Philosopher Named to New State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/07/2019 - 10:45pm in

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo earlier this week announced the creation of a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” comprised of scholars and activists interested in various dimensions of human rights, law, and religion, to provide him with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announces new Commission on Unalienable Rights

Among the dozen individuals named as members of the committee is University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Department of Philosophy Chair Christopher Tollefsen.

The commission will be led by Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law) and also includes Russell Berman (Stanford, Hoover Institution), Peter Berkowitz (Hoover Institution), Paolo Carozza (Notre Dame Law and Political Science), Hamza Yusuf Hanson (Zaytuna College), Jacqueline Rivers (Seymour Institute), Meir Soloveichik (Rabbi, Congregation Shearith Israel), Kiron Skinner (State Dept.), Katrina Lantos Swett (Lantos Foundation), David Tse-Chien Pan (UC Irvine), and Cartright Weiland (State Dept.).

Pompeo said:

I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? Each of these is an important question, and the mission of the commission is to provide advice on them and others not as purely abstract academic matters, but in a manner deeply informed by the timeless truths embedded in the American founding with a view to guiding our nation’s foreign policy.

The full announcement is here.

The post Philosopher Named to New State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights appeared first on Daily Nous.

Book on What’s Really Needed for Artificial Intelligence: Emotion, Spirituality and Creativity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 06/07/2019 - 8:57pm in

The Muse in the Machine: Computers and Creative Thought, by David Gelernter (London: Fourth Estate 1994).

I came across this book looking around one of Cheltenham’s secondhand bookshops yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I fully intend to. Although it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, I think the issue it addresses is still very real, and one that isn’t acknowledged by many computer scientists. And it’s immensely provocative. Gelernter argues here that the brain is not like a computer, and by concentrating on rationality and logic, computer scientists aren’t developing genuine Artificial Intelligence – true minds – but simply faster calculating machines. What is needed instead is creativity and inspiration, and that can only come from emotion and spirituality.

The blurb for the book in the inside cover runs

Is Artificial Intelligence really getting any closer to understanding the workings of the brain? Or is it, despite generations of smarter, more logical reasoning machines and more refined philosophical theories, missing the point? Is the AI model, for all its apparent sophistication, simply too crude?

David Gelernter believes that it is. In this dazzling, powerfully persuasive new book he argues that conventional AI theory is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does the emotional elements in the human mind. AI can go on improving its creations as much as it likes, but as long as it insists upon seeing the mind as a machine, it will always been building machines and not minds.

It’s time to tackle a fundamental truth: feeling isn’t incidental to thought, a pleasant diversion or unwelcome distraction. It’s essential, a precondition and part of all our thinking. A mind that can’t be irrational can’t be rational; a machine that can’t feel can’t think.

Spirituality is not failed science, anymore than poetry is botched prose. Significant as recent developments have been, suggests Gelernter, the real renaissance is yet to come. The new science of the mind will involve art and theology as closely as it does technology, and will owe as much Wordsworth and Keats as to Papert and Minsky.

Bound to cause a furore in the field of Artificial Intelligence, the Muse in the Machine has far wider implications than this, and far great importance. It is a book which demands to be read by everyone who values human thought and its achievements. If it offers much to intrigue and to provoke in its daring, wide-ranging discussion of the mind and its workings, it provides much, too, to delight and move.

It’s probably no surprise that Gelernter believes that art, literature and spirituality/ theology should also be important components of genuine machine intelligence. Not only is he credited as an associate professor computer science at Yale University, but also a lover of philosophy and published poet, with an MA in Classical Hebrew Literature.

For all that the book and its thesis were – and no doubt still are – controversial, he has correctly identified a major problem. Other philosophers and scientists, both of computers and the human brain, have pointed out that the brain isn’t a computer. Rather, the computer is simply the latest metaphor for the brain. Before then, the metaphor was of an immense telephone exchange. And before that, in the 17th century, when modern neurology was only just beginning, it was as a series of fountains. I also understand that many neurologists now believe, following the ideas of the paranormal researcher Stan Gooch, that much of human thought and cognition actually occurs deeper in the more primitive sections of the brain, connected with emotion. And I can imagine many atheists distinctly unsettled by the idea that true rationality also requires a spiritual, religious and theological component. That’s enough to send Richard Dawkins completely up the wall!

It’s going to be an very interesting, provocative book, and one I shall look forward to reading. And I’ll definitely post about it when I have.















On the Istanbul Municipal Elections and Ekrem İmamoğlu’s Victory

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 06/07/2019 - 5:49am in

In Istanbul the joy was expressed along the two extremes of the Bosphorus, from the district of Besiktas to Kadiköy, through Sisli, Esenler, Beylikdüzü. Klaxons blowing, songs, flags being waved in cars running the avenues — the city has voted . . .

Read more ›

Hindu Nationalist Persecution of Christians in India under Modi’s Government

One of the ladies at our church gave a talk on Wednesday about the growing persecution of Christians in India by Hindu extremists, aided and abetted by President Narendra Modi and his squalid Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This is an important issue for a number of reasons, and needs to be discussed. It’s naturally important to Christians concerned with the persecution members of their faith face in many other countries, but there are other reasons why it is important. It contradicts the view being pushed by the islamophobic right, that Christians are only, or primarily persecuted by Muslims. This is being particularly promoted by the neocons and Christian Zionists, like Ted Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, who, it seems, are using it to work up support for Israel and for further western imperialist wars in the Middle East. Although the article was written for Christians, the laws criminalising Christian conversion and the mob violence they face are also part of a general persecution directed at other non-Hindu religious minorities, such as Muslims and Sikhs. Discussing the resistible rise of the BJP two decades or so ago, Private Eye’s ‘Letter from India’ described how the BJP was connected to the militant RSSS, a militant Indian nationalist organisation which was partly modeled on Mussolini’s Fascists, and which was responsible for attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

I am also certainly not blaming all Hindus for the actions of the BJP, or trying to attack Hinduism generally. Hinduism is a religion with a bewildering number of deities and sects, and thus has an impressive reputation for pluralism and tolerance. The extremists encouraged by the BJP also target moderate, liberal or secular Hindus because of their support of Gandhi and Nehru’s vision of India as a religiously tolerant, secular nation in which people of different faiths could live together in harmony and peace. The Hindu extremists not only reject this, they also passionately and vehemently despised its founder. A week or so ago one of the columnists in the I published a piece about how shocked they were when they first met a Hindu, who hated Gandhi. The Hindu extreme right despise and vilify Gandhi because they wanted India to be a Hindu state, and believed he had done too much to appease the Muslims.

I am also very much aware that Christian has also been spread through imperialism and military force, and has persecuted non-Christians. I don’t approve of or justify this. Religious persecution is wrong, no matter which religion is doing it.

Christianity in India is very ancient. Before Europeans arrived, there was already an indigenous Indian, Syriac Christian church. The Mar Thoma Christian church of Kerala believe that Christianity was brought to India in 50 or 52 AD by the apostle Thomas, who was martyred in Chennai in 72 AD. In 883 AD Sighelm, an ambassador to Kerala from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, visited his shrine to present thank offering from King Alfred. Another apostle, Nathanael (Bartholomew) also visited India in the first century, who brought with him a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew. Documentary evidence suggests that Christianity had reached India by the early third century AD. By 225 there was a bishop in Baith Lapat, now Shahabad in Northern India, caring for the souls of a Christian community that had been converted by missionaries from Persia and what is now Iraq. The following century, Bishop John the Persian signed the Nicene Creed, which had been drawn up as the formal statement of the Christian faith “on behalf of (the churches) in the whole of Persia, and in the great India.”

The Indian Christian population is 65 million., and comprises about 2% of the population of India, 80% of whom are Hindus. In 2016 there were 348 incidents of persecution in India recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In 2017 this increased to 736, of which 351 were violent. Many incidents probably haven’t been recorded, and so the true number is probably higher.

The BJP has also passed a series of laws, ostensibly against forced conversion, as part of their campaign against Christianity. These forbid the use of force, fraud or allurement in conversion. I’m very much aware of the term ‘rice Christianity’, dating from the 19th century. This came from the supposed tactics of some missionaries, who promised the starving a bowl of rice if they converted. The use of such inducements to get people to convert is clearly immoral. But the laws brought in against them allow Christians to be falsely accused of these tactics. In September 2017 the Jharkhand state government passed a freedom of religion law, which punishes those guilty of using ‘coercion’ to convert Hindus with three years in prison. Anyone, who wishes to change their faith, has to obtain prior permission from a magistrate. Christians have been subjected to violence and arrest, and churches disrupted because of accusations that they are breaking these laws. But the BJP is determined to roll them out nationally. The opposition party has also moved rightward to compete with the BJP, and there is fears that this will also lead to greater intolerance of religious minorities.

The tactics used against Christians not only include social exclusion, but also assault and attacks and sabotage of church buildings and private homes. They are also subject to boycotts, and a campaign, “Ghar Wapsi” (homecoming) to force Indian Christians to renounce their faith. Two years ago, in January 2017, a 50 year-old Christian convert, Bartu Urawn, and his wife were immersed in a pond by a mob for 17 hours by a mob from their village in order to force them to recant their faith. Urawn refused, dying afterwards from his ordeal. The police, however, recorded his death as ‘natural causes’. Rural Christians are especially vulnerable, and all too often the police arrest the victims instead of the perps.

Many Christians are also Dalits, formerly the untouchables, the lowest-rung of the Hindu caste system, and are considered impure and polluting by the higher castes. There is a quota system to give them access to education and employment, but these quotas don’t apply to Christians or Muslims. They’ve also suffered attacks on their homes, churches, and water sources.

See ‘Courageous faith: India’s pressured christians’ in barnabasaid, March/April 2019, pp. 6-7.

I am also very much aware that the Christian right in several American states is trying to pass ‘freedom of religion’ laws with the same intention as the Hindu extremists in the above article: to exclude religious and secular minorities from political involvement. It hasn’t quite reached the level of the Hindu extremists as described in the above article, but the intolerance of parts of the American Christian right is similar in intensity.

The BJP is, if not Fascist, then certainly fascistic in its extreme nationalism. Indeed, a prayer used by one of the BJP’s allies or constituent organisations is included in an academic textbook on Fascism to illustrate Fascism’s mystical component. The BJP is part of the growth of religious and ethnic intolerance throughout the world. And as the book, Falling Off The Edge shows, a major cause of this tension and conflict is neoliberalism. The doctrine of absolute free trade without any form of government interference means that conditions for ordinary working people across the globe, whether in the developed West or the developing world, has got worse. And as conditions of grinding poverty have increased, so people have turned on minorities as scapegoats for their rage and desperation.

It’s what’s behind the growth of fascism in working class White communities in Britain. And I’ve no doubt it’s also behind the growth of Hindu extremism in India, all encouraged and promoted by Modi. It’s one of the classic tactics of the wealthy elite everywhere to divert opposition away from themselves by claiming that mainstream society is perfect. It’s only ethnic or religious minorities, who are behind all societies problems. Minorities like Jews, Muslims, Christians, Blacks, Asians or gays, depending on the society.

But one thing is absolutely certain: Fascism and intolerance has to be fought everywhere, along with the neoliberal economics that force people into poverty, despair and racism or religious extremism, whatever the colour or creed of the persecutors or their victims.

New Research: Why Religions Promote Sexual Conservatism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 01/07/2019 - 2:49am in

Does religious belief lead to conservative sexual values, or do people seek religion to bolster their initial preferences for monogamy? New research yields a surprising result.

The Shiksa

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 26/06/2019 - 8:28am in

Hi everyone! Just poking my head above water for a moment to share this with you. My friend Talia Lavin tweeted a joke so good I had to put everything aside to draw it. Thanks Talia for letting me draw your good joke!

Work on the mystery project continues apace! More details on that in the distant future, when we are all dead

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.


Hume, Enthusiasm, the Gospel of Success, some Kant and Grouchy with more Adam Smith

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/06/2019 - 6:05am in

[T]he mind of man is also subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from a bold and confident disposition. In such a state of mind, the imagination swells with great but confused conceptions, to which no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond. Every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention. And a full range is given to the fancy in the invisible regions or world of spirits, where the soul is at liberty to indulge itself in every imagination, which may best suit its present taste and disposition. Hence arise raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy; and confidence and presumption still encreasing, these raptures, being altogether unaccountable, and seeming quite beyond the reach of our ordinary faculties, are attributed to the immediate inspiration of that Divine Being, who is the object of devotion. In a little time, the inspired person comes to regard himself as a distinguished favourite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: Human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: And the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above. Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of ENTHUSIASM.--David Hume "Of Superstition and enthusiasm"

It is a bit odd that Hume's final summary of the sources of enthusiasm ("hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance") leaves out what is most surprising and distinctive about his approach (which he mentions first): that enthusiasm is a consequence of things we ordinarily take to be  states of well-being (or welfare), success and health, or causes thereof: an energetic and confident disposition. To emphasize the point: it's those elements we tend to associate with the gospel of success that are the fertile grounds of enthusiasm, which, in Hume's hands, is relies a species of overconfidence. And since Hume is one of the best and first defenders of the merits of commercial life, this should give us pause.

Of course, Hume is not here, in the first instance, despite the presence of over-confidence, talking about excessive risk appetite. But there is a speculative quality that cannot be ignored: "reason" is "rejected" and, I would add, could not function properly because "the imagination swells with great but confused conceptions." Hume makes clear that in this world there is no possible referent that accords with these conceptions. That is to say, according to Hume (recall also this post), when somebody is in the grip of enthusiasm, she is thinking (we may say) the tremendously impossible (recall Grouchy).

Strikingly, an initial consequence of enthusiasm is something we may well find attractive: the liberty to indulge one's imagination. That there is something attractive here was picked up by Adam Smith, who made such free play (recall) constitutive of his account of liberty,+ and by Kant, who made the "free play of the imagination" a center piece of his aesthetics. To be sure, whatever Kant meant by the "free play" of the imagination it is clearly not, in the final analysis, Hume's notion of enthusiasm (even if one may well suspect that commentators are bit too quick to dispel the touch of enthusiasm lurking here). My point being that according to Hume, enthusiasm is a consequence not just of things we associate with (causes of) welfare, but also with ends we may value as ends, (e.g., freedom of thought). 

I want to develop the point in the subsequent paragraph(s). But before I do that I should emphasize that for Hume the three-fold problem with enthusiasim is the trespassing beyond our cognitive limits such that one comes (i) to feel chosen by (ii) God, and, thereby, (iii) incapable of being constrained by reason or morality.* When one is in the grip of full enthusiasm one may be a danger to society.

Even so, as noted, the (Humean) enthusiast, possesses character traits that may well be the grounds of things we value. For example, Hume writes: 

all enthusiasts have been free from the yoke of ecclesiastics, and have expressed great independence in their devotion; with a contempt of forms, ceremonies, and traditions....The fanatic consecrates himself, and bestows on his own person a sacred character, much superior to what forms and ceremonious institutions can confer on any other.

As is well known, Hume, too, wants to free people from the yoke of priestly power and its many of their ceremonies. But more important, the idea that we need to consecrate ourselves and, thereby, bestow a sacred character in ourselves is a key move in Smith's account to explain what motives could ground the desire to act in praiseworthy fashion (recall): 

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.--The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

That is to say, from the perspective of Humean moral psychology, Smith grounds the pull of the praiseworthy in what we may call a tempered or (to use the Humean term) moderated species of enthusiasm.+  

*That in Hume's account of reason can't do much constraining anyway is worth pondering.

+This may well have been partially inspired by Hume: "enthusiasm, being the infirmity of bold and ambitious tempers, is naturally accompanied with a spirit of liberty."

+It is worth quoting Hume's version of this: "On the other hand, our sectaries, who were formerly such dangerous bigots, are now become very free reasoners; and the quakers seem to approach nearly the only regular body of deists in the universe, the literati, or the disciples of Confucius in China." (I have (recall) commented on Hume's favorable interest in China before.) Hume's view of Confucius as a Deist is almost certainly inspired by Voltaire (see here for scholarship). [William Temple and  Bayle have tendency to present Confucius as an atheist.] 

On the God Within (Seneca, Spinoza, and the Bible/Vergil)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/06/2019 - 12:05am in


poetry, Religion

[I]t is foolish to pray for this when you can acquire it from yourself. We do not need to uplift our hands towards heaven, or to beg the keeper of a temple to let us approach his idol's ear, as if in this way our prayers were more likely to be heard. God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. 2. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. As we treat this spirit, so are we treated by it. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise? He it is that gives noble and upright counsel. In each good man

A god doth dwell, but what god know we not [quis deus incertum est] habitat deus].--Seneca, Letter 41. Translated by Richard Mott Gummere

To achieve a sound mind [ad bonam mentem] prayer [optare could also be mere wishing] won't do; there are not just opportunity costs involved, but our attention is misdirected outward. For, Seneca, as is familiar by now, self-cultivation is, simultaneously, a withdrawal from the world of the crowd and popular approval. He comes very close to suggesting here that public displays of religion is a participation in the worship of false idols (such as characterize the market-place, the political crowds, and the amphitheater).

Part of self-cultivation is the development of what we may call conscience, the observer and custodian [observator et custos] of the good and bad we perform. Interestingly Seneca presents the operation of conscience as a reciprocal, relationship between the agent and this hidden faculty. When we nurture conscience, we are, in turn, nurtured by it. This form of boot-strapping is the path toward overcoming the rule of chance [recall, inter alia, also letter 39 here], and to participate (as we have seen) in a life rule by necessity (recall the start of the Letters) and, thereby, become godlike (recall this post on self-reliance in letter 31). A good person is precisely the one that has justly come to rely on conscience.*

I don't mean to ignore how the people that exemplify such self-controlled god-likeness, exemplify a species of (almost Nietzschean) magnanimity, laughing at our fears and at our prayers and willing them over and over again, (Vis isto divina descendit; animum excellentem, moderatum, omnia tamquam minora transeuntem, quidquid timemus optamusque ridentem, caelestis potentia agitat.)

Now, Gummere helpfully notes that the last line of the quoted passage is itself a quote from Vergil's Aenid 8.352. Seneca here proves true to his principle that the origin of a truth is less important than the fact that (recall) there is no exclusive property right in wisdom and that it can be made available to all of mankind. Even so it is notable that he quotes a poet here and not (as he had done before) a member of a competing philosophical school. (In the previous letter (40), he made a similar point with Homer.)

There is a lot to be said about the context of 8.352 and how it relates to the political self-conception of Rome and its founding. But, at this point, and in virtue of a recent lecture by Steven Nadler that I attended, I am reminded of the epigram to Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise (hereafter TTP): Per hoc cognoscimus quod in Deo manemus,/et Deus manet in nobis/quod de Spiritu suo dedit nobis (1 John 4:13; in the King James, Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.What's clever about this is that the first two parts of the verse, just express the Spinozism of the Ethics (we are in God and he in us). Later, in chapter 14 of the TTP, when he comments on the very verse, Spinoza explains that to have possession of the (holy) spirit just means exhibiting faith in works, that is obedience to God, that is showing one's charity (or 'lovingkindness' in Curley's translation).+

Now, Spinoza and Seneca agree that a holy spirit dwells within us and that being attentive to it guides our good behavior. They also agree on a structural feature: that to behave in accord with it, is to be guided by (an eternal property, that is,) reason, that is, necessity, that is, (one's second) nature. And that to do so is the path of salvation (see the rest of letter 41). I don't mean to suggest that they agree, exactly, on the contents of conscience or what the holy spirit demands from us. That's for another time.

Rather, I want to close with a final observation prompted by one of the most striking passages in the TTP (from Chapter 5):

So the narratives contained in the Old and New Testaments are better than the other, secular narratives, and among the [Scriptural narratives], some are better than others, in proportion as the opinions which follow from them are salutary. Hence if someone has read the stories of Holy Scripture, and has had faith in it in every respect, and has nevertheless not attended to the lesson Scrip­ture intends to teach with those stories, nor improved his life, it is just the same as if he had read the Koran, or the dramas of the Poets, or even the ordinary Chronicles, with the same attention as the multitude commonly give to these things. On the other hand, as we have said, someone who is com­pletely unfamiliar with these stories, and nevertheless has salutary opinions and a true manner of living, is absolutely blessed and really has the Spirit of Christ in him.**

There is a lot to say about this passage (recall), but the key point is that one has the Spirit of Christ if one exhibits the right kind of behavior and that one does not need exposure to Scripture nor philosophy to attain it. More subtly, and controversially, perhaps, any text, if read attentively, can be made to yield the salutary opinions needed to instruct others -- as Seneca instructs Lucillius -- in the art of living...if, and perhaps only if, one has a well-prepared mind, as Seneca shows with his use of Vergil.


*There is something circular here; but this is why I used the boot-strapping trope.

+The really important point, for Spinoza, is the subsequent definition of the antichrist, which is he who persecutes honest men who love justice, but who may disagree about matters of faith.

** It is notable that Spinoza couples the right sort of opinions with a life of truth and reason (veramque vivendi rationem). Quare si historias Sacrae Scripturae legerit, eique in omnibus fidem habuerit, nec tamen ad doctrinam, quam ipsa iisdem docere intendit, attenderit, nec vitam emendaverit, perinde ipsi est, ac si Alcoranum, aut poëtarum fabulas scenicas, aut saltem communia chronica ea attentione, qua vulgus solet, legisset ; et contra, uti diximus, is, qui eas plane ignorat, et nihilominus salutares habet opiniones, veramque vivendi rationem, is absolute beatus est, et revera Christi Spiritum in se habet.

Smith's lack of enthusiasm for Enthusiasm

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/06/2019 - 9:29pm in

Regular readers may recall that I have been interested in Sophie de Grouchy's account of enthusiasm (recall here and here) which is very important to her account of demagogues (recall also  here, and here). Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy [hereafter: LS] was first published appended to her (1798) French translation of the final (sixth) edition Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments [hereafter: TMS] and Dissertation on the Origin of Languages [hereafter: Languages]. The Dissertation was added by Smith to the third edition of TMS.

Grouchy was no slavish follower, or enthusiast, of Smith. This is immediately clear when one notes that in the first five editions of TMS, Smith never mentions ‘enthusiasm’ or its cognates. However, in the final edition, Smith inserted a whole new book (VI). And in it Smith uses ‘enthusiastic’ four times: the first time is in the context of his discussion of aesthetic experience of tragedy itself offered as an illustration of an “unnecessary” observation that “the combination of two, or more, of those exciting causes of kindness, increases the kindness:”

The most interesting subjects of tragedies and romances are the misfortunes of virtuous and magnanimous kings and princes. If, by the wisdom and manhood of their exertions, they should extricate themselves from those misfortunes, and recover completely their former superiority and security, we cannot help viewing them with the most enthusiastic and even extravagant admiration. (TMS VI.ii. i .21, p 226)

Here enthusiasm is both (i) the effect on us of our witnessing a merited revival of good fortune and (ii) a means by which another sentiment, admiration, is (to put it in Humean terms) enlivened or heightened. I have argued, following Karen Valihora, that in Smith, admiration is primarily either an intellectual sentiment or an aesthetic one; it is caused by what is "great and beautiful" when we encounter something new or rare. But as the examples below reveal, we can come to admire features of people's characters, too. Interestingly enough, there is a sense, then, that when we do so, we objectify them.

The second use of ‘enthusiastic’ also involves an heightened admiration. But here enthusiasm is a by-product of intense (merited) admiration of magnanimity such that it “often inflame that sentiment into the most enthusiastic and rapturous veneration.” (TMS VI.iii.5, 238) Here ‘enthusiastic’ is primarily a way to characterize the intensity of the feeling (admiration/veneration).

The third use of ‘enthusiastic’ also involves heightened admiration, but it is introduced by way of contrast to merited admiration. It occurs in the context of a corrupt kind of admiration:

It is otherwise with that admiration which he is apt to conceive for their excessive self-estimation and presumption. While they are successful, indeed, he is often perfectly conquered and overborne by them. Success covers from his eyes, not only the great imprudence, but frequently the great injustice of their enterprises; and, far from blaming this defective part of their character, he often views it with the most enthusiastic admiration. (TMS VI.iii.30, 252)

Here Smith is illustrating one of his key claims: that our moral sentiments are corrupted by our admiration for wealth and power. This had been the topic of a new chapter (1.iii.3), inserted, at the start of  book I in the final revised edition of TMS.  Here enthusiasm is also an effect that intensifies the emotion to which it is attached. But here the triggering cause is our misplaced attentiveness to other people’s success (riches, status, etc.)

Finally, in the fourth use of ‘enthusiastic’ it also attached to intensified admiration. Smith writes,  in one one of my favorite passages, “To a real wise man the judicious and well-weighed approbation of a single wise man, gives more heartfelt satisfaction than all the noisy applauses of ten thousand ignorant though enthusiastic admirers.” (TMS VI.iii. 3I, 253.) Here the object of enthusiasm is merited, but the subject feeling it is not a proper judge. Enthusiasm is here a disfiguring characteristic—a mark of ignorant admiration

It is notable that Smith uses ‘enthusiasm’ exclusively in cases related to admiration. By contrast, Hume (recall) uses ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘enthusiastic’ more frequently and to refer to the intensification of far wider ranges of emotions. In fact, only once that Hume use ‘enthusiasm’ in a manner reminiscent of Smith’s usage discussed here. In the Histories, he describes how (merited) admiration of Queen Elizabeth’s spirited behaviour by the soldiers at Tilbury turned their attachment to her into a kind of enthusiasm. (H 42.64; this is from volume 4) As is well known, Hume is especially (but not exclusively) interested in the form of enthusiasm that corrupts "true religion."

To sum up: Smith treats enthusiasm as an enlivening feature of admiration or the effect of heightened admiration. When we are virtuous it is caused by characters worthy of excessive admiration. When we are ignorant or corrupted, enthusiasm can get attached, as a form of intensification, to admiration of unpraiseworthy characters or praiseworthy characters for the wrong reasons. It is the latter, in particular, that concerns Grouchy when she reflects on the grip demagogues have over us. But about that more soon.