15 March 2020

Henley’s Invictus

W.E. Henley’s poem Invictus was written in 1875. Originally the poem was published untitled; the name ‘Invictus’ was added by anthologist Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Invictus was for some decades considered to represent the epitome of the ‘stiff upper lip’ British spirit. Although stiff-upper-lipness fell out of favour during the second half of the twentieth century, the poem has remained influential, as shown by recurring twenty-first century cultural references to it. When singer Cher recently tweeted about US presidential candidate Joe Biden that ‘your head is bloodied, but unbowed’, she was invoking a line from the poem.

Below is the poem in full.

Out of the night that covers me,
   Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
   For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
   I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
   My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
   Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
   Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
   How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
   I am the captain of my soul.

For a further discussion of the psychological significance of Henley’s poem, see my book Advice to Clever Children, p.124.

21 February 2020

Vladimir Horowitz and the psychology of kingship

Vladimir Horowitz
(1903 - 1989)
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz in a 1977 interview:
When I’m on the stage I’m one person, when I’m out of the stage I’m another person.

When I’m on the stage, I feel I am a king ... I’m a king ... yes, nobody has to interfere with him ... because I have something to do, I have to bring the best which is in me.
Horowitz was a Russian pianist who later became an American citizen. His performances tended to be intense and highly individual, impressing, among others, the composer Rachmaninov.

The psychology of kingship is not a fashionable concept these days. However, there are some references to it in Gnostic Christianity. It has some connection with the psychological state I discussed in Advice to Clever Children which I termed centralisation. See Chapter 29, ‘Royalty’.

13 January 2020

The social contract

In the views of exponents of how society came to be constituted as it is (or was at the time, or should be) we note fairly constantly a willingness to ascribe untrammelled and overriding power to the legislators of the community, together with infallibility.

In early accounts some justification for society’s claim to possession of the individual is felt to be necessary. This is provided either by God, who bestows upon kings their divine right, or by a social contract, which is mythical, even if some writers lose sight of its historical implausibility. Desiring the advantages of an organised community, it is supposed that individuals freely choose to obey the government that shall be chosen by majority preference; hence minorities have nothing to complain of, as they have entered the situation of their own free will. So conflict is avoided.

I would have formulated the situation myself by supposing that, at a sufficiently primitive stage, when there was some realistic possibility of a dissident or disadvantaged individual choosing to fend for himself, there was a real balance of advantages and disadvantages for each individual which led, on the whole, to his preferring to remain, in fairly unstable equilibrium, in the settlement or compound occupied by his group. Fairly disharmonious associations of this kind gradually evolved social structures which reduced the squabbling and maximised the stability of the enterprise. At the time of, say, Hobbes, there was relatively little opportunity for any individual to dissociate himself from the pressures and demands of his society. By now there is even less.

We note that writers on political theory wish conflict between the individual and society to be an impossibility, or if not impossible, at least a clear aberration from a perfect underlying harmony.

Extract from the forthcoming book ‘The Corpse and the Kingdom’

22 November 2019

Colin Wilson’s The Outsider

Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, published in 1956, has been described as ‘the classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’. Although the book is not usually associated with existentialism, it provides an introduction to a central theme of existentialism:

the awareness that one is existing, that one has finite capacities and a finite lifetime, and that one has no knowledge of what, if anything, is important.

Such awareness may make one feel sceptical about social conventions.

As The Outsider shows, the consequences of experiencing existential awareness have been portrayed in literature as varying from apathy at one extreme, to madness and violence at the other. There is a common notion that giving up one’s belief in the meaningfulness of society can lead to one wanting to indulge in violent behaviour, even murder.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, an important figure in The Outsider, may have contributed to this notion. Some of the central characters of his novels commit cold-blooded murder, and their lack of inhibition seems to be linked to their scepticism about society.

Dostoyevsky, who could be regarded as an Outsider himself, may have felt conflicted about his uneasy relationship with society and hence portrayed Outsiders with ambivalence. He is sympathetic to the scepticism and passion of Outsiders. However, he also partially takes society’s side in condemning them.

This ambivalence on the part of novelists and philosophers towards those who are like them is a recurring theme of The Outsider.

20 October 2019

IQ and identical twins

The following extract is from: Peter Saunders, Social Mobility Myths, Civitas 2010, pp.56-58. (The full publication is available for download at civitas.org.uk.)
Given that intelligence is a function of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, and that these two factors are each themselves entailed in the other, it is obviously extremely difficult to partial out their respective influences. But it is not impossible. Hans Eysenck claims that heredity is twice as important as environment in explaining differences in intelligence, and he bases this estimate on the results of repeated experiments carried out over many years by many different researchers. These experiments compare variations in mental ability between people who are unrelated genetically but who share a common environment (e.g. children raised in children’s homes) with variations between people who are genetically related but raised in contrasting environments (e.g. twins raised by different sets of foster parents). Many attempts have been made to discredit this work, but [Eysenck’s] overall conclusion is compelling and incontrovertible.

The strongest experiments focus on the performance of identical (monozygotic) twins as compared with non‐identical (dizygotic) twins. MZ twins share all their genes in common while DZ twins share 50 per cent of their genes. Ignoring Cyril Burt’s disputed findings, and aggregating the results of other researchers whose integrity has never been questioned, Eysenck reports the following average correlations in intelligence test scores:

• MZ twins raised in the same environment = 0.87
• MZ twins reared in separate environments = 0.77
• DZ twins raised in the same environment = 0.53

These figures compare with an average correlation of 0.23 for biologically unrelated individuals who are raised in a common environment (e.g. adopted or foster children), and with a correlation of zero for unrelated children raised in different environments. [...]

If environment were more important than heredity, the relative strength of these correlations should be reversed. Identical twins raised separately should differ more in their scores than non‐identical twins raised together, for they have been subjected to greater environmental variation. The opposite, however, holds true. Even when brought up separately, identical twins score much more similarly on IQ tests than non‐identical twins who were kept together. [...] To the extent that anything is ever proven in social science, the undisputed fact that identical twins brought up separately correlate so much more highly on test scores than non‐identical twins raised together proves that intelligence is based to a substantial degree (perhaps 50 per cent, probably more) on a cluster of genes which we inherit from our parents.
According to Professor Saunders, research on intelligence ‘has clearly demonstrated that we are not all born equal, despite the wishes of egalitarian sociologists that we were.’

Image source: Raul Carabeo.

19 September 2019

Ignoring the heritability of intelligence

Extract from a 2013 article by Ed West on the Spectator’s website:
I’m starting to get the impression that the Guardian isn’t very keen on Michael Gove [...] The latest offering was this, ‘Genetics outweighs teaching, Gove adviser tells his boss’, which was presumably designed to infuriate teachers, about an essay written by Dominic Cummings. This was followed up by a Polly Toynbee piece denying the role of hereditary factors in intelligence [...]

What’s strange is that [Cummings] was saying nothing that isn’t widely accepted; the very significant influence of heritable factors on differences in IQ within a population has been well known for four decades, and yet for political reasons it is ignored in education policy, both here and in the US.
In October 2013, Dominic Cummings, at the time Special Adviser to the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, published a report on education policy, which made reference to the heritability of IQ. This prompted an article* in the Daily Telegraph by geneticist Steve Jones, attacking Cummings. However, it subsequently emerged** that Professor Jones had not actually read Cummings’ report and had based his views on press articles about the report.

* Steve Jones, ‘There’s much more to IQ than biology and DNA’, Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2013
** Dominic Cummings, ‘What I actually said about genes, IQ and heritability’, Daily Telegraph, 15 October 2013

01 September 2019

Æthelflæd - Lady of the Mercians

England in 878 AD
Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred, was a significant figure in early British history. From the time of her husband’s death in 911, until her own death in 918, she ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Although her title was ‘Lady of the Mercians’, it seems her role was that of queen, an unusual position for a woman in early Britain. The name ‘Æthelflæd’ means ‘noble beauty’.

Æthelflæd showed herself to be an excellent military tactician. She expanded Mercia’s territories to the north, east and west. Even during her husband’s life, building projects and treaties were carried out in her name. After his death, the pace of activity seems to have accelerated: according to a BBC article, numerous towns like Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford were fortified by her, to secure roads and rivers.

In the 9th century most of eastern England was ruled by Danish Vikings, in an area known as the Danelaw. In 917 Æthelflæd captured the Danelaw borough of Derby, and in 918 the Danelaw borough of Leicester. Also in 918, Viking-occupied York offered to accept her rule; however, she died before this could come to fruition.

According to some accounts, she actually led her armies into battle. If true, this would make her an even more remarkable figure, and one of only a handful of women from history who were military leaders.

Æthelflæd seems to have been unfairly neglected by historians. In Michael Wood’s popular book about Saxon Britain, In Search of the Dark Ages, she is mentioned only as being the aunt of King Æthelstan.

The 12th century historian Henry of Huntingdon celebrated Æthelflæd in a poem.*
O Elfleda potens, O terror virgo virorum,
Victrix naturae, nomine digna viri.
Te, quo splendidior fieres, natura puellam,
Te probita fecit nomen habere viri.

[Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,
A man in valour, woman though in name;
Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey’d,
Conqu’ror o’er both, though born by sex a maid.]

* Extract from poem in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. Translation by Tom Arnold, 1879. Map of England courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

24 July 2019

The Abolition of Genius

This is a new, hardback edition of Charles McCreery’s book, The Abolition of Genius.

The book contains an analysis of the relationship between genius and money. It proposes the controversial thesis that the possession of a private income, either by the genius or by his or her patron, has been a necessary condition of the productivity of the great majority of geniuses throughout history.

McCreery’s analysis is illustrated with many instructive, and sometimes surprising, examples. Among the individuals whose financial circumstances are discussed in the book are those shown on the front cover: Wagner, Hume, Einstein, Galileo, Kant, Schopenhauer, Schubert and Nietzsche.

There is a Look-Inside function on the Amazon pages.
Amazon USA
Amazon UK

‘This is a courageous, well-argued and timely book’ – Professor H.J. Eysenck

22 July 2019

Stephen Jay Gould and The Bell Curve

If ability is at least partly inherited, then it is likely that social classes will arise. If social class is partly explained by genes, then the theory that class is entirely due to ‘unfair’ advantages is false.

If it is not known how much social class is due to genetic and how much to other factors, then it cannot be assumed that intervention will move things towards a ‘fairer’ position. This may explain the reactions of writers such as Stephen Jay Gould to The Bell Curve.*

One of the central arguments of The Bell Curve is that America’s upper class is an elite with relatively high average IQ, which has arisen because intelligence is partly heritable. Gould asserts that this argument requires
the validity of four shaky premises, [i.e. intelligence] must be depictable as a single number, capable of ranking people in linear order, genetically based, and effectively immutable. If any of these premises are false, the entire argument collapses.**
The validity of The Bell Curve’s explanation of class does not depend on intelligence being ‘immutable’. Gould seems to be confusing questions of fact with questions of policy.

Nor does the explanation depend on intelligence being depictable as a single number. Whether intelligence, or ability in general, is heritable is a separate question from how well a single variable, such as IQ, is capable of measuring it.

* Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve, Free Press 1994.
** Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Penguin 1997, p.368.

30 June 2019

Financing special education

From Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man:
The difference between strict hereditarians and their opponents is not, as some caricatures suggest, the belief that a child’s performance is all inborn or all a function of environment and learning. [...] The differences are more a matter of social policy and educational practice.

Hereditarians view their measures of intelligence as markers of permanent, inborn limits. Children, so labelled, should be sorted, trained according to their inheritance and channelled into professions appropriate for their biology. Mental testing becomes a theory of limits.

Antihereditarians [...] test in order to identify and help. Without denying the evident fact that not all children, whatever their training, will enter the company of Newton and Einstein, they emphasize the power of creative education to increase the achievements of all children, often in extensive and unanticipated ways. [...]

A partially inherited low IQ might be subject to extensive improvement through proper education. And it might not. The mere fact of its heritability permits no conclusion. *
The debate about heritability of IQ has become less about the science of whether, and to what extent, intelligence is inherited; and more about the politics of whether resources should be devoted to helping those with a relatively low measured IQ to ‘catch up’.

What Gould, and others, tend to omit from their discussions is the question of whether ‘should’ in this context means voluntary or compulsory contributions.

It might mean that people should be encouraged to donate to voluntary organisations who would then provide what Gould refers to above as ‘proper education’. In practice, however, it usually means that the government should devote tax revenue to the problem, implying that the ‘contributions’ are to be collected coercively.

* Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Penguin 1997, pp.182-183, 186.