Thursday, December 1, 2011

In Defense of Intolerance

Recently, a neighbour asked me whether I was tolerant; of course, I answered that I was. A few hours later though, upon reflection, it struck me that the reason this question arose was that there may have been a suspicion from his side that I was not tolerant. Intolerance is perceived as unacceptable in our society and that is probably why I instinctively answered the way I did. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced of the need for intolerance.

Today in the West we think we all are tolerant. We are convinced we only know tolerant people, and that we live in tolerant societies. We are proud of our supposedly all-encompassing tolerance, i.e. our acceptance of everything, even that of which we disapprove. We seem to treat intolerance like a deadly disease; something to be eschewed at any cost. It is as if, since it is a word with the prefix “in”, we should feel towards “intolerance” like we feel towards “injustice” or “infamy”. We place such importance on tolerance that we forget the inherent paradox of tolerance: we are so tolerant that we do not tolerate intolerance.

When we hear the word intolerance today, we do not think it concerns us because it usually reminds us of religious intolerance and, more particularly, of intolerance of the Islamic kind. It is true that the question of tolerance originally referred to religion; specifically the tolerance of Jews and Protestants in 16th century Catholic Europe. However, our first impressions regarding intolerance should not deceive us into drawing a conclusion that is too simplistic and even wrong. In other words, if we congratulate ourselves that we are so tolerant and if we insist on linking intolerance with religion, we will fail to perceive the importance of intolerance in our society and the benefit of intolerance in ourselves.

It is possible to define two different kinds of intolerance; political intolerance and what may be called “virtuous” intolerance. Political intolerance is that form of intolerance which is directed towards society, or part of society. It should be distinguished from virtuous intolerance which is intolerance at an individual level. Political intolerance can be seen in the strict sense as well as in the relative sense. In the strict sense, the importance of political intolerance can be quickly shown. If to be tolerant is the ability to accept everything, even that which one disapproves of, then it immediately becomes evident that all societies are intolerant, in particular the civil society. Since the civil society is based on the rule on law in order to assure security and protect private property, any violation of this rule, for instance in the form of murder, theft or fraud, should not only be disapproved of but also deemed unacceptable in this society and treated accordingly. In the strict sense then, civil society cannot be completely tolerant; on the contrary, its very existence requires that it also be politically intolerant.

The more intricate question is the consideration of political tolerance from a relative point of view. In this case, there are of course forms of political intolerance that should be lamented - if not outright condemned - in the tolerant society, notably the often misguided intolerance of the “other”. The intolerance of different groups or cultures, or of cultural and ethnic diversity within society, must inevitably be tolerated to some degree because man by nature tends to feel more comfortable with those individuals and groups that resemble him physically and culturally, than with those that do not. At the same time though, explicit xenophobia and racism should not be tolerated, not only because it is morally reprehensible, but because it is not in the interest of society or the individual. Indeed, such intolerance may often be pernicious to society and the individual, for instance by increasing inter-community tensions and violence. For example, the Nazi intolerance to Jews was unacceptable not only from a moral point of view, but also because it was not in the economic and social interest of the German society. The peaceful and tolerant co-existence of many diverse groups is often a sign of a strong, stable and confident society. Weak, unstable or insecure societies, on the other hand, often have more difficulty accomodating, accepting, and absorbing cultural or ethnic diversity. This may be the reason different groups in such societies are often perceived or presented by some as threats to national unity or development. Ironically, those who are intolerant to the “other” often also hold that their society is, or should be, strong and confident. The absurdity of their position is evident since by their intolerance they undermine their own political goals.

Political intolerance from a relative point of view should be seen as purely a result of convention. All civil societies, even the most progressive ones, are based not only on the rule of law, but also on custom. Custom dictates much of what the majority in society finds tolerable and intolerable (including also, to a certain extent, the aforementioned intolerance of the “other”). Thus the majority is tolerant of those deeds, attitudes and opinions that are customary, and intolerant of those that are not. It is possible to distinguish two types of such intolerable deeds, attitudes and opinions: those that are legal and those that are not. In the latter case, civil society establishes laws, rules, or regulations in order to punish what it is intolerant to. For instance, industrialised societies usually do not tolerate the exhibition of the naked body in public and often prosecutes such behaviour.

Indeed, illegal deeds, attitudes and opinions often depend on custom. When customs evolve, as they do quickly in a fast changing world, society may become tolerant to deeds, attitudes and opinions which it previously was intolerant to, and vice versa. The majority then each time loudly and openly congratulates itself how intolerant it has become to such and such new vice, or respectively, how tolerant it has become to such and such new virtue. There are many examples of the majority becoming intolerant where it was previously tolerant; e.g. capital punishment, smoking, the corporal punishment of children, Holocaust denial, or the short selling of stocks. In such cases, society makes illicit what it no longer tolerates. Conversely, there are also examples of the opposite situation; that is, of the majority becoming tolerant to deeds, attitudes and opinions which it before was intolerant to; e.g. communism, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, or the possession and consumption of certain drugs. In these cases, society decriminalises what it starts to tolerate. Thus at any given time, far from espousing only tolerance, in reality we find it perfectly acceptable that there are deeds, attitudes and opinions that are intolerable and illegal because they are not in accordance with the current custom of our society.

There are also deeds, attitudes and opinions which are legal but which society is intolerant to. This situation is more subtle than the previous one because this happens when the majority does not realise or does not admit that it is intolerant to deeds, attitudes or opinions of a minority. Intolerance of this kind is not loudly and openly proclaimed by the majority therefore, and this makes it difficult to detect. However, it is a quite common occurrence in all societies. An example of this intolerance is the frequent accusation in the USA that certain ideas are “un-American” when they do not correspond to a set of rather unclearly defined “American values”. This accusation is common in an environment that requires and rewards political correctness and sanctions deviant and original behavior, not least via peer pressure.[1] Reflexive intolerance is also evident when questions are raised for instance regarding the US relationship with Israel, regarding the actual need for security measures to protect the population against “terror”, or regarding the glaring omissions of the official report on the attacks of 9/11.[2] It is majority opinion that determines whether society is tolerant or intolerant. However, the majority can be feckle, irrational, and even plain wrong. There is therefore always an inherent danger, in any society, that the majority is intolerant to some deeds, attitudes and opinions that should be tolerated, not least because they are in the general interest of society.

The ideas of Herbert Marcuse are relevant in this respect. Marcuse noted that there are certain ideas which the majority is always intolerant to: those ideas which question the existing order of society. Like any organism, human society is not naturally prone to auto-criticism and will therefore tend to instinctively deny, or at least disregard, ideas that are intolerant of its prevailing order. For instance, the majorities in the welfare states of Europe are mostly intolerant to proposals for a radically different system of taxation and redistribution. Similarly, the majority and the mainstream media in the USA largely dismiss ideas which question a corporatist political order that favours entrenched vested interests. It is in the interest of society therefore, that the majority is unsuccessful in muffling such critical ideas, and even that it becomes tolerant to them. Thus Marcuse wrote in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.”[3]

The minority which expresses such aforementioned ideas should thus adopt an attitude of political intolerance towards what John Stuart Mill called the collective opinion, which the “tyranny of the majority” imposes, often inadvertently, on this minority.[4] The continued existence of an intolerant and sceptical minority, composed for instance of independent intellectuals, journalists, artists and writers, is thus essential to the tolerant society. Their intolerance is based on the fact that, as Leo Strauss noted, society is generally characterised more by opinion than by reason.[5] The individuals that belong to this minority are, therefore, by their inherent scepticism of majority opinion, the ultimate guardians of the tolerant society. Without them, without anyone rationally questioning the politically correct mainstream, society tends to become less tolerant and more slavish. We do our society a disfavour therefore, if we disregard the important role played by this politically intolerant minority.

This leads us to the other concept of intolerance, namely virtuous intolerance. For, in order for this minority to have some influence in society, the individuals that compose it must not only be politically intolerant. The men and women belonging to this minority should also develop another kind of intolerance in order to find the motivation to come together and exchange ideas. If they do not, they will be a minority only in number; that is, they will remain atomised and dispersed individuals whose lack of connection will limit their inspiration. They will have no common goals and they will be unable to reap the benefits of friendly Socratic dialogue: to test and polish their unexamined views. However, the need for the kind of intolerance that makes this possible is not often acknowledged and this perhaps helps to explain why many minorities are weak. The question then is how to practice such virtuous intolerance, since it is usually not contained in our education. We usually do not understand what this intolerance entails, since it is not promoted by society; most cultures and religions have traditionally focused on teaching tolerance (albeit quite unsuccessfully). In the modern secular world, we are implicitly taught that it is a virtue to be tolerant. Tolerance is seen, correctly, as fundamental for the existence of the pluralistic and peaceful society.

Considering the nature of man, tolerance can obviously never be universal. The more counter-intuitive point however, is that universal tolerance is not even desirable. If tolerance is a virtue, then the virtuous person should be tolerant. Yet, the virtuous person is not only an honest person of moral principle, but can also with reason be said to be a wise person who, in the Socratic tradition, makes efforts to improve himself in the search for truth. Such a virtuous person, or at least the person who strives to live virtuously, can never be fully tolerant of himself in the state he currently finds himself, if the object of the virtuous life is moral and intellectual development. The virtuous person must therefore at least practice a certain virtuous intolerance of himself.

In order to better understand this form of intolerance, we should start by conceding that even if we attempt to live virtuously, we cannot blame ourselves for those immutable weaknesses that Nature has given us. For instance, if we lack creativity or talent for music, or if we are not good with numbers, if we have an impulsive or shy disposition, we cannot hold that against ourselves. We should avoid being intolerant of faults and vices in ourselves that we cannot do anything about. However, we should not be tolerant of those of our shortcomings that depend on motivation and effort on our part. That is, virtuous intolerance consists in being intolerant of ourselves with respect to flaws in our person which we are able to soften with perseverance, and qualities that we are able to develop with diligence.

But it is necessary to go further. The person who is virtuously intolerant of himself should be intolerant towards that which he finds hinders him from living virtuously. Since man is a social animal, virtuous intolerance of the self necessarily leads then to some amount of virtuous intolerance of others as well. That is, he who is interested in practicing virtuous intolerance in himself cannot tolerate exactly to the same degree all persons and all circumstances. Indeed, he has an interest in not being tolerant of those persons and those circumstances which make it difficult or even impossible for him to live a virtuous life of moral and intellectual development. Such intolerance is required since, as Thoreau said, most social interactions consist mainly of  “hollow and ineffectual” conversation where “surface meets surface” and where intellectual depth is rarely encountered.[6] He should therefore gently and discreetly avoid certain persons and certain situations, not because he necessarily dislikes them or because they have done him harm, but because they distract him and bring him little value. Therefore, virtuous living in the Socratic tradition also requires virtuous intolerance in choosing carefully how and with whom we spend our time.

In the modern Western society, in which we have the time and the unprecedented opportunities to develop and improve ourselves, we should therefore be intolerant particularly of ignorance and laziness, because these are the two traits that are the least conducive to the virtuous life. These vices affect us both in ourselves and in others; they waste our time, they frustrate us, and they force us to compromise and to accept a lower standard. Though sometimes it may be unavoidable, there is no reason why we should always lower our own standard just because others have not made enough efforts to raise theirs. (Of course, a certain rejection of compromise can sometimes lead to minor difficulties, but this may have to be accepted.) If we tolerate philistines and sluggards, then we do not demand anything from them; we have low expectations of them. Tolerance is thus also in this case a form of condescension and depreciation of others. By tolerating the ignorant and the lazy, we seem to say that we do not expect them to ever become better than they currently are. To the person who does not practice virtuous intolerance, it seems satisfactory that others will never rise above mediocrity.

Many examples from every day life illustrate the interest in practicing virtuous intolerance and the obvious fact that few people do. Let us review one such example. For instance, though English is the default language of international communication in most of the world, the level is often surprisingly poor for many educated persons using English every day as a second language. Indeed, if a person is fluent in English and if he is tolerant, he is often forced to adapt the way he speaks or writes in order to be understood. He sometimes has to reduce the quality of his verbal or written communication for the sake of many people who, despite having had the opportunity, have not taken the time or the trouble to learn this language adequately. He is tolerant when he accepts to lower his standard of communication. He understands that other persons may not have had the motivation or priority to improve their knowledge of English. This example highlights clearly the need for virtuous intolerance. The excellent English speaker who practices virtuous intolerance refuses to lower his standard by degrading his own communication. That is, he practices intolerance by speaking English at his own level; he pays his interlocutors this compliment and he does not compromise. Obviously, this may lead in some cases to communication difficulties and possible misunderstandings, but these issues can be solved for instance by writing rather than speaking or by using a third party as go-between.

In conclusion, we may say therefore that society, i.e. the majority, should be politically tolerant of original and minoritary deeds, attitudes and opinions, but that the individual should practice virtuous intolerance towards what he believes is common, average and obvious. Unfortunately, too often the opposite is true: society tends to be politically intolerant, and individuals are generally not intolerant in the virtuous sense. Those who hold minority views have a particular interest in practicing virtuous intolerance. Though they are politically intolerant with regard to society, this is not enough; this minority will not be able to consolidate unless its members are also virtuously intolerant. Specifically, these men and women should discriminate their circle of acquaintances by preferring and seeking the company of like-minded individuals who will challenge them and give them the possibility to raise, not lower, their standard. Virtuous intolerance thus goes hand in hand with political intolerance because individuals who are politically intolerant to society need this kind of virtuous intolerance in order to form an efficient minority; so that their voices do not just drown in the senseless twitter of society. This is a prerequisite for the emergence of the intolerant minority that the tolerant society needs. Intolerance is not only a virtue in man therefore, but also a vital political necessity for the existence of the diverse and free society.



Notes:

[1]See for instance, “Students are expects to read books, not burn them” by Brendan O’Neill, 18 November 2010. (www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/9905/)

[2] See for instance, "The 9/11 Commission Report: A 571-Page Lie", by Dr. David Ray Griffin, www.911truth.org.

[3] H. Marcuse, Repressive Intolerance.

[4] Mill warned, in an often quoted sentence, that there is a need for “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p8, Everyman’s Library, 1992).

[5] L. Strauss, On a Forgotten Kind of Writing.

[6] H. D. Thoreau, Life without Principle.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Dilemma of Modern Man


A modern man is a man who thinks he is modern. In other words, the modern era began when man became conscious of the unfolding of History. Initially, it was only a sort of negation of the past; a sensation, in a few educated men, of not being quite like the ancients. In the late 16th century, the word “modern” was used for the first time in its current sense “of present or recent times”. For Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History, a “fundamental change in time-consciousness occurred with the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society that began in the Middle Ages.”[1] This gradual change in the perception of Time that took place over hundreds of years is an important, though often overlooked, prerequisite for the development of the modern capitalist society.

For millennia, most men and women were directly living off the earth, their lives attuned to nature. In the pre-industrial society the concept of progress was unknown to most people. The world was seen as fluctuating slowly to repetitive, cyclical, and often predictable events; season followed season, peace followed war, and rulers came and went. George Santayana thus described the psyche of the ancient world: “the cycle of natural changes goes its perpetual round and the ploughman's mind, caught in that narrow vortex, plods and plods after the seasons”.[2] Time could not be measured accurately and this did not matter because the world was stable. Man was absorbed by the here and now, highly conscious of his present pains and recurring needs. This simple but natural sense of Time has now disappeared even in the most remote areas of the modern world.

In the last centuries, man has slowly acquired a linear sense of History, replacing the previous cyclical and recurrent outlook.[3] This process started in the 14th century with the invention of the sandglass and the appearance of the first mechanical clocks in the belltowers of Northern Italy. As the passage of Time for the first time could be accurately observed and measured, modern man began to perceive the world as a moving stream, never returning to a previous state. Many thinkers have described this change in outlook; C. Wright Mills, for instance, noted that:

“Most of us do not try to make sense of our age by believing in a Greek-like, eternal recurrence, … we believe with Burckhardt that we live in a mere succession of events; that sheer continuity is the only principle of history”.[4]

As a result, the present is no longer man’s sole preoccupation; the future has taken on far more importance. In the society of change, what comes next is of paramount importance. Man now speculates, plans, and thinks ahead as he never did before. Rather than living in the present, modern man, as Ortega y Gasset said, “irremediably has a futuristic constitution: he primarily lives in and of the future”[5]. For modern man, happiness is closely associated with the expectation of better things to come.

Material progress is therefore an inherent part of modern world. Friedrich von Hayek also recognised that “it is one of the characteristic facts of a progressive society that in it most things which individuals strive for can be obtained only through further progress”.[6] The modern state of progress in itself feeds the need for further progress. It is no coincidence that modern society is based on the capitalist system; it is the economic and political order that most efficiently delivers this required progress. In a society where increases in national, corporate and individual revenues are of highest priority, GDP growth is understandably the most important indicator of performance. Stagnation, which was the natural state of the world in previous times, is now seen as unacceptable.

Though this economic model has generated the greatest general increase in living standards in the history of mankind, it cannot, however, be entirely satisfying in the long run. Modern man cannot easily get a sense of fulfillment since he has a constant need for further gratification and since he usually prefers the stable and predictable to the changing and uncertain. As Schopenhauer said, in the modern world “no man is happy, he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned.”[7] The modern society is thus largely based, paradoxically, on the impossibility of ever attaining material and sensuous satisfaction. For modern man, in Leo Strauss’ words, “life is the joyless quest for joy.”[8]

This is the dilemma of modern man. On the one hand, he is not able to celebrate or enjoy his current material condition, nor is he completely at ease in a constantly changing society. [9] On the other hand, he cannot go back to the state of mind of his ancestors because the process of modernity is irreversable. It is not possible to “unlearn”: modern man is obliged to accept that he has a more sophisticated awareness of the world than his forebears. Since nature remains cyclical, the life of modern man is less in harmony with nature than before. Well-meaning environmentalists and anti-capitalists sometimes return to nature, but this return can only be physical, not mental, for they too are children of the modern world. Though most modern men and women usually do not articulate it, the often palpable malaise and frequent loss of bearings in modern society are symptoms of this problem.

The solution to this conundrum is not obvious because it cannot be found in the standard rational and deductive methods of modern man. Modernity cannot solve the problem of modernity. On the contrary, today’s increase in the rate of progress aggravates modern man’s predicament by taking him even further away from his natural state. The way out of the dilemma is first to become conscious of it. It is also necessary to realise that the modern cult of progress is mostly material and social, not so much moral and intellectual. Though it has been said before, it is worth repeating that the “good life” in the classical sense went far beyond the narrow materialistic meaning it has today. The recent surge in popularity of Eastern philosophies and practices, such as Buddhism, yoga, and meditation seem to indicate that this is understood by some.

It seems doubtful, however, that such spiritual efforts will ever bear fruit with more than a handful of people in society. Nevertheless, seen over hundreds or even thousands of years, the current turbulent period in the History of man could be merely a transitional phase to a more harmonious era. After all, the modern world is still very young and cultural and intellectual developments always lag behind material ones. It is possible to imagine, therefore, that mankind might eventually adapt successfully to the modern worldview. For instance, after many generations the human psyche might perhaps adopt a radically new sense of the future. Of course, such a solution to the dilemma of modern man might not be much of a consolation for the millions of unsatisfied souls living today.



Notes:


[1] G. Dohrn-von Rossum, History of the Hour, p2. (The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[2] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p207 (Prometheus Books, 1998)

[3] F. Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man, calls this the “coherent and directional” perception of History that is typical for the modern society.

[4] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, p22. (Oxford University Press, 2000)

[5] J. Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p241-242. (Austral, 1968 edition).

[6] F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p42. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960).

[7] A. Schopenhauer, The Emptiness of Life, Studies in Pessimism, Essays.

[8] L. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p.251. (The University of Chicago Press, 1965)

[9] For instance, Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at University of Southern California, says that at all levels of income most people usually estimate that they need about 20 percent more than they have in order to be “perfectly happy”.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Limitless" and the Limits of Intelligence


Is intelligence the most important criterion for success and happiness? This, at least, is the message that the 2011 Hollywood movie “Limitless” would like to pass to millions of young people around the world. The storyline is stunningly simple and can be summarised in one sentence: a stupid, unhappy and unsuccessful man takes a pill and becomes intelligent, happy and successful.

Truth be told, this film’s plot is disappointingly mediocre, full of silly inconsistencies and improbable twists. As Salon.com’s reviewer wittily wrote, the “movie's veneer of knowing slickness is more than canceled out by a thick, fatty layer of stupidity”.[1] The purpose of this essay is therefore not to make another review; rather, this is a good opportunity to revive the age-old question of the value of intelligence in society. It seems obvious, perhaps, that the better furnished we are, both physically and mentally, the more likely we are to be happy and successful in society. However, we should not presume that this is true with respect to intelligence.

Despite the advances in neuroscience, human intelligence remains an elusive quality. We instinctively tend to think it is innate, yet we also know that we can improve some of our mental skills by practice. Intelligence is clearly not a single trait of the mind, but many, like the myriad reflections from a diamond. In its most obvious representation, it is the capability of the human brain to compute: to understand and process information quickly and accurately. But intelligence is also a brightness of mind, a desire for speculation, a depth of spirit, as well as the capability to perceive patterns, imagine solutions and think hypothetically. In sum, intelligence is not easily defined and we can perhaps only state that in the most general sense, intelligence is awareness of the world.

Despite this multi-faceted aspect of the mind however, we actually never use more than a fraction of our higher mental powers during the course of our lives. Regardless how generously we have been endowed, we are often not very aware of the world. Life is simply too short and too absorbing for most of us to produce anything of intellectual value. Our most obvious shortcomings are physical; our few intelligent moments are constantly interrupted by the biological necessities of daily life. Sleeping, eating, dressing, resting, urinating, cleaning and many other such basic activities make it impossible to sustain rational thought for more than a few hours at a time. As George Santayana said, “Enterprise crowds out reflection.”[2] For most people, family engagements, routing work and entertainment usually fill up the rest of the day.

It is true though, that we have tools today that could help us handle the knowledge of the world. We often have the feeling that by using the internet for instance, we can understand society in a historically unprecedented way. However, most of the time we do not make use of this capability, and when we do, the amount of available information is so vast that we can only hope to master a fraction of it.[3] The modern need for specialisation is a result of this inability of ours to gain a suficient amount of expertise in more than one or two narrow fields of knowledge. The modern world has thus made it blatantly evident that the human mind is limited. It is not surprising that we rarely hear people say today, as Hamlet did, that man is “noble in reason” and “infinite in faculties.”

With these conditions in mind, it seems quite remarkable that intelligence is often thought to be essential for happiness and success in the world. Let us nevertheless look at the possibility, in turn, that intelligence leads to happiness and to success.

To claim that intelligence leads to happiness is to say that awareness of the world is connected with positive emotions. However, insight into the ways of society can sometimes be a harrowing and shocking experience. Intelligence cannot always be pleasant if it means getting an inkling of the cunning plans that men devise against each other. As Lord Byron once wrote,"Sorrow is knowledge, those that know the most must mourn the deepest, the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life." Couldn’t then a certain dullness of mind be a blessing in disguise, if it would protect us from a painful worldly exposure? Ignorance is bliss; something might be said for living in incognisant isolation from the endless tragedies of mankind. To be numb to the world and only perceive the immediate familiar surrounding should then be more relaxing and lead to more happiness than to possess an intellectual consciousness. Indeed, we tend to find happiness during moments when intelligence is useless, for instance when we watch the sun rise with our friends or when we close our eyes and listen to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

We should also consider that since man is first and foremost a social animal, the happiest man is not the most intelligent man, but the one who is most similar to others. Above average intelligence is by definition uncommon; it is therefore not likely to be conducive to happiness. The more intelligent is an individual compared to the average level of society, the less he is likely to be understood, or his interests shared, by others. Furthermore, intelligence is needed to perceive the limits of intelligence. Socrates knew he was a wise man because he knew he knew nothing. Bright individuals are therefore more likely to be tragically aware of their own rational shortcomings, in particular in today’s complex society. The intelligent person should therefore, all other things being equal, be less happy than the person of average intelligence.

It does not seem obvious, therefore, that intelligence leads to happiness; on the contrary, there are several reasons why intelligence could lead to unhappiness. But if intelligence doesn’t lead to happiness, can we at least say that it is a prerequisite to success?

To say that intelligence is essential for success, i.e. money, power, and social status, is to say that life in society requires and rewards intelligence. Yet, while intelligence is needed for the development of a rich inner life, it is arguably not an important requirement for attaining success in society. Intelligence may certainly contribute to success, but other criteria seem far more important; such as to be diligent, determined, outgoing, attractive, connected, ruthless, and lucky. Successful individuals are those who are rewarded for possessing some of these traits to a higher degree than others. Henry Adams, who had the privilege of obtaining extraordinary insight into the lives and thoughts of the most successful men and women of his time, considered that “in life one could get along very well without ideas, if only one had social instinct.”[4] If we agree that human nature is invariable, there is no reason why this observation should no longer be valid.

Success generally does not require intelligence because modern society is mainly complex from a quantitative, not qualitative, perspective. That is, the sheer number of interrelated activities in the modern society is impressive and even overwhelming, but most tasks that are needed in order for this (or any other) society to function do not demand much serious thought. If it were possible to review on the one hand all existing tasks and on the other hand the capabilities of all people in a society, it would become clear that there is a large intersection between these two groups. Most people can perform most of the tasks in society providing that they have, in some cases, a certain preparation or experience. Only few people cannot perform the majority of all tasks, and only few tasks cannot be performed by most people. As John Stuart Mill said, man is so built that there is a constant tendency for the “beliefs and practices” of the world to “degenerate into the mechanical.”[5] Although it is not the conventional wisdom, the truth is that most of what man does during the course his life tends to be of a relatively simple and repetitive nature.

This routine character of most human activity is reflected, for instance, in the content of standard human communication. Most messages that individuals exchange between each other contain little or no reflection; they are mostly futile, transient, and superficial. As Henry Thoreau said, “Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.”[6] This is of course still the case today, despite the spread of education, and the typical attention span can now often be counted not in minutes but in seconds.[7] We thereby implicitly acknowledge that we usually do not expect those who communicate with us to say much of interest.

The only two fields of study that arguably require superior intelligence, and often clearly distinguish some men and women from the rest, are philosophy and mathematics. In comparison, all other fields can be said to be “practical”. In these two areas, only intelligent minds can succeed. In adjacent fields of study, such as economics, history, physics or statistics, an ordinary mind can be enough to be successful, provided the appropriate efforts are made. Subject-matters that borrow even fewer methods from these two essential areas can usually be relatively easily absorbed by the ordinary person. Indeed, most professions are only very loosely related, if at all, to these two fundamental fields and need little or no thinking ability to be performed successfully.

Contrary to popular belief, intelligence thus neither contributes much to happiness nor to success in the world. Intelligence is a unique gift when used for thought and speculation, but in the mindless hustle and bustle of daily life it is usually not a very useful quality. The film “Limitless”, like most of the popular media, unfortunately tries to make the exact opposite case. It not only conveys the erroneous idea that happiness and success are the exclusive prerogative of intelligent people, insinuating that ordinary minds are not bright enough to play the game of life. But it also makes the mistake of suggesting to both ordinary and intelligent people that it is futile to make efforts since Nature’s gifts are omnipotent. This is hardly the message, to say the least, that should be provided to the youth that this film targets, and which Western society is crucially counting on for economic growth and intellectual innovation in the next decades.


Notes:


[2] G. Santayana, The Last Puritan, p424. (Scribner’s and Sons, 1936).

[3] See for instance, N. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

[4] H. Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, p53. (Oxford World Classics, 1991). Henry Adams was the grand-son of President John Quincy Adams and member of one of the most famous political families in the US.

[5] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p62. (Everyman’s Library, 1992.)

[6] H. D. Thoreau, Life without Principle.

[7] See for instance, “The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite”, Boston.com, Jan 2, 2011, by Craig Fehrman.  (http://articles.boston.com/2011-01-02/bostonglobe/29339490_1_sound-bites-quotations-presidential-election)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Love in the Modern World

When we think of love, our first thought usually goes to what we may call “natural” love between a man and woman. This romantic notion is deeply embedded in the cultures and myths of all major civilizations, and it is therefore the first one that comes to mind. Yet, natural love is a rare phenomenon because it happens only when two people spontaneously melt into a single emotional entity. George Santayana described natural love as “a deep and dumb instinctive affinity, an inexplicable emotion seizing the heart, an influence organising the world, like a luminous crystal, about one magic point.” When there is love at first sight, the average existence is unexpectedly interrupted by a sudden emotional flash, like a coup de foudre (i.e. a thunderbolt) as the French say.

It is not surprising therefore that those couples who are struck by natural love often don’t know each other well. Sometimes they have hardly ever spoken a word to each other the moment Cupid acts. Indeed, knowledge of the loved one is not a prerequisite for natural love. It is a love that prefers natural, simple people; that is, people with little self-knowledge and experience. Natural love is therefore almost always the instinctive and unsophisticated love of young and immature couples, like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. Their minds and hearts are immaculate, like white sheets on which nothing much has yet been written. Never have their inexperienced hearts felt an overflowing desire for another being, never have they felt the sting of rejection, never have they felled tears of unrequited love: natural love is usually first love.

With the accumulation of experience though, with every passing year, natural love thus becomes a little less probable, as the mysteries of mankind slowly reveal themselves in the self and others. Natural love requires innocence; experience and the loss of innocence are what converts, corrupts, or destroys natural love, as in the Fall of Man and his descent from Eden. Natural love is a fleeting moment of intense and shared emotion in two young lives; in older and more experienced people, love will usually take a different form. As the love-struck continue to live and learn, if only by getting to know each other better, either their natural love is converted into a more “mature” love, or, like a flame it flickers for an instant and then goes out, leaving bitterness or indifference behind.

In our legends and in our imaginations, these two outcomes can be clearly perceived. Sometimes the story ends happily; natural love is then soon converted into enduring mature love. The final words often confirm it: “…and they lived happily ever after”, as was the case for Cinderella, Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty. But most of the time natural love ends tragically, as for the two famous couples mentioned above, but also for Lancelot and Guinevere, Orpheus and Eurydice, and many others. The same emotional suffering has been related in the most well-known novels as well; such as in Manon Lescaut, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Count of Montecristo, and La Chartreuse de Parme.

In the examples above it is interesting to note that though natural love is strongly felt, it is never fulfilled or consummated. Every time, it seems some external forces conspire to destroy the small paradise that the young natural lovers have found on earth. There is always a suspicion that natural love cannot, in reality, come to fruition. Though natural love is the subject of countless tales, what is mostly felt is the desire, the hope or the anticipation of love rather than love itself.

Today, natural love seems more elusive than ever; indeed, a love crisis has hit the modern world. Never have there been as many “single” adults as today, along with many social events designed specifically for them. In the affairs of the heart, the freedom to choose may, ironically, confuse the act of choosing, by distracting the senses and preventing their focus on a single point of interest. Paradoxically, love in a world of abundance is more complicated than in a world of scarcity. If natural love was a mirage in earlier times, it is now hardly discerned on the horizon.

The modern world is individualistic in its outlook; it places high priority in the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the self. Such a culture has many advantages, as the progress of the West has shown, but such a culture is also pernicious to the possibilities of natural love. The notion of natural love is arguably being substituted for the highest form of love proposed by Plato in the Symposium; namely the love of knowledge, or, to use a more timely expression, the desire for self-realisation. For better and for worse, when they reach adulthood young men and women are already quite experienced in most aspects of life; they lack the innocence of their forebears that natural love needs.

It seems, therefore, that the current cultural climate is more agreeable to mature love than to natural love. Mature love contains diluted traces of natural love; it is a transformation of natural love after it has been forged and strengthened by knowledge and experience. It includes feelings of a higher order than those found in natural love, such as complicity, admiration, and respect. Relying on better self-knowledge and more experience, mature love is deeper, stronger and more sophisticated than natural love, and consequently, more in tune with today’s complex and constantly changing world. In a moving environment, we are obliged to adapt our ways, including our way of loving.

Yet, instead of embracing mature love, many young people continue to cling to the romantic and almost illusory notion of natural love, without having any longer the social and sentimental condition required for it. Today, Western young women are usually liberated, independent, determined and experienced. However, they still often dream of the sudden arrival of a bygone character that, in fact, they can hardly fathom: the chivalrous knight in a shining armor, also known as “The One”, the prince charmant, or the principe azzurro. Conversely, emasculated young men who have forgotten how to woo, still somehow hope to do precisely that to impervious and often callous females. Such fundamental misunderstandings help to explain many modern love failings. 

Giving preference to mature love instead of natural love might help to remedy such difficulties. Mature love differs from natural love because it involves the discovery of a complementary soul, a kindred spirit, or a media naranja (i.e. an orange half) as the Spaniards say. In this case, love is no longer the spontaneous amorous merger into a single emotion, but a progressive feeling of harmony and fullness as a couple, physically and spiritually. In this regard, mature love can be called ideal in a way that natural love cannot, since it takes into account as much as possible the two lovers’ identities. But mature love is therefore also capricious; it will only burgeon in the presence of souls that are honest and truthful to themselves and to each other.

Love between experienced and knowledgeable lovers is never pure; it inevitably involves conflicting sensations. We must therefore become aware that mature love requires that the relationship soon reaches a relatively stable equilibrium point. There is a need for a unique and delicate balance in the couple between two positive, yet opposite, sensations; the sense of peacefulness that comes from security, calm and comfort on the one hand, and on the other, the fresh feeling of freedom to change and challenge. Too much of the first often leads to jealousy, possessiveness and control, and too much of the second usually brings carelessness, selfishness and chaos. Both are detrimental in the long term to mature love.

Mature love is not like that flash of natural love that shines brightly for a moment and then is gone; it is a slow radiating halo of affection in which experienced lovers bask. Mature love is like an unwavering glow of passion originating in the heart and spreading through the body and into the soul. It is the feeling of intimately knowing that there is no other person with whom we would rather be united now and in the future, and that the sights and sounds of our beloved are preferred even to our own. Mature love is the kind of love that wears well and that can be expected to last, perhaps even, “until death do us part.”

Today, more than ever, it is worth remembering that mature love is the kind of love that can bring happiness in the long term. Relationships in the XXIst century should be built, therefore, not on the frail structure of natural love, but on the strong foundation of mature love, capable of withstanding the challenging winds of modernity.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Two Sides of Beauty

The popular expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is used frequently but without much thought given to its possible meanings. What is instinctively implied, of course, is that there is no such thing as universal beauty; that beauty is relative, depending on the environment, such as the culture, the personality, or the sex of the “beholder”. In this view, beauty is always particular since it depends on circumstance. Thus, in extremis, what may seem very beautiful in one case, may well elicit merely indifference or even disgust in another.

However, this expression can also mean that beauty requires the existence of a “beholder”. Just as there is no shout in a forest unless someone can hear it, beauty then depends on an aesthetic reaction. In other words, beauty is not a physical quality of a thing, even though it is always perceived as such. George Santayana defined beauty in this way in his influential work from 1896, The Sense of Beauty: “beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.”[1] For instance, a healthy observer usually qualifies an object as being “beautiful” in the same way he qualifies it as being, for instance, red or warm. The latter two qualifiers are purely physical attributes whereas beauty is not. If this sense of beauty is true too, then there are also some general agreements about what is beautiful and what is not. That is, here the perception of beauty is not subjective, but guided by certain universal principles.

At first glance these two views of beauty seem contradictory; the first is specific, the second is general. Yet, since both interpretations seem true it would be interesting, therefore, to try to reconcile them in a way which is consistent with experience. The obvious observation that man is susceptible to beauty is a good starting point precisely because it is obvious. Indeed, without trying for the moment to determine the reason, some things are always more aesthetically pleasing than others to every individual, regardless of their inherent value. Man is thus always unfair and biased in his perception of the world, since he cannot avoid to spontaneously discriminate objects, events and people that surround him, based solely on his perception of their external characteristics.

There are countless examples from everyday life that testify to the fact that this sensuous discrimination is relative and specific; there is an evident variety of tastes and opinions. Indeed, different people find different things beautiful, and a person’s sense of beauty can even change depending on his actual physical or mental state. There are also significant cultural and historical variations in what is considered beautiful, for instance with regards to architecture, art, fashion, and the ideal shape of the human body.

Yet, this variety of aesthetic tastes and opinions does not imply that beauty is purely subjective; it can also depend on differences in individual capacities to perceive beauty. Man tends to specialise; each individual is capable of perceiving beauty in some things but not in others. Further, many objects and events are complex in form and structure, and what is beautiful is thus not always evident. The appreciation of beauty often requires a certain preparation, education, sensitivity, or frame of mind. Indeed, many people are almost dead to beauty; they can hardly feel or enjoy art for instance. Others have only a very primitive sense of beauty; they may only be able to perceive beauty in the most natural forms, like in a sunset or a lark’s song. It should also be admitted that certain cultures, like the Italian one, are far more sensitive to beauty than others; that is, not all people are as well prepared to make aesthetic judgments.

Furthermore, it seems difficult to deny that a least some affinities with regard to beauty do seem to exist between individuals. Though individual tastes undoubtedly vary, experience shows they often have many points in common. Thus, the wide and general popularity of many works of art is due in part to the existence of common aesthetic feelings in mankind. Such affinities also often unite different cultures, once they get accustomed to other modes of artistic expression. For example, the beauty of traditional Asian silk and scroll art has been appreciated in the West for a long time; and today, every year, millions of Asians tourists travel to admire the artistic masterpieces of Europe. Studies have also confirmed that attractive individuals are usually perceived as such even across cultures.[2]

Thus, despite undeniable and innumerable individuals variations, there are arguably signs that there are underlying aesthetic principles which guide man’s perception of beauty. Indeed, certain shapes and combinations of colours and sounds are pleasing to all human beings. This, after all, is not suprising considering how the sense organs, including the brain, are identically constituted in all individuals. The physiology of the human body necessarily influences not only what strains the senses, but also what soothes and attracts them. For instance, one of these aesthetic principles is the love of symmetry. It is well known that man is naturally attracted to symmetry, and in particular to horizontal symmetry. Studies have shown that it is an important factor determining whether a human face is considered beautiful.[3]

Moreover, when a material structure is symmetrical, ordered and harmonious in design and construction, like a well-built bridge for instance, it needs less internal energy to hold together. Similarly, the sphere is the most perfect and natural shape in the universe since it needs the least amount of energy to exist; it is the most efficient way for matter to arrange itself around a center. The diamond, when cut and polished, is widely considered one of the most beautiful objects known to man, and it is surely not a coincidence that it is also the most compact and efficient way for carbon molecules to pack together. In all these cases, the existence of inherent order is essential for an object to be considered beautiful.

If this idea of the inherent efficiency of an object’s structure is extended to any other medium, like liquid, light and sound, it is possible to say then that something is beautiful in inverse proportion to the internal energy that it needs in order to exist. The closer an object’s constitution comes to its optimum and ideal state, the more beautiful it is according to this aesthetic principle (and vice versa). Indeed, the beauty and the symmetry of a human face or body are thought to be closely related with not only the apparent physical health but also the underlying genetic health (i.e. the inner structure) of the individual to whom this face or body belongs. In one sense then, beauty can be felt in that which exists with the least tension, with the least inherent conflict, with the most inner harmony.

There seem to be, therefore, a set of general aesthetic guidelines, which form the basis for a perception of beauty that is inherent in all human beings. Indeed, babies naturally tend to be attracted to, and give more attention to people whose faces are generally perceived as beautiful.[4] Ugliness is lack of beauty, but it also has its place among other inherited aversions, such as the many instinctive fears and revulsions that human beings have learned to feel over time for their own benefit. As a child grows however, the relative side of beauty quickly gains in influence, since the particular environment inevitably tinges the way this innate faculty is developed and used. Each society, and often each community, has its own implicit aesthetic criteria. These criteria are always subjective and incomplete and, combined with individual idiosynchracies, therefore lead to unique, imperfect, and infinitely varying ways of perceiving beauty.

Beauty can thus be said to have general traits when seen from the height of mankind, and specific ones in a particular individual, culture or historic period. This duality of general principles of beauty and actual aesthetic sensations is of course reminiscent of Plato’s theory of ideal Forms, of which earthly things are but lesser copies. The general aspects of beauty are like the laws of physics that define a shiny and perfectly smooth surface seen from far away. As this surface is inspected ever more closely, as through a microscope, the general progressively yields to the specific, as myriad irregularities and imperfections gradually become visible. Thus the general and the relative aspects of beauty correspond to different aesthetic perspectives, and are complementary in creating the sense of beauty in man. To say that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is therefore particularly appropriate since, in its full meaning, it captures the two sides of beauty. 




Notes:

[1]G. Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, p49. (Dover Books, 1955)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Springtime in Moscow

Spring comes late to Moscow. When outdoor cafés in Western Europe are already bustling with people, Moscovites still wear wool and fur in March. When the winter finally retreats, the snow quickly melts, leaving slush, dirt and large pools of water in every streetcorner of the Russian capital.

This time of the year both visitors and locals are usually at some point drawn to the Red Square. The long stone-paved surface lays well guarded; it is both divinely protected, flanked on the South side by St Basil’s cathedral (of the famous multi-coloured domes), as well protected politically under the watchful eye of the Kremlin. Next to the high red wall, one cannot fail to notice a strange and brownish structure, small and low, that looks curiously out of time and out of place. It is the mausoleum of V. I. Lenin, built in the radical Constructivist style, a Soviet version of Bauhaus. There have been some talk of finally lowering the body of the leader of the Bolshevik revolution into the ground, but this is yet far from certain.

The first ten days of May in Russia are traditionally dedicated to rest and leisure. Many Muscovites then leave the city and are replaced by incoming foreign and Russian tourists. The period kicks off with International Worker’s Day on May 1st and ends with the most important event of the year; the Victory Day celebrations. Every spring the Red Square – and indeed the whole city – is spruced up for this event. On the agenda are military parades, défilés of tanks and missiles, and the salute to a dwindling number of veterans. May 9th was the day when the Soviet Union finally defeated Nazism and ended what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-45. It seems collective amnesia has set in, however, with respect to the preceding Russian invasions of Poland, Finland and the Baltic states two years before.

In springtime, nature calls of course. After many months of bundling up, the sudden sight of slender Russian women gracefully strolling by in tight mini-skirts and high heels can elicit strong emotions. The popular garden of czar Alexander, just around the corner from the Red Square, is then one of the places to see and be seen.

It may be surprising for some to hear that Moscow is green. There are apparently four times as many square meters of park space in this city than in Paris, London or New York. Perhaps this is because the official city limits extend far beyond those of other big cities, encompassing both dirty run-down suburban areas as well as vast well-maintained parks. The centre of Moscow, however, is perhaps the most decidedly urban city in the world; a grey unkempt sea of stone, concrete and asphalt, only rarely punctuated by islets of green. As if to compensate though, flowers are popular all year long in a country where there is always a good reason to offer a bouquet.

Often therefore, the easiest way to get a view of nature when walking around Moscow is simply to look up at the sky, which thankfully remains blue despite the presence of heavy industry in the region. Eventually, the visitor will then catch sight of one of the “Seven Sisters” of Stalin, proudly imposing in the hazy distance. These massive buildings, spread around the city, were erected during Stalin’s last years, from 1947 to 1953. Perhaps the two most impressive ones host Moscow State University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

These sumptuous architectural mastodons bring to mind the ambivalence in which Moscow, and indeed all of Russia, finds itself today. On the one hand, they constantly recall Russia’s difficult past; they are typical products of the Soviet times, obvious symbols of the totalitarian society. Their state-directed constructions used up resources that were badly needed in the aftermath of a war which cost the country dearly. Yet, at the same time these structures were consciously built to rival in style the most capitalist neighbourhood in the world: Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. As such, they are also exemplary symbols of the capitalist society, in the same way Ayn Rand saw the Manhattan skyline in the Fountainhead as “the shapes of man’s achievement on earth.”

The Seven Sisters thus subtly represent the stark duality of today’s Moscow; a modern high-rolling metropolis shot through with authoritarian and conservative streaks. They capture in their violent beauty the current strange combination that defines Russia at the beginning of the XXIst century: an exuberant and giddy life for a few and an often resigned and gritty existence for the rest. There is indeed a fresh feeling of spring in Moscow, but not everybody can enjoy it fully.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reflections on "Imperialism Reclaimed"

 “Imperialism” is one of those words which, loaded with meaning and history, may evoke many different things to the Western mind. Etymologically, it can be said to be the practice of sustaining and building an empire using all available means, including military aggression. In this sense, those nations which stand in the way of this endeavour can naturally be expected to suffer. However, there is a tendency now in the West to see past imperialism as something that was mostly beneficial to those who were conquered. In an article called Imperialism Reclaimed, Robert Skidelsky, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, discusses this recent reevaluation of imperialism. The suffering engendered for instance by colonisation has been largely attenuated or even forgotten, and the focus now is on the social, political and technical improvements that Western imperialist conquests brought to the rest of the world.

However, professor Skidelsky starts by stating, implausibly, that previously in the West “schoolchildren were taught about the horrors of colonialism, how it exploited conquered peoples”. It seems highly unlikely that the general public was knowledgeable about the realities of colonialism. General education systems are not, and never can be, fully objective in their interpretations of History; there is a natural tendency for any society to minimise its own crimes, however well-intentioned its efforts to create an objective historical narrative. The reason many atrocities could arguably be committed by Western governments in the first place was that the general public was often unaware of them. Had imperialism really been regarded fifty years ago as “unambiguously bad”, as professor Skidelsky surprisingly claims, the bloody conflicts of independence from colonialism of the 1950s and 60s, such as in Algeria, Indochina and Kenya, could have been unanimously condemned and might even have been prevented.

 If such atrocities are more difficult (though not impossible) to commit today, it is precisely because people in the West are generally more educated and better informed about imperialism than half a century ago. This makes the on-going military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya in a sense even less admissible than past imperialist aggressions, since the indifference or unawarness of the general public cannot now be as easily excused.

Nevertheless, the human casualties in military conflicts today are generally (but not always, if we think of Iraq) of a significantly smaller scale than before. The number of dead and wounded that are needed to stir the general public is lower today than in the past. Previously, few people would have been shocked to read in a newspaper that “only” a few hundred natives had been killed in a revolt somewhere against the colonial authorities. This difference in attitude, this increased sensitivity to death and human suffering, is important because it has of course had a significant influence on policy. The major Western powers, responsible for the vast majority of all military conflicts in the last century, have had to reluctantly restrain their bellicose instincts as scrutiny increased and international law was established, however imperfectly. If the USA, for instance, had been able to use all of the weapons in its arsenal against Afghanistan and Iraq, these countries would have been quickly tamed.

Western imperialism did eventually help spread the “rule of law, science and technology” in the rest of the world; that is, to the East and the South. Yet, this is not a strong argument in favour of imperialism, for three main reasons that are not discussed by professor Skidelsky. Firstly, as historian Carroll Quigley noted in the 1950s, when strong civilisations expand as they inevitably do at some point, sometimes overwhelming and sometimes crushing other civilisations in the process, weapons are usually the first things that spread to the newly conquered lands, and ideas are usually the last. Centuries can pass between the diffusion of the former and the latter, as has been the case for the USA and the source of its civilisation, Europe.

Secondly, the political and technological progress that was introduced by imperialism did not initially benefit the conquered populations, but rather the Western colonisers who controlled them. It often took generations for these cultures to appropriate for themselves these innovations, sometimes because the imperialists actively prevented them from falling into the hands of the subjugated people. An example of this is the introduction of railways in China, which was tightly controlled by Western powers well into the twentieth century, as novelist Han Suyin described in her autobiographical work from 1972, “The Crippled Tree”.

The third reason why the spread of progress is not a strong argument in favour of imperialism, is that war and conquest is not the only, and not even the best way to spread new products and ideas. Peaceful exchange between nations, commercial and academic, is a much better vehicle for that. It is true that trade did not work in the case of the Chinese and Japanese who had no intention of trading with the West. For a long time they were not interested in the progress and innovation that was being “proposed” to them. The Western powers then forced trade with the East using gun-boat diplomacy and military aggression - the Opium Wars come to mind. Ironically, the West has benefited from essential exogenous influences as well. The rise of the West may not have been as spectacular or as successful if it had not first taken advantage, for instance, of the revival of mathematics and philosophy in Europe by the Mores or the introduction of the four major inventions from China; the printing press, the compass, ink, and gunpowder (sic) – incidentally, all of them very useful to Western imperialist ambitions. It is worth noting that these innovations were introduced in Europe not via conquest (with the exception of El Andalus), but via trade.

Finally, does the relative decline of the West and the rise of China really indicate, as professor Skidelsky proposes, that historical evolution is now becoming cyclical again after have long been linear? This is not only a highly doubtful proposition but it is also a far more complex one than the author acknowledges. The change from a cyclical to a linear view of historical evolution happened also at an individual – and thus cultural – level. In the modern world we do not believe any longer that there is, as sociologist C. Wright Mills said,  a “Greek-like, eternal recurrence”, but that “sheer continuity is the only principle of history”. At the heart of this social transformation was the fundamental change in man’s conception of time. There is no possible return, therefore, to the previous cyclical view; obviously the process is not simply reversible. Further, just because China and other countries are slowly getting the upper hand on the West doesn’t necessarily imply that historical evolution will again become cyclical. The world might well continue to evolve in a linear and progressive manner even though the white race may in the future no longer unchallenged dominate the world.