Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Category archive: Literature
There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3. Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music. And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:
I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me. And I never plan to develop them completely. For I do not see the whole of anything. (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how. And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.
Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he? A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”. I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off. With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy. Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.
I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it. The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part. I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns. It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.
Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote. It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.
The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded. And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.
LATER: More about Montaigne, also emphasising the modern social media angle, here.
They were both as pristine and polished as life-size dolls recently removed from their cellophane boxes; rich-girl thin, almost hipless in their tight jeans, with tanned faces that had a waxy sheen especially noticeable on their foreheads, their long, gleaming dark manes with centre partings, the ends trimmed with spirit level exactitude.
I claim no expertise in the matter of the differences between male and female writers, but might not paragraphs like that have caused suspicions that “Robert Galbraith” was really a woman, even if the information had not been revealed on the front cover? It’s the detail. The waxy foreheads, the centre partings, trimmed like that. I don’t think a man would have gone into quite such detail, nor - in this age of male timidity about being anti-female – been as wonderfully rude about it.
I could be imagining all that. I don’t read much fiction by men either, and maybe the best men writers are just as exact about the women they describe and can be just as rude when doing it. And maybe most women writers would not refer to a spirit level in such a context. Really, I just liked it.
Quoted by “Robert Galbraith” (aka JK Rowling) at the beginning of The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous.
Celebrity and its discontents are nothing new.
I’m reading Boris Johnson’s book about London. It’s good fun. I don’t know how much Boris is to be trusted about things like historical facts, but I doubt it is that bad, even though he is a politician.
The thing is, for years I’ve been looking for a brief history of London, but all the others seem to be too long, and too solemn, or worse, they exude literary pretension. I think I own this book, but have never been inclined to read it.
I’ve just finished the Chaucer chapter. I hadn’t realised quite what a swell Chaucer was. Him writing in English was a rather generous - or maybe rather patronising - gesture from a man whose first language was Norman French. It was during his lifetime that English supplanted French as England’s language. Johnson mentions the Black Death, of course, but not one of my pet theories about the Black Death, which is that the Black Death actually helped to cause English to take over, by killing half the royal administrators, who then had all to be replaced, because clearly the bureaucracy couldn’t get any smaller. That would be against the laws of everything. So, what remained of the teaching profession was sucked into the bureaucracy. At which point the English turned to home education. Guess in which language. But I digress.
I am greatly looking forward to reading about the time of the English Civil War, and then the stuff about John Wilkes, who is someone I keep hearing about but have never really got to grips with. I anticipate a good, quick, potted biography. I am expecting the arguments swirling around Wilkes to be a bit like those that now rage around the figure of Edward Snowden.
The book passes my basic test, which is that having started it, I find that I want to finish it. I am reading the book, despite merely needing to read other books.
In the shop (a remainder shop), I read the beginnings of the chapter on Shakespeare, and bought it on the strength of that. You can buy it for £2.82.
I am, as noted in the previous posting, reading Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity. At the join between page 350 and page 351, I learn this:
The second sons of British aristocrats, such as Richard Howe, had long joined even the technically demanding and bourgeois navy. They stood on the quarterdecks facing enemy fire, as aristocrats should, but their fellow offers were the sons of lawyers or of clergymen (such as Sir Frances William Austen, Admiral of the Fleet in 1863 and Jane Austen’s brother; and Sir Charles Austen, another brother and another admiral).
I did not know this, that is to say, I did not know (in particular) the bit in the brackets. That explains a great deal about the novel Persuasion, in which the best men are navy men, and the biggest arse is an aristocrat.
Jane Austen’s books are popular because, despite the way they look on television, they are precisely not unthinking celebrations of aristocratic privilege and excellence. Upwardly mobile traders are accorded dignity, and aristocrats who despise tradesmen for trading are in their turn despised by Jane Austen. Yes, Mr Darcy owns half a county, and Elizabeth Bennet falls for him when she first sets eyes on his gigantic stately home. But his aunt, Lady Catherine de Burgh, who despises Elizabeth for being related to tradespeople, is another pompous aristocratic arse (of the female sort), bested at the end by bourgeois Elizabeth Bennet.
By the way, McCloskey is a cricket fan.
It was Hemingway, I think, who said that thing about how your writing is only as good as the stuff you remove from it, or words to that effect. (Exact quote anyone?)
And I think one of the reasons why some writers especially like blogging is that a personal, I-write-what-I-please blog like this one (but done by a Real Writer who also does Real Writing) is where such offcuts can go, and still have a half life. The offcuts are no longer completely wasted. But neither do they get in the way.
As has already been reported here, I have been reading Pride and Prejudice on my Google Nexus 4 ultra-mobile computer-with-phone. And, in Chapter X of this book, I read this:
My highlighted version of that last sentence being:
“As for your Elizabeth’s picture, you must not attempt to have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?”
So, in Jane Austen time, painters “took” pictures.
I thought that was only photographers. There does seem, does there not?, to be something peculiarly apt about a photographer “taking” a picture. After all, you could only “take” a picture with one click of a mechanical button, as I just did of my Google Nexus 4 with my Panasonic Lumix FZ150, if the picture was in some basic sense already there for the taking, in its entirety. “Take” gets across the difference between photoing someone and painting a portrait of them, by which I mean “making” a portrait.
Perhaps this “take” usage, to describe portrait painting, declined when the painters stopped claiming to produce what we now call photographic likenesses, and, under the competitive influence of actual photography, began to “make” pictures of people, the whole point of and the whole justification of which was that a mere camera could absolutely not “take” such pictures. Such paintings are made, not taken. To accuse a painter of “taking” a picture would be to accuse him of adding nothing.
So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment. (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)
So. The Enlightenment. This is a word I have heard all my life. But what did it, does it, mean? It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing. But why, exactly? I guess that, until now, I was not educated.
What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind. This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other. For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans? Pinker answers this question.
I found that picture of Pinker here.
Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question. There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse. But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.
In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.
Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.
My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.
It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).
We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.
Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.
By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.
The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.
From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.
This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.
I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations. And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.
The names people choose for their children are strange
Obama raises the price of tanning
You know where you are with a book - usually
Under a hundred copies
London Bites @ Sway
Hislop fluffs the rhyme
“Vivid characters, devious plotting and buckets of gore …”
More random links
Quota quotes from Wodehouse
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
A poetic Hornby
Man regrows finger
Lizzy Bennet tells it like it is
Bookcase staircase many books electric book manybooks.net
Tom Wolfe on the only real fun of writing
Susan Hill on not having to be up-to-the-minute about book blogging
One Man and His Very Thin Blog
Sandow on Bond versus the Musketeers
Alice in Fortnum and Mason
Oscar Wilde defends society
“Liberty might be defended, after all” - Tom Holland’s account of the Battle of Marathon
Remembering the Alternative Bookshop experience
Four stars at Amazon
Pauses - Indian accents - English names
More IP violating: Barry Beelzebub on Freepost bricks and a still-legal wild boar hunt
A deftly modified cliché