Quotulatiousness

August 15, 2017

QotD: Platonism versus Epicureanism

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is all this that made Epicurus and his philosophy so scandalous in the ancient world and beyond. Plato never did get to create his perfect society. But his followers did manage to establish variants of Platonism as the dominant philosophy of later antiquity. And all the other main schools of philosophy were agreed that the world should be ruled by intellectuals. These should tell the civil authorities how to govern. They should provide the moral and spiritual justification for the rule of absolute and unaccountable systems of government — systems of which the Roman imperial system was only the most developed. They should have positions of honour within these systems.

Epicureanism was a standing challenge to these pretensions. We have no precise evidence for the spread of Epicureanism in the ancient world. But it does seem to have spread very widely. Why else should Cicero, Plutarch and many of the Christian Fathers have given so much effort to sustained attacks on it? Why else, in spite of his emphatic remarks on the nature of happiness, was Epicurus, even in his own lifetime, subjected to the most outrageous accusations?

We have one statement from Cicero, that Epicureanism in his own day was one of the dominant schools of philosophy in Italy. So far, he says, Greek philosophy had been available only in the original language. But writers such as Amafinius had translated several Epicurean works — on the publishing of whose writings the people were moved, and enlisted themselves chiefly under this sect, either because the doctrine was more easily understood, or because they were invited thereto by the pleasing thoughts of amusement, or that, because there was nothing better, they laid hold of what was offered them.

There is no doubt that it influenced the classical literature of Rome. Of course, there is the great poem by Lucretius. But there is also Catullus and Horace and even Virgil. Without citing them, their works are imbued with an Epicurean outlook on life, either directly from Epicurus or indirectly from Lucretius.

Another indication of popularity is that once converted to Epicureanism, people hardly ever switched to another philosophy. The philosopher Arcesilaus testifies to this fact even as he tries to explain it:

    You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can’t turn a eunuch into a man.

Then there is the curious testimony of the Jews. During the three centuries around the birth of Christ, the main everyday language of many Jewish communities was Greek. The Gospels and Letters of Saint Paul were all directed at mainly Jewish audiences and are in Greek. One of the most important philosophers of the age, Philo of Alexandria, was a Jew. Many Jews took on Greek ways. Many, no doubt, stopped being Jews and made themselves into Greeks. The condemnation of these Hellenised Jews is Apikorsim, which may easily be taken as a Semitic version of Epicurean. The term survives in Jewish theological writing. According to one Internet source, Apikorsim are what Chasidim refer to as Jewish Goyim, or secular Jews. They seem to be the worst opposition for Hasidic Jewry.

A term of abuse so loaded with contempt is unlikely to have been taken from the doctrines of an insignificant philosophical tradition among ordinary people of the age. It is reasonable to suppose that many lapsed Jews became Epicureans. If so, Epicureanism must already have had large numbers of adherents among at least the semi-educated classes.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Enlightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

July 20, 2017

QotD: Who was Epicurus?

Filed under: Education, History, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher who claimed the cosmos was eternal and merely material, made up of atoms and void. Yet, breaking with his predecessor Democritus, he considered the universe indeterminate. In the realm of ethics, Epicurus taught that the purpose of human life was the pursuit of happiness, which could be achieved by the measured study of the natural world and adherence to a prudent and temperate hedonism.

He counseled men not to fear their own death, saying,

    Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.

He considered friendship as the utmost means of securing wisdom, saying,

    Friendship dances around the world, bidding us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness…The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that in the limited evils of this life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.”

He advised men to avoid vain ambitions such as the pursuit of fame, exorbitant wealth, and political power for their own sake. Rather, he thought wise men would be “strong and self-sufficient” and “take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.”

To Epicurus, pain is a natural evil, pleasure a natural good, with the ultimate pleasure being the absence of bodily pain and tranquility of the mind. From his Letter to Menoeceus:

    When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.

Nevertheless, because Epicurus claimed the ultimate aim of happiness is to find pleasure – and not virtue or knowledge unto themselves – many of his contemporaries and later critics would uncharitably accuse him of advocating debauchery, one even saying he “vomited twice a day from over-indulgence,” and that his understanding of philosophy and life in general was wanting.

One might hear the very same smear today from mainstream American partisans in regard to libertarians, i.e. that liberty lovers are simply “pot-smoking republicans” or libertines who barely understand life and are too drunk on utopian dreams to see clearly. In this same vein, many reproached Epicurus (as they do of libertarians today) for his aloof stance on politics as apathetic and his notion of justice as too transactional.

“Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit,” writes Epicurus in his Principal Doctrines, “to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.” Elsewhere he writes, “We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.”

Accordingly, Epicurus set up his own school, “The Garden,” where he offered philosophy to anyone, even women and slaves – an unheard of practice at the time, which many contemporary critics saw as proof of his penchant for depraved behavior. Why else would one invite women and slaves into one’s abode other than revelry? Was he actually going to talk to them about ideas?

Thankfully, we have Diogenes Laërtius to defend Epicurus from his detractors:

    But these people are stark mad. For our philosopher has numerous witnesses to attest his unsurpassed goodwill to all men – his native land, which honored him with statues in bronze; his friends, so many in number that they could hardly be counted by whole cities, and indeed all who knew him, held fast as they were by the siren-charms of his doctrine…the Garden itself which, while nearly all the others have died out, continues for ever without interruption through numberless successions of one director after another; his gratitude to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, his gentleness to his servants, as evidenced by the terms of his will and by the fact that they were members of the Garden…and in general, his benevolence to all mankind. His piety towards the gods and his affection for his country no words can describe. He carried his modesty to such an excess that he did not even enter public life.

Joey Clark, “What Epicurus Can Teach Us about Freedom and Happiness”, Foundation for Economic Education, 2016-10-18.

July 6, 2017

QotD: Youth

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

You see, when one’s young one doesn’t feel part of it yet, the human condition; one does things because they are not “for good”; one thinks everything is a rehearsal. To be repeated ad lib, to be put right when the curtain goes up in earnest. One day you know that the curtain was up all the time. That was the performance.

Sybille Bedford, A Compass Error, 1968.

June 23, 2017

QotD: Philosophy

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight, but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to stop being blind. I believe that when the insights of what is now called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers, many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

Eric S. Raymond, “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-01-06.

May 29, 2017

QotD: Western intellectuals’ anti-Western bias

Filed under: Education, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Much of the West’s intelligentsia is persistently in love with anything anti-Western (and especially anti-American), an infatuation that has given a great deal of aid and comfort to tyrants and terrorists in the post-9/11 world. Besides these obvious political consequences, the phenomenon Julian Benda famously called le trahison des clercs has laid waste to large swathes of the soft sciences through ideologies like deconstructionism, cultural relativism, and postmodernism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that le trahison des clercs is not a natural development of Western thought but a creation of deliberate propaganda, directly traceable to the successes of Nazi and Stalinist attempts to manipulate the climate of opinion in the early and mid-20th century. Consequently I believe that one of the most difficult and necessary tasks before us in the next half century will be to banish the influence of totalitarian nihilism from science in particular and our culture in general.

Eric S. Raymond, “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-01-06.

April 1, 2017

QotD: Philosophy

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

One quarter of philosophy is about Being; one quarter about Knowing; one quarter about the Being of Knowingness and one quarter about the Knowing of Beingness.

Ace, “Terrific Bill Whittle “Afterburner” Video Essay on The Great Unlearning”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2015-08-18.

March 13, 2017

QotD: The legacy of nineteenth century intellectualism

Filed under: Economics, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the Nineteenth Century, intellectuals raised the argument that Western Civilization was wrong about all its major conclusions, from Christianity to Democracy to Capitalism, and that a rational system of scientific socialism should and would correct these errors and replace them.

This, over the next hundred years, was attempted, with the result that in a single generation the socialists and communists and national socialists of various stripes had killed more people and wrought more ruin than all world religions combined during all the previous generations of history.

Meanwhile, the visual arts were reduced to aberrant rubbish not merely ugly and untalented, but objectively indistinguishable from the work of schizophrenics; literature reduced to porn and tales of failure and decay; science was reduced from an honest and objective pursuit of truth to a whorish tool servicing political ends, particularly the ends of environmentalist hysterics, but creeping into other areas; universities degenerated from bastions of learning protected by traditions of academic freedom to the foremost partisans in favor of speech codes and political correctness; family life was and continues to be assaulted; abortion continues to carry out a slow and silent genocide of negro babies, girl babies, and other unwanted humanoids; law enforcement has been redirected from protecting the innocent because they are innocent to protecting the guilty because they are guilty; the Fair Deal and New Deal of the socialist philosophy at its height of intellectual respectability did nothing but prolong what should have been a ten month market correction into a Great Depression that lasted ten years; Welfare programs encouraged, exacerbated, and created a permanent and unelevatable underclass in America, ruining the very lives the programs were alleged to help; Affirmative Action has made race-hatred, accusations of racism, and race-baiting a permanent part of American life, despite that no less racist nation ever has nor ever could exist.

So the Left has not only failed in everything they attempted, and failed at every promise they made, they failed in an immense, astonishing, unparalleled, and horrifying way, a way so deep and so vast and so gross as to never have been seen before in history nor ever imagined before, not even by science fiction writers. Even Orwell did not foretell of a time when men would voluntarily adopt Newspeak and Doublethink and all the apparatus of oppression, freely and without coercion. Even he, the most famous writers of dystopia of all time, could not imagine the modern day. The failure of the Left is indescribable: one can only grope for words like ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘astronomical’ to express the magnitude. If Lot’s wife were to look steadily at what the Left has done, she would turn to a pillar of salt, so horrifying, so overwhelming, so dazzling is the hugeness of failure.

Now, when your prediction and worldview and way of life and philosophy turns out to be an utter failure of epic, nay, apocalyptic proportions, you have one of two choices. The honest choice is to return to the drawing board of your mind, and recalculate your ideas from their assumptions, changing any assumptions that prove false to facts.

Pardon me. I have to stop typing for a moment. The idea of a Leftwinger actually doing this honest mental act is so outrageous, that I am overcome by a paroxysm of epileptic laughter, and must steady myself ere I faint.

John C. Wright, “Unreality and Conformity of the Left”, Everyjoe, 2015-07-05.

December 10, 2016

QotD: Memory and imagination

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

I continue to be amazed by this idea, about the passage of time. Photos, for instance, revive vivid memories from, say, forty and fifty years ago. And what was so commonplace then, so often boring, is now gone forever. It has become mysterious, fascinating to the philosophical mind: how can these things have been? How could I not have known, at the time, that the everyday was so exotic?

But we are charmed, and then return to another everyday. We have been briefly entertained, as by a TV documentary.

These pictures present faces one once knew well, but far away in another country. (And “the past is a foreign country,” anyway.) One adds forty or fifty years to the face of each remembered person, or death to those a little older. Yet in the pictures they are all young and blythe, and I can remember being among them, “as if it were yesterday.” Those times are now forever lost to our living sight: though not from God’s omniscience.

Each, let me add, went in his own way, yet there is a commonality. I can imagine going back to an old neighbourhood — now as a traveller from the future — and finding it physically not much changed. One’s heart beats: one wants to run up and knock at a door, at all the doors — “I, Tiresias.” But then one’s heart breaks. For behind each door, a shock of non-recognition. Those people don’t live here any more. The neighbourhood that appeared unchanged is verily changed beyond recognition. It is another place now. No one knows who you are.

The idea is quite a simple one: all is lost, so that in a few more years, even these pictures will mean nothing to anybody. Unless they happen to be “quaint,” in some collectable way. But the idea in itself — of our inevitable extinction — is more immediately lost, unless it can be articulated. It is not fact-checkable, in any given moment. It requires poetry, to keep it alive in our souls.

We feel nostalgia, for people and places and things, but we have lost the ability to be “Japanese” about it: to begin to grasp the incredible poignancy of our condition, and bring it into our lives as a constant, so that it applies to our present, too. To live, as it were, on the cusp of eternity.

David Warren, “On the transience of things”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-11-29.

December 8, 2016

David Hume’s suggestions for improving political discourse

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle thinks that both sides can benefit from some advice from 18th century Scotland:

Are you tired yet of hearing about what we need to do to fix American politics? The earthquake of Trump’s election has unleashed a torrent of such suggestions. Mostly, it turns out that we need to do whatever it was the author wanted us to do on the day before the election. Those few contributions that struck an original note have caused an eruption of white-hot molten outrage from former allies.

So it is with some trepidation that I offer yet another suggestion for improving the sad state of our political discourse: Study David Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought,” a concept that a whole lot of people on both sides seem to be struggling with.

The 18th-century Scotsman was complaining that philosophical treatises often went along discussing things that are, and then suddenly jumped to discussing how things ought to be, without seeming to notice that these were quite different categories of argument. His work has been widely available for two centuries, and yet, a casual observer of political discourse will readily note political warriors confusing their goals (“ought”) with tactics that might achieve them (“is”).

For example, in a column last week (and in private for longer than that), I argued that however noble the goals that social justice warriors seek, total war against religious conservatives is probably not the right tactic to achieve them. Offering religious conservatives the choice of recanting their beliefs about sexuality or forfeiting their livelihood is apt to create fierce political resistance that could reverse recent victories. Even if you don’t place much value on religious liberty, even if you are outraged by the beliefs those people espouse, I argued that it is far better to adopt a live-and-let-live policy than to try to exterminate those beliefs by any means necessary.

October 16, 2016

QotD: Epicurean physics

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It would be easy to diverge from this general overview into a detailed examination of the physics. This is because Epicurus seems to have been largely right. We now believe, as he did, that the universe is made of atoms, and if we do not now talk about motion, we do talk about energy and force. His physics are an astonishing achievement.

Of course, he was often wrong. He denigrated mathematics. He seems to have believed that the sun and moon were about the same size as they appear to us. Then there is an apparent defect in his conception of the atomic movements. Does the universe exist by accident? Or are their laws of nature beyond the existence and movement of the atoms? The first is not impossible. An infinite number of atoms in an infinite void over infinite time will, every so often, come together in an apparently stable universe. They may also hold together, moving in clusters in ways that suggest regularity. But this chance combination might be dissolved at any moment — though, given every sort of infinity, some of these universes will continue for long periods.

If Epicurus had this first in view, what point in trying to explain present phenomena in terms of cause and effect? Causality only makes sense on the assumption that the future will be like the past. If he had the second in mind, it is worth asking what he thought to he nature of these laws? Might they not, for example, have had an Author? Since Newton, we have contented ourselves with trying to uncover regularities of motion and not going beyond these. But the Greeks had a much stronger teleological sense.

Perhaps these matters were not discussed. Perhaps they were discussed, but we have no record of them in the surviving discussions. Or perhaps they have survived, but I have overlooked them. But it does seem to me that Epicurean physics do not fully discuss the nature of the laws that they assume.

On the other hand, let me quote two passages from his surviving writings:

    Moreover, there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it. For the atoms being infinite in number… are borne ever further in their course. For the atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all be expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence there will be nothing to hinder and infinity of worlds….

    And further, we must not suppose that the worlds have necessarily one and the same shape. For nobody can prove that in one sort of world there might not be contained, whereas in another sort of world there could not possibly be, the seeds out of which animals and plants arise and the rest of the things we see.

What we have here is the admission that there may, in the infinite universe, be other worlds like our own, and these may contain sentient beings like ourselves. And there may be worlds inconceivably unlike our own. And there is the claim that living beings arise and develop according to natural laws. Epicurus would not have been surprised either by modern physics or by Darwinism. […]

However, while the similarities between Epicurean physics and modern science are striking, there is one profound difference. For us, the purpose of science is to give us an understanding of the world that brings with it the ability to control the world and remake it for our own convenience. This is our desire, and this has been our achievement because we have fully developed methods of observation and experiment. The Greeks had limited means of observation — no microscopes or telescopes, nor even accurate clocks. Nor had they much conception of experiment.

Moreover, scientific progress was neither conceived by Epicurus nor regarded as desirable. He says very emphatically:

    If we had never been troubled by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by fears about death, nor by our ignorance of the limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need of natural science.

He says again:

    …[R]emember that, like everything else, knowledge of celestial phenomena, whether taken along with other things or in isolation, has no other end in view than peace of mind and firm convictions.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Englightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

September 7, 2016

QotD: Plato, Epicurus and Democritus

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For Plato, the world of appearance was a kind of dream, and the real world was something that only the initiated could begin to understand through logic and mathematics, and perhaps a dash of magic. So far as it existed, matter was evil, and the universe was strictly bounded in space and time.

For Epicurus, the world of appearance was the real world. There is a void, or vacuum, which is infinite in space and time. It has always existed. It will always exist. It goes on forever and ever. In this void is an infinite number of atoms. These are very small, and therefore imperceptible, but indivisible particles of matter. They have always existed and will always exist. They are all moving through the void at an incredibly rapid and uniform speed. The world as we see it is based on combinations of these atoms. Every atom is hooked, and the collision of atoms will sometimes lead to combinations of atoms into larger structures, some of which endure and some of which we can eventually perceive with our senses. All observed changes in the world are the result of redistributions of the invisible atoms that comprise it.

Though we are not able to see these atoms, we can infer their existence by looking at the world that our senses can perceive. All events — the wearing away of a rock by water, for example, or the growth of crystals or trees — can be fully explained by an atomic hypothesis. Since there is nothing that cannot be so explained, there is no need of any other hypotheses. In a surviving explanation of his method, he says:

    …[I]n our study of nature we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary laws, but follow the prompting of the facts.

Everything in the universe is made of atoms. We are made of atoms. Our souls are made of very fine atoms. Our senses work because every other physical object is continually casting off very thin films of atoms that represent it exactly as it is. These films strike on our senses and give us vision and sound. Heat is produced by the vibration of atoms temporarily trapped in structures that prevent them from their natural onward motion.

Whether or not anyone can at any moment think of a likely explanation, all events in the universe can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Assuming atoms and motion, no further hypotheses are needed to explain the world.

Epicurus was not the first to explain the world by an atomic hypothesis. That was Democritus (460-370 BC). But he seems to have developed the hypothesis with a consistency and detail that took it far beyond anything that earlier philosophers had conceived.

Perhaps his most notable innovation is the doctrine of the swerve. There are two objections to the atomism of Democritus. The first is that if the atoms are all moving at the same speed and in the same direction, like drops of rain, there is no reason to suppose they will ever collide and form larger compounds. The second is that if they are not moving in the same direction, they will collide, but they will form a universe locked into an unbreakable sequence of cause and effect. This conflicts with the observed fact of free will.

And so Epicurus argues that every atom is capable of a very small and random deviation from its straight motion. This is enough to give an indeterminacy to the universe that does not conflict with an overall regularity of action.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Englightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

August 29, 2016

QotD: Conflating the Hobbesian and Rousseauvian views of mankind

Filed under: Government, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[…] there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature as a “warre of all against all”, and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.

Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his neighbor in a bloodbath without end. Hobbes referred to and assumed “wild violence” as the normal state of humans in what anthropologists now call “pre-state” societies; that very term, in fact, reflects the Hobbesian myth,

The obvious flaw in Hobbes’s argument is that he mistook a sufficient condition for suppressing the “warre” (the existence of a strong central state) for a necessary one. He underestimated the innate sociability of human beings. The anthropological and historical record affords numerous examples of “pre-state” societies (even quite large multiethnic/multilingual populations) which, while violent against outsiders, successfully maintained internal peace.

If Hobbes underestimated the sociability of man, Rousseau and his followers overestimated it; or, at least, they overestimated the sociability of primitive man. By contrasting the nobility and tranquility they claimed to see in rural nature and the Noble Savage with the all-too-evident filth, poverty and crowding in the booming cities of the Industrial Revolution, they secularized the Fall of Man. As their spiritual descendants today still do, they overlooked the fact that the urban poor had unanimously voted with their feet to escape an even nastier rural poverty.

The Rousseauian myth of technological Man as an ugly scab on the face of pristine Nature has become so pervasive in Western culture as to largely drive out the older opposing image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from the popular mind. Perhaps this was inevitable as humans achieved more and more control over their environment; protection from famine, plague, foul weather, predators, and other inconveniences of nature encouraged the fond delusion that only human nastiness makes the world a hard place.

[…]

In reality, Nature is a violent arena of intra- and inter-species competition in which murder for gain is an everyday event and ecological fluctuations commonly lead to mass death. Human societies, outside of wartime, are almost miraculously stable and nonviolent by contrast. But the unconscious prejudice of even educated Westerners today is likely to be that the opposite is true. The Hobbesian view of the “warre of all against all” has survived only as a description of human behavior, not of the wider state of nature. Pop ecology has replaced pop theology; the new myth is of man the killer ape.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

August 25, 2016

QotD: The rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the crime of Witchcraft

Filed under: Britain, Europe, France, History, Law, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For the 19th century liberal and historian of ideas William Lecky, the most striking fact about England and France in the 17th century was the decline of belief in the supernatural. And the most striking instance of this fact was the collapse of belief in witchcraft.

At the beginning of that century, belief in witchcraft had been universal and unchallenged. James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) was one of the most learned men of his day. He believed without question in witches, and was a notable persecutor. When he became King of England as well in 1603, he brought his policies with him. It was to gain favour with him that Shakespeare introduced the witchcraft theme into Macbeth.

James procured a law that punished witchcraft with death on first conviction, even though no harm to others could be proven. This law was carried in a Parliament where Francis Bacon was a Member.

The law was carried into effect throughout England, and was especially used during the interregnum years of the 1650s. In 1664, under the restored Monarchy, Sir Matthew Hale — one of the greatest jurists and legal philosophers of the age — presided over the trial of two alleged witches in Suffolk. He told the jury that there could be no doubt in the reality of witchcraft. He said:

    For first, the Scriptures had affirmed so much; and secondly, the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons, which is an argument for their confidence of such a crime.

One of the witnesses called for the prosecution was Sir Thomas Browne, one of the most notable writers of the age. Appearing as a medical expert, he assured the jury “that he was clearly of opinion that the persons were bewitched.” They were convicted and hanged.

It was the same in France. In the town of St Claude, 600 persons were burnt in the early years of the century for alleged witchcraft and lycanthropy. In 1643, Cardinal Mazarin wrote to a bishop to congratulate him on his zeal for hunting out witches.

Yet, in 1667, Colbert, the chief minister of Louis XIV, directed all the magistrates in France to receive no more accusations of witchcraft. Those convictions still obtained he frequently commuted from death to banishment. By the end of the century, witchcraft trials had all but ceased.

In England, belief collapsed later, but even faster than in France. The last trial for witchcraft was in 1712. Jane Wenham, an old woman, was accused of the usual offences. The judge mocked the prosecution witnesses from the bench. When the jury convicted her against his directions, he made sure to obtain a royal pardon for the old woman and a pension.

Whatever the lowest reaches of the common people might still believe, belief in witchcraft had become a joke among the educated. And because of the tone they gave to the whole of society, disbelief spread rapidly beyond the educated. Anyone who tried to maintain its existence was simply laughed at. Laws that had condemned tens or hundreds of thousands to death, and usually to the most revolting tortures before death, were now sneered into abeyance.

We should expect that a change of opinion so immense had been accompanied by a long debate — something similar to the debates of the 19th century over Darwinism, or to the debates of the day over the toleration of nonconformity. Yet Lecky maintains that there was almost no debate worth mentioning. There were sceptics, like Montaigne, who disbelieved all accounts of the supernatural, or Hobbes, who was a materialist and atheist. But, while, book after book appeared in England during the late 17th century to defend the existence of witches and the need for laws against them, almost no one bothered to argue that witches did not exist. Lecky says:

    Several… divines came forward…; and they made witchcraft, for a time, one of the chief subjects of controversy. On the other side, the discussion was extremely languid. No writer, comparable in ability to Glanvil, More, Cudworth, or even Casaubon, appeared to challenge the belief; nor did any of the writings on that side obtain any success at all equal to that of [Glanvil].

Belief in witchcraft perished with hardly a direct blow against it. What seems to have happened, Lecky argues, is a change of world view in which belief in witches ceased to have any explanatory value. We live in a world where, orthodox religion aside, belief in the supernatural is confined to the uneducated or the stupid or the insane. But if we step outside the consensus in which we live, we should see that there is nothing in itself irrational about belief in the supernatural, nor even in witches. The belief is perfectly rational granted certain assumptions.

Let us assume that the world is filled with invisible and very powerful beings, that some of these are good and some evil, that some human beings are capable of establishing contact with these evil beings, and that some compact can be made in which the power of the evil beings is transferred to human control. Granting these assumptions, it becomes reasonable to ascribe great or unusual events to magical intervention, and that it should be the purpose of the law to check such intervention.

Now, the Platonic philosophies do accept the existence of such beings. That is how Plato reconciled his One Creator with the many gods of the Greek pantheon. This belief was taken over by the Church Fathers, who simply announced that the ancient gods were demons. It then continued into the 17th century. It seemed to explain the world. Doubtless, cases came to light of false accusations and of people convicted because they were ill rather than possessed by demons. But our own awareness of corrupt policemen and false convictions does not lead us to believe that there are no murderers and that murder should not be punished. So it was with witchcraft.

During the 17th century, however, the educated classes came increasingly to believe that the world operated according to known, impersonal laws, and that God — assuming His Existence — seldom interfered with the working of these secondary laws. In such a view of the world, the supernatural had no place. Belief in witchcraft, therefore, did not need opposition. It perished as collateral damage to the system of which it was a part.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Enlightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

May 14, 2016

QotD: G.K. Chesterton on the urge to reform (aka “Chesterton’s Fence”)

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

G.K. Chesterton, “The Drift From Domesticity”, The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic, 1929.

April 21, 2016

QotD: The amazing (ancient) Greeks

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.

When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.

Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.

The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

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