12 June 2020

Herbert Spencer and the welfare state

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
The philosopher Herbert Spencer, commenting in 1851 on the possible effects of welfare, a century before the inception of the modern welfare state:
We do not consider it true kindness in a mother to gratify her child with sweetmeats that are certain to make it ill. We should think it a very foolish sort of benevolence which led a surgeon to let his patient’s disease progress to a fatal issue, rather than inflict pain by an operation. Similarly, we must call those spurious philanthropists, who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery upon future generations. All defenders of a poor-law must, however, be classed amongst such. That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to act on them, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy, and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers’ friends would repeal, because of the wailings it here and there produces.
Spencer’s comments could be interpreted as implying that welfare may have negative effects on a society’s gene pool:
Blind to the fact, that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation — absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family.
Spencer did not, however, condemn charitable actions in general:
To that charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves, [the foregoing argument] makes no objection — countenances it rather. And in helping men to help themselves, there remains abundant scope for the exercise of a people’s sympathies. Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick, may, with advantage to all parties, be assisted.
The above extracts are taken from: Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, chapter 25, available at Online Library of Liberty.

11 May 2020

Zoroastrianism: End of the world

Zoroastrianism, which takes its name from the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions, and was the state religion of the Persian empire for over a thousand years. Its origins may go back to the 2nd millennium BC, though it was not originally called Zoroastrianism. The name Zarathustra may mean ‘driver of camels’.
The roots of Zoroastrianism are thought to have emerged from a common prehistoric Indo-Iranian religious system dating back to the early 2nd millennium BC. The prophet Zoroaster himself is thought by many modern historians to have been a reformer of the polytheistic Iranian religion who lived in the 10th century BC. [Wikipedia]
The central deity of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda (‘Lord of Wisdom’). Ahura Mazda is in continuous conflict with his negative counterpart Angra Mainyu (‘Destructive Spirit’).

Although Zoroastrians do not consider Angra Mainyu* to be equivalent in strength to Ahura Mazda, the religion is sometimes regarded as dualistic because of this conflict between good and evil. A more obviously dualistic religion is Manichaeism, which for a time replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion in Persia, and which adopted the figures of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu but posited them to be of roughly equal power. (A better word for what is meant may be ditheism rather than dualism.)

Zoroastrian belief includes the concept of an end of the world, or eschatology, although ‘end’ should be understood to mean radical transformation rather than complete cessation.
At the end, there will be a great battle between the forces of good and those of evil in which the good will triumph. On earth, the Saviour will bring about a resurrection of the dead. This is followed by a last judgment through ordeal. The forces of good will cause the metal in the mountains to melt, and to flow across the earth like a river. All mankind — both the living and the resurrected dead — will be required to wade through that river, but for the righteous it will seem to be a river of warm milk, while the wicked will be burned.

There will be a final act of worship involving the preparation of parahaoma, a sacred liquid used in Zoroastrian rituals. The righteous will partake of the parahaoma, which will confer immortality upon them. Thereafter, humankind will become divine entities, living without food, without hunger or thirst, and without possibility of bodily injury.

All humanity will speak a single language and belong to a single nation without borders. All will share a single purpose and goal, joining with the divine for a perpetual exaltation of God’s glory. [Wikipedia text, edited]

*  Angra Mainyu is also known as ‘Ahriman’.
**  Thumbnail is of a painting by Anuki Natsvlishvili, ‘Ahura Mazda & Ahriman’, viewable at saatchiart.com. It shows Ahura Mazda, on the left, in battle with Ahriman, on the right.

12 April 2020

Cosmic Consciousness

Maurice Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist and a contemporary of the American psychologist William James. In 1901, Bucke published a book about mystical experiences entitled Cosmic Consciousness. William James referred to Bucke, and to cosmic consciousness, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, published one year later.*

Bucke seems to have been inspired to write Cosmic Consciousness by a mystical experience he had in his thirties. In the book, he reviews the experiences of other individuals, including Walt Whitman, William Blake and Dante, as well as religious figures such as Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.

The following is his description of his own experience, written in the third person.
It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment.

All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught.

The illumination itself continued not more than a few moments, but its effects proved ineffaceable; it was impossible for him ever to forget what he at that time saw and knew; neither did he, or could he, ever doubt the truth of what was then presented to his mind. There was no return, that night or at any other time, of the experience.**

* William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans Green & Co., 1902.
** R.M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, 1905 edition, Innes & Sons, pp.7-8.

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’