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 »
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 »
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 »
May 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 17, which looks at the subjective turn in analytic philosophy, and the unravelling of morality in the twentieth century, from the intuitionism of GE Moore’s Principia Ethica to JL Mackie’s ‘error theory’ and moral nihilism. This extract begins with Moore and looks at how intuitionism gave way to emotivism.
GE Moore’s Principia Ethica, published in 1903, came to be both one of the most famous ethical work of the twentieth century and one of the most troublesome. It was a work whose arguments were extraordinarily flimsy and highly dubious and yet, as Mary Warnock observed in her study of twentieth century ethics, has come to be regarded ‘as the source from which the subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed, or at least as the most powerful influence upon this moral philosophy’. The publication of the Principia Ethica was, John Maynard Keynes wrote, ‘exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth’. The influence and excitement and exhilaration of Moore’s book lay less in the lucidity of its moral argument than in its ability to locate a fundamental shift in the character of moral thought. If the eighteenth century had seen the triumph of the human in moral thought, and the nineteenth had wrestled with the moral implications of the death of God, the twentieth had to grapple with the consequences of the growing disaffection with human agency. One expression of this was, paradoxically perhaps, an increasingly subjective view of morality. In the Anglophone world that view found a grounding, in part at least, in the Principia Ethica. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2012 § 6 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-written book on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 16. Beginning in the eighteenth century with Enlightenment hope and ending in the twentieth with postmodern despair, this chapter explores how the changing character of movements for social and political liberation have influenced moral thought – and how changing moral conceptions have, in turn, influenced movements for liberation. This extract is from the beginning of the chapter, and tells the story of the Haitian Revolution and what that revolution reveals about the relationship between morality and politics in the modern world.
Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and statesman, once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus had landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet which was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
February 12, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 14, which is devoted to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This extract is from the discussion of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche trained as a philologist, not as a philosopher, and his writing is quite unlike traditional philosophical work, whether the dry, rigorous plodding of an Aristotle or a Kant, or the flights of sometimes barely-intelligible fancy that mark the work of a philosopher like Hegel and, later, Heidegger. It is, rather, frothy, pithy and aphoristic, often fragmentary, usually poetic, always provocative. Nietzsche himself saw his work neither as philosophy nor as literature, but ‘declarations of war’. He was not a writer, nor even a prophet, but a ‘battlefield’ on which was being fought the struggle for Europe’s very soul. There was always a touch of the megalomaniac fantasist about Nietzsche.
Beneath the light and the froth and the absurd self-regard lay, however, an engagement with the most profoundly unsettling issues of the day: the ‘death of God’ and the moral chasm that now seemed to have opened up. Though Nietzsche is usually credited with coining the phrase, it was actually a Young Hegelian, Johann Caspar Schmidt, better known by his nom-de-plum Max Stirner, who first wrote of ‘the death of God’ in his 1844 work The Ego and His Own. Stirner also nurtured many of the key anti-moral themes in Nietzsche’s work, including an early notion of the ‘Superman’. It was, however, Nietzsche who quite unlike any other gave voice to the spiritual disorientation of fin-de-siècle Europe with startling insight. Few spoke to the dilemmas of modern nihilism with as much force and clarity. One of his last books, The Twilight of the Idols, is subtitled ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’. Nothing could better express both Nietzsche’s method and his impact on subsequent moral thinking. « Read the rest of this entry »