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Category Archives: Philosophy

A Hundred Year Old Pandemic

A hundred years ago, humankind went through one of the worst phases in their history. A world war, a global pandemic and then another world war. We survived. After that, a lot of measures were put into place to ensure we don’t have to go through such devastation again. World War 3 is something we dread whenever the slightest international diplomacy failure happens. And it has worked, to an extent.  We haven’t had to face a World War again. However, we haven’t been as vigilant about Global Pandemics. And today, we seem to be in the grip of something as dangerous as any – COVID -19. The Spanish Flu though overshadowed by the World Wars, was perhaps as big a disaster as either of the wars. We need to mobilize our nations today, as we would for a major war. Bill Gates had made a global call for this back in 2015.

We did not heed it. Today, we go to work and talk about deadlines and other stuff as if a global war is not waging on humanity. We need to take severe war-like action today. Before it is too late.

Perhaps it would be a good time to look back on the 100-year-old pandemic that almost sunk us. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse rode together a hundred years ago, and it would serve us well to remember that the horsemen always meet each other and reap together, even if one might arrive before others occasionally.

In 1918, during a century just like ours, in which the most modern of societies thought such epidemics were a thing of the past, people got a reminder that even seemingly routine illnesses can be potentially civilization threatening under the right conditions. A malady that would be dubbed the Spanish Flu struck while the devastating First World War was raging, and soon its death toll greatly surpassed that of the war’s. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2020 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

I, Hegel: A Poem

I, Hegel
*
*
I, Hegel, wrote an essay today
Comparing Jesus,
And his disciples
With Socrates,
And his.
Jesus emerges from my comparison
As decidedly the inferior teacher
Of ethics.
What does that say
About my Religion?

*

I, Hegel, had a dream today
In which Napoleon
Was offered
One of two paths
In a cold subterranean dungeon:
One of which led to untold riches
And the other to a lost work of Aristotle.
He took the first
Without hesitation.
What does that say
About my Hero?

*

I, Hegel, went on a walk today
When I heard
Two villagers arguing
About metaphysics,
And epistemology.
They talked of Jesus and of Zeus,
Of Mary and of Vampires!
But not a word was told of Kant,
Yet they reached (and easily)
The very same conclusions!
What does that say
About my Teacher?

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆


DO NOT GO HUMBLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)


Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish


THE FUTURE


Scenario

Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


Commentary

This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out. Read the rest of this entry »

 

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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★

THE SCIENCE OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.


The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆

 

The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

***

I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis on George Orwell

The Road to Wigan PierThe Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

My Rating★★★★★

The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis

Commissioned fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the rise, Orwell must already have begun to glimpse the world which he was to envision with vigorous clarity in ‘1984’. This review is a dual review then, of ‘1984’ and of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

Written ostensibly as a documentary-report on the life of the working classes in the industrial towns of England, Orwell uses his reportage to investigate two crucial questions:

1. Why class differences persist even when the means exist to destroy them
2. Why socialism is failing practically and intellectually even as its moral facet is irrefutable (to his mind, at least)

The reader has to be warned that The Road to Wigan Pier can seem a bit rambling at times but is in fact a tight composition worth engaging with.

The structure of the piece is quite elegant:

In the first section, Orwell provides a direct detailing of the life in the ‘industrial towns’, of the proletariat, of the toiling classes. It is evocative and reminded me strongly of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity in depth of detail and emotional involvement. It is a quick tour but captures the essential cruelties and degradation of life – rotten housing, lack of toilets, unemployment – and the complete hopelessness of it all. But just as Boo does later, Orwell also manages to convey that it is not due to the people, it is purely due to the conditions imposed on them. Orwell is very careful to drill this point home. It is the situations that make the classes.

This is exactly what I expected from the title of the book though I had also been resigned to some amount of political commentary, Orwell being Orwell. But the real purpose of the book starts to take shape as Orwell reveals the purpose behind his autobiographical excursions in the second part of the book. I have come to regard this second section as the most vital part of this work. It is a narrative technique which I am now starting to notice in a number of other authors trying to grapple with class differences, including Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, trying to come to terms with a riven Bombay.

So, in this second, and to me most important, section, Orwell exposes his own biases and prejudices through a frank autobiographical study. He opens up his own upbringing to show how prejudices creep in and establish themselves in our psyche and never let go no matter how hard we hammer at them. Situating himself as a symbol of the middle class, Orwell uses this sketch to convey how we are all prey to such class prejudices and that we need to work within our own limitations and especially of the one’s we are trying to convert to the cause (by we, I mean the Left Book Club – the intended audience of the book). He uses the pungent example of ‘lower classes smell’ as an irrevocable class barrier. This has come under much criticism but it is important to keep in mind that it is only an example, he could have gone with the ‘non-pronouncement of the ‘H’s’, or any other minor but hard to avoid detail. To criticize the choice of detail is besides the point.

Then comes the last section: the fulmination and the grand rhetoric. This section is the hardest to agree with and feels the most dated to the modern reader. Orwell tries to examine his second major point – Why is Socialism Declining? His answer is that it is because it is associated with mindless mechanized progress – due to the wrong instruments of propaganda which are turning away all the right sort of people and bringing only the ‘quacks’ into the socialist circles. Instead, to win the all-out and most important war against Fascism (which is, Orwell asserts, very much due), the Socialists need to forget class propaganda, accept that class prejudices will take longer to disappear (as elucidated in the previous section), and focus on the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, which Orwell is sure will usher all the moral and intelligent people into Socialism. Only by asserting this moral core of Socialism, stripped of class propaganda, can the scales be tipped in favor of Socialism and away from Fascism. Now the humanistic picture of the depravations of the first section are resurrected in another light and Orwell presents both the class-proletariats as well as the ‘economic-proletariats’ (i.e, people like himself, born to a higher class but earning only the equal of an industrial worker), as more likely to tend towards fascism, if for no other reason but self-preservation. Socialism needs to bring these classes into its fold. That is the crying need of the day.

“And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches (‘H’s).”

The Literary Lens / The 1984 Reappraisal

The conclusions advocated by Orwell must seem too simplistic to modern ex-post readers, but there is another angle to be explored here that is not political in nature. This arises from the fact that this exposition was published before either 1984 or Animal Farm, but after Brave New World. Orwell is quite clear that the Utopia (or Dystopia, or better, Utopia Caricatured) envisioned as the end goal of socialist progress in Brave New World is the very core of intelligent man’s revulsion towards Socialism – arising organically due to associations with ‘softness’ and degradation. Orwell needed to show the other extreme to turn this revulsion on its head.

We often compare Brave New World and 1984 as if they were alternate predictions and give marks to Huxley for having predicted better. But this misses Orwell’s point.

Orwell wanted to show the other extreme – the purely Fascist Dystopia – to bring around the people who were revolted by Brave New World and similar Utopian visions that were doing the rounds then (such as The Dream and Men Like Gods). Orwell calls these visions of the future that is based on mechanical progress as “the paradise of little fat men” – which he admits was “aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World”.

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You can also think of the caricature in the Wall-E movie for a better visualized reference. Orwell gives a grand argument, based on how the purpose of machines is to make human life easier and thus softer, to show how the Wall-E future is pretty much inevitable according to this conception of progress. He needed to present the antithesis to this vision – 1984. No matter how bad the caricature of the socialist progress, the Fascist one is surely the one to avoid. 1984 was the rubbing in of this idea, already set forth in 1937 with The Road to Wigan Pier, more than a decade before the fictional attack became unavoidable for Orwell.

Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. ‘Boom’, said the Three Sisters.

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And, if we can claim that Orwell’s prophesy is today less imminent than Huxley’s, then Orwell wins The Battle of ‘Who Can Scare Them More’.

Well done, Orwell, you turned the course.
Huxley, you needed to scare us more – we are headed there fast, still.

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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche: Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

The Birth of Tragedy (Complete Works)The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

My Rating★★★★★

Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.

This is probably his most a-philosophical (?) works. But it is my favorite. It was the most accessible to me and it was the most relevant of his works. It helped me form my own convictions. It was universal and yet not choke full of platitudes. It was forceful but not descending into loud (almost incomprehensible) invectives. (you know which works I subtly allude to)

‘Birth of Tragedy’ was his first major work and to me (in contradiction of the previous paragraph) his most philosophical. It seems to me to be the very soul of his philosophy – that was then refined and reformed in the fire of his (self-imposed?) suffering. The later philosophy is the ‘Nietzschian’ one – grand and too powerful to ignore. But, this earlier core is, to me, the real beauty that livens all the later fury.

Nietzsche, already in this, his first work (ostensibly on the source of Greek tragedy), set Dionysus (the god of vitality, ecstasy, thriving life, and of wine) against Apollo (the god of tranquillity, logic, and of contemplation).

According to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy as in life, it is the unruly chorus who represented Dionysus and was a crying-out of humanity (the species) itself. Apollo, on the other hand, was represented by the human actors and expressed himself through the orderly dialogue. Apollo was designed to be noticed – the conscious story. Dionysus was designed to be evoked – the collective unconscious?

In this early core of Nietzschian philosophy, a philosophy of species vs individuals, of species evolution pitted against human vanity, Dionysus is the strength of the human race, of life itself (vide Darwin) but manifests only as mere background to any given human drama (but still the source of all drama and is THE actual Drama).

Apollo, in contrast, is expressed in any given human drama (composed or lived) – important and represented and thought about. But, always about mere individuals, weak and mortal.

With this early work Nietzsche leapt into the depths and all the later developments was a climb back and proclamations of the reality of the Deep. He adored and embraced the tragic sensibility which is the condition for man – of adoration of life and of its cruel laws, despite all the weakness of the individual – the real genesis of the Superman.

Disclaimer #1: Written more than a year after the original reading and after only a cursory re-reading/re-glancing. Please trust the reviewer when he asserts that the work is powerful enough to stay fresh-to-review even after a year has passed.

Disclaimer #2: Required Expansion of Essay: ‘The Superman as The Buddha: The Inevitable Evolution of Tragic Consciousness’

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

My Rating★★★★☆

The Skeptic’s Peace

Pinker warns the reader upfront that the book is huge, and with more than 800 dense pages there is no question about it. It is so wide-ranging that it is fortunate it has such a memorable title – the reader might have easily lost track of where it is all supposed to be heading. Individually, any section of the book is a throughly entertaining masterpiece, but as a whole, in terms of coherence, and on how the thesis and the direction of the arguments hold together, the book is not as much of a delight.

But it is an ambitious book and is in some respects a new sort of history – almost a moral history of the world, and Pinker deserves praise for the attempt. The next such historian to come along has been given much to work with.

Pinker is very convincing about the fact that violence has indeed declined; he is even persuasive on why it was but bound to happen. But when it comes to explaining the phenomenon (which he spends most of the book convincing us is real) based on his strength (psychology and evolutionary biology), he comes up slightly short. Pinker says all the right things and spares no punches and doesn’t flinch from taking on the worst arguments the critics might throw at him but his arguments still seem to lack that knockout blow.

This is not to say that the arguments are weak. Pinker does a remarkable job in his survey of history, of stats and of a multitude of ideas. The scholarship is immaculate, the intentions are noble and the conclusions are plausible but I would still wager that Pinker would fail to convince the majority of his readers.

Why? Because he ignores the contingent nature of history and he forgets that the ‘better angels’ has not only made us a more moral society but has also made us a more skeptical society. I was disappointed that Pinker does not explore the preventive powers of sheer skepticism.

My own thesis, which was evolving as I read Pinker’s, is ultimately that the skeptical mentality is what the ‘civilizing process’ (and the years of bloody wars) has ultimately given us – a conviction that there are no easy answers, no ‘final solutions’. And that is a powerful deterrent to most forms of drastic action, since now it is harder to justify them. This to me is the real cause for optimism (of the measured and skeptical sort, as is our wont now).

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

An Introduction to Indian PhilosophyAn Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

My Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This very engaging introduction to Indian Philosophy can be thought of as a series of essays on some of the most prominent schools of thought of ancient Indian philosophy, with each essay being followed up by detailed ‘further readings’ that can be used to explore particular ideas further. While this presentation of the book facilitates an easy introduction to each of the schools of thought, it can have the effect of obscuring the subtle interconnections and derivations within and between them.

Also, the fact that Bartley chose to use Buddhist arguments as the point of departure for defining all the other schools of thought has the unfortunate effect of making them seem overly derivative. In spite of these defects, the books is worth a read, particularly the sections on Sankhya and Nyaya are a discursive delight to read.

The section on Buddhism is a bit stretched out, as it had to be given the nature of the presentation. The section on Mimamsa school is given a slightly simplistic explanation and the earlier and later schools are not delineated enough to give full play to the power of this school of thought, nor are the connections with Sankhya, particularly with Gita, fully explored. The Vedanta school is given a lot of detail and space but without looping back and connecting fully with Sankhya through the upanishadic arguments.

Given the scope of an introductory book, it is perhaps asking too much to address all the nuances but some of the space dedicated to quoting Sankara’s and others’ arguments could have been given over to tracing the differences and similarities between the schools and in showcasing the organic nature of the growth of the entire philosophic edifice.

P.S. Forgive the omission of diacritical marks. Please do google to pick out exact pronunciations.

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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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India Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

India Since IndependenceIndia Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

My Rating★★★★☆

The book is supposed to be one of the most authoritative histories of the period, presented by a set of celebrated authors who were instrumental in authoring most of the text books of the academic curriculum (India). It is disappointing then to see that ideology colors even such a work. If you can stay away from the strong biases that run through most of the interpretative chapters, this is actually quite a good book read.

It provides a good contrast (counterpoint?) to Guha‘s history. It is quite stunning how history changes so radically from one book to the next. The two books tell of the same period but with such marked divergence. As a reader one can accept this transition with surprising ease since the story is not in the telling but in the leaving out, in the focusing of the searchlight on select incidents and in leaving the rest in the darkness. This strengthens my growing obsession with historiography and its many wonders. Has any fully illumined history of any period yet been written? I am yet to find one.

The next book in my romance with historiography might have some answers – History at the Limit of World-History. I am thoroughly excited to have stumbled on this one and am hoping to continue this review over there.

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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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