October 22, 2006
A. I found an interesting art book: American Art and Architecture, by a young Williams College professor named Michael J. Lewis. It’s concise, well-written, and copiously illustrated. Unlike many art books, it’s still in print, and it’s inexpensive. It can enrich your visit to major American cities like New York and Washington, DC, since many of the architectural comments deal with these cities. Of course, it can also enrich your visit to an American art museum. Since it was published recently, it deals with contemporary movements, as well as older works.
B. The intellectual in society “[E. M. Forster] told me that, at parties, he always feels ‘self-conscious and contemptuous.’”1
C. In response to my debate with analytic philosophers, a reader wrote
I responded thus:
Andrew Sullivan was recently interviewed on C-SPAN. Sullivan was born and raised in England, and attended Oxford. He did graduate work at Harvard, and became editor of The New Republic when he was only 27. Now he’s a professional blogger. Sullivan is openly gay and deeply Catholic. He’s also conservative; his Ph.D. thesis was on the conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott, and he supported Thatcher and Reagan.
Now, however, he’s passionately opposed to Bush, and to those whom he regards as religious conservatives. Sullivan is one of several prominent conservative writers who castigate Republicans for spending money too freely, for not trying to balance the budget, etc. Of course, Sullivan also castigates the Bush administration for mis-managing the Iraq war.
When I visited Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” I found a link to a debate between Sullivan and David Brooks (a conservative New York Times columnist); the debate focused on Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. Sullivan is a former president of the Oxford debating society (the “Oxford Union”), and he’s a good public speaker.
Sullivan began by sketching the history of conservative thought from Burke to Hayek and Oakeshott. He argued that conservatism is opposed to doctrinaire attitudes, opposed to dogmatism, opposed to certainty, opposed to attempts to re-make society according to a written plan. He criticized today’s Republicans for their dogmatic faith in the Bible, for their refusal to entertain doubts, for their attempts to write their religious principles into law. Part of his animus against today’s Republicans can be traced to their opposition to gay marriage, and their opposition to homosexuality in general.
Sullivan derides “Christianism,” and says it’s a kind of fundamentalism, not unlike Islamic fundamentalism. As an example of Christianism, he quotes a Republican leader who thinks that Armageddon is coming, and will happen in the Middle East, just as the Bible says.2 Sullivan compares this view to the view of the Iranian leader (Ahmadinejad), who not only thinks that the world will end, but may want to bring about the end with nuclear weapons.
Then Brooks took the podium. Brooks is a good public speaker, too. While Sullivan seemed intent on winning the debate, Brooks was content to participate, to have a civil exchange. While Sullivan was emotional, even violent, Brooks was serious and calm. Brooks began by saying that he totally disagreed with Sullivan, that today’s Republicans weren’t comparable to Islamic fundamentalists, that traditional religion enables us to grasp evil, and that a secular, rational worldview can’t grasp evil. Brooks insisted that Republicans had tried to be frugal with public money, and had shut down the government in 1995, but that Clinton had used this against them, so Republicans had no choice but to go along with big spending.
Sullivan retorted that he wasn’t criticizing the religion of pious Americans, but rather its exploitation by the Republican party. Sullivan insisted that the failure of the government shutdown in 1995 didn’t give Republicans the right to run up deficits in perpetuity. Sullivan ended by accusing Brooks’ former employer, The Weekly Standard, of connecting the Republican party to religion, and of exploiting religion for political gain. Brooks had much to say in response, but instead he held his tongue, and allowed the moderator to bring the debate to a close. It was a good debate, it ended too soon.
We tend to regard militant Islam as separate from other modern radical movements, such as Marxism and Fascism. It can be argued, however, that the roots of militant Islam are in the anti-Western, anti-capitalist ideologies of Western revolutionaries. Two of the leading philosophers of jihad are Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati. Qutb is influential with Sunnis and with Al Qaeda, while Shariati is influential with Shiites and with the Iranian leadership.
A recent article in The Weekly Standard discussed the roots of Shariati’s ideas.3 Born in Iran in 1933, Shariati was a student in Paris in the early 1960s. Impressed with Sartre, Shariati translated Sartre’s massive book Being and Nothingness into Farsi. He also co-translated a book by the revolutionary Frantz Fanon (a book called The Wretched of the Earth). Shariati appealed to Iranian Shiites by cobbling together the utopian, millennial strain in Shiism with the utopian strain in Sartre and Fanon.4 One wonders if Shariati, a student of the atheist Sartre, believed in Islam, or just used Islam to further his political goals.
Shariati returned to Iran in 1964, and his lectures in Teheran became very popular. Though Shariati reached out to Iranian religious leaders, they condemned his teachings as heresy. The only Iranian religious leader who didn’t condemn him was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Shariati, Khomeini wanted to create a political movement that would overthrow the Shah. Khomeini once said, “Islam is politics.”
Imprisoned by the Shah’s government, Shariati was released in 1975, and went to England. He died of a heart attack in 1977, two years before Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. The Weekly Standard calls Shariati “the acknowledged intellectual godfather of the Iranian revolution.”
If Sartre and other philosophers had an impact on the Iranian revolution, it’s an interesting case of philosophy having an impact on the world. Could a healthier philosophy have a more positive impact? My own philosophical labors have moved in a different direction, and I’ve paid no attention to Heidegger, Sartre, Fanon, Marx, etc.
Qutb has had a direct influence on Al Qaeda, hence he’s more well known than Shariati. Qutb’s personal life sounds like that of many intellectuals:
Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. His early writings had a secular perspective; the young Qutb was a novelist and critic, and helped the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz reach public attention (Mahfouz later won the Nobel Prize). From 1948 to 1950, Qutb studied in the U.S. Qutb found much to loathe in the U.S., including racism, materialism, enthusiasm for sports, and mixing of the sexes (even in church). His stay in the U.S. may have contributed to his evolution from a literary man to an anti-Western revolutionary and Islamic radical.
Qutb and his fellow radicals were part of a group called The Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood initially supported Nasser’s regime, but later realized that Nasser was a nationalist with no sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. Nasser imprisoned Qutb and other radicals; Qutb’s prison experience intensified his radicalism. He argued that
To attain this Sharia paradise, Qutb advocated jihad:
One is struck by the similarities to Marxism: a violent, anti-Western vanguard movement that gradually spreads through the world, ending in the melting away of the state, and the reign of peace and bliss.
Qutb’s vision of struggle is that of a man with a tendency toward depression and masochism. His vision of struggle appeals to young Muslims who want to undertake heroic efforts:
In 1966, Nasser’s government executed Qutb and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. After Qutb’s death, his brother played a key role in promoting his ideas:
This sonnet is a classic expression of the familiar idea that poetry is immortal, that it will outlast statues and monuments, and that it will make the poet’s beloved immortal.
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
In an earlier issue, I discussed quantum physics, and its connection to occult thinking. In a more recent issue, I discussed Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, and I said that primitive thinking often intersects with modern occult thinking; I said that primitive thinking deserves more respect than it usually receives, more respect than Frazer himself had for it.
Recently I dipped into the first volume of Frazer’s work, and I found that the primitive worldview is strikingly similar to that of quantum physics. Frazer says that primitive man believes that things can affect each other at a distance; in other words, primitive man believes in action-at-a-distance. This action-at-a-distance is facilitated when two things were once in close contact. This is the very issue that looms large in quantum physics: how can paired particles, in contact with each other, affect each other even after they’re separated? This is also the very issue that has long engaged students of the occult: how can a mother and child (or a pair of twins), once closely connected, read each other’s minds when they’re separated by a vast distance?
Here is Frazer’s summary of the primitive mind:
Another point on which primitive thinking intersects with modern thinking is the issue of the unity of the world. Primitive man believed that plants, animals and men were akin to each other, were parts of the same whole.9 Modern man, too, believes that everything is connected; modern man doesn’t separate human beings from the rest of nature, and he doesn’t separate the living world from the inanimate world. Modern man believes that everything in the universe is part of one whole, everything can be traced back to a common origin, and everything possesses the same energies.10
A third point on which primitive thinking intersects with modern occult thinking is the importance of a person’s name. Primitive man thought his name was as much a part of himself as his body, and he tried to conceal his name so hostile magicians couldn’t contact him, and harm him. American Indians changed their name to avoid hostile magicians (just as you and I might change our e-mail address to avoid spammers). Strange as it may seem, modern psychics can communicate with people if they know their name, so it seems that names may be as significant as primitive man believed.
Frazer was apt to regard primitive beliefs as silly superstitions. He felt that by tracing modern religious practices (such as the Eucharist) back to primitive practices, he was discrediting modern religious practices. Frazer said that the study of primitive thinking was
One is reminded of Freud, who also took a dim view of religion, and also saw himself as a destroyer of pleasant illusions.
Why does Frazer call his book The Golden Bough? When Joyce began Ulysses, he didn’t intend to write a big novel, he intended to write a short story. Likewise, Frazer didn’t intend to write a 13-volume work, he intended just to explain a strange custom at the temple of Diana at Nemi — namely, the custom that if you kill the priest, you’ll become the new priest. But before you kill the priest, you must first “pluck the branch of a certain tree which the public opinion of the ancients identified with Virgil’s Golden Bough.”12 To explain this strange custom, Frazer embarked on a wide-ranging study of primitive beliefs.
In unabridged form, The Golden Bough is excessively long, so it may be wise to read the abridged version, which was made by Frazer himself, and which Frazer recommended.13
|1.|| E. M. Forster: Interviews and Recollections, by J. H. Stape; “The Diaries of Siegfried Sassoon”, 4/28/22 back|
|2.|| “As for Armageddon, I just note with interest that’s what the Bible says. That it’s on the Plains of Megiddo. Right there in Israel. And it makes you wonder where this conflict’s all going to ultimately lead. And I happen to believe it will ultimately lead to what the Bible says.” See Sullivan’s blog for October 17, 2006 back|
|3.|| “Why Is Ahmadinejad Smiling? The intellectual sources of his apocalyptic vision.” by Waller R. Newell, 10/16/2006, Volume 012, Issue 05 back|
|4.|| One of the basic teachings of Sartre and other Existentialists is that man has no nature, he makes himself, he makes himself through will and passion. Since Sartre was an atheist, he argued that man shouldn’t follow God’s rules, and man shouldn’t let God govern the world, man should take charge, make his own rules, and make his own world. Thus, Sartre’s teachings lend themselves to a revolutionary interpretation. back|
|5.|| See the Wikipedia article on Qutb. back|
|6.|| ibid back|
|7.|| I.e., “until judgment day, when you yourself will arise...” back|
|8.|| The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (in two volumes, Vol. 1), Ch. 3, §1. This book is the beginning of The Golden Bough, which was published in many different versions/editions. back|
|9.|| The Golden Bough, abridged version, ch. 29 back|
|10.|| For more on the unity of the world, click here. back|
|11.|| The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (in two volumes, Vol. 1), Preface to 2nd edition back|
|12.|| ibid, ch. 2 back|
|13.|| As an epigraph to the abridged version, Frazer chose a quote from Martial, who recommended that the emperor read a short book:|
Longior undecimi nobis decimique libelli
[Our eleventh and tenth books were rather long.
As an epigraph to the unabridged version, Frazer chose a quote from Macrobius, who lived about 400 AD and is known for a book called Saturnalia. According to Wikipedia, Saturnalia “contains a great variety of curious historical, mythological, critical and grammatical discussions.” In the passage that Frazer quotes, Macrobius says that he’s collecting various materials from old writers, arranging them, and making them his own, like a bee who gathers various flowers, then makes his own honey: