Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

Tunnel in the Sky

August 27, 2014

I am beginning to think that a selection of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile science fiction books should be required reading in every Middle School class. Even though the science in these stories is outdated, in some cases badly so, and the social mores reflect the period in which they were published, the 1950’s, although that may not actually be a bad thing, I think the young reader can still learn a lot from Heinlein’s stories. They may not be able to learn much about science or space travel. Events have overtaken Mr. Heinlein in that respect. They will, however, learn quite a lot about virtues that will never go out of date. They will learn from Heinlein’s heroes the importance of self-reliance, honor, courage and rational thinking. They will learn that doing the right thing, even at the risk of their lives is better in the long run. Reading Heinlein may even help young readers to resist the politically correct brain washing and mediocrity they are exposed to in our public schools. I can imagine one of Heinlein’s older, wiser instructors telling a contemporary student that the universe does not care about his fragile self-esteem and that it does not hand out ribbons just for showing up.

Tunnel in the Sky, published in 1955, is typical of Heinlein’s juveniles.

It features a strong, intelligent young man, Rod Walker, as the protagonist. Rod wants to join the movement to colonize other planets, accessed through gateways that transport travelers instantly across the galaxy. In order to be a colonist, Rod must take and pass a class on survival taught by the famous explorer “Deacon” Matson. For the final exam, the class, along with similar classes from other schools, is to be dropped on an uninhabited planet for ten to fourteen days. Whoever manages to survive passes. Unfortunately, something disrupts the gate and the students are stranded. They must manage to survive for far longer than they had expected.

 

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may be Heinlein’s response to Lord of the Flies published the previous year. Unlike the younger children in William Golding’s tale, the high school and college age youths do not descend into savagery. They build a colony with a government. They attempt to recreate modern technology as much as possible and by the time they are rescued they have begun to smelt iron and to domesticate the native plants and animals. The young colonists do have trouble with students who refuse to do their share of the work and with dangerous animals, but they manage to overcome their difficulties. After their settlement is destroyed and their first mayor is killed by migrating animals, Rod becomes the new mayor. There is some talk of moving to a safer location that Rod had discovered earlier but he refuses to consider it, stating that they are men and they will not be moved by a bunch of dumb animals. Instead, they develop ways to defend their settlement by the time of the next migration.

I should say something about Heinlein’s supposed racism in this book. At the beginning of the story, Rod visits a gateway to watch pioneers going out to colonize new planets. First, there is a long line of Asians, poverty-stricken refugees being forced by their authoritarian government to travel to a new world. They are followed by proud pioneers from North America. I do not believe that Heinlein intended to make any sort of statement about the relative merits of Asians and Americans but was extrapolating a likely future based on circumstances at the time of publication. In 1955, most of Asia was desperately poor and overcrowded and it seemed likely to remain so for generations. I should note that it is hinted throughout the book that Rod is African-American, though at the time of publication Heinlein was unable to say so outright.

I enjoyed reading Tunnel in the Sky when I was in fifth grade and enjoyed it no less rereading it as an adult. Robert Heinlein knew how to keep his readers interested.

 

 

God in the Dock

August 4, 2014

I find that the more I read the writings of C. S. Lewis, the more I find myself admiring his skill as a writer and thinker. I do not know of another writer who is so good at getting straight to the heart of whatever subject he is considering and working out every logical implication of a position held by himself or someone else. Thus, I found this collection of essays by Lewis titled God in the Dock to be a special treat.

God in the Dock

 

These forty-eight essays written over a period of some twenty years and published in a variety of publications provide excellent examples of Lewis’s clear thinking and uncompromising defense of his Christian beliefs. Although there is some diversity of subject in these writings, the editor, Walter Hooper, has sorted them out into three parts and included a fourth part containing a few letters Lewis wrote. As he explains, the first two parts deal mostly with theology while the third has essays dealing more with Christian ethics or behavior. These essays are not so easily differentiated and Lewis is always as much concerned with Christian living as much as Christian beliefs. Ethics and theology blend together more than are separated in these essays.

 

Lewis does tackle a variety of subjects in these essays, but always he returns to the same themes.  He defends the concept of miracles against the idea that science disproves the miraculous by pointing out that science only studies the regularities found in nature. Given that the miraculous is not part of the regularities, science can tell us nothing about it. Lewis also argues against reducing everything to mechanistic naturalism. He insists that to study a thing is not the same as to experience it and one must not assume that either process tells us everything about the thing. A person in love experiences the emotion of love. A doctor studying his brain might perhaps learn something of the chemicals that produce the feelings of being in love, but cannot know what it is to be in love unless he actually experiences it.

 

C. S. Lewis defends dogma in religion against those who would do away with it in favor of a loose theism by pointing out that a religion with no beliefs is hardly worth the trouble. He writes of the difficulties of spreading the Christian message to a contemporary audience and of the necessity of speaking the common people’s language in order to teach them. The essay God in the Dock notes that unlike the pagans in first century Rome, most people today do not believe themselves to be sinners in need of repentance and instead of fearing the judgment of God, is more inclined to put God in the dock and judge Him.

 

One of the themes throughout C. S. Lewis’s writings is his contention that it is what is true that matters, not what is modern or progressive or practical. In Bulverism, he attacks the twentieth century fashion of refuting an argument not by proving it is wrong, but by attacking the motives of the debater. (Check your privilege?) He insists that a point is either right or wrong, regardless of the motives of the person stating it, and it can only be shown to be right or wrong using reason.

 

There is a lot more to this collection and I have only scratched a very shallow line on the surface of the profound riches to be found in reading these essays. I think that any follower of C. S. Lewis will find that reading God in the Dock to be a rewarding experience.

 

India, A History

July 20, 2014

It must be a daunting project for a historian to attempt to write a history of India on one volume. The grand sweep of India’s history, stretching back five thousand years with a bewildering diversity of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnic groups provides so much material that it must be very difficult to decide what to write about and what to exclude. This diversity must also make finding a common theme throughout the history of the subject difficult. If a historian wishes to write a history of France, he has only one nationality to examine. Most French speak the same language, follow the same religion and culture, and have a shared identity. China is somewhat more diverse, but a historian still has the cycle of dynasties to use as a framework. India is more difficult. The subcontinent has only been completely unified as one state under the British and as soon as the British left, the former colony was split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

Making matters more difficult the indigenous Indians, the Hindus were less interested in dating and precise dating than some other civilizations, such as the Chinese, and more inclined to mythologize their history. Thus, instead of annals of history with more or less precise dating, we have the great Sanskrit epics, which quite possible contain much true historical information. Many of the persons and events in the epics may be historical, but historians face considerable difficulty in determining just when these events occurred and how they are related chronologically, without the help of archeology. It was only when the Muslims invaded Indian that we begin to get reasonably precise dating.

 

India

Despite these difficulties, John Keay does an admirable job of telling the epic story of India in one volume, India, A History.  As someone who did not know very much about this fascinating, and increasingly important country, I was glad to read a history book that lays out the whole story, from its beginnings to the present day, in a way that holds my interest. The maps and charts are adequate, though my Kindle Paperwhite still does not handle graphics very well. I did get somewhat lost in all the exotic and unfamiliar names of princes and dynasties, and occasionally the history of a certain region of India at a particular time, or some of the less prominent kings of a dynasty was somewhat rushed through, but I think that India, A History is an excellent resource for the casual reader to learn about the history of India. Those who wish to study the subject further can use the bibliography John Keay provides. Either way, I think they will find this book useful and interesting.

 

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

July 7, 2014

I have had somewhat ambiguous feelings about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism ever since I first discovered her in college. I agree with much of what she had to say: freedom, capitalism, and the use of reason are good; tyranny, socialism, and living off others are bad. Nevertheless, I have always felt vaguely repelled by her writings. Perhaps it is because I feel a slight malevolence underlying much of what she wrote. Ayn Rand was never one to forgive an enemy or maintain a friendship with someone of an opposing philosophy. Maybe the figures in her fiction are not much like real human beings. The heroes are completely good with no flaws, the villains completely evil with no redeeming characteristics. I am sure.

It is for that reason that I read Greg Nyquist’s Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Mr. Nyquist is a critic of Ayn Rand, but he takes a different approach than most of her critics. He does not spend much time examining the details of her philosophy, except to note where Objectivism is contradictory or incomplete. He does not refute Objectivism on a philosophical basis. In fact, at some points he concedes, for the sake of argument, that Objectivism is the most ideal philosophy imaginable. He also does not criticize Ayn Rand on a personal basis, except to show where her personality characteristics shaped Objectivism.

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What Greg Nyquist does instead is ask whether Ayn Rand and Objectivism actually works. Mr. Nyquist does not have much use for windy speculations about metaphysics or wordy conjectures about the way things ought to be. He is a practical man. He wants to know whether the assumptions about humanity and the world made by Ayn Rand that form the basis of Objectivism are actually in accordance with the observed facts. To this end, he has written Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature.

This book is divided into eight chapters, each chapter dealing with some aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, her theories of human nature, history, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. The final chapter considers the future of Objectivism. It should not be a surprise that Nyquist finds Ayn Rand’s theories wanting. In particular, he criticizes her ideas on human nature as being unrealistic. She was more concerned with human beings as she believes they ought to be rather than how they really are. She believed that human nature can be changed and that the widespread acceptance of Objectivism will cause people to think and act more rationally. Ayn Rand argued that people act according to the fundamental premises of their particular philosophy and if that philosophy is changed from one that accepts mysticism and collectivism to one that follows reason and individualism, then we can create a utopia of reason and capitalism. Nyquist disagrees, noting that human nature has changed little, if at all, throughout the centuries. People do not often follow a consistent philosophy. They act according to desires and interests and adapt their personal philosophy to justify their actions. He notes that history is less the result of various philosophical and ideological movements, as Ayn Rand asserted, but is more influenced by people’s desires and interests, particularly those of the ruling class. There is a lot more to his criticism, but the general idea is that Ayn Rand simply did not seek any sort of empirical verification of her ideas. She preferred to think about things rather than go out and see how things really are.

On the whole, I agree with Greg Nyquist’s criticism. I think that after some point, Ayn Rand lived in an imaginary world with John Galt and Howard Roarke. I have noticed in her nonfiction, she tended to refer to or quote her characters as if they were real people. She tends to make assertions that are completely reasonable and logical, but with she seldom presents actual evidence that these assumptions are true. I have also found her knowledge of history to be shallow.

While Greg Nyquist presents himself as a practical man, he sometimes crosses into cynicism. He seems to have a very negative opinion on human nature and regards politics as nothing more than the elite getting their way. While this is all true, it is not the whole truth. He believes that even if Ayn Rand’ s ideal of laissez-faire capitalism and the minimalist state is the best system possible, they will never come about into actuality because no political/economic elite will allow them to. Ayn Rand and her followers are idealists who fight for a cause no pragmatic politician would waste his time with.

In the end, I am going to side with the idealists. The idealist will sometimes bring about needed change because he doesn’t know it is impossible and even if he fails, he can at least push things in the right direction. The practical man knows it is impossible and so doesn’t bother to try.

That Hideous Strength

June 23, 2014

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

Perelandra

May 18, 2014

Since Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, told the story of Elwin Ransom’s journey to Malacandra, the planet we call Mars, it is fitting that the second book, Perelandra, is the story of Ransom’s voyage to the planet Perelandra, which we name Venus. The two trips could not be more unlike, however. Instead of being kidnapped and taken into space, this time Ransom is given a mission by the Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Malacandra. He is taken to Perelandra by the eldili in a coffin made of ice.

Cover of "Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book...

Cover of Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book 2)

When Ransom arrives, he discovers (in accordance with the science fiction tropes of the time) that while Malacandra is an older and dying world, Perelandra is a younger planet with a worldwide ocean. In fact, the first two people, the Perelandran Adam and Eve, had just been created. Ransom soon meets the Perelandran Eve, a green-skinned humanoid that he calls the Queen. She has been separated from her husband, the King. The King and Queen are unfallen and live in Paradise, like Adam and Eve, and like Adam and Eve, they have been given a commandment. In their case, they have been forbidden to leave the reed mat islands, which are their home and live on the only solid land on Perelandra.

Ransom is soon joined by his old enemy Professor Weston who comes to Perelandra in a spaceship similar to the one he used to take Ransom to Malacandra. Weston is not the same man Ransom knew on Earth and Malacandra. After speaking to him, Ransom realizes that Weston has been possessed by a devil, or perhaps even the Devil and he has come to tempt the Queen into disobeying the eldill and Maleldil, just as he had done with Earth’s Adam and Eve. Ransom calls this creature the Unman Ransom’s mission, then, is to prevent the Queen from falling. If he cannot persuade her, he must engage the Unman in physical combat, even at the expense of his own life.

Perelandra is more spiritually or supernaturally oriented than Out of the Silent Planet, and Lewis presents more of his theology in it, especially his thoughts on the nature of evil. Lewis does not make the mistake, as some writers do, of portraying evil as exciting or interesting or intelligent. In Out of the Silent Planet, evil is described as “bent”, some quality or thing not acting or being used according to its proper function or role. In Perelandra, as well as some of his other writings, evil is shown to be a lessening of a person or thing. The person who turns to evil becomes less of an individual. Weston as the Unman is less than he was as the scientist who discovered how to travel through space. The Unman is clever and charming while he is tempting the Queen, but when off duty, so to speak, he lapses into imbecility and childish taunting of Ransom. Towards the end of their struggle, Weston seems to temporarily regain control of himself and tells Ransom of his experience dying and coming back to life. Ransom is never sure whether Weston actually was speaking or the demon was trying to trick him. In the end, Ransom decides that it simply doesn’t make any difference. When Weston and the demon turned to evil, they began to lose the qualities that made them individuals. Eventually all that is evil becomes indistinguishable.

Lewis will also have nothing to do with the idea of a fortunate fall, the idea that Adam and Eve were ignorant of evil in their innocence and that at least they gained knowledge. The Unman does tempt the Queen with the knowledge of good and evil, yet she and the King gain more knowledge of good and evil by rejecting temptation than by falling. The King and Queen inform Ransom, at the end of the book, that the people of Thulcandra, our Earth, are more ignorant of evil than they are, because of the Fall and our own evil deeds.

Perelandra is, if anything, even more entertaining than Out of the Silent Planet and is a worthy sequel to that book, although like all of C. S. Lewis’s fiction, it is as much a work of apologetics as story, and Perelandra is, as I have said more theologically oriented than that earlier work. The reader who does not agree with Lewis’s religious beliefs may like Perelandra less well, but I can recommend it.

 

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Out of the Silent Planet

April 7, 2014

Sometime in the 1930s, C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were complaining about the state of contemporary English fiction. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories”, Lewis said to Tolkien, “I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves”. After some discussion on the subject, the two writers agreed that Tolkien would write a time travel story while Lewis would try his hand at a space travel story.

The results were typical of the very different styles and personalities of the two men. Tolkien was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with anything he wrote and his proposed story was never finished. Lewis was more energetic and managed to write the three novels that make up his “Space Trilogy” in less than a decade.
Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the trilogy. The story begins when Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is spending his vacation walking around the English countryside, comes across two men, Weston and Devine, trying to force a retarded young man into some structure. Ransom rescues the young man, only to be taken himself on what turns out to be a space ship traveling to a planet called Malacandra, or Mars. Along the way, Ransom discovers that Weston and Devine intend to deliver him as a sort of human sacrifice to the Malacandrans and as soon as they land, he escapes.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ransom quickly encounters the Malacandrans and learns that they are not the savage, primitive monsters he had been led to believe they were. There are three species of Malacandrans; the seal like Hrossa, the tall, wise Sorns, and the handy Pfifltriggi. A fourth race, the invisible Eldili live in space and are more like spirits or angels. All three races are unfallen and thus lack the inclination to evil that the inhabitants of our Earth or Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The only word in the Malacandran language that Ransom can find to express the concept of evil is “bent”, perhaps the most apt word to describe the problems or humanity that I have ever heard.

 

There is not much action in Out of the Silent Planet, and there are slow places, but the plot is far from dull. I think the depictions of the extraterrestrials are among the best I have read in science fiction. The science is badly dated, though Lewis made the best use of contemporary theories and knowledge about Mars available at the time. In the climax, Ransom is brought before the ruling eldil of Malacandra, the Oyarsa. He discovers that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent and confined to Earth’s immediate region in space. As a result, Earth is inaccessible to the Eldil and is named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Ransom answers the Oyarsa’s questions about life on Thulcandra and affirms things are very bent indeed. Weston and Devine are brought forward, but they insist on treating the Malacandrans like ignorant savages, even speaking in a ridiculous pidgin. This scene is a send up of modern man’s pretensions of superiority over “primitives”, and Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech asserting Human superiority over the Malacandrans is priceless.

 
Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a promising beginning to the Space Trilogy and can stand on its own. I am not sure if it can really be classed as properly science fiction so much as a theological fantasy, or an up to date medieval romance, but however you might classify it, it is worth the effort of reading.

 

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The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled

March 28, 2014

After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, many of our political leaders took pains to assure us that Islam is a religion of peace. The nineteen men who committed the atrocities on that date were said to have followed an extreme version of Islam, a version not shared by the vast majority of peace loving Muslims. Many people, however, cannot help but wonder whether a religion whose adherents are responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today might not promote violence in its teachings. Being a religion with more than one and a half billion followers, contemporary Islam is of course very diverse. There are many, many Muslims who are indeed peaceful, and many who are not. How, then, can we determine whether the doctrines of Islam promote peace or violence?

One way, might be to go back and look at the founder of the religion. After all, a tree is known by its fruits. The Prophet Mohammed in Arabia founded Islam more than fourteen centuries ago. To this day, Muslims look upon him as a perfect man to be emulated. Stories of his sayings and deeds, known as the Hadiths, are second only to the Koran as a guide to Muslim behavior. So then, learning whether Mohammed was a man of peace or of war should go a long way in determining whether Islam is a religion of peace or of war.

That is just what Harry Richardson has done with his book The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled. Mr. Richardson tells the story of the life of Mohammed using Islamic sources including the Koran. Along the way, he shows how Mohammed’s example is used by terrorists to justify their actions. For, Mohammed was not a man of peace. He and his religion were peaceful enough when they were a small sect in Mecca. After the move to Medina, where Mohammed took power, the new religion quickly became very violent and intolerant. Under Mohammed’s rule, any atrocity or betrayal was justified if it furthered the cause of Islam. As Mr. Richardson shows, this same ends justify the means mentality is still used by all too many people in the Islamic world.

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Harry Richardson covers most of the same ground as Robert Spencer does in his books about Islam. I think though, that Richardson’s approach is more accessible than Spencer’s. He begins with the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing about Islam and explains the results of his own research referring to his sources. Although Mr. Richard may have begun his studies knowing little about Islam, he was clearly spent a lot of time and effort educating himself. He is also less confrontational than Robert Spencer often has been.

I can strongly recommend that anyone interested in what is going on in the world of Islam read this book and then go on to read the Koran and other Islamic scriptures. If we are to prevent more attacks, we need accurate information about those who regard us as the enemies of Allah. Our leaders are not interested in telling us the truth about Islam, so we must educate ourselves. Harry Richardson’s book is a good place to begin.

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Intellectuals

March 19, 2014

In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

intellectuals

These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unreality of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.

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Soylent Green

February 2, 2014

A little while back I made a reference to the movie Soylent Green while writing on a very different subject. I’ve been thinking about that movie ever since so I might as well write about it. It must be around twenty years since I last watched Soylent Green on video so I only remember the general plot. Soylent Green was based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room!, Make Room!. I’ve read the book more recently. The movie and book share the same setting, an overpopulated, polluted, dystopian world and mostly the same plot, a detective is investigating a murder in the impossible circumstances of a dying New York City. There are a number of differences, though. Make Room! is set in the year 1999 rather than 2022. I guess the producers of Soylent Green thought that adding another 23 years might make the setting more plausible. Soylent green is not made of people in the book, it is plankton. The murder that the Charlton Heston character is investigating had nothing to do with the corporation or with the environment. The victim was a mob boss and the only reason the police want his murderer is because the New York mafia is afraid that a rival organization is moving in and they are putting pressure on corrupt officials to learn if this is the case.

The book is a whole lot more depressing than the movie. Harry Harrison works to make the world of Make Room!a world of poverty and misery, without any hope for improvement. All people have to hope for is the world might end. In fact, one of the characters is a crazy hermit who expects the end to come when the year ends. When 1999 becomes the year 2000 without incident, he can only despair. Water and food are tightly rationed and diseases of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor are widespread in the United States. Cars, no longer working because there is no more gasoline, sit abandoned in parking lots, to be used as shelter by the large population of homeless people. Freight is transported by wagons pulled by people. Overpopulation is only getting worse, since the masses of permanently unemployed people have baby after baby to qualify for larger welfare benefits. It goes on and on.

There is, of course, a certain amount of preachiness throughout the descriptions of the miserable life of the future. At one point the Edward G. Robinson character discusses how the world came to be in such awful shape. He laments that if only people started to take overpopulation seriously about thirty years before (when the book was published), the world wouldn’t have been ruined.

These sort of sentiments were widespread throughout the sixties and seventies. This was the era of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence. It was widely accepted that unless major changes were made, the world of the future was going to be nightmarish. We couldn’t afford have the luxury of an affluent lifestyle, or even basic freedoms if we wanted to save the planet. This sort of messaging was always in the background while I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties and I believed it. I worried about global warming, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources. I considered myself an environmentalist.

What changed? Well, if you look around, you might happen to observe that the world was not an overpopulated dystopia in the year 1999 nor is it likely to become one by the year 2022. As I grew older, I couldn’t help noticing that none of the horrible scenarios predicted by the environmental alarmed ever seemed to actually occur. We always had just ten years to save the planet. When ten years elapsed, we still had just ten years to save the planet. I also actually read some environmentalist literature and even got a degree in Environmental Studies. I took what I call my environmentalist wacko class. That helped me to learn just how anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-science, anti-American, and anti-human many environmentalists actually are. I have since developed the deepest skepticism about environmentalist claims of doom and gloom. I am on to them.

This is why I am a global warming skeptic. There are some who have suggested that I should defer to the experts. I am told that ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that drastic action is needed right now. I am not impressed. I happen to possess a functioning memory and very little of what these people are saying is any different than what they were saying forty years ago. Their solution to the crises is the same: the masses must live like medieval serfs while an all powerful government of the elite decide what’s best for everyone.

At some point, you realize that the boy cried wolf is a liar, especially when he seems to have an agenda which involves getting the villagers to hand over wealth and power to the only boy who can save them from the wolf only he sees.

 

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