09 December 2017

Somerset Maugham on risk

W. Somerset Maugham
(1874 - 1965)
W. Somerset Maugham was one of Britain’s most popular fiction writers during the 1930s. He is somewhat neglected now, although his novels are still occasionally turned into films. His short stories often express the precariousness of life.

Somerset Maugham’s attitude to risk may be gleaned from his story ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman’, which describes a (presumably fictitious) book about poker. The author of this book is said to have
no patience with the persons who condemn the most agreeable pastime that has been invented, namely gambling, because risk is attached to it. Every transaction in life is a risk, he truly observes, and involves the question of loss and gain. ‘To retire to rest at night is a practice that is fortified by countless precedents, and it is generally regarded as prudent and necessary. Yet it is surrounded by risks of every kind.’ [1]

This attitude to uncertainty, and taking chances, may be compared with Nietzsche’s approach to risk-taking, as expressed in The Gay Science:
the secret of realising the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! [2]

1. W. Somerset Maugham, 65 Short Stories, William Heinemann, 1976.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 283.

15 October 2017

The symbolism of the pearl

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:45-46
This saying is usually interpreted as illustrating the great value of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the need to sacrifice everything in order to enter it. However, nowadays readers do not necessarily appreciate the dramatically high value that a pearl represented at the time of Jesus.

Before the invention of diving equipment, pearl fishing was extremely laborious and dangerous. Often slaves or prisoners would be forced to do the work. To obtain a few pearls required harvesting thousands of oysters, from depths of up to 100 feet. Burst ear drums were common, and many divers were killed by sharks or by drowning.

First century geographer Isidore of Parthax wrote that “pearl divers run into danger when they thrust their hands straight into the open oyster, for it closes up and their fingers are often cut off, and sometimes they perish on the spot”.*

According to Pliny’s Natural History, Cleopatra once boasted that “on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces” and that “she herself would swallow the ten millions”. She proceeded to make good her boast by drinking one of the pearls from her earrings, dissolved in a glass of vinegar.** The value of a sestertius in today’s money has been estimated to be around one pound, which suggests that the value of that one pearl was about £10 million.

The image of a pearl probably no longer conveys the order of magnitude of value intended by the originator of the saying.

In the Hymn of the Pearl, a classic Gnostic myth, the Pearl is an important symbol. A prince, the hero of the story, is sent down into Egypt (representing the physical world) to retrieve the Pearl, which is guarded by a serpent. He charms the serpent so that it becomes unthreatening, and takes the Pearl back to his royal parents. Here the Pearl symbolises something of tremendous value which has been locked up in the physical world and needs to be released.

* Isidore of Parthax, The Parthian Stations, quoted in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae.
** Natural History, Book 9, chapter 58. If the story is true, Cleopatra would probably have had to crush the pearl first in order for it to dissolve with sufficient speed.

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I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

15 September 2017

Does the idea of ‘social justice’ lead to atrocities?

A couple of years ago there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘Intelligence — born smart, born equal, born different’.

According to the Radio Times review of the programme,
The analysis of inherited intelligence is something of a moral maze ... [Does research on this topic] really threaten all our utopian ideas of equality?
Francis Galton
(1822 - 1911)
In 1869 Francis Galton published his book Hereditary Genius, exploring the possible genetic basis of high ability. The idea of hereditary ability had already been of long standing when Galton’s book appeared.

The concept of an ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ) as a measurable predictor of academic success only started to become of serious interest with the rise in state education and the desire to grade people on a nationwide basis. However, IQ soon became unfashionable again, perhaps because some studies suggested there was a significant inherited component to it, which did not fit with the politics of the time. And so research on IQ was gradually expunged from academic awareness.

IQ began to be referred to as ‘the false hypothesis’, as if it had been intrinsically bound up with the assertion of hereditary ability, whereas in fact the heredity idea had been around since well before the nineteenth century. Dismissing the concept of IQ as dubious also made the idea of heredity per se taboo in academic circles, and it now appears to have become something that is not even ‘talked about in polite society’.

According to a review of the programme in the Daily Mail, Galton’s ideas
were taken up with lethal enthusiasm in many countries in the early 20th century, leading to the theory of eugenics, sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ and, ultimately, Nazi genocide.
This of course is the standard way in which the concepts of heritability and innate intelligence are nowadays made to seem controversial, to the point that it supposedly becomes reasonable to suppress discussion of them. The argument is that they are somehow responsible for the Holocaust, as well as other atrocities.

An alternative argument, which seems no less plausible, is that what made the Holocaust, the Gulags, and various other genocides and human rights abuses possible was support for the tenet that

the collective has a right to interfere with individuals, provided it is done for the benefit of society.

If it were true that commitment to this tenet makes atrocities more likely, and one applied the same line of reasoning as is used to justify suppression of the discussion of IQ, it would follow that concepts such as ‘the interests of society’, the ‘right of the majority’, ‘social justice’ or ‘state planning’ should be regarded as ethically dubious, since their use tends to provide support for the tenet. This would point towards such concepts being avoided in discussion.

However, in practice this line of reasoning is never applied, or even considered.

A version of this post was published in 2014.

02 August 2017

Are schools bad for people?

Winston Churchill
c. 1898
How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years. [...] I counted the days and the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home from this hateful servitude [...] (Winston Churchill, My Early Life)
‘Education’ is nowadays universally assumed to be a good thing. At the same time there is a sense in which it is accepted that most children would prefer not to go to school, and that many of them strongly dislike having to do so. Yet it is rarely concluded that school might be bad for people.

Until education became compulsory, there may have been schools, formal or informal, but young people could stay away from them if they did not feel like going. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example, only one of a family of four girls goes to school, and that is only temporary, since her mother takes her away when she is badly treated.

These days many people would like to think that education can eliminate differences between individuals arising from genetic factors or early upbringing. Therefore schools cannot be regarded as intrinsically a bad thing, since they are supposed to bring about a desirable situation — equality of outcome.

If someone had a bad time at school, such a person may say that it was the wrong kind of school. Someone who had a bad time at a fee-paying school may say he or she would have done better at a state school, and vice versa.

Plato said that knowledge that is acquired by compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. *

There are people who tell you that they got nothing out of some book or author which they read at school, but long after, maybe twenty years or more later, they thought of trying it again and found they liked it and got a great deal out of it.

I know someone who used to ask herself while walking to school, why she was doing this. Her answer was, in order to keep her parents out of trouble.

* The Republic, Book VII.

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I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

11 July 2017

Skiing in the age of climate change

I have been told by somebody – a fellow academic – that climate change is damaging ski resorts, especially at the lower levels, where it is less cold. Skiing is difficult if there is no snow, so some resorts have invested in snow-making machines.

Personally, I do not think this is likely to be a temporary development. I should think that climate changes will go on getting worse, and snow-making machines will become even more necessary.

This seems to imply that skiing will become more expensive, perhaps finally only a sport for the super-rich. The planet is being messed up because various ideological considerations are regarded as being of overriding importance. (See my post about Fukushima as an example of this.)

But perhaps something quite different will happen. Pensioners are given free bus passes, so perhaps ‘the poor’ might be given free plane passes and free ski resort passes.

12 May 2017

Age quod agis

St Ignatius of Loyola
(1491 - 1556)
The Ursuline convent school to which I went had a school motto, Age Quod Agis (Do What You Do). We were told that this meant one should do everything as well as possible. For example, the inscriptions in books for the prize-giving were written by the art mistress with a special pen for doing italic writing. At a state school, by contrast, I saw some prize books with the recipient’s name simply scribbled in.

At the same state school I saw some exam papers which had been used in end-of-term exams. They were carelessly photocopied, skew on the page with some of the material cut off, and not all of what was on the page was legible. There were some scribbled corrections to make up for the deficits in the photocopying.

At this state school, when you needed a textbook, the teacher took you to a small room where there were shelves full of dilapidated books, and fished around to find some of the least dilapidated for you to use.

At the convent school, all the books in the school were kept in prime condition. Girls would stay behind after school to spend time repairing books.

At the same state school it once happened that a teacher had wrongly marked the work of one of the girls. When it was pointed out to her by the girl in question, the teacher said cheerfully, ‘Nobody will mind about it in a hundred years’ time’.

This attitude, that it did not matter at all whether your marks were good or bad, or whether teachers marked correctly, was very different from the attitude at the Ursuline convent school. Here, there were what they called ‘degree ceremonies’ every few weeks, and the girls lined up in front of the Reverend Mother to have their marks and positions in the form read out.

The ceremonies took place in the school hall and were preceded by rehearsals. Each class was shown where to sit along the sides of the hall. The girls were then called out, class by class, to be shown where to stand in front of the Reverend Mother. Then the positions of the girls in the line were adjusted by one of the nuns, so that the tallest was in the middle and the other girls fell away from her on either side, decreasing in height.

* The first use of the injunction age quod agis is attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

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12 February 2017

A poem about Saint Paul

From Saint Paul by F.W.H. Myers:

Whoso has felt the Spirit of the Highest
Cannot confound nor doubt Him nor deny:
Yea with one voice, O world, tho’ thou deniest,
Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.

Rather the earth should doubt when her retrieving
Pours in the rain and rushes from the sod,
Rather than he for whom the great conceiving
Stirs in his soul to quicken into God.

Ay, tho’ Thou then shouldst strike him from his glory
Blind and tormented, maddened and alone,
Even on the cross would he maintain his story,
Yes, and in hell would whisper, I have known.

F.W.H. Myers
The poem* Saint Paul, published in 1867, was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A 1916 Spectator article predicted that it would ‘always have its place in English literature’. However, it is nowadays practically forgotten.

The above extract from the poem may be taken to illustrate the fundamental difference between the way of thinking of Victorian intellectuals and that of modern ones. There is a sense of hierarchical significance; something can be overridingly important.

* from Saint Paul, included in F.W.H. Myers, Poems, Macmillan 1870.
These verses quoted in Celia Green, Advice to Clever Children, Oxford Forum 1981, p.121.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position.
I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

06 February 2017

Brexit and European visitors

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty [...] triggers the start of a two-year process of exit talks before the UK is expelled from the 28-member bloc.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will trigger Article 50 by March 2017. In theory, this means Britain will have left the EU by March 2019.
(Daily Express, 3 November 2016)

Brexit may eventually make it more difficult for citizens of European countries to enter Britain.

To any members of such countries who are interested in the possibility of forming an association with us, we would suggest they take advantage of the present situation to come on a preliminary visit, living in or near Cuddesdon.

02 February 2017

‘I will defend to the death your right to say it’

The epithet ‘I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’ is sometimes attributed to Voltaire, but first occurs in a book called The Friends of Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (writing under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre), in her chapter on Claude HelvĂ©tius.

Helvétius was a French philosopher whose book On the Mind aroused disapproval, was publicly burnt in Paris, and then became a bestseller.
‘On the Mind’ became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvetius, flocked round him now.

Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. 'What a fuss about an omelette!' he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' was his attitude now.
(The Friends of Voltaire, London, 1906, pp.198-199.)

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position.
I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

Update: My colleague Fabian has posted an article about counter-extremism and the rule of law.