Archives for category: fascism

[YASHWATA’s note: This is the 13th chapter of Bertrand Russell’s astonishing History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945. A lark, a flying carpet, a bright stroke brushed with verve and wit across three millennia, this brief chapter wings us from a consideration of Plato’s cultural and ethical milieu to a simple explanation of the necessity of democracy. As always, Russell makes it look easy. There are more insights available in these 1,300 words than in most other whole books.]


The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato and Aristotle were the most influential of all philosophers, ancient, medieval, or modern; and of the two, it was Plato who had the greater effect upon subsequent ages. I say this for two reasons: first, that Aristotle himself is an outcome of Plato; second, that Christian theology and philosophy, at any rate until the thirteenth century, was much more Platonic than Aristotelian. It is necessary, therefore, in a history of philosophic thought, to treat Plato, and to a lesser degree Aristotle, more fully than any of their predecessors or successors.

The most important matters in Plato’s philosophy are: first, his Utopia, which was the earliest of a long series; second, his theory of ideas, which was a pioneer attempt to deal with the still unsolved problem of universals; third, his arguments in favour of immortality; fourth, his cosmogony; fifth, his conception of knowledge as reminiscence rather than perception. But before dealing with any of these topics, I shall say a few words about the circumstances of his life and the influences which determined his political and philosophical opinions.

Plato was born in 428-7 B.C., in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. He was a well-to-do aristocrat, related to various people who were concerned in the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. He was a young man when Athens was defeated, and he could attribute the defeat to democracy, which his social position and his family connections were likely to make him despise. He was a pupil of Socrates, for whom he had a profound affection and respect; and Socrates was put to death by the democracy. It is not, therefore, surprising that he should turn to Sparta for an adumbration of his ideal commonwealth. Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

The purely philosophical influences on Plato were also such as to predispose him in favour of Sparta. These influences, speaking broadly, were: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Socrates.

From Pythagoras (whether by way of Socrates or not) Plato derived the Orphic elements in his philosophy: the religious trend, the belief in immortality, the other-worldliness, the priestly tone, and all that is involved in the simile of the cave; also his respect for mathematics, and his intimate intermingling of intellect and mysticism.

From Parmenides he derived the belief that reality is eternal and timeless, and that, on logical grounds, all change must be illusory.

From Heraclitus he derived the negative doctrine that there is nothing permanent in the sensible world. This, combined with the doctrine of Parmenides, led to the conclusion that knowledge is not to be derived from the senses, but is only to be achieved by the intellect. This, in turn fitted in well with Pythagoreanism.

From Socrates he probably learnt his preoccupation with ethical problems, and his tendency to seek teleological rather than mechanical explanations of the world. “The Good” dominated his thought more than that of the pre-Socratics, and it is difficult not to attribute this fact to the influence of Socrates.

How is all this connected with authoritarianism in politics?

In the first place: Goodness and Reality being timeless, the best state will be the one which most nearly copies the heavenly model, by having a minimum of change and a maximum of static perfection, and its rulers should be those who best understand the eternal Good.

In the second place: Plato, like all mystics, has, in his beliefs, a core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life. The Pythagoreans had endeavoured to set up a rule of the initiate, and this is, at bottom, what Plato desires. If a man is to be a good statesman, he must know the Good; this he can only do by a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. If those who have not gone through this discipline are allowed a share in the government, they will inevitably corrupt it.

In the third place: much education is needed to make a good ruler on Plato’s principles. It seems to us unwise to have insisted on teaching geometry to the younger Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in order to make him a good king, but from Plato’s point of view it was essential. He was sufficiently Pythagorean to think that without mathematics no true wisdom is possible. This view implies an oligarchy.

In the fourth place: Plato, in common with most Greek philosophers, took the view that leisure is essential to wisdom, which will therefore not be found among those who have to work for their living, but only among those who have independent means, or who are relieved by the state from anxieties as to their subsistence. This point of view is essentially aristocratic.

Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modem ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as “wisdom”? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?

“Wisdom,” in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality. We should more naturally say that there are divergent interests, and that the statesman should arrive at the best available compromise. The members of a class or a nation may have a common interest, but it will usually conflict with the interests of other classes or other nations. There are, no doubt, some interests of mankind as a whole, but they do not suffice to determine political action. Perhaps they will do so at some future date, but certainly not so long as there are many sovereign States. And even then the most difficult part of the pursuit of the general interest would consist in arriving at compromises among mutually hostile special interests.

But even if we suppose that there is such a thing as “wisdom,” is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body.

It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question.

The problem of finding a collection of “wise” men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy.

—Bertrand Russell. 1945. A history of Western philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 104-107.

Amazon link

I made this mix in November 2004, after George W. Bush was “elected” for the second time. Those were dark times–and we knew they were going to keep getting darker–but we couldn’t know just how much. Well, I’ve rediscovered this mix today and I think it’s worth hearing. At least, it’s better than killing yourself.

I think.

Download “Sweet Music for Dark Times” (MP3 format, 81 MB)

Donnacha Costello
Slowly sinking in
Markus Guentner
Telefon Tel Aviv
I lied
Barbara Morgenstern
We’re all going to fucking die
Alltag 5
Richard Dorfmeister
Eastwest (with Mama Oliver)
Elevator love letter
Dub Tractor
Rhythm and Sound
We been troddin (with Shalom)
Caetano Veloso
Something good
Château rouge
Ulf Lohmann
Nicht die Welt

Well, it might be too little, and it might be too late, but it should be done anyway. Everyone should be talking about it. The words should be in the air: “You are evil. We know you are evil. You will not get off scot-free.” Go to and add yourself to the supporters list. You can also download the text of Kucinich’s articles of Impeachment.

Congress gave him authorization to use force as a last resort. He did not use it as a last resort–it’s what he had wanted all along. He should have been impeached as soon as this was realized. Why that did not happen–this question will burn in my gut until the day I die. I will never forgive either the Bush administration or any member of Congress for this betrayal of everything that is good. In my opinion, no one in the Congress worked hard enough on trying to stop the war. Oh, some must have worked hard on it, and a much smaller number must have felt that they were doing all they could. Well, that’s not enough for me. Why didn’t we see a single person out of order? Could no one take the risk of standing on a desk?–shouting?–crying?–making a scene?–getting arrested? How much risk should a public servant be willing to take, to fight a war that has cost a trillion dollars and half a million lives? If you have some chance of making a difference, how far should you go? No one tried anything unusual. There should have been wailing and gnashing of teeth. There should have been walkouts, sit-ins, and reckless publicity stunts. The vitriol and name-calling should have been shocking and relentless. How on Earth can you be polite on this topic? A band of evil men led our nation into war for their own sick purposes–and no one dares to shout in the sacred chambers.

I’m still waiting.

Available at Truth Through Action.

This is a funny and brilliant response to the extremely difficult question of how to beat conservatives on ethical issues. Since their default rhetorical strategy is to lie, it’s impossible to have a rational conversation with them. We’re going to need humor, and we’re going to need spunk. This product is on exactly the right track.

Editorial in the New York Times: Cluster Bombs, Made in America

On Friday, 111 nations, including major NATO allies, adopted a treaty that sets an eight-year deadline to eliminate stockpiles of cluster arms — pernicious weapons that scatter thousands of small bombs across a wide area, where they pose a long-term deadly threat to innocents. The Bush administration not only failed to sign the treaty but vigorously opposed it.

Modern nations need a range of weapons to protect their legitimate interests. Cluster munitions that disproportionately harm civilians are not among them. President Bush must resist the temptation to further sabotage this worthy treaty and let it take effect. It is not clear where the candidates stand on the treaty, but the next president, whoever it is, should repudiate Mr. Bush’s opposition and sign it.

Wait, “Modern nations need a range of weapons to protect their legitimate interests”? This knee-jerk stipulation is typical of the Times. I think that if you need weapons to protect your interests, they might not be legitimate. You should probably find different ones.

[This was written when the “pope” was visiting the “president.” I wasn’t sure how to finish it. Now I’m just going to post it, because, as a famous philosopher once said, “Oh, what the hell.”]

Can any news possibly be less interesting than one evil old man visiting another and lying to us about what the whole thing means? The event would become news only if news-people reported it factually rather than as a clueless and relentless spiel of rote clichés. That would be news. But they do not know how, or they do not want to, or they do not dare. Such is the unspoken, unnoticed, insidious power behind this throroughly fake event. You will speak of this meeting, they are told–no, they know without being told, in the manner that such meetings are allowed to be described, and no other. You will treat us and our doings with unconditional respect, deference, and obedience. For an air of extra authenticity, speak as if you are personally awed by both our Presences, and bravely choose to moderate your adoration to the tones proper to a true journalist. Oh you can be a devout believer and tell the public the truth also. This is the truth–these feelings you have. It’s truer than the regular, newspaper kind of truth, deeper and healthier and longer-lasting and more beautiful. We could–you could do without newspapers, but not without faith. Without faith–without us, you are nothing. We hold the entire key to the sense of your life, to the drama without which it has no meaning, the salt without which it has no savor.

For the “pope” to visit with the “president” means nothing. No, it means less than nothing; it erodes meaning rather than deepening it.

Who is this “pope” who is visiting? A figurehead travels around the world from his palace to visit other figureheads. It makes sense that a man with so much misery to answer for would cross the Atlantic to make a show of solidarity with another man just as evil–that makes sense in a social way, in a “the enemy of my friend is my friend” kind of way. Again, this does not qualify as news. When gangs meet to decide which other gangs to murder next, that is not news. That’s the same as every day, nothing has changed, evil people are still evil. Fuck them. I don’t want to hear about them and their despicable games. That shit sticks to you and affects your mind. When they are picked up and put in jail so that we ordinary people don’t have to be afraid of them anymore, that will be news. Don’t tell me about murderers continuing to murder unless you’re also going to do something about it. I don’t want them to be an the news. They don’t deserve to be famous. They deserve to be utterly unknown and impotent. Don’t let them get a “name,” that’s all they have. Without their notoriety they are nothing, they are slime we can step over so we don’t ruin our Vans. They are nothing. If people could see how small and shriveled and sick they are inside, their best friends would puke.

Oh, yes, I’m talking about you, Mr. “President,” Mr. “Vice-President,” and Ms. “Secretary of State.” May you burn in hell.

And you too, Joseph Alois Ratzinger. Of course, you’re familiar with the “scripture.” You would know just how certain and terrible is your fiery fate, if you believed any of it for a second.

I have to stop ranting and get back to the present point. Who or what is this “pope” who visited the “president”? When the Times reports on the activities of the “pope,” what does this noun refer to?

It’s not the guy–Joe Ratzinger. We don’t know anything about him–what makes him laugh, his family ties and troubles, whether he’d rather look at Cosmo or Playguy. He has been long since erased from the public eye. But that is who is riding in the “pope-mobile.” That’s him: Joe Ratzinger. You can change the name and the clothes and the job description, but you can’t change a person very much.

That’s not who the Times covers. They do not cover Ratso. They are complicit in the Ratso cover-up. To them Ratso is not interesting, Ratso is not news; and I agree with them on this. But at least Ratso exists. This “Benedict” thing is a construct, a figurehead, a cover, a lie from beginning to end. “Benedict” is no more real, or newsworthy, than Aunt Jemima.

There is someone, or something, the press is not covering. There is a man, who lives in a place, who has a job. It’s an important job, in the sense that it seriously affects many other human beings. The guy has a lot of power, and he uses it to benefit his organization, his buddies and colleagues, as opposed to the billions of members who faithfully pay their salaries. This is not even controversial. This is a matter of pure fact to anyone who won’t play the game of Don’t Dare Think That. This man is as evil as they come. And he is real. But he does not appear in the New York Times, just as the real President of the United States does not. The two proud papier-mâché figures appear, who do nothing, mean nothing, and are nothing. They are much safer to write about. You can’t get in much trouble with the real pope or president if you stick to writing about the fake pope and president.

Wonderful sentiment expressed on New Scientist’s letters page (22 March 2008, page 20). (The web version is a little messed up; Herzenberg’s letter starts about halfway down the page.)

From Caroline Herzenberg

I must disagree with the sentiment expressed in the headline “Nothing but the truth” on Robert Matthews’s article. After a lifetime in science and of wholehearted commitment to protecting intellectual integrity, I have come to the conclusion that in the world outside science, cold facts alone are not enough.

Truth travels slowly, and falsehood moves fast. Additional techniques must be used by scientists in struggling against propaganda, and I recommend ridicule. Here in the US we are contending with huge amounts of propaganda from very powerful institutions, including corporations and our own government, as Dan Hind has already set out (19 January, p 46).

This propaganda generates and publicises falsehoods at a greater rate than any well-intentioned individual or limited group of individuals could possibly research and examine on the timescale of an effective counter-argument. Of course we must present the evidence and the facts, but this response will be too little and too late when the propaganda is being churned out by well-funded political or corporate noise machines working around the clock.

I suggest an immediate response of publicly ridiculing the most obvious lies and propaganda, followed promptly by a detailed response that is as thorough, thoughtful and accurate as possible.

Chicago, Illinois, US

And so I listened [to the radio] until I heard that there is a drink of some kind, I think it’s called Pepsi-Cola, for people who think young. So I said, all right, that’s enough. I’ll think about that for a while. First of all, the whole idea is crazy. What is a person who thinks young? I suppose it is a person who likes to do things that young people like to do. Alright, let them think that. This then is a drink for such people. I suppose that the people in the research department of the drink company decide how much lime to put in as follows: “Well, we used to have a drink that was just an ordinary drink, but we have to rearrange it, not for ordinary people but for special people who think young. More sugar.” The whole idea that a drink is especially for people who think young is an absolute absurdity.

Richard P. Feynman. 1998. The meaning of it all [lectures delivered in 1963]. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books. p. 86-87

Did I mention?–advertising is wrong.

The reason is simple: advertisements are lies. They don’t tell the truth. They are misleading. They do not inform you of the actual qualities of the advertised product. Instead, they tout qualities that the product does not have. And the idea is to convince you, based on qualities the product does not have, to buy the product.

So it’s not just lying, it’s fraud. It’s theft, and I think we ought to be asking ourselves why we put up with it.

My favorite advertising slogan is “Coke adds life.” Sounds like a good thing! Who wouldn’t want some extra “life”? But this life that Coke adds is not well defined. And what could it really be? How does a sweet, carbonated beverage add life to anything? The only things Coke can actually add to my day are

  1. carbon dioxide
  2. a taste in my mouth
  3. sugar
  4. caffeine
  5. a container I have to discard or recycle.

Which of these provides the “life”? Only the caffeine has any possibility of enhancing my physiological state, that’s certain. But you can get caffeine in lots of products. Imagine a new campaign for Pepsi: “By the way, Pepsi adds life too–obviously.” I doubt the Coca-Cola people would be understanding about that.

Or imagine calling them and saying, “I want a refund, because contrary to your claims, I haven’t noticed any extra life in my life as a result of drinking Coke.” Would that be a silly gesture?–and if so, why? Hasn’t the company made this specific claim for this specific product? Is it supposed to be OK with us that the claim is unmotivated and completely false? Is it OK with us that practically all ads are completely false? What does that say about us, that people can lie to us all day long and we’ll still do what they suggest? Shouldn’t we stop trusting them?

When I first took up this topic I was more lenient than I am now. “Of course there are some ads that are not outright lies,” I was thinking. “They do tell you something about the product. Take BMW’s ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ Well, it’s actually true that they are kick-ass cars. Maybe we can forgive them a little exaggeration.”

I now think differently. The cars might be wonderful, but they are not any kind of ultimate. The word does not mean kick-ass, wicked, or fabulous. It means the end–that is, the absolute extreme of whatever scale you’re using. You can’t exaggerate “really good” and get “ultimate,” any more than you can exaggerate “sick” and get “dead,” as in Mark Twain’s famous joke. Therefore, to call BMW’s cars “the ultimate” is not an exaggeration, it is simply not fucking true.

Think about almost any ad you’ve seen. They do not tell the truth. They make promises that cannot ever be fulfilled. They are tricks. Instead of giving you the information you need to make intelligent choices, they try to trick you into choosing their stuff. The most reasonable response to such a maneuver is probably to never buy anything from those scam artists, ever again. They should be held responsible for their lack of scruples.

Advertising is the second most evil industry ever invented. When you think about advertising, if you don’t feel like screaming, you’re not doing it right.