Monthly Archives: September 2013

“Putting a very high price on one’s conjectures”

Contemporary demonologist Jean Bodin argued that, in crisis conditions such as these [the apocalyptic fervor during the French Wars of Religion], standards of evidence [for witchcraft trials] must be lowered. Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to “legal tidiness and normal procedures.” Public rumor could be considered “almost infallible”: if everyone in a village said that a particular woman was a witch, that was sufficient to justify putting her to the torture. Medieval techniques were revived specifically for such cases, including “swimming” suspects to see if they floated, and searing them with red-hot irons. The numbers of convicted witches kept rising as standards of evidence went down, and the increase amounted to further proof that the crisis was real and that further adjustment of the law was necessary. As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. It was all accepted with hardly a murmur, except by a few writers such as Montaigne, who pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures” to have someone roasted alive on their account.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, p. 209


Montaigne: Greatness of soul is found in mediocrity

Montaigne even went so far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found “in mediocrity” – a shocking remark and even, paradoxically, an extreme one. Most moderns have been so trained to regard mediocrity as a poor, limited condition that it is hard to know what to think when he says this. Is he playing games with the reader again, as some suspect he does when he writes of having a bad memory and a slow intellect? Perhaps he is, to some extent, yet he seems to mean it too. Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions. For him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman. Like Tasso, they seek to transcend the limits and instead lose their ordinary human faculties. Being truly human means behaving in a way that is not merely ordinary, but ordinate, a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “ordered, regulated; orderly, regular, moderate.” It means living appropriately, or a propos, so that one estimates things at their right value and behaves in the way correctly suited to each occasion. This is why, as Montaigne puts it, living appropriately is “our great and glorious masterpiece” – grandiose language, but used to describe a quality that is anything but grandiose. Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition. This could not be further removed from Rousseau and his feeling that he is set apart from all humanity. For Montaigne:

There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being

He knew, all the same, that human nature does not always conform to this wisdom. Alongside the wish to be happy, emotionally at peace and in full command of one’s faculties, something else drives people periodically to dash their achievements to pieces. It is what Freud called the thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos. The twentieth-century author Rebecca West described it thus:

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to this agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, pp. 200-201. Bakewell refers to this line from Montaigne’s essay “Of Repentance”: “The virtue of the soul does not consist in flying high, but in walking orderly; its grandeur does not exercise itself in grandeur, but in mediocrity.”

Montaigne on animals

[Montaigne] was not the only writer of his time to oppose hunting or torture. What is unusual in Montaigne is his reason for it: his visceral rapport with others. When speaking to the Brazilian Indians in Rouen, he was struck by how they spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their “other halves” starved on their doorstep. For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. “It is one and the same nature that rolls its course.” Even if animals were less similar to us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive.

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

This obligation applies in trivial encounters as well as life-or-death ones. We owe other beings the countless small acts of kindness and empathy that Nietzsche would describe as “goodwill.” After the passage just quoted, Montaigne added this remark about his dog:

I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

He indulges his dog because he can imaginatively share the animal’s point of view: he can feel how desperate the dog is to banish boredom and get his human friend’s attention. Pascal mocked Montaigne for this, saying that Montaigne rides his horse as one who does not believe it to be his right to do so, and who wonders whether “the animal, on the contrary, ought really to be making use of him.” This is exactly right – and, as much as it annoyed Pascal, it would have pleased Nietzsche, who final mental breakdown is (unreliably) reported to have begun with his flinging his arms around a horse’s neck on a Turin street and bursting into tears.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, pp 179-180

Deep time: “a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity”

On the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles north of Norway. Photo by Greg White

Contemporary culture seems accustomed to hopping from one apocalypse to the next. This isn’t entirely bad in and of itself; the apocalyptic language surrounding the ozone layer hastened action on the CFC ban, just as Rachel Carson’s doomsday prophecies in Silent Spring (1962) accelerated the banning of the anti-malaria insecticide DDT. Apocalyptic language works, particularly in an easily distracted culture. It is perhaps the only thing that does work. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction,” Carson said in a speech in 1963. But perhaps Carson had it backwards: perhaps it is our attraction to disaster stories and 11th-hour crises that allows us to focus our attention on nature and to marshal energy towards its preservation in the first place.

Along with the language of catastrophe comes a very specific articulation of time. We think of our relationship to the environment in the immediate. Global warming, we’re told, will decimate all life within our lifetimes, or in our children’s lifetimes. In this way, environmental discourse resembles the ranting of religious millenarians, who stubbornly maintain that the apocalypse will happen on their watch. As of 2010, 41 per cent of Americans say that they expect Jesus to return to Earth by 2050. This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.

Standing opposed to this narrow band of apocalyptic time is “deep time”, a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity. The concept of deep time originated with the 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, and was popularised by the American writer John McPhee in his book Basin and Range (1981). For McPhee, the chief attraction of deep time is its ability to move us out of short-term thinking: “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time,” he wrote. “And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

Colin Dickey, “The Global Seed Vault can anchor us in deep time

Disseminated Primatemaia

Mountaintop removal mining

Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptibly disturbing … the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people.

James Lovelock, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, as quoted by John Gray, Straw Dogs, p. 6.

The haphazard re-engineering of human nature

It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man’s fate.

John Gray, Straw Dogs, p. 6. This reminds me Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay, which begins:

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted.

She goes on to discuss the ways in which technology has changed us. She notes that this technology is under the control of big business and is being monitored by government spooks. If we are in fact witnessing a significant change in the human species then Gray describes the mode of that change quite well.

Simone Weil on the church as a social structure

What frightens me is the Church as a social structure. Not only on account of its blemishes, but from the very fact that it is something social. It is not that I am of a very individualistic temperament. I am afraid for the opposite reason. I am aware of very strong gregarious tendencies in myself. My natural disposition is to be very easily influenced, too much influenced, and above all by anything collective. I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi…

There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience. If I think that on this point I see more clearly than they did, I who am so far below them, I must admit that in this matter they were blinded by something very powerful. This something was the Church seen as a social structure. If this social structure did them harm, what harm would it not do me, who am particularly susceptible to social influences and who am almost infinitely more feeble than they were?

Simone Weil, in a letter to Fr Perrin explaining one of her reasons for refusing baptism. Quoted by Eric Reitan in this post. He elaborates:

As I see it, what Weil was resisting was that within real human religious life that has the power to eclipse what is most essential to religious life. And she resisted it not because she hated community and social organization but because she loved that essence more.

If Earth were the size of a grain of salt …

If Earth were the size of a grain of salt, our solar system (only out to Neptune!) would be 352 meters wide — that’s a grain of salt sitting inside about three and a half football fields of space. If you include the whole solar system (out to the Oort cloud), it’s more than 2,000 times more space: a grain of salt in a region about 450 miles wide. (That’s like flying from San Francisco to Seattle — a two-hour flight—and encountering virtually nothing but a few specks along the way.)

David Blatner, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe From Infinitesimal to Infinity, as quoted by Glenn Fleishman in “Where in the Solar System Has Voyager 1 Wound Up?

Molly Crabapple’s “Faces From Gitmo”

Molly Crabapple, Samir Moqbel, 2013.

Molly Crabapple, Samir Moqbel, 2013.

Samir Moqbel got his first job at a factory in Yemen at the age of 12. According to his JTF-GTMO assessment, he practiced rifle shooting for four afternoons in 2000, before splitting to Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance (a year before we declared war on the Taliban). Because of these allegations, the United States has imprisoned him for 11 years, at the cost of over $11 million.

Moqbel’s lawyers at Reprieve tell a different story. A friend lured him to Afghanistan with promises of better-paying work, and then, when none materialized, tried to convince him to join the Taliban. He was arrested at the Pakistani border, while asking the Yemeni Consulate with help for his lost passport.

Moqbel has been on a hunger strike since March, and is one of the 32 men currently being force-fed. In an editorial in the New York Times, he wrote: “It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.”

In June, I asked Guantanamo spokesperson Captain Robert Durand about Moqbel’s editorial. “Most of what they say short of ‘I don’t want to be here’ is patently false,” he replied.

Twice a day, soldiers shackle Moqbel to a restraint chair, and force a feeding tube into his stomach though his nose. They then pump Ensure through the tube. According to Guantanamo spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, as of June he could choose his flavor: vanilla, strawberry or butter pecan.

Molly Crabapple, “Faces From Gitmo

Bullshit jobs

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

David Graeber, “On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs“.

The Economist posted a response that makes some valid counterarguments. They acknowledge, however, that Graeber does point to a real concern: “most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else.”

Both links via @bennyfactor.