10 December 2008

On scepticism of human rights

When philosophy is divorced from science (and reason, even), we get so-called intellectuals questioning the validity of concepts like ‘natural human rights’. They argue that the idea of inalienable rights is arbitrarily ‘decided’ upon by a dominant group seeking to impose this relativist idea onto others. One only has to consider the facts – the biological facts of the human capacity for both physical pain and physical flourishing, the psychological facts of the human desire for happiness and aversion to suffering, and the sociological facts of how invoking and enacting the idea of human rights leads to an increase in the good in people’s lives – and one will see the spuriousness of philosophical arguments that construe the idea of human rights as merely being an artificial device of power relationships.

28 November 2008

A tragic courage

Critics of religion have got guts. Forget about stereotypical (often masculine) ideas of courage; the reckless disregard for physical danger and the courting of death by maniacally enthusiastic yahoos. No, real courage is demonstrated each time an atheist, secularist, humanist or naturalist speaks frankly against the phenomenon of uncritical belief and blind faith.

21 November 2008

Religion and its conceits

I’ll say it: religious believers tend not to be sophisticated thinkers. I say ‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘knowledgeable’ because, to be fair, few people possess all the relevant information on the (religiously contentious) issues like evolutionary theory, euthanasia, abortion and the human right to individual liberty. But sophisticated thinkers are at least open to the facts presented by experts on the subject and will exercise their reason to the best of their ability in processing those facts. A religious believer on the other hand is only prepared to consider the facts so long as they do not contradict the doctrine he already subscribes to. His consideration of any kind of knowledge is strictly conditional, and these conditions include – but are not limited to – agreement with the accepted orthodoxy of his faith, absolute certainty on the part of the experts (any normal scientific doubt is immediately seized upon as proof that the facts are just plain wrong or inadmissible), and a willingness to ignore inconvenient truths that contradict or refute the established dogma. This prioritizing of revealed truth over discovered facts is the cause of much woeful attempts by religious scientists – an oxymoron surely – to try and square the circles they encounter in the real world. After all, their sacred text insists on the squares.

18 November 2008

An epistle from the shardani Lo'Quai to her friend Ja'Arkan

My dear Ja’Arkan,

I am writing to thank you for the stimulating conversation we had a few days ago. I understand that any doubt I may have planted in you regarding your Memnorite faith will cause you two griefs. Firstly, if there is no Authority, then do concepts like good and evil have any meaning? Secondly, why be good if there is no Authority to reward goodness or punish wickedness?

With the first question, good and evil do have meaning, and their meaning derives from our biological and psychological imperatives. Any act that causes a shardan to flourish, physically and psychologically, can be considered good. And the act that causes suffering and harm can be construed as evil. Nowhere in this definition is there a need for an Authority to give meaning to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ independent of the biological and psychological reasons.

11 November 2008

Culture as constraint

To be the psychological product of a specific culture is to be limited in one’s way of being in the world. For every language you do not speak, read or write, an entire universe of meaning is closed to you. For every system of semiotics and catalogue of symbols you cannot decipher, a whole realm of comprehension is denied to you. For every collection of human gestures, relational forms and social dynamics alien to you, a complete dimension of existence repels you as the stranger, the outsider, that you are. The less culture badges you wear, the more susceptible you become to delusions of your culture’s superiority and exceptionalism. A monoculture grows ignorant bigots.

The end of plain-vanilla history

The future will be eclectic. To expand on American political writer Francis Fukuyama’s declaration, the history of mono-styles, of singular visions, of discernibly unified movements, is at an end. Postmodernity is the final word, despite the actual term’s vanity and irony. After all, both ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ are relative terms. To a person living at any point of human history, his contemporary age would be modern and anything succeeding it would be, naturally, postmodern. In the excitement of concept promotion, it is easy to forget that the terms we contrive are simply for the sake of convenient reference and categorization. Order imposed on Chaos. Humanity administering a dose of reassurance and psychic comfort to itself.

No doubt in the future some intellectual with conceptual gas to burn will concoct a new (and equally ridiculous) label as postmodernity’s replacement. Let us hope that it will be more imaginative than current flaccid examples like ‘post-postmodern’ (those demonstrating such repugnant conceptual laziness are perpetrators of an intellectual crime and should be punished with a lobotomy, sans anesthesia). Still, the characteristics of postmodernity (and postmodernism), both the good and the regrettable, will outlast any succession of strutting pretenders. Human civilization from now on will always be a mixed bag of thoughts and their materialization, a hyper-pastiche of ideas, an oceanic collage of forms. Variety will proliferate and with it the potency of Chaos will forever test the limits of Order trying to contain it.


The Titan that raises humanity's mountains

Newtonian icon. Euclidean totem. Herald of a coming monumentality. Midwife in the birthing of a new child of the skyline. Sentinel of change.

There is no decoration on a tower crane, logos and ads aside. Each bar, beam, truss, rope, jib, joint and sheave asserts its necessity. Its form is integrity made manifest. Its lines are a study in formal, elegant purity. No superfluity is allowed in its design. No compromise is permitted to its structural strength. Nothing less is expected of a Titan that raises humanity’s mountains, a giant under the command of the human mind, its tremendous power harnessed by that lore the physicists name ‘mechanical advantage’.

Where there are tower cranes, there progress hums its energy and promise. Ignored, derided, even cursed for its supposed ugliness, the crane stoically bears the insults and indifference. It suffers the slings of the vicious, whining rabble as it builds a safe shelter for them and their gross ingratitude. The sensitive soul will recognise and honour such magnanimity.

When the building’s completion approaches the final hours, down the crane comes, a felled Jurassic sauropod whose massive steel bones are taken apart in a climactic feast by scavengers in hard hats and fluorescent jackets. In a ritual enacted over and over again ever since the ancient Greeks, inventors of the crane, began edifiying the land, when its task is completed the crane is sacrificed.

Yet it will rise once more, an undying symbol of architectural creation, an immortal instrument of Man the builder.


Nay Mammon

Nay Mammon, this I reply
Not for all the earth's riches
Nor the awe and high regard
Attendant to such
Not for status or prestige
That humbles others
As it makes their envy
Shall I ever be a cunt
Cruel, callous and vain
For I choose Virtue
And all her lovers
Are never wretched men


05 November 2008

The secret

'Tell me, what’s your secret?'

'What do you mean?' She did not turn to face him. Standing at the floor-to-ceiling glass window, her outward gaze level, she looked like she was addressing her reflection on that flawless surface.

Practice and its rewards

Consider the champion gymnast: her entire body a testament to the vigorous exercise regime and iron discipline required for it to move – to somersault, pivot, spin and soar – as it does. Our admiration for the gymnast in motion is partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because we recognise the unseen dedication implicit in the flawless execution of the maneuvers. We do not envy or begrudge her grace and power because we understand that she has paid a price for such goods. We see justice done in the incredible control of her physicality; we witness the law of causality obeyed in the focused output of her mind.

24 October 2008

Pragmatism and particularism

Pragmatism and particularism are complementary philosophies, close cousins if not actual siblings. Pragmatism’s focus on what works transcends the vain rivalry between different, usually opposing, creeds, whether in politics, economics or ethics. Pragmatic choices are made in the context of the particular circumstances calling for action. Point-scoring and petty games of one-upmanship are rejected as irrelevant, frivolous even, in the pursuit of tangible goals. Truth ceases to be an empty abstraction that changes chameleon-like to suit the ideological surroundings; it becomes a non-negotiable value that is only as good as the delivered results.

01 October 2008

Particularism: an articulation

The French philosopher and writer Paul Nizan declared that he rejected ‘all humanist mythology that speaks of an abstract man and ignores the real state of his life.’ I will add that this real state is the particular state of any individual’s existence. Idiosyncrasy is what defines each member of the human species. To appraise one is to appraise him alone. One must guard against the common tendency to reference generalities and refrain from extrapolating a larger, but fuzzier, idea from the known details. One should strive for accuracy.

In counterpoint to Nizan, his more famous compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that ‘every human endeavour, however singular it seems, involves the whole human race.’ Now here we have an example of the ‘abstract man’ myth Nizan rejected. So every single act of the individual involves the whole human race? And on what empirical evidence did Sartre base his grand statement? It’s a poetic declaration but one hardly demonstrable by a rigorous scientific method.

30 September 2008

Constant stars to navigate by

We are ships tossed about in turbulent seas of forces beyond our control – Necessity, Causality, Chance. But the ship has a captain at the wheel, Choice. And this is why the analogy of a ship is used, and not a leaf or some unpiloted object which would imply determinism and absence of personal responsibility. It is this very responsibility that divides people into two kinds: those who agonise over it, and those who embrace it. Which camp one falls into will to a great extent determine one’s attitude towards life; it will be a series of burdens for the agonisers, and of opportunities for the embracers.

To be the creator of one’s own meaning, values and purpose is to reject both fatalism (which places these things in the hands of an external ‘power’) and nihilism (which rejects all values and insists on the meaninglessness of existence). The defining characteristics of the free, brave individual are her self-affirmation (“I am capable of creating my own meaning”) and self-cultivation (“I live and practise my meaning”). She does not give unwarranted deference to an outside authority, whether temporal or divine. Any social law or custom that she chooses to follow is one that she deems justified and worthy of recognition. She cannot be coerced, that is although she may be physically forced to act against her will, she will not surrender that independent principle of self-creation, of self-choosing.

For the free and brave individual, her guiding principle is rational, enlightened, long-sighted self-interest. The laws of existence are the only laws she obeys without reservation; they are the constant stars blazing in the firmament by which she navigates her earthly vessel.


24 September 2008

Mechanistic Man

Advances in neurobiological, psychological, computational and cognitive sciences are providing a growing body of evidence in support of the ‘mechanistic man’ idea. Our humanity is increasingly being explained in purely physical and biological terms. Is this a cause for fear or despair? Or is acceptance of the facts the key to our emancipation from centuries of suffering inflicted upon ourselves and others due to ignorance and misinformation? There is a transformative power in the affirmation that we are simply valuation machines of immense biological sophistication. When we surrender our misplaced dependence on transcendent meaning and embrace the implications of mechanistic meaning – influenced by our evolutionary biology and its imperatives – then Necessity, that implacable goddess, loses her power to terrify. Necessity, of the biological, physical and chemical kind, is accepted as the meaning we need.

10 September 2008

Timeless values, now at a chain-store near you!

At the heart of every Romantic is the conviction that all human progress isn’t invariably an improvement on what has come before. They lament the fact that in certain areas of our civilization we have actually devolved, degraded, whether in the values, principles or tastes we hold. And the Romantic, or anyone with a sense of nostalgia, is sensitive to this sullying. This sensitivity tends to be parodied as a quixotic idealism blind – or at least indifferent – to the contemporary glories of the arts and sciences. But the cocky bullies making fun of the dreamers are idealists themselves. For them, culture and technology in their latest forms are necessarily superior to any predecessors.

A declaration for the free individual

The free individual may live in society, but not under it; that is, he refuses to submit to the banal dictates of the people. He does not recognise their sovereignty. Since they cannot die his death for him, therefore he will not live his life for them.

The contract of each person's existence has them as its sole signatory. The free individual is the one who sets his own contractual terms within its non-negotiable limits. His terms will allow none to hold hostage his freedom and happiness; not friends, not lovers, not family, not colleagues, not strangers. And if any of them should do so, it would only be by his consent, admitted or not.

The individual is responsible for keeping his own inner freedom. He surrenders it by choice, always, regardless of his rationalisations. His unhappiness and anger at those he perceives to be his emotional jailers stems from his own unacknowledged regret for giving up his liberty in exchange for trivialities.

Society fashions a steel chain it calls ‘sacrifice’ and ennobles it with a lick of gold. And so a symbol of slavery is transformed into a mark of pride. The person who sacrifices his freedom and happiness for the sake of others is hailed a hero. But when he requests that same sacrifice from others for his sake, thinking it only fair, he is taken aback by their hostility, their contempt! Hypocrisy is a one way street.

The free individual will not let himself be so chained. He rejects any sacrifice that is not consonant with the terms of his existential contract. Society has no claim on his life, not when it cannot die his death for him. Or live his life for him, with everything this implies.


"We're in the stupidity delivery business."

The very impartiality of market forces with regards to the intellectual quality of goods and services is a serious flaw with dire consequences. Letting the bottom line ultimately decide what is best for people leaves us all vulnerable to the psychologically toxic effects of mental trash peddled as harmless fun. We grossly underestimate the influence that market culture has on public tastes. If public preferences leaned towards intelligent, complex and (gasp!) challenging products for the mind, we wouldn’t have celebrity tabloids outselling newspapers, news weeklies and serious magazines, or reality TV outrating educational documentaries and incisive current affairs programs.

28 August 2008

The poet and the mathematician

It is the mathematician, not the poet, who can come closest to that shy, elusive creature Truth. The mathematician, unlike the poet, the mystic and all those who use language, is unfettered by cultural subjectivity and linguistic limitations. While wordsmiths (yours truly not exempted) depend on a generous fairy-dusting of glamour and sentimentality to woo an audience, mathematicians, and their cousins mathematical logicians, engage in an unselfconscious attempt to understand the fundamental laws of all things, laws expressed as numbers and their relationships bound together by the glue of logic. If the poet is music’s pretty poster child of romantic pop, then the mathematician is the hoary classical theorist with a command of music’s very building blocks.

23 August 2008

End the (consciousness) war!

Reason is not the ultimate human faculty lauded by classical philosophy, yet neither is it the 'slave of the passions' as David Hume believed. We must avoid the simple, convenient and false reason-emotion dichotomy that rends apart what is intricately entwined, even interdependent. Neuroscientific evidence shows the important role played by feelings, instinct and the unconscious mind - aspects of our humanity often reviled as inferior to reason and logical thinking - in our personal theatre of life.

Liberty Ltd, unlimited

Consumerist capitalism and its reliance on markets and markets alone to promote freedom, specifically the consumer’s freedom of choice, ignores certain hard truths about human nature. Libertarian economic philosophy makes grand - and erroneous - assumptions regarding the behaviour of individuals pursuing their rational self-interests; that base emotions like greed and callousness don’t exist (or worse, are trumpeted as good), that private choices don’t have public consequences, that human values are simply the aggregate of personal wants and desires removed from a wider social context. We are free to choose from five-hundred-and-seventy-three brands of washing detergent but are blocked from buying television air-time for civic messages criticizing consumerism. The contradictory message is clear: we are free to spend our money as we see fit, so long as we spend it as consumerist capitalism sees fit. We can subscribe to any social ideology we want to, so long as it's consumerism.

15 August 2008

Meaning and association

Mundane objects are made oppressive with the weight of emotional associations. Sentimentality chains itself to the most banal things. There is this fear that reigns a tyrant over so many, this terror of loss that shadows all things material. We grip tight, accumulate and hoard in a vain attempt to make time stand still. We console ourselves that though a cherished moment is deceased, we can still summon the memory of it, especially with the aid of a physical catalyst. We may not be able to raise the dead, but we can call forth their ghosts. Sentimentality is a sort of necromancy.

08 August 2008

Critique of pure Kantianism

I’m reading Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox. Its premise, that the freedom of the modern individual to pursue endless consumer choice and sensual gratification has failed to provide ‘inner freedom’, sounded promising enough for me to pick it up. The first few chapters had me nodding my head in agreement as Hamilton dissected the current disappointing state of liberalism in the social, political and economic arena. John Stuart Mill’s ideas on individual liberty were mildly rebuked for his oversimplified views and gushy optimism, though Hamilton acknowledges Mill’s seminal role in the formulation of many liberal values we enjoy today. Hamilton throws water on my fiery Millism, but I could use some cooling down.

Then, at the start of the book’s second act where Hamilton introduces the metaphysical basis of his argument for a ‘post-secular’ ethics, our foregoing relationship, which started out amiably enough, begins to sour. You see, Hamilton turns Kantian.

04 August 2008

Are you sure you're not religious?

Peace, progress and prosperity have birthed often unforeseen offspring, both beautiful and hideous. Among the latter are new popular delusions. Though religion - as it is commonly understood - is perceived to be on the retreat, the comfortable civilization has not entirely lost its need for mysticism, for collective illusions. Its increasing secularism masks the accompanying rise of another breed of religiosity, one that has evolved to fit the times, this age of peace, progress and prosperity.

01 August 2008

The utopian fallacy

There is one ideal that a utopia will never allow if its definition is to remain consistent, and that ideal is pluralism. Any utopian world-view has an implicit ideological homogeneity that does not, in fact cannot, tolerate dissent. For a utopia to be what it is - a system of political and social perfection - its members must necessarily embrace similar values and ideals, otherwise its integrity disintegrates. Can any society be called a utopia if it has members, even a tiny minority, who are dissatisfied with the supposedly flawless social order? Can it still be called a utopia if there is but one malcontent?

25 July 2008

Forced to be free

The complacent assumption that secularism and democracy are inseparable, that one necessitates the other, has been debunked by the current situation in Turkey. It's enough to confuse the stalwart advocate of Enlightenment values; "What, you mean it's possible to have to choose between secularism and democracy?" That's like being told that you have to choose between your left or right leg if you want to walk.

Not by reason alone

What if the insistence on certainty - the need for axioms irrefutable for all time - is in itself an irrational desire? What if the definition of 'reason' has gradually narrowed to the point where it has become a limiting, rather than a liberating, tool that self-righteous rationalists use to bludgeon the 'unreasonable' others into submission? What if reason actually has boundaries, lines that if crossed bring us into a territory where we have no absolute right to be, where we are trespassers brazenly wearing the crown of conquerors?

In recent weeks new knowledge and fresh perspectives from sources as diverse as bioethics, sociology, neuroscience, art, mathematics, philosophy and religion (gasp!) have caused me to review my convictions regarding the supremacy of reason. It doesn't help that the issue is confounded by a generous serving of false dichotomies and false dilemmas (reason OR emotion, rationalism OR spontaneity). I'm beginning to notice the simplistic bifurcations that are so easily built by those with a vested interest in one side of the (often complex) issue.

For me the sense that a seeker of knowledge, of truth, should proceed along reason's road with caution is gaining strength. There are pot-holes on that road, and the detours and beaten tracks leading off it carry the promise of experiences that would complement, rather than contaminate, the sweet savour afforded by the reasonable life.


24 July 2008

Essayists, dare to be opinionated!

In the July-August 08 issue of Utne magazine, Cristina Nehring gives a rousing call to shake-up the essay from its self-absorbed pusillanimity in her article 'Why Essays Are So Damned Boring.' She thunders, "If the genre is neglected in our day, it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists - and their editors, their anthologists, and the tastemakers on whom they depend - have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way." Well put. Though I have no significant experience with the sort of "quiet... Slow moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied" essays that Nehring lambasts, I can testify to the pleasure derived from reading the strident, polemical, passionate observations of writers like A.C. Grayling, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and, a more lyrical example, Alain de Botton.

16 July 2008

Capitalism: a convenient scapegoat

In his book Supercapitalism, a critique on the adverse effects of turbo-charged capitalism in tandem with a weakened democracy, economist Robert Reich writes:

Capitalism's role is to enlarge the economic pie. How the slices are divided and whether they are applied to private goods like personal computers or public goods like clean air is up to society to decide. This is the role we assign to democracy.

This is in response to the common accusation of capitalism being the fountainhead of all sorts of social and environmental ills, from widening inequalities of income and wealth to greater job insecurity to climate change. This simplistic view is inaccurate and lays far too many sins at the feet of what is essentially a neutral tool of material and social progress.

14 July 2008

Andre Kertesz

The photographer Andre Kertesz wrote the following in his diary in 1930:

I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life. I reject all forms of professional cleverness or virtuosity... As soon as I have found the image that interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it faithfully.

Kertesz's sentiments are mine too. I'd like to think that had we been contemporaries, we might have been friends who spoke a common photographic language. Not for us the slick techniques that strip the photo of its authenticity, its 'is-ness', often with the principal motive of selling a product and its associated glamour. Or at least that's what happens when photography is hijacked by purely commercial interests.

Kertesz's photographic philosophy emphasises a visual honesty that makes it a closer relative of photojournalism than of fine art photography, though his work bears elements of both. If there's one lesson that I've imbibed from Kertesz's approach to capturing slivers of Life, of reality, it's that the photographer must dare to be true to his subjective experience of whatever it is that compelled him to pause, to look, and to shoot. He must, as it were, repel the invading considerations of public opinion, 'expert' authority, personal legacy and stylistic ambition. Though Kertesz was not immune to these considerations - for one thing he had a deep psychological need for validation of his work and was easily hurt if he felt he had been unjustly denied the recognition he thought he deserved - nonetheless his stubborn refusal to abandon his subjective vision inspires me to remain true to mine.


08 July 2008

Three keys

Three areas of knowledge hold the keys to accessing all the happiness and fulfillment possible to the individual. These are philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Broadly speaking (with the understanding that there are overlaps between the three), philosophy furnishes the individual with answers to questions concerning how to live well, psychology provides him with explanations of why he acts and thinks the way he does, and neuroscience shows what the physical causes of consciousness and unconsciousness are.

To have even a rudimentary understanding of these three fields of knowledge is to come closer to achieving that often elusive joy and contentment which are the rewards of self-knowledge. When a person is more aware of the how, why and what of his mind and all its facets including his character, beliefs, preferences and consequent actions, he assumes greater control of the direction and form that his unique life takes. Such knowledge is empowering, as empowering as sight restored to the blind.


30 June 2008

Cultural relativism of values

It's deplorable, the reluctance to acknowledge the objective value of an idea simply because the idea originated in a culture other than one's own. I have in mind the Chinese government's claims that principles such as freedom of thought and speech, individual rights and various expressions of liberty (especially with regard to information access, the press and journalistic integrity) are irrelevant to the Chinese people simply on the grounds of their alien, Western origins. By implying that such values are 'culture specific' and 'relative' to a particular society or milieu, the Chinese leaders seek to undermine the very natural, objective, human inclinations of the Chinese people towards liberty and the sovereignty of the individual in matters pertaining to his own life and happiness, bearing the 'do no harm to others' qualification.

This 'culturalist' attitude is narrow-minded and betrays the vanity of those demonstrating it. Imagine if, upon their discovery, a non-Chinese were to refute the value of paper or the magnetic compass simply because such things were born of the ingenuity of the Chinese (therefore alien to the non-Chinese) mind. To take such a culturalist stance shows a blinkered view of ideas that contribute to the good and add to the marvelous storehouse of human knowledge and experience.

The value and social relevance of any idea should be deduced from its utility and consequences, independently of its culture of origin. All ideas spring from a human mind, and should be accounted good or bad based on the idea's effect on the human condition.


Artistic credibility in photography

I'm at the NGV viewing a photography exhibition (black and white, early 20th century) and it strikes me that there are two determinants of the photograph's 'respectability': the framing and the level of effort or technical skill involved in the photo's creation. I say this because in this age of easy-to-use/produce digital photography, a modern photo bearing similar 'artistic' qualities to that of the 20th century photos doesn't occupy the same exalted level of credibility or status simply because of the comparatively effortless process of producing the modern digital photo.

This 'demotion' in rank is compounded if the modern digital black-and-white photo isn't haloed within a frame, preferably of a sombre wood construction. Oh, and having plenty of white or off-white space between the photo and the frame (to let the photo 'breathe' you see) is a necessary element of credible art photography.

Frame any image and its rating on the 'credibility-o-meter' jumps up a few notches.



Much symbolism insults the intelligence. Objectivity is missing in many interpretations and the inconsistency of meaning across different cultures refutes the alleged 'universality' of many symbols.

As a means of communication, symbols are valid if they bear a recognisable resemblance to that which they symbolise. The stylised male and female figures for washroom signage are examples of coherent symbology; the red rose symbolising romantic love is an example of the opposite. The association between the rose and romance is weighted with cultural and historical chains. Such a 'symbol' would be incoherent to an outsider who isn't initiated in the culture-specific visual language that is the context for the 'rose for romance' symbolism.

Coherent symbols are truly universal because they derive their form and meaning from objective reality, while limiting subjective interpretation based on a whim. Such symbols are the common property of all humanity for their validity does not depend on the cultural or charismatic power of any particular society, individual or organisation. No single creator or group of creators can claim authorship of a universal symbol, unlike the corporate logos that saturate the physical and mental environment. To put it another way, a society, individual or organisation may have the power to propagate incoherent symbols whose meanings are dictated by their creators (or owners, as with corporate logos that 'symbolise' the company's carefully constructed image and associated values), but coherent symbols and their meanings are independent of anyone's agenda. No person, group, government or corporation is powerful enough to switch around the meanings of the male and female washroom signs (at least without intending ironic humour), or convince people that the sign depicting a stylised airplane on the highway represents a train-station.


Inconsistencies, contradictions

Human inconsistencies and contradictions are arguably unavoidable, but virtue consists of making an attempt to recognise our ethical contradictions and resolve them. The moral agent (that is, any human being) who has no qualms with both harming and healing others is inferior in character compared to the one who does his best to resolve his ethical inconsistencies, choosing the good and avoiding the bad as consistently as possible.


The philosopher-king - an unrealisable ideal?

Is it necessary that the true philosopher, the individual who pledges himself to wisdom, to truth, to love, beauty and objective values, is unable to achieve political power and thus influence society to recognise, cultivate and defend the good? Is his very fidelity to virtue an insurmountable obstacle that blocks him from leading society towards a nobility of character? Is the contemplative, virtuous mind doomed, in Socrates's words, to be 'deserted, lonely, and neglected' because he 'leads a life opposite to the needs of the masses' and doesn't betray his principles to pander to their folly and delusions?

The mob, the masses, the collective

There's a repulsive element in large numbers of people supposedly united for a common cause. When wisdom and reason are abandoned and solidarity is adopted for its own sake, regardless of the validity of its premises, the mob becomes a spawning pool for unbridled passions and zealotry. I have tasted of such seemingly sweet fruit, which intoxicates with its illusion of certainty, seduces with its attractive facade of infallibility. The crowd encourages a natural multiplication of error, of blind belief, of desperate stupidity.

Far more good is done through individual action and commitment that doesn't depend on the security blanket offered by the chanting, gesticulating masses for its strength. Collectives have always been vulnerable to the skilled manipulations of a clever demagogue (or gang of demagogues). Gather a crowd in one location and they are at risk of succumbing to theatrics and bombastic rhetoric that fans their irrational fears, hatreds and desires. It's as if the mass of people act as conductors of overcharged emotional electricity, filling the very atmosphere with sparks that could start a conflagration.


Elitism, moral and intellectual

How a person responds to an intelligent, confident, sensitive character that they encounter speaks volumes of their own bent of mind. If they react with feelings of inadequacy, envy or resentment they confess a lack of respect for such virtues as intelligence, confidence and sensitivity. If however they should feel admiration and even joy at having the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from such a great mind, they themselves possess a degree of that greatness, that nobility, of character. A virtuous person is quick to recognise the good in another, and will encourage that good to flourish or emulate it to their own betterment.

Thomas Mann, the German novelist, wrote that "in a democracy that does not respect intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagogy has free rein, and the level of the national life is lowered to that of the ignorant and uncultivated." The same observation can be made of the individual; a person who holds scant regard for intellectual, reflective endeavour lowers his character to the detriment of his potential for fulfilment and happiness. Thus degraded in mind, he becomes a source of life-negating forces that act on those he comes into contact with, on society at large and on the global community.

There is a pervasive aversion to any form of elitism, which is a symptom of egalitarianism gone amok. This climate of often unwarranted hostility towards the best and brightest minds contributes to a widespread dumbing down of culture as ever growing numbers of philistines sneer at any display of intelligence and hold the educated mind in contempt. Mann wrote that "this cannot happen if the principle of education is allowed to dominate and if the tendencies prevail to raise the lower classes to an appreciation of culture and to accept the leadership of the better elements." This last line must be qualified; such leadership should only be accepted if it is worthy of respect and admiration, if it is a leadership based on virtue and a dedication to the highest humanistic principles as determined by the nature of humanity itself. To discover what these principles are that any leadership must uphold, Alexander Pope gives us a nudge in the right direction in his 'An Essay on Man':

Know then thyself,

presume not God to scan;

The proper study of Mankind

is Man.


Ceremony and ritual

People reveal a weakness of intellectual integrity when they engage in ceremonies with artificial meaning injected into otherwise empty gestures. Rituals pregnant with mystical 'power', initiation and marriage rites replete with vacuous symbology, repetitive motions and noises designed to numb the thinking mind and anesthetise the sensitivity of reason; such group activity is a display of its participants' desperate need for that comfort drug called 'acceptance', that appeasement of anxiety called 'approval' from the social construct, the 'authority' as described by thinkers like Erich Fromm.

Those engaging in rituals and ceremonies of the aforementioned kind give a soundless cry of helplessness, a silent shriek of impotence. They confess an inability to live autonomously, to be the architects of their own meaning. Instead they surrender their powers of self-creation to the group in a pathetic attempt to escape from what is to them the unbearable burden of personal responsibility and accountability for the value of their own lives.

By seeking to 'lose' themselves in inane ceremony as a way of attaining salvation, as a way of entering the blissful place of the 'chosen', ritualists do indeed attain their goal; they lose their authentic selves. The tragedy is that they don't see this as a bad thing. Self-annihilation is actually what they desire.


Theologians and mystics = naked emperors

For all their scholastic titles and awards, theologians are nevertheless conmen, though perhaps unwitting ones. Like astrologers, feng shui 'experts' and spirit mediums, they are naked emperors whose influence grows in proportion to the number of gullible folk who uncritically accept their proclamations. I've recently purchased an English translation of Michel de Montaigne's 'Essays' by M.A. Screech, who is, among other impressive titles, an ordained Catholic priest. Dr Screech is a regrettable example of a highly educated, articulate, intelligent individual who subscribes to mysticism and supernatural abstractions, holding onto such pearls of wisdom as 'all knowledge is merely opinion' and insisting that truth is revealed (presumably by the Catholic conception of God), not arrived at through Man's oh-so-fallible powers of reason.

This insult to my intelligence (a faculty for which my pride in is considered a Christian sin) comes right after I've read John Gribbin's fantastic book on the history of science, a field of endeavour whose participants - unlike Dr Screech and his fellow mystics - know all too well the possibility of arriving at certain knowledge, objective and indisputable given the available facts, through the diligent gathering and careful interpretation of empirical evidence, with Man's reason and his senses as indispensable tools.

Get enough people to believe in fairies and we'll have esteemed fairy-ologians holding forth with unmerited authority as they split hairs over the physiology and metaphysics of goblins, ghosts and ghouls. Meanwhile the epistemological progress of humanity is retarded as the naked emperors are lavished with undue attention and rewards, both material and psychological.



Much evil has its origin in the sweeping generalities people are prone to make with regard to their fellow human beings. The categorisation that often occurs unconsciously and is seldom supported by facts comes far too easily to the primitive aspect of the human mind. Where once in our evolutionary history such a prejudiced 'in-group/out-group' classification mentality served to protect the group from potential enemies competing for limited resources in a harsh environment, in more materially secure times this very same attitude can be an obstacle to goodwill and peaceful co-existence between people from different cultures.

What many people, especially those apt to callously toss out catch-all statements, fail to realise or admit is that generalities are ultimately inaccurate, since they fail to take into account the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and the inherent differences among individuals. Intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the only reason we resort to generalities is purely for convenience. It's expedient for one trying to make a point about a certain 'collectivity' of anonymous people to simply blanket them with a blithe generality. That way one is spared the effort in considering the exceptions to the rule, the complexities, the nuances, the individuality of the persons in the targeted collective. And chasing after expediency for its own sake has often birthed poorly thought out decisions with tragic results.

What is needed is for us to develop an aversion to generalities and recognise that proper evaluation and judgment applies only to the ideals, beliefs and actions of individuals. Appraise the moral character of the person instead of that of his arbitrarily assigned 'group' that he supposedly belongs to. This applies even if he himself subscribes to the notion of being a member of such a group. His error of reasoning need not be ours.


The book is immortal

Not all areas of human endeavour and their technological fruits are fated to progress indefinitely, progress in this context taken to mean radical innovation, a revolution of ideas or a paradigm shift. Take the printed book as an example; for all the conceit of futurist designers and technophiles proclaiming the ascension of the digital 'book' or e-book (whether conceived of as pages on a computer screen or a more tactile, flexible LCD 'scroll'), the comparatively modest technology of the printed-and-bound book remains unsurpassed in efficiency, portability, elegance of interface and aesthetic quality.

The book is immortal. Long after the self-promoting cacophony of e-book prophets has, with the help of hindsight, been shown to be but a hiccup in the history of the written word, people will still be flipping pages at their leisure, though those pages may be constructed of some wondrous material beyond our current imaginings.