September 26, 2020

The Purpose of Reading


There is a story on the internet and the social media that talks about “the purpose of reading.” Nothing too original, nor particularly brilliant, at least in my opinion, but quite thought-provoking and, in its own way, insightful. Unfortunately, though, it is written in broken English—perhaps it’s a bad English translation of a story that was originally written in Chinese or another Far Eastern language... So I thought it was worth being rewritten in good English, so I asked an old friend of mine, Peter Weevers, who is a great storyteller, perfect for the job, to take over the task of doing justice to a beautiful story. And here is the excellent result: 
 

I’ve read lots of books, but most of them I’ve forgotten. What then is the purpose of reading them?” This was the question a pupil once asked his Master.
The Master didn’t answer at that time. After a few days, however, during a peaceful period when he and the young student were sitting by a river, he said he was thirsty and asked the boy to bring him some water using an old, dirty sieve that he found lying there on the ground.
The student was taken aback because he knew it wasn’t a reasonable request.
However, not wishing to displease his Master, he took the sieve and began to try to carry out this absurd task.
Every time he dipped the sieve into the river to scoop up some water to take to his Master, after only one step towards him there was not even a drop left in the sieve.
He kept trying several times but, as hard as he tried, even running as fast as he could from the riverbank to his Master, the water continued to pass through the mesh of the sieve and was all lost in the process. 
Finally exhausted, he sat down next to the Master and said: “I cannot bring any water with the sieve. Forgive me, Master, it’s impossible and I have failed in my task.”
“No,” answered the old man smiling, “you have not failed. 
Look at the sieve, now it shines, it’s clean, like new. The water, filtering through its mesh has thoroughly cleaned it.”
“When you read books,”  continued the old Master, “you are like a sieve and what you read is like the water of the river. It doesn’t matter if you can’t memorize all the words that flow through your mind, because books, with their ideas, emotions, feelings, knowledge, truths, that you read on their pages, will clean your mind and your spirit. They will renew you and make you a better person. 
This is also the purpose of the reading.” 

~ Anonymous



Music to my ears and those of the many whose memory leaves much to be desired! In any case, that’s exactly how it works, I get confirmation of this whenever I happen to think about something important or someone I care about. Books I thought I had forgotten—and suddenly they come to my mind, along with the gist of everything they taught me, showed me, suggested to me, and the ineffably good vibes they transmitted to me.

But the story also explains something that goes far beyond the books themselves: even books you may have totally forgotten about are essential and may continue operating inside us all in mysterious ways. French politician Edouard Herriot famously said that “culture is what remains when one has forgotten everything.” What is certain is that very few students could pass their final examinations even a year or two after leaving college or university. But the results in culture, in largeness of being, in purity of feeling, in nobility of character, still remain. In other words, culture is not so much a “thing” you own as a process and an attitude of mind—an attitude that is rooted mainly in our literary, philosophical, and religious readings. Hence, by the way, the importance of both increasing our reading and understanding ability on one hand, and of carefully selecting what we read on the other hand—classics are always the best choice, this goes without saying and it’s why I think I haven’t wasted a single minute of the time I’ve spent reading books!

September 8, 2020

Ten Essential Guidelines and Tips for Social Media Users Who Put Truth First and Hate Fake News

 


Fed up with the spread of fake news? Well, here are a few survival tips… 

1. First and foremost, what is fake news? There are two kinds of fake news: a) stories that aren’t true, that is entirely invented stories designed to make people believe something false; b) stories that have some truth, but aren’t 100 percent accurate. For example, a journalist or a social media user—whether deliberately or by mistake—quotes only part of what a politician says, giving a false impression of their meaning. 
 
2. Although fake news makes headlines today, it is actually nothing new. But, what is new is how easy it’s become to share information—both true and false—on a massive scale. 

3. Social media platforms allow millions and millions of people to publish their thoughts or share stories with the world. Unfortunately, though, most people don’t check the source of the material that they view online before they share it, which can lead to fake news going viral faster than covid-19. 

4. Before helping to spread fake news, please check whether anyone else has picked up on the story and what other sources say about it. 

5. Please bear in mind that a credible news story generally includes plenty of facts and/or detailed, consistent, and corroborated eye-witness accounts from people on the scene. If this is not the case, be suspicious. 

6. The main reason why fake news is such a big issue is that, in addition to being almost always believable, it is written to create “shock value,” that is, a reaction of sharp disgust, shock, anger, fear, or similar negative emotions. Therefore, a dose of critical thinking will always be needed. 

7. Always be suspicious of the news you want to hear, especially the most spectacular and sensational… 

Last but not least, on behalf of fair play and to maintain a high standard of intellectual honesty, please note that: 

8. Quoting someone’s words without giving credit, especially when done intentionally, is plagiarism and is generally considered unethical. 

9. Attributing a quote to someone without previously checking whether or not he/she actually said what you say he/she did is unethical and unfair. 

10. The same applies to those who report that someone did/said something without mentioning the source and, what is more, without checking the reliability of the source itself. In turn, to a journalist, attribution simply means telling your readers where the information in his/her story comes from…

August 30, 2020

The Salt of the Earth




What comes, will go. What is found, will be lost again. But what you are is beyond coming and going and beyond description. You are it.



~ Rumi (Gialal al-Din Rumi), Makatib (The Letters)




In a popular 1976 book, To Have or to Be?, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode and the being mode. The former focuses on material abundance and possessions, and the domination of nature and humans. It is the source of most, if not all, conflicts. The latter is based on the pleasure of spontaneous and voluntary sharing. “In the having mode,” he wrote, “one’s happiness lies in one’s superiority over others, in one’s power, and in the last analysis, in one’s capacity to conquer, rob, kill. In the being mode it lies in loving, sharing, giving.” The author also pointed out how this dichotomy of being and having is present even when it comes to love. In today’s world, he argued, there is an infatuation with having love. This is totally wrong. Let’s follow his reasoning:
During courtship neither person is yet sure of the other, but each tries to win the other. Both are alive, attractive, interesting, even beautiful — inasmuch as aliveness always makes a face beautiful. Neither yet has the other; hence each one’s energy is directed to being, i.e., to giving to and stimulating the other. With the act of marriage, the situation frequently changes fundamentally. The marriage contract gives each partner the exclusive possession of the other’s body, feelings, and care. Nobody has to be won over any more, because love has become something one has, a property. The two ceases to make the effort to be lovable and to produce love, hence they become boring, and hence their beauty disappears. They are disappointed and puzzled. Are they not the same persons anymore? Did they make a mistake in the first place? Each usually seeks the cause of the change in the other and feels defrauded. What they do not see is that they no longer are the same people they were when they were in love with each other; that the error that one can have love has led them to cease loving. Now, instead of loving each other, they settle for owning together what they have: money, social standing, a home, children. Thus, in some cases, the marriage initiated on the basis of love becomes transformed into a friendly ownership, a corporation in which the two egotisms are pooled into one: that of the “family.”

In a nutshell, love—along with life itself—is about being, not about having.

The quote by Rumi is roughly in the same spirit as Fromm’s reasoning. Yes, it’s what you are that matters. It’s not what comes at you but how you face it that matters, neither is it what you lose. Our attitude is everything. But our attitude is nothing more or less than a combination of our thinking, our emotions, and our way of viewing things, events, and circumstances around us. In other words, it’s about what we are, not what we have (and can therefore lose). It’s about our inner self, namely who we are on the inside. It’s as simple as that. And yet so hard to understand—as with any great little truth—in all its possible implications, and, above all, so complicated to fully master in everyday life.

As a matter of fact, what the above quote suggests applies to very few wise and high-minded people. Not by chance the famous Latin motto “Omnia mea mecum porto” (All that is mine I carry with me) was ascribed by Cicero to Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages of Greece—he is said to make the statement during the flight from his hometown, with the apparent meaning that his goods and treasures are those of character traits and wisdom, as opposed to material possessions, social status, etc. Yet, this is not a good reason to give up. Wise and virtuous people have always been a minority, but minorities are the salt of the Earth, they inspire other humans to make the world a better place. They show children and youth the way of personal growth and encourage them to be self-confident. They teach them that they can do great and noble things, and accomplish even the most far-reaching goals.

But what I love most about Rumi’s quote is its last part: “What you are is […] beyond description. You are it.” Now he’s taking the leap. No parachute. To have something is relatively easy, who and what we are is a far more complicated matter, at least for the vast majority of human beings, namely those who haven’t spent years researching the meaning of life in the halls of academia, in the solitude of the desert or the privacy of the soul. At a closer look, are we sure the “being mode” is for all of us? Who can afford to take the leap towards the holy grail of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton, know thyself) – one of the Delphic maxims that was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at the ancient Greek city of Delphi? Naturally wise people and profound believers of all faiths are at an advantage compared to atheists, agnostics, lukewarm believers, and superficial people in general, but how many of them are there? In the light of all the above considerations, I think it is reasonable to say that, spiritually speaking, the having mode—contrary to appearances—is more “democratic” than the being mode, which is per se an aristocratic way of life, that is, not for everyone, just for some. But, as I said above, paraphrasing the immortal Sermon on the Mount, minorities are the salt of the Earth, the light of the world…

May 9, 2020

The Path of the Warrior

Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 CE manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, BnF Français 12577, fol. 18v.

Have you ever felt tired of fighting for something you strongly believe in and from which you will not benefit in any concrete way, but which in return will bring you tons of controversies, attacks, and blame? This is a feeling common to many idealists, poets, philosophers, and even ordinary people who simply love their country, its culture, and identity, and want a better, brighter future for themselves and their families—conservatives usually refer to these people as “patriots,” because they “put their country first.” Well, I’ve always thought that what keeps you from giving up is not as much the hatred or despise of the enemy, which these days is more powerful and treacherous than ever, as it is the love for what you believe in. “The true soldier,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Hate and contempt can bring only more hate and contempt, while Love not only never fails, as Paul the Apostle reminds us, but it never ceases to be constructive and creative.

Love is the foundation of everything good and worthwhile, and therefore not only of peace, harmony, and unity, but also of division, disagreement, and war, of any kind—including the political, ideological, and cultural ones—when there is no honorable and just alternative to it, as well as to division and disagreement. I myself am at war, a cultural, philosophical, and political one, as my readers and social media followers know very well, but I don’t hate anybody. We all know that many politically engaged people hate their opponents, often without even understanding them, their beliefs, and their values. Nothing more aberrant, politically speaking. Again, I don’t hate my opponents, but I definitely hate what they stand for, and this just because I understand them. It is a complete reversal of perspective. As it is explained in the Bhagavad-gita, the way of the warrior is that of those who are “situated in the mode of goodness,” who neither “hate inauspicious work,” that is the unavoidable harshness of war, nor are “attached to auspicious work,” namely personal benefits of any kind for themselves (or their friends, relatives, and loved ones). It is not an easy path, nor is it a free one, that’s for sure.

That being said, and bearing in mind that what is at stake in today’s world is nothing less than the future of Western civilization as we know it, our traditional values and moral standards, the principles upon which our democracies are based, especially the worldview behind the architecture of the U.S. Constitution, let’s get a little bit more into the matter of how our engagement in whatever fight—especially in the above mentioned one, which is particularly subtle, and consequently insidious—has to be managed.

Let me say first that in my view this is something that must be approached sideways, like a crab. War and peace—and fight and surrender, struggle and cooperation, etc.—are not primary phenomena, basis phenomena, that explain themselves but are secondary and dependent upon various determining factors. What comes first is that we are, we exist, as human beings, and that we think. And what and how we think is the fundamental issue and the single most determining factor of who we are. Everything else, no matter how important, comes later. One of the most relevant insights on this aspect of the problem is from Marcus Aurelius: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Besides being a self-admonishment, this quote explains what the mind is all about.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Glyptothek Munich
The great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher also gave us the following advice: “Honor that which is greatest in the world—that on whose business all things are employed and by whom they are governed. And honor what is greatest in yourself: the part that shares its nature with that power. All things—in you as well—are employed about its business, and your life is governed by it.” Now, if you honor something, you esteem it as being precious, and therefore you are inescapably inclined to devote no small part of your time and thoughts to it and to immerse yourself in the contemplation of its beauty and greatness. And that’s exactly what you need to allow yourself to reach your full potential and be your very best. Think big, think high, and you’ll become what you are meant to be. You’ll become yourself. If you think small, you get small, if you think big, you get big. Paraphrasing a famous quote from 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, we should stop thinking so small, because we are the universe in ecstatic motion. But if we stop thinking small, we’ll also start acting big. As the full original quote from Rumi reads,

Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.
Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.

Jalal al-din Rumi 
The path of the warrior consists exactly in this—that you put your mind and heart where they truly belong, in the heart of the universe, and that you put your actions where your heart and mind are. We are where we belong, we are the universe in ecstatic motion. Setting your life on fire means finding your true self, understanding who you are. Surrounding yourselves with people who can see the greatness within you and who fan your flames may be of great help, but that’s not a conditio sine qua non in my judgment, you can do it alone as well.

Finally, a word on “the enemy,” that is, those without whom this book would never have been written—and the earth would not be the earth… Warriors must know their enemy—their mindsets, their tactics, their strategies, their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses—before they get into battle position. Vaste programme, as war hero and former French President Charles de Gaulle was fond of saying, especially if we think that the enemy I am referring to is, metaphorically speaking, what we call evil... Fortunately, British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton provided us with a great insight into this matter (A Political Philosophy, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London 2006, pp. 176-177):

[W]e distinguish people who are evil from those who are merely bad. The bad person is like you or me, only worse. He belongs in the community even if he behaves badly towards it. We can reason with him, improve him, come to terms with him and, in the end, accept him. He is made, like us, from the 'crooked timber of humanity'.

There is a certain kind of person who is bad but not bad in that simple and comprehensible way – and he provides a paradigm of evil, and a justification for our use of the word. The kind of person I have in mind is one who does not belong in the community, even if he resides within its territory. His bad behaviour may be too secret and subversive to be noticeable, and any dialogue with him will be, on his part, a pretence. There is, in him, no scope for improvement, no path to acceptance, and even if we think of him as human, his faults are not of the normal, remediable, human variety, but have another and more metaphysical origin. He is a visitor from another sphere, an incarnation of the Devil. Even his charm – and it is a recognized fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of his Otherness. He is, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that he seeks to destroy.

That characterization of evil is summarized in the famous line that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles:

Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint (I am the spirit that forever negates).


This is a preview of the introduction (or maybe the first chapter) of my next book, which is in progress.

January 17, 2020

Farewell, Sir Roger Scruton


Sir Roger Scruton died last Sunday after a six-month battle with cancer. His death is a terrible, grievous loss and a huge blow to the cultural life of the Western world. His intellectual and spiritual legacy ranges far beyond the limits of political philosophy to include both the elevated realms of religion, aesthetics, and history of art and architecture and the more concrete concerns of social justice, economic growth, environmentalism, etc. As a matter of fact, Scruton’s conservatism was a vision of modern Western life as a condition of profound spiritual alienation. For example, as Michael Severance recalled a couple of days ago on the Acton Institute blog, he thought that contemporary Western civilization had virtually foregone its dedication to true forms of beauty... In fact, unlike in previous centuries, in these days art follows disturbing patterns inspired by the artists’ own navel-gazing proclivities for randomness, egoism, superficiality or mere practicality. This was the very source of ugliness that repulsed Sir Roger, since “such bad art—if one could even call it art—did not reflect the depth and breadth of the human spirit. True art forms should and could attempt to imitate God’s creative genius with man’s highest aesthetic expressions.” In his famous and wonderful BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters, he spoke bluntly about “the uglification of man’s own natural artistic ecosystem,” that is, neighborhoods and workplaces being erected and maintained by those who he vilified as vandals of the arts. “Everywhere you turn,” he explained, “there is ugliness and mutilation. The offices and bus station have been abandoned; the only things at home here are the pigeons fouling the pavements. Everything has been vandalized but we shouldn’t blame the vandals. [They were] built by vandals and those who added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Roger Scruton also saw the decline of faith and morals as the regrettable consequence of modernity, the result of the Enlightenment privileging of scientific knowledge over religious and moral truth. As he once wrote (“The Sacred and the Secular”), ‘I am not an advocate of Enlightenment. On the contrary, I see it as a form of light pollution, which prevents us from seeing the stars.’ Not by chance, perhaps none, in modern times, has done more to defend a vision of the West as a Christian civilization—which of course, along with other factors, brought him powerful enemies and some troubles, especially in the final phase of his life. And that’s exactly what I want to talk about here: how his enemies tried to get rid of him (without success, or with partial success). This is my way to pay a humble tribute to an extraordinary man of intellect and a great warrior of the spirit who was never afraid to be unapologetically himself and to pay the price for his convictions.

In November 2018 his fiercest opponents tried and failed to remove him from his role as the chairman of the UK Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. But they succeeded a few months later, in April 2019, under false pretenses. What happened can be summarized as follow. Sir Roger gave an interview to the New Statesman. George Eaton, the left-wing magazine’s deputy editor, who personally conducted the interview, included this summary paragraph: ‘His sacking was unsuccessfully demanded by Labour MPs and others on account of his past remarks on Hungarian Jews (part of a “Soros empire”), Islamophobia (a “propaganda word”) and homosexuality (“not normal”).’ Eaton also summarized another part of his interview this way: ‘Perhaps most remarkably, he commented of the rise of China: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”’ In addition, he thought it best to tweet this: ‘In an NS interview, the government adviser and philosopher Roger Scruton has made a series of outrageous remarks. On Hungarian Jews: “Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts.”’ And soon after the interviewee was sacked as a Tory government adviser, Eaton posted to his Instagram account a picture of himself swigging from a bottle of champagne, to celebrate the fate of ‘the right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton’.

As a matter of fact, however, if Scruton said that Islamophobia is ‘a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue’, he was perfectly right. And if he also said that ‘Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts’, he told the plain truth. Furthermore, please note that in the interview, he didn’t mention that Soros was a Jew: he referred merely to Soros’s activities in Hungary. In this regard, it’s worth noting that in, a 2013 lecture, ‘The Need for Nations’, Scruton specifically criticized Hungarian anti-Semitism, and noted that ‘indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarian and Jews’. Yet Eaton falsely presented Scruton’s words as an anti-Semitic comment.

As for the Chinese thing, did Scruton actually refer to the Chinese people as a whole? It seems unlikely. The full Scruton quote is: ‘They’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done. Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing’. He was clearly talking about the tyrannical Chinese government. Therefore, the only thing “outrageous” about this quote is the way it was edited. Of course, Eaton claims that he merely edited the quote ‘for reasons of space in print edition’…

As concerns Scruton’s alleged homophobia here is how he himself put it the day after the sacking in an article for The Spectator, in which he defended himself against ‘an unscrupulous collection of out of context remarks, some of them merely words designed to accuse me of thought-crimes’: ‘Apparently, I once wrote that homosexuality is “not normal,” but nobody has told me where, or why that is a particularly offensive thing to say. Red hair too is not normal, nor is decency among left-wing journalists. In Sexual Desire (1986), I argued that homosexuality is different from heterosexuality, but not in itself a perversion. And I tried to explain the negative response that many people have towards homosexual relations in other terms.’ In any case, however, according to Britain’s most prominent living philosopher, the term homophobia itself, as much as Islamophobia, is a word ‘designed to close all debate about a matter in which only one view is now deemed permissible.’

Be it as it may, in that spring of our discontent, such intellectual dishonesty reached its goal. In fact, a few hours after Eaton’s misquoting and misrepresenting a lifelong defender of free speech who was risking his life behind the Iron Curtain before Eaton was even born, the Government announced Roger Scruton’s sacking—later on, Scruton obtained an apology from the New Statesman and was reappointed to the government commission from which he had been sacked, but the damage was done.

In Roger Scruton’s words, this whole thing taught us that Britain was entering ‘a dangerous social condition in which the direct expression of opinions that conflict – or merely seem to conflict – with a narrow set of orthodoxies is instantly punished by a band of self-appointed vigilantes. We are being cowed into abject conformity around a dubious set of official doctrines and told to adopt a world view that we cannot examine for fear of being publicly humiliated by the censors.’ As a result, he concluded, ‘This world view might lead to a new and liberated social order; or it might lead to the social and spiritual destruction of our country. How shall we know, if we are too afraid to discuss it?’

Melanie Phillips was definitely right when she wrote that the attempt to make Scruton into a social pariah encapsulates the ‘vicious and socially suicidal ignorance and cultural sectarianism currently rampant in British society’. His demonization, she said, ‘has displayed ignorance and malice in equal measure along with a chilling totalitarianism directed at anyone who expresses true conservative values – decent, traditional western values shared by millions.’ The only way to respond to such vicious behavior, she concluded, ‘is to treat it with contempt and support Scruton to the hilt. And yet here is a Conservative government actually joining the witch-hunt. This contemptible party, unwilling to defend either the independence of the country or its bedrock values of truthfulness, fairness and moral decency, really, really doesn’t deserve ever to hold office again.’

Thank God, unlike the UK Conservative Party, Sir Roger never gave up. As Niall Ferguson recently recalled, back in the days of the Cold War a small but courageous group of Western academics did what they could to expose the wickedness of communism and to support political and religious dissidents in the Soviet sphere of influence. Well, a member of that group was Roger Scruton:

During the 1980s he travelled to communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to assist an underground education network run by the Czech dissident Julius Tomin. In 1985, during a trip to Brno, Scruton was arrested and expelled.
A philosopher of international renown, a prolific author, a composer and a polymath, Scruton has one of the most powerful minds I have encountered. But he is one of those rare thinkers who seek to change the world as well as to understand and explain it. There was a time when those qualities were venerated. In 1998 he was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit by its then president Vaclav Havel, himself a former dissident. A knighthood came in 2016. And last year he was appointed chairman of the government’s commission on buildings.

Yet, almost immediately after that, the attacks from the left began: The campaign against Sir Roger culminated in the publication of the above mentioned cynical hit-piece in the New Statesman. Thus, Ferguson goes on,

a direct descendant of the illiberal, egalitarian ideology that once suppressed free speech in eastern Europe is now shutting down debate in the West. For those, like Scruton, who once helped Czech dissidents to get degrees in theology from Cambridge, the irony is bitter indeed.

But Sir Roger never gave up in the face of adversity. He was more than a scholar and a philosopher, he was also a fighter and a gentleman. Summing up his 2019 in The Spectator, he wrote:

During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.

Farewell, Sir Roger Scruton. We will miss you terribly.

Part of this note is drawn from an article I wrote for Atlantico magazine. It appeared in the April 15, 2019 issue under the title “The Spring of Our Discontent: The Case for Scruton.”