May 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
In completing my book on the history of moral thought I had to reduce the original manuscript by some 30,000 words to get it to a reasonable size. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent ‘lost pages’ from the book. The first was on Machiavelli. This extract is on Descrates and his influence (it has not been entirely cut from the book, but is considerably condensed). The book itself, which is called The Quest for a Moral Compass, will be published early next year.
Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1657, reveals wonderfully the new eyes through which painters now viewed their subject. It shows a woman, ensconced in her own world, absorbed totally in reading the private words of another. There is a startling stillness about the room. Its physical features, the walls, the drapery, seem to define the boundaries of her mental world. She is alone in the room. There is an open window to the world beyond but she has eyes only for the letter in her hand. Reflected in the window is not the world beyond but her own face. The window is both a portal to the world outside and an opening to her thoughts inside, an expression both of her yearning to break the constraints of her domesticity and her total absorption in her own little world. There is an intimacy about the scene that is truly breathtaking. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is written. In the process, I had to reduced the ms by some 30,000 words. Much of that is better off left on the cutting room floor. But there are also some portions coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent sections that are no longer in the book. This first of the ‘missing pages’ is on Machiavelli.
‘A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.’ The cynicism of Nicolo Machiavelli’s voice is unmistakable. However, as Bertrand Russell once put it, ‘It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he is certainly sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug.’
Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a Florentine who lived through some of the city’s most turbulent years. In 1494 the ruling Medicis were overthrown by Charles V of France and the Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola emerged as the new leader of the city. He set about morally cleansing Florence, organizing the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities during which any item deemed moral corrupting, including mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, chess pieces, musical instruments, and women’s hats, were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria. In 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. The following year he was arrested, tortured and executed. Fifteen years later, the Medicis were restored to power. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the last extract from my book in progress on the history of moral thought. The book is now, in fact, no longer in progress, as I have completed it. This might be the final extract, but it is not from the final chapter, but the penultimate one, Chapter 19 (I have already run an extract from chapter 20). Chapter 19 explores moral debate in modern China, particularly after the fall of the dynastic system, and the creation, first of a republic in 1911, and subsequently, after four decades of conflict and chaos, of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949. This extract is about the problems of moral thinking in post-1949 China, and the fraught relationship between communism and Confucianism.
For more than two millennia, the identity of China, and the character of its social order, was defined primarily in ethical terms, and given philosophical shape largely by Confucianism. When that tradition, and the social order and dynastic structure it sustained, broke in the twentieth century, inevitably there was chaos, a chaos made more turbulent by the distinctive role of ethics in Chinese society.
In Western Europe, Christianity had provided, for more than a millennium, a shared identity for peoples otherwise divided by language, nation or tribe, and a crucible within which all philosophical, political and moral discussion took place. The Church was the continent’s common voice and its moral guardian. Religion, certainly as it was understood in Europe, barely developed in China. The state, in the form of imperial bureaucracy, performed many of the roles and duties historically taken by the European Church, providing moral instruction, constructing a collective identity, and creating a sense of shared values. Not only was the social role of the state different in China, so was its relationship to the ruling class. In Europe, different sections of the elite – nobles, clerics, merchants, the landed aristocracy, the urban bourgeoisie – had vied with each other for the reins of power, and had fought to control and constrain the authority of the state. Through these struggles the space was cleared for what we now know as civil society, a space that became central to the development of moral debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is the penultimate extract from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. This is from chapter 6 – another of the chapters I am publishing out of sync – which explores early Chinese philosophy. This extract is about two philosophers, one of whom is well known as China’s most famous thinker – Kongzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West – and the other who has been almost forgotten, even in China, but who should not be – Mo Tzu.
He is known in the West as Confucius, thanks to the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries who Latinized his name. He is revered in China as Kongzi or ‘Master Kong’. And he was born as Kong Qui around 551 BCE in Zou, in the state of Lu on the eastern seaboard. He lived at around the same time as the Buddha though neither, of course, knew of the other. This was in China the middle of Zhou dynasty, a time known as the Spring and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu. Not only were there struggles between the fragmenting parts of the Zhou dynasty but also between fiefdoms inside and outside Zhou territory. The conflicts that marked the second half of the Zhou period were part of a complex transition to imperial rule and the unification of China. By the time of Kong’s birth, Lu was in a state almost of anarchy. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 22, 2013 § 5 Comments
Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.
This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.
August 15, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument. This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)
A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.
Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my book-that-is-almost-finished on the history of moral thought we have reached Chapter 18, which explores the contemporary debates about the relationship between science and morality, from Joshua Greene’s work to Sam Harris’ arguments. This extract is from the section that unpacks Alex Rosenberg’s arguments about morality in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
The desire to root morality in science derives from a laudable aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask the famous question: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, the gods chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.
The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. « Read the rest of this entry »