Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals"

I think Kant is my favourite modern (i.e. Enlightenment) writer so far. His writing style is pretty technical, but I love his ideas. I've been trying to slow down my reading lately and really grasp what I'm reading - at least as much as I can. There isn't any hurry, and it is far more rewarding to dig deeper into these books. Once again, using SparkNotes as a commentary really helped me to understand what I was reading.

I agreed with much of what Kant wrote. I'm a strong believer in a morality that is both innate and universal. I also agree with Kant that actions have the most moral value when they are done against our inclination and in the line of duty (because otherwise we might be doing the right thing because we happen to like it not because it is the right thing). I find the idea of a priori truths very interesting.

I thought it was interesting that Kant was skeptical that true moral actions (done for their own sake, not with ulterior motives) are even possible, but nevertheless asserted that the ideal was very real. Even if good actions have never been performed, the concept of good actions is not therefore meaningless. Kant's ideas of morality sit a lot better with me than Hobbes' ideas.

Towards the end Kant brings up the infamous free will vs. predestination debate and has some very interesting things to say about it. Our concept of morality (what we ought to do) implies free will, yet we live in a world of cause and effect. Kant suggests that this apparent contradiction is an inevitable result of being divided, as rational beings, between the world of sensory experience and rationality. 

Great read. It was definitely challenging at times, but the extra time it took to understand it was worth it.

I was thinking of doing a video summary of  this book to see how well I could articulate Kant's ideas using my notes. It could be fun. I may or may not post it on my blog, depending on how it turns out.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality"

Part I

To understand the origin of inequality among Man, Rousseau says, you must first understand Man - which is difficult to do. In Part One of the "Discourse", Rousseau seeks what Man was in his "natural state" rather than what he is after he's been influenced by society, a state which need not be historical but merely hypothetical. Interestingly, Rousseau also tries to imagine Man without reason, as he thinks that reason is a divine gift rather than an attribute of nature; an idea I agree with.

Once stripped of rationality and society, Man is driven by a desire for self-preservation and pity for others. Unlike Hobbes, who pictured humanity as being entirely self-centred, Rousseau left room in human nature for genuine compassion. In general Rousseau goes relatively easy on human nature, attributing much of our ills to society. I found Rousseau's picture of the Man in his "natural state" very interesting and like Marx's vision of utopia, I was alternately drawn and repelled by it. Part of me likes the idea of a simpler life in the forest, with no politics, no inequality, no mundane tasks like a nine-to-five job or income tax. However, another part of me, and the louder of the two, is horrified at the idea of a life without reason or language (one can't exist without the other). There would be no philosophy, no stories, no complex ideas or conversations. I spend so much time in my head, I would probably be unrecognizable without the gifts of reason or language... not to mention an impractical fellow like myself would probably die pretty quickly in the "state of nature". Then again, if I didn't have reason, maybe I wouldn't daydream or drift off into abstract thought so much and I wouldn't be so impractical. Hmm. No, even with all the ills inherent in it, I would still take the life humans now lead to life in the "state of nature".

Part II

In the second section, Rousseau takes his picture of Man in his natural state and outlines the how inequality originated. According to Rousseau, the first man to say, "This is mine" about a piece of land was the founder of civil society. When people started living together in man-made huts on this land, the concept of the family was created, which is interesting because Marx wanted to abolish not only private property, but the traditional understanding of the family as well. In these communities, which eventually became nations, the people began to compare themselves with each other, noticing the natural inequalities (strength, beauty, wisdom etc.) among themselves and creating feelings of jealousy and desires of public attention or esteem which hitherto hadn't been a concern for Man. The next stage of inequality came with the agricultural (and metallurgical) revolutions, because of the division of land and labour and the ownership of goods. Conflicts broke out over what belonged to who and soon chaos reigned. To bring order out of chaos, the people created states and laws. Under these states the inequalities among men were institutionalized into classes or castes.

Rousseau said that the type of government established depended on the state of the people at the time of the formation. If one person possessed more power, virtue, riches and/or influence, a monarchy would form. If a group of people had more power than the others, an aristocracy. If the formation of the government happened closer to when the group of people were in their natural state and had less time to develop the inequalities of other societies, a democracy would form.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Those Who Mind DO Matter!

Ever hear the phrase, "Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind"? This is a quote from Bernard M. Baruch.  Now, let me say that I know next to nothing about Baruch and I might be doing him a disservice by taking his quote out of context. At any rate it isn't Baruch who I'm addressing, it is the popular usage of the quote as a means of saying, "Get off my back!" This quote is usually trotted out when someone is accused of doing something immoral, below their dignity as a human being etc. Someone quoted this quote to me today and even though I had heard that quote numerous times before, this time something about it rubbed me the wrong way. It set off a train of thought that led me to C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain

In Chapter 3 of The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes:

I might, indeed, have learned, even from the poets, that Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness: that even love between the sexes is, as in Dante, 'a lord of terrible aspect'. There is kindness in Love: but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object - we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition are punished. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. (Emphasis mine)

On this blog, I mainly talk about people who are long dead, so just to switch things up, I'll use a contemporary example: Rob Ford, the notorious current mayor of Toronto. 

Anyone who says they love Rob Ford, yet don't care how he spends his spare time *coughdrugsprostitutesbingedrinkingcough* so long as he's happy, doesn't love him. Someone who really loved him would not be satisfied with his recent behaviour and would show him their disapproval and tough love. Those who mind your behaviour and circumstances are often those who love you the most and it's those who don't mind that don't matter.

Books Read in November 2013

Beowulf (unknown author) translated by Seamus Heaney

I'm going to be having a knight book marathon, going from early medieval stories to modern fantasy, simply because knights are one of my favourite things on the planet and I thought it would be fun. I decided to read Beowulf as an introduction. Even though Beowulf isn't technically a "knight story" as it predates the concept of knighthood and chivalry, the setting of Beowulf lays the groundwork for what comes later. I've also been meaning to read Beowulf for quite some time.

It is easy to see that Beowulf heavily influenced J. R. R. Tolkien, because many times it felt like I was reading a story set in Middle Earth rather than Scandinavia, with its barrows of gold, fire-breathing dragons, and heroic warriors. I got a geeky delight out of that. The world in Beowulf is a world of blood-feuds, and violence, yet the characters display honourable qualities such as gentleness, fair-play, and of course, courage that would later come to be associated with chivalry. Beowulf was also written at a time when Christianity was replacing the native paganism of Northern Europe and I found the fusion of cultures interesting, because it would grow into my favourite culture of all: Medieval Europe.

Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker by George Lucas

This book was adapted from Lucas's original screenplay for Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). The story is almost identical, with a few deleted scenes, but the dialogue is usually altered slightly. Reading this book was very interesting, because after watching Star Wars so many times, I stop thinking about the plot while I'm watching it, because I think I know it so well. Reading the book made me think about aspects of the story (why the Tantive IV was at Tatooine at the beginning of the movie) and especially the dialogue (e.g. what is the "main reactor" and why was it shut down?) I hadn't before. I was thinking of reading all of the novelizations for the movies since I found this one a surprisingly interesting read, but if I do it won't be immediately. It was also nice to be reading Star Wars again since I was a big fan of the Expanded Universe novels back in the day. My EU fandom has since tanked for various reasons, but it was nice to relive those days in a sense.

*SPOILER warning*

The Song of Roland (unknown author)

This was the first book in my aforementioned chivalric book marathon. The Song of Roland is a poem about the last stand of a Frankish knight named Roland. After a council, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, decides to leave his campaign to take back Spain from the Saracens, even though one Saracen stronghold remains unconquered: Saragossa. An envoy from the Franks, and Roland's stepfather, Ganelon makes a deal with the Saracen king, Marsil, to attack the rearguard of Charlemagne's army as it is leaving, because Roland will be among the rearguard. Ganelon wants Roland dead because of a personal vendetta and Marsil wants Roland dead because Roland is an advocate of martial aggression and may yet persuade Charlemagne to take Saragossa. When the Saracen army attacks the rearguard, Roland refuses the advice of his sensible friend Olivier to signal Charlemagne's army for help in defeating the Saracens, because Roland feels it would be beneath his dignity. After Saracen reinforcements arrive, Roland realizes his mistake and finally blows his horn, but help will arrive too late. I was a bit conflicted about Roland's character. One part of me thought his decision was excessive and foolish, but another part (the part in me that has a soft spot for "forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands") was more sympathetic to Roland than many, especially modern, people would be, and I viewed his death as a tragedy rather than saying, "Well, you asked for it". I really enjoyed the characters of Roland and Olivier because of their contrasting characters. The version I read was a rhyming verse translation by John O'Hagan and I thought it was quite good. The story ends with Saragossa being taken by Charlemagne's army after Charlemagne learns of Marsil's treachery and Ganelon being executed. Like Beowulf, The Song of Roland ends with the hero's death and the forbodings of coming wars.