The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, July 13, 2009

Odious little vermin

Terry Eagleton says:
"Dawkins deeply believes in the flourishing of the free human spirit which makes him a liberal humanist rather than a tragic humanist. He believes that if only those terrible guys out there would stop stifling and shackling us, then our creative capacities would flourish. I don't believe that. As a Marxist I reject that simple liberationism. I'm not again[st] humanism. I'm for a humanism which recognises the price of liberation. And that's what I call tragic humanism. The only idea of emancipation worth having is one that starts from looking at the worst, that starts from Swift's race of odious little vermin. If you're the kind of humanist who can understand what Socrates meant when he said it would been far better if man had never been born, you're on. A humanism like Dawkins's and possibly that held by Hitchens isn't worth all that much. It's too easy."
This makes me want to spit.

I very much prefer the spirit of the humanist who wrote:
The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being.....

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I can do without him, and so I think can any reasonable socialist or liberation movement. Yes, take the worst aspects of the world into account in your planning--and that includes Richter 9 earthquakes and the HIV virus as well as deliberate cruelty and destructive greed. But those bad aspects of humanity are not the key to our character.

Well, okay, but being an optimist myself, I still have to admit that the world is full of people who do not seem to be as altruistic as I (I'm trying to put this politely, but surely you get my drift).

So a philosophy that doesn't account for those people seems doomed. I can't simply cross my arms and ignore them, and hope they go away. A philosophy that doesn't take this into account seems doomed.

Ouch. Once again demonstrating the superiority of a publication process that includes editors...

It was a great relief to see the reaction comment that you set up with that long quotation.

Do you know Swinburne's "Hymn of Man"? I discovered it by sheer happenstance a few years ago, and it's one of my favorite pieces by the old perv:

By thy name that in hell-fire was written, and burned at the point of thy sword,
Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is upon thee, O Lord.
And the love-song of earth as thou diest resounds through the wind of her wings -
Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things.

It sounds to me like Eagleton is posturing. The prose is lousy and the message unclear. At best a wordy position statement, consisting of nothing except dogmatic claims and statements of dislike.
The humanist is far more to my taste, especially his reliance on the Categorical Imperative. That's an idea of Kant's, and it names his theory about when and how one should or must act. It's great stuff but using it in a given case often requires so much background information that it turns out to be inapplicable in that case. I don't know if the humanist is relying on Kant here, but the words that follow are right on. Especially since I've spent all morning reading Noam Chomsky's informative and inspiring essay, "Notes on Anarchism."

Ted, I take your point but I don't think that sensible observation is what Eagleton is making. Nor do I think that humanism, whether liberal or socialist, depends for its hopes on altruistic behaviour.

What pisses me off about that statement is that - as George says - it's posturing. Us Marxists, we're well hard, we are, unlike those poncy posh liberals from Oxford. What a load of wank.

(Aside from the fact that ponciest poshest liberal of them all, John Stuart Mill, was well acquainted with the tragic side of progress.)

Moreover -- Socrates never said it would be better never to have been born. A couple of vaguely similar, but less extreme, remarks are attributed to him, but that precise saying was traditionally ascribed to the mythological character Silenus.

For those that were never born, they lie in wait within that sleepy cave.

Hallo Roderick---Thanks for setting things straight once again. I'm indebted to you for the Tacitus correction. Others will be for your present note. I never heard or read that statement, so I'm glad to accept your attribution. But how can one attribute a statement (or anything at all) to a character who is known to be mythological, i.e. never-existent?
Ken, where is the best place to look in Mill for stuff on the tragic side of progress? I've been thinking of reading 'On Liberty'.

Having just looked up that humanist, I'm sure he was no Kantian. But when he was educated a reference to I. Kant (however elliptical) was called for if your goal was to criticize Hegel.

I can't think of a case of Marx ever making a Kantian move against Hegel, unless that one counts. (Not that I'm a Marx scholar, I hasten to add.) Kantian criticism of the Hegelian element in Marxism cropped up later, though.

George, on Mill and the tragic side of progress - it seems my memory has made more of a paragraph of his than it deserves:All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort; and though their removal is grievously slow- though a long succession of generations will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed, and this world becomes all that, if will and knowledge were not wanting, it might easily be made- yet every mind sufficiently intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and unconspicuous, in the endeavour, will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself, which he would not for any bribe in the form of selfish indulgence consent to be without.

Thanks Ken. But my goodness, all those commas and clauses. I just woke up from a nap and will NOW try to concentrate on it again. Wish me luck.
As for Marx and Kant, I'm hardly a Marx scholar, but I did read somewhere that his opinion of ethical philosophy of all sorts was very, very low. As for the phrase 'categorical imperative,' although its origin is as I wrote, the Germans have used it since then to indicate anything that one feels everyone ought to do. Kant or no Kant.

I.E. If there were enough smart, patient, and stubborn oppressed folk around, then they'd enjoy violently liberating themselves to get whatever they want.

OK, I'm no Victorian, just an interloping (ex) Yank.

I liked the Feuerbach-inspired Marx quote (and article pointed to). Religions (and other ideologies) are indeed our own creations, but we do not necessarily recognize them as such. I like to think that someone's religion (and ideology) reveals quite a lot about both their overt and the more complex sides to their personalities. Eagleton, too, created his ideology of «odious little vermin», and it first of all mirrors the man himself.

Ken, thanks for reminding me of . I bookmarked it yesterday. And not so BTW, I am in the process of joining the Swedish Anarcho-Syndacalist organization SAC = Sveriges Arbeteres Centralorganisation, or rather (following Lib. Soc. principles), its Uppsala branch (LS). This is the first political club I have ever joined. i DO owe the Swedes something.

George, that is so cool.

Just out of interest Ken, when you say:

"Nor do I think that humanism, whether liberal or socialist, depends for its hopes on altruistic behaviour."

did you have any specific philosophers/writers in mind?

I'm thinking initials KM

“Money is not an invention of the state. It is not the product of a legislative act. The sanction of political authority is not necessary for its existence.” Karl Menger

Kiyoshi Miki became a Marxist in 1925, and preceded Sartre in suggesting a synthesis of Marxism and existentialism.

"Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time." - Karl Marx

"I don't really believe in the Devil, but if the Devil is the Father of Lies, then he certainly invented the Internet." Ken MacLeod

In some ways Pascal invented the internet as a way of exploring the paradox of ‘insider resistance and outsider conformity’.

Then Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau actually made use of it, with a little help from a few thousands of friends and good history keeping.

Sweet monkey Jesus, but it really takes something to make Dawkins' elitsim appealing. I guess it's strangely fitting that this hails from yet another of that generation of Marxoid intellecutals who have utterly failed to leave any more than a smudge on the margins of pages of history written in the days of their forebears.

I dunno, but I'm just fracked off having to be associated with shite of this ilk. Is there really nothing better? ;)

John, I don't think Dawkins is elitist. Quite the reverse - he thinks anyone can be an atheist, unlike all those who say they're atheists but these other people need religion.

As for whether there's anything better - sometimes I feel as if it's marxisme faut le mieux, as Sartre said.

Actually, it's marxisme faute de mieux. That'll larn me to talk posh.

Dang, closed the comments window and lost my first reply! :-/

Ken, Dawkins' elitism is not of the kind to which you refer, which is only too real (I seem to recall Engels having a go at it in the superb essay the Chinese printed as the introduction to their little yellow edition of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, so it's got a long and sad pedigree).

No, Dawkins' elitism is just the common or garden sort you'd expect of a politically centrist Oxbridge don. ;)

Sources of human suffering are conquerable by human care and effort.
For any lack of something better, go ahead and try everything else...
over and over again, to a boring extent, accepting success in actions will joyously affirm their return, otherwise accept not.

In eternal recurrence deciding what is success does not depend on others failure and or suffering.

All this has prompted me to finally pick up a copy of, and read The Communist Manifesto for (I'm ashamed to admit) the first time. Amazing to see how much of it I've encountered before, quoted elsewhere... and also how much of it resonates so thoroughly with the world as I have come to see it.

Always looking for recommendations for further reading, and hoping for the Fall Revolutions companion reading list. ',:^D

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