling to negotiate?4E
Nixon and Kissinger wanted “peace with honor,” and the North Vietnamese were determined not to give them what they wanted — not to allow the U.S. an honorable exit.3 One might argue that the North Vietnamese government wanted the U.S. to stay in Vietnam, wanted to have someone to fight, wanted to have a purpose, a raison d’être. It’s often easier to pursue a negative goal than a positive goal. The North Vietnamese had a negative goal: expel the foreigner. They had no positive goal, no positive vision.4 Once the war ended, they proved to be inept rulers. They won the war, but lost the peace.
The leaders of North Vietnam, like Le Duan, were apparently from the working class; they had little education, little culture (Ho Chi Minh, who had some education, was gradually pushed aside by radicals like Le Duan, and died in 1969). For the people of Vietnam, it was a calamity to be ruled by uneducated radicals like Le Duan, it was a calamity to live under “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” No one was more indifferent to Vietnamese lives than Vietnam’s own rulers; rulers like Le Duan made no effort to minimize Vietnamese casualties. After the war, Vietnam’s rulers wouldn’t even allow the South Vietnamese to bury their dead, visit their cemeteries, etc.
Perhaps we should view the Vietnam War, not only as a communist struggle, not only as an anti-colonial struggle, but also as a peasant revolt. Social class may be a useful lens through which to view history, a lens too often ignored in our egalitarian age.
Repeatedly Burns’ film interviews North Vietnamese who question the war, who question why Vietnam fought for decades. Was it worth so much Vietnamese blood to have a Stalinist dictatorship? Was it worth so much Vietnamese blood to expel foreigners, foreigners who would have left soon enough of their own accord? Repeatedly the film makes the point that I made in an earlier issue:
|It was a big mistake for the Americans to fight in Vietnam, but an even bigger mistake for the North Vietnamese to fight. The North Vietnamese paid a high price in casualties and suffering, and got nothing for it. Victory over the U.S. and South Vietnam was followed by a flood of desperate refugees leaving Vietnam.4D|
As a Vietnamese dissident said recently, “People here have had to live under this system for 50 years, and they’ve been scared of the police every day.”
During the Nixon years, one of the main reasons why the U.S. fought was to get our prisoners back. There were 591 U.S. prisoners—a small number considering that the war lasted 10 years, and claimed almost 60,000 American lives. In most wars, the number of prisoners is larger than the number of combat deaths. The Vietnam War, however, was unusually ferocious; it was a “take no prisoners” war; in Kipling’s phrase, it was a “savage war of peace”. The North Vietnamese rarely took prisoners; they generally killed any American they could.
Did the Americans take prisoners? The Burns documentary contains conflicting evidence. It interviews an American soldier, John Musgrave, who says how much he hated his foes, and how a captured foe couldn’t make it to prison alive. But it also says that American doctors treated enemy soldiers, though the enemy soldiers sometimes spat on the doctors. And it says that, at the end of the war, there were a large number of VietCong prisoners (25,000?).
The journalist Neil Sheehan says that our success in World War II, and our prominent position in the world after World War II, led to hubris, and this hubris led to the debacle of Vietnam. We thought we couldn’t lose, because the U.S. never lost a war. The Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, had used “statistical control” in World War II, and he tried to use statistics, numerical thinking, rational thinking, to manage the Vietnam War. Officers were encouraged to collect thousands of pages of data. The joke was, “The computer says we won the war three years ago. But it overlooked the fact that the enemy has a say in the matter.”
I saw an interview with Larry Berman, author of Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent. Berman says that An told him, “I hate the peace” (I hate the regime that the communists established in 1975). Berman is interviewed by a reporter named Robert Kaiser. Berman and Kaiser both knew An, and they say that he was an impressive person, a great conversationalist, knowledgeable, poised, etc.4C
Kaiser says that, if he were Vietnamese, he would have fought with the VietCong, but he would have regretted it. Kaiser says that An was “full of regrets” once the communists imposed a Stalinist dictatorship on Vietnam; Kaiser calls the communists “uneducated, unworldly.” According to Wikipedia, “An admired the communists as nationalists, ‘but their ignorance and arrogance have only given us misery.’”
On both sides, the war was a mistake, but once you begin fighting, it’s hard to stop. You can’t resist taking that first step, and once you’ve taken it, you’re drawn into a second, third, and fourth step. The same dynamic is probably found in quarrels between individuals.
Kaiser asks Berman, “What would you have done in 1944? If you were Vietnamese, would you have fought against the French, as An did?” Berman says, I would always fight to defend my country — in other words, he would have fought against the French and later against the Americans. Berman’s answer implies that we know what “our country” is, it implies that the word “country” is simple, clear, indisputable.
But “country” is actually a complicated word, and many wars are fought over the meaning of the word “country”. For Robert E. Lee, is Virginia his country, or is the U.S. his country? Most Southerners, including Lee, felt that their state was their country, hence they chose to fight for their state. If you were Vietnamese, which party, which group, which individuals, represent “the country”? How can Ho Chi Minh claim to represent the country? Couldn’t Hitler and Mussolini claim to represent their countries, and wouldn’t their claims be as valid as Ho Chi Minh’s — perhaps more valid, since they received more votes than Ho Chi Minh ever received? If Vietnam lacked political traditions and institutions, can any party represent “the country,” can Vietnam be considered a “country”?
Perhaps the next step after colonialism is civil war, perhaps civil war in Vietnam was inevitable. Didn’t Algeria and India experience civil war after the colonial powers left? And if Vietnam experienced a civil war, how can Berman say, ‘I would always fight for my country’? In a civil war, which side is “my country”? The Vietnam War can be viewed as a civil war in which the U.S. backed one side, while the Soviets and the Chinese backed the other side.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War, consider
A. Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a movie about the Vietnam War. It begins with “basic training” at a Marine base in the U.S. I was unmoved and unimpressed. Roger Ebert gave Full Metal Jacket 2.5 stars out of 4, and said it wasn’t as good as other VietnamWar movies, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter.
B. Cider House Rules (1999) is based on a novel by John Irving, and Irving wrote the screenplay. It’s set in Maine during World War II. As in many Hollywood movies, the themes of sex and race loom large. I recommend it, but not enthusiastically.
C. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is about poor whites and broken homes. It has a gritty, harsh atmosphere, like other Scorsese-directed films. It was made when the feminist revolution was gathering strength, and it depicts an independent, “liberated” woman. The best part wasn’t the movie itself, but rather the commentary by the director and the actors (the DVD contains commentary).
Why are so many Jewish names German-sounding — Bloomberg, Feinstein, Lieberman, etc.? The historian L. B. Namier says that it isn’t because most Jews came from Germany. Rather, it’s because German-speaking officials, Prussian and Austrian officials, were put in charge of part of Poland around 1795, when Poland was partitioned. At that time, “most Polish Jews had no family names, but were simply known by their personal names and patronymics — as Abraham, son of Moses, or Isaac, son of Solomon.” So Prussian and Austrian officials “manufactured names by the thousand for the Jews, going through the whole gamut of flowers, animals, colors and stones.”5
Namier discusses Jewish names in his essay “Trotsky” (1918). In this essay, Namier describes Lenin as “a calm, iron ascetic with a deeply human heart and an inhuman mind.” As for Trotsky, Namier says he “enjoys life, loves pleasure, is very ambitious and rather vain.”
In July, 1914, one month before World War I broke out, Namier published an essay called “The European Situation”. In this essay, Namier says that friction between Germany and England is diminishing, and friction between Germany and Russia doesn’t exist.
But trouble is brewing in Central Europe, Namier says, as a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). Serbia is “Russia’s ward and ally.” Austria has an “anti-Serbian bias.” Russia is “arming on an enormous scale. Hence Austria-Hungary must do the same.” Germany must stand by Austria-Hungary because through Austria-Hungary, “the influence of Berlin now reaches far down to the south and east of Europe.” Without Austria-Hungary, “Germany would find herself shut off from the Adriatic Sea, and therefore also from the Mediterranean.” Austria-Hungary is also a useful ally on the battlefield; its army “remains one of the best in Europe.”
Namier says there’s tension between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy) and the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia).6 Military spending has increased to “a terrific height.”
Namier’s essay foresees the coming war. Lest we fail to understand that, Namier tells us in a prefatory note, “I prophesied correctly before the event!”
One of the most interesting sections of Namier’s essay is the section about Czarist Russia, and its relations with Germany:
|There is much which binds Berlin and St. Petersburg with close ties to each other. Berlin is not truly German, just as St. Petersburg is not Russian. The real national capital of German life and culture would have to lie somewhere on the Main or Rhine, the true Russian center would have to be found in Moscow or somewhere on the Volga. Berlin and St. Petersburg are military camps, artificially raised into capitals and great cities. Both lie in the same geographical sphere, in the region of the same culture. Both of them are seats of the Baltic gentry.... The Russian Government is run by an aristocracy of Baltic Germans and by a German bureaucracy which are united by tradition, and often even by ties of blood, to the class that rules in Berlin.... The Russian Chancellor, Nesselrode, a German who stood at the head of the Russian Government for more than forty years, but never managed to learn to speak the Russian language well, warned his successors to adhere faithfully to the Prussian friendship.... Russia is ruled by the Russian Germans, and still the people hate them. They have no place in the cultural life of the country; they remain strangers. They have no understanding for, and still less sympathy with, the Russian Nationalist, Pan-Slav movement.... A mighty wave of Pan-Slav feeling may someday sweep away the German Government from St. Petersburg.|
In 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a wave of Pan-Slav, pro-Serb feeling swept over Russia. The Russian government felt that it would be overthrown if it didn’t defend Serbia, and declare war on Austria-Hungary.
This volume of essays (Skyscrapers and Other Essays) contains an essay on the Czech leader T. G. Masaryk, who became the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Writing in 1925, Namier says,
|Morally and mentally President Masaryk is one of the outstanding figures in the public life of Europe, while in Czechoslovakia his authority is supreme; he is now the uncontested leader of the nation and the keeper of its conscience.|
Masaryk was highly educated, having earned a PhD at Vienna, and having studied with the philosopher Husserl at Leipzig. Before World War I, he served in the Austrian Parliament, “a lonely champion of unpopular or dimly apprehended causes, a party in himself.” He challenged the authenticity of Czech poems that purported to be from the Middle Ages, poems that were popular among Czech nationalists. “Further enraging Czech sentiment, he fought against the old superstition of Jewish blood libel during the Hilsner Trial of 1899.”7
During World War I, Masaryk went around the world campaigning for an independent Czechoslovakia, and the Czech people rallied behind him.8 In 1917, he visited Russia, and arranged for Czech POW’s to be sent to the Western Front to fight on the Allied side. (“The Czech Legions,” Namier writes, “now set out on their bold anabasis, to reach the French front by way of Siberia and America.” But Wikipedia doesn’t mention this “bold anabasis,” and describes Czechs fighting on the Eastern Front.)
During his student days, Masaryk had married an American. In 1918, he toured the U.S., met with Woodrow Wilson, and was given a rousing welcome by Chicago Czechs. In December 1918, Masaryk suddenly found himself President of Czechoslovakia, and living in Prague Castle.
Namier’s essay is a book review, a review of Masaryk’s memoirs, The World Revolution: Reminiscences and Reflections. Namier regards Masaryk as a deep thinker. Namier is especially impressed with Masaryk’s remarks on modern Germany, its “metaphysic Titanism” and “philosophic absolutism.” Namier writes, “Perhaps for the first time the path is here sketched which necessarily led from Goethe and Kant to Prussian militarism.”9 Namier concludes that Masaryk is “one of the master minds of our time,” but Namier thinks that Masaryk’s memoirs are somewhat cloudy and inarticulate.
Masaryk died in 1937. His son Jan Masaryk served as Czech Foreign Minister.
Doubtless many people believe that there are no Great Philosophers writing today. Great philosophers are only visible with hindsight; to their contemporaries, they’re usually invisible. Just as no man is a prophet in his own country, so too no man is a prophet in his own time.
Leo Strauss, however, believed that there were Great Philosophers in his time. Strauss probably felt that Heidegger was a great philosopher, or at least Heidegger had the potential to be a great philosopher. But Strauss felt that modern philosophy had taken a wrong turn, and lost its moral compass. Strauss felt that Nazi genocide was an indication of the bankruptcy of modern philosophy. Philosophy had failed to construct bulwarks against genocide; indeed, Heidegger seemed to sympathize with the Nazis.
As modern philosophy can be linked to Nazi genocide, so too it can be linked to Islamic terrorism. Architects of terror, like the Iranian Ali Shariati, were influenced by Western philosophy; Shariati translated Sartre and Fanon. So today’s Straussians can update Strauss’s argument: they can link Islamic terrorism to modern philosophy, just as Strauss linked Nazi genocide to modern philosophy. Today’s Straussians can argue (as Strauss did) that modern philosophy is bankrupt, so we need to return to Plato and Aristotle.
I believe that modern philosophy has a bright future, so there’s no need to return to Plato and Aristotle. Modern philosophy should move forward, not backward. Modern philosophy can draw inspiration, not from Heidegger and Sartre, but from psychologists like Jung, and Eastern schools like Zen.
A. People sometimes assume that philosophy is a body of knowledge, and that the student of philosophy begins to acquire this knowledge as a freshman, and finally masters it as a PhD student. I would argue that philosophy isn’t a body of knowledge, and most philosophers never earned a PhD in philosophy. We should view philosophy, not as a body of knowledge, but as knowledge in general, or as the love of knowledge — phil (love) + sophos (knowledge). A successful philosopher is not one who adds something to a body of knowledge. Rather, a successful philosopher takes a fresh view of the universe in general, reality in general. Thus, a philosopher’s theory doesn’t fall within one department; rather, it sprawls across multiple fields, it sprawls across knowledge in general.
B. I once chatted with an auto mechanic, and he said he was busy. I responded, “Everyone says they’re busy, no one ever says, ‘I’ve got nothing to do.’” He said, “I hope I never have nothing to do.” Perhaps many people are afraid of having nothing to do. Perhaps meditation is a way of overcoming this fear; meditation means doing nothing, it inoculates us against the fear of having nothing to do. Meditation finds ecstasy in nothing, and it helps us to appreciate the somethings.
|1.|| If parents have less time and energy for younger children, we might find a higher incidence of addiction among younger children, a lower incidence among eldest children. back|
|2.||See the essay by Christopher Caldwell in Mosaic Magazine.
From a Jungian perspective, Wilson’s conversion experience wasn’t contact with God, but rather contact with the self, with the unconscious. But since Jung identified God with the self, contact with the self is contact with God.
Like Jung and Huxley, Wilson was interested in the occult. In his house, he had a “spook room,” and he would “invite guests to participate in seances using a Ouija board.” back
|3.|| As we see in the French Revolution, there’s a tendency, in a revolutionary movement, for the most radical voices to prevail, and for moderate voices to be ignored, even persecuted. North Vietnamese policy was made by the radicals. back|
|4.|| One is reminded of Chaudhuri’s remarks on the independence movement in India: “no positive content; it was driven by a ‘negative obsession’ [and] a basic xenophobic irrationality” (Shils paraphrasing Chaudhuri). back|
|4B.||Consider also this New York Times list of Vietnam books, and this PBS list.
Zalin Grant was a journalist in Vietnam who later wrote several books about the war. Click here for excerpts from Grant’s book SURVIVORS: POWs Tell Their Stories. Click here for excerpts from Grant’s book Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam (these excerpts deal with NorthVietnamese spy Pham Xuan An).
Click here for a WeeklyStandard article that argues the Burns/Novick documentary is biased in favor of the antiwar movement. It argues that Ho Chi Minh wasn’t a nationalist, he was committed to worldwide communist revolution.
|4C.||Thomas Bass also wrote a biography of Pham Xuan An. Bass’s book is called, The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game. back|
|4D.|| As Burns and Novick wrote in the New York Times, “For the Vietnamese on the winning side, the war’s cost in blood and bone was immeasurable.... Many Vietnamese have begun to ask themselves whether the war was necessary, whether some other way might have been found to reunite their country.” back|
|4E.||In a TV appearance in 1988, Nixon said that the North Vietnamese were brought to the negotiating table in 1972 by a U.S. campaign of bombing and mining, a campaign that the U.S. should have carried out in early 1969, as soon as Nixon came to power. Nixon said that, when he came to power, he made the mistake of continuing Johnson’s bombing halt. Nixon also said that, if he had stayed in office for eight years, he would have forced the North Vietnamese to keep the peace treaty, and he could have averted genocide in Cambodia. back|
|5.|| “Trotsky” (1918), an essay in the volume Skyscrapers and Other Essays. back|
|6.|| Italy was torn between these two alliances. Initially Italy joined the Triple Alliance because Italy came into conflict with France in North Africa. Later, however, Italy switched sides because it clashed with Austria-Hungary over territories in northeast Italy (southwest Austria-Hungary). back|
|7.|| Wikipedia back|
|8.|| Namier writes, “only when the deepest problems of Czech national existence emerged in the war, by a complex process of selection, well known to history but not easy to trace, he became the national leader.” back|
|9.||In an earlier issue, I wrote, “A century before the Holocaust, Heine predicted, based on his study of German philosophers, that the German mind would roar into the world and cause a genocide that would make the French Revolution look like a ‘pretty idyll’.” back|