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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Quote of the Day

It is easy to forget that we Whig-liberals and libertarians are the real socialists in the only meaningful sense of the word: we understand the nature of social relations and we want them to go on working, hence our opposition to the State’s gumming up of the works with its deranged schemes for perfecting them. It was a pleasure, therefore, to come across this passage in the Diary of a Pilgrimage, written in 1891 by Jerome K Jerome, the British humourist and accidental philosopher – and accidentally is the only way for a true-born Englishman to be a philosopher, since the English genius has always been to build institutions on insights derived from practical experience, rather than from abstract cogitation like a mere Frenchman. Jerome, musing on the nature of modern society while waiting for a train, shows an instinctive understanding of Adam Smith’s hidden hand and the self-organising character of complex systems:

“What a wonderful piece of Socialism modern civilisation has become! – not the Socialism of the so-called Socialists – a system modelled apparently upon the methods of the convict prison – a system under which each miserable sinner is to be compelled to labour, like a beast of burden, for no personal benefit to himself, but only for the good of the community – a world where there are to be no men, but only numbers – where there is to be no ambition and no hope and no fear, – but the Socialism of free men, working side by side in the common workshop, each one for the wage to which his skill and energy entitle him; the Socialism of responsible, thinking individuals, not of State-directed automata. Read more

The Throwback

Following our brief hiatus, we return to normal service by marking the death of the late Lord Bannside, better known as the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, whom history seems determined to remember as a half-crazed and dangerous reactionary from the seventeenth century, a throwback to the radical Protestantism of Cromwell’s time who, mellowing a little in his old age, came to see the light, or at least a glimmer thereof, and finally agreed to the sort of compromise which would naturally appeal to the squishy Anglican sensibilities of the smug and unremarkable English people for whom compromise is not merely a means but an end in itself.

Leaving aside the interesting question of whether many Ulstermen, be they Catholic or Protestant, were successfully brought to believe that being governed by a coalition of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley constituted progress in the conventional sense of the word, we think it at least worth considering the contribution which fundamentalist Protestants – for all their intolerance and inflexibility, the two attitudes most guaranteed to make you a pariah in the twenty-first century – have made over the centuries to the development of the free political institutions, commercial progress, and scientific innovations which constitute modernity, as well as to the meteoric rise of the English-speaking peoples from the seventeenth century onwards, which made what we think of as modernity possible. Read more

Quote of the Day

The good fellows over at @ClimateRealists, linking to this article in the Guardian which basically advises us all to head for the hills before the weather gods smite our sorry behinds, asked if the Guardian is a secret religious cult. This is perhaps a shrewder question than they realised, as the great historian of religious thought Sir James George Frazer nailed down the superstitious origins of political coercion more than a century ago. In The Golden Bough, he wrote:

“We have found that at an early stage of society men, ignorant of the secret processes of nature and of the narrow limits within which it is in our power to control and direct them, have commonly arrogated to themselves functions which in the present state of knowledge we should deem superhuman or divine. The illusion has been fostered and maintained by the same causes which begot it, namely, the marvellous order and uniformity with which nature conducts her operations, the wheels of her great machine revolving with a smoothness and precision which enable the patient observer to anticipate in general the season, if not the very hour, when they will bring round the fulfilment of his hopes or the accomplishment of his fears. Read more

On the Great War, and other Anniversaries

We have come across a rather eccentric debate which is exercising the minds of the great and the good in the run up to the hundredth anniversary of the First World War later this year. It began when British politician Michael Gove, somewhat belatedly spotting that the commemorations will inevitably be the usual kind of anæmic and ahistorical rubbish on the model of the 2005 Trafalgar anniversary, decided to put a column about it in the Daily Mail, a tabloid which runs features on celebrity diets and conspiracy theories about the late Princess of Wales. In it, he made the case that the Great War was “a just war to combat German aggression” rather than, as commonly portrayed, “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch élite”.

Britain being a complete stranger to such things as a sense of proportion, there followed a series of more or less hysterical rebuttals and counter-rebuttals involving everyone from academic historians to people who once appeared in a BBC sitcom set in the trenches. Bizarre as these antics may be, there is in fact a real intellectual question here. It can not, however, be answered by reference to Sarajevo or the Schlieffen Plan or Pan-Slavism or the Kaiserliche Marine: rather, the origins, nature, and significance of the conflict can only be properly understood within the much broader perspective of western history over the last several centuries. As it happens, this year is also the anniversary of quite a few other historical events which illustrate that perspective rather well. Read more

Syria and the Smoking Ban

We promised not to add anything to the tsunami of pointless and predictable punditry which followed in the wake of the Parliamentary vote last week, like a flock of shrieking herring-gulls behind an insanitary fishing trawler, and we stand by that. Ten years from now, Syria will still be a wretched quagmire run by dangerous psychopaths whether we (a) leave it alone, (b) lob a few expensive fireworks at it, or (c) sell it to an international consortium of hydroponic pot farms.

We were interested to note, however, the emergence of UKIP as the principal voice of non-intervention within the framework of British party politics, not counting George Galloway’s Self-Promotion and Anti-Israel Party. With burgeoning support in the Tory shires, the urban north and among campus libertarians, it is interesting to consider where, if anywhere, they fit on the political spectrum; and whether, as with Ron Paul’s idiosyncratic amalgam of pacifism and capitalism, we should reconsider some of our modern assumptions about that spectrum. Read more

Privacy and the Republic

During the controversy over the publication of The North Briton No 45, John Wilkes sent a series of letters harassing the idiot and authoritarian minister Lord Halifax – a kind of Jacqui Smith of the 1760s – mischievously suggesting that Wilkes would sue him personally for the invasion of his home and the apparent disappearance of a candlestick. In one of them, probably written on May 12th 1763, he wrote, “I will assert the security of my own house, the liberty of my person, and every right of the people, not so much for my own sake, as for the sake of every one of my English fellow subjects.”

This was far from the last time that Uncle Jack, cheerfully drunk and with a baying mob behind him, took on the government of the most powerful nation on earth for the rights of property and privacy. In this spirit, we feel that the NSA/Prism allegations made by whistle-blower Edward Snowden constitute a good opportunity to consider privacy and surveillance in the twenty-first century from a Real Whig perspective. Read more