Saturday, November 16, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Twenty-One

“The Happy World,” pages 206-213

The goal has been to record some facts, and to identify hopes that are sensible to hold in light of those facts. The facts involve the possibility that the struggle for existence can be eased for all humans, and that, as a result, cooperation on a global scale is a possibility, one that offers much better prospects than continued rivalry. The hopes are that this pleasant prospect can indeed be realized.

Of course, there are legitimate fears, too. But we excessively dwell on fears, and it is hope, not fear, that points the way forward. Grounded, sensible hopes can erode the fear.

Let’s assume that the recognition of the need for human unity has been accomplished. What will be necessary to bring a happy resolution to the longstanding, fundamental conflicts of man versus nature, man versus other men, and man versus himself?

In the man versus nature conflict, an international body will be needed to direct “the production and distribution of food and raw materials [p. 207].” Farming that undermines the long-term fertility of the soil – a practice that might be rational for an individual farmer in the short-term – would be prevented. No one will have the right to be prodigal with the agricultural capital that future generations will depend upon. The international authority also will collect and disseminate information on scientific farming. While destructive farming techniques can be prohibited, no one need be compelled to adopt the best agricultural methods.

“As I write a dangerous dispute is in progress concerning Iranian oil [p. 208].” [Sigh.] The dispute concerns which country among many claimants owns the oil. But the oil was put there by nature, not by any nation, so why should any nation own it? (The oil won’t be used by any single nation, either.) The oil, like other natural resources, should be internationally owned and rationed, to avoid the wars and strife that result from national control.

Population pressures need to be checked by means of education and universal availability of contraception, along with economic development of the poorer regions of the world.

International, monopoly control of the most potent instruments of war is vital to quell conflicts among men. Education will have to be regulated, to prevent the teaching of a “predatory nationalism [p. 209],” including narrow and biased history: history books should have to be approved by the international authorities. [Recall that Russell endorses having histories of a nation written by foreigners, to overcome the usual national aggrandizement.] Economics should emphasize the superiority of cooperation over competition in the modern world. A gradual implementation of free trade, freedom to travel, and student exchanges: all these should be part of the policy mix. An international university, available to good students from any corner of the globe, will attract internationally-minded faculty and students.

People need security from the crowd and from their inner terrors. The animus of the crowd itself usually draws from the personal fears of those who comprise the herd. Wise and loving care in the first few years of life can go a long way towards ameliorating private fears. Still, crowds can be roused to unjust anger, so places of sanctuary, a sort of refugee status for the innocent, must be available.

Provision must be made to promote individuality. Old timers will fail to recognize exceptional talents, so an Academy for poets and writers and other creative people should be by and for the young. The shorter working hours would leave time for those outside of the Academy, too, to indulge their tastes and talents, and adventurous pursuits would be available to the risk seekers. Family money has, in the past, allowed some people (Darwin and Milton, among others) with unpopular ideas to thrive. The future society has to ensure that there are mechanisms permitting exceptional, unpopular people to do their work. [Russell hit upon this theme in The Conquest of Happiness, too.]

Global security comes at too high of a price if it eliminates what is exceptional in humans. The version of security that Russell has outlined, however, is likely to end the psychological barriers to non-conformity. “If this is indeed the case, and if such institutions as I have spoken of can be established, the happy world that I am envisaging can be not only happy but glorious [p. 212].” We do not need tormented souls to bring forth wonderful creations. Humanity is far more capable than the current stunted model suggests, if we choose to unleash its power. [Russell indulges (again) his own taste for vibrant verbiage extolling the potential for mankind.]

[On security being mortals’ chiefest enemy, Russell’s godfather provides some pertinent prose: "He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm's way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form—it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilized parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."]

How far homo sapiens has travelled, leaving a desert to enter a comparative Eden. But we are reluctant to recognize our good fortune, and we cling to outdated fears and hates, including self-hate. We must embrace our intelligence and the path to peace and prosperity that it promises. We can choose happiness and achieve peace; the alternative is an extinction that would be, if chosen, deserved.

[As noted in the introductory post, New Hopes for a Changing World concludes with an About The Author paragraph.]

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Twenty

“The Happy Man,” pages 197-205

[Chapter 17 of Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, published 21 years prior to New Hopes for a Changing World, also is entitled “The Happy Man.” Did the requisites for happiness change between 1930 and 1951? The chapters are quite different, though their tone is similar, as is their ending.]

This chapter will present a vision of what would be feasible for humans, if we decided to pursue it. Right now, only a few people can live in the manner described, and during wartime, we lack even these happy few.

The happy man starts off as a happy child, one who receives parental affection, from two parents who find their parenting to be a mutually pleasurable partnership, and for whom marriage bonds are not simply restraints upon sexuality. The child spends times with lots of other children, outdoors when the weather permits. [Russell speaks well of spending time outdoors in Education and the Good Life, too.] The surroundings of the children have been child-proofed in the sense that those surroundings cannot be badly damaged by normal energetic activity, and also in the sense that children needn’t fear severe accidental harm. Their own potential depredations upon each other must be prevented, and generally can be prevented through the positive means of providing interesting activities.

Children feel secure in the presence of routine and affection. They need freedom to grow, and can be encouraged to use this freedom to experiment with new activities.

“Scholastic education is a tiresome necessity [p. 198].” Yes, people need to be prepared to operate in a civilized world, but that preparation need not involve the familiar drudgery. The educational focus (in Europe) on intellectual conversation instead of manual abilities is probably a leftover from the elite ancient Greeks, who had slaves to ensure that the actual work was accomplished. Boys with manual interests and talents should be in workshops for much of their schooling, not at desks. “All education can be pleasant if the child feels that it is important [p. 199].” Children often are correct when they suspect that they are engaging in pointless educational tasks.

Russell once again endorses the cinema as an educational tool (page 200), this time for history and geography – the pleasure of watching will spur attentiveness and promote retention. When a child meets a Zulu, he will view him as familiar, having earlier seen a film on Zulu culture. Kids who develop a taste for specific historical or cultural topics will proceed to seek out books concerning their interests, but in the meantime, all the children will have had their horizons expanded via movies.

Other elements of culture, such as art, music, and literature, should be available to those with an interest, but not force fed through the standard grind, as Shakespeare often gets delivered. The pedants should not be allowed to extract all the pleasure out of culture, and then subject children to the fun-free version.

The competition for academic scholarships in Europe is so intense that even the winners are badly damaged. [Russell exhorted against academic competition some 32 years prior in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] The underlying problem is funding, and that problem is intense because physical insecurity results in large resources being directed towards arms. In a world conducive to happiness, interest and not examination results would determine access to higher education. [See also Education and the Good Life, Chapter 18.]

“In every society, however Utopian, every healthy adult will be expected to do some kind of useful work [p. 202].” Remaining idle is not the recipe for happiness, but six hours of work per day would suffice to maintain a livelihood if economic life were rationalized. [In 1919, Russell thought four hours of work per day would be enough to secure a high living standard.] People should be able to work half-time for half-pay, so that exceptional talents could be given the opportunity to bloom [another echo of the circa-1919 Russell] – the best work is always undervalued contemporaneously.

An upbringing divorced from the usual diet of fear and sin will render the happy man open to others, possessing a generous spirit. He will be friendly, trusting that people will not abuse his friendly overtures, and his friendliness itself will typically validate that trust. He will understand the folly of war, and will be predisposed towards kind regards for foreign countries. [Russell’s happy man, though more free and open, has much in common with the prudent and virtuous man of Adam Smith’s description, as put forth in Part 6 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here is Smith on regard for foreign nations (TMS VI.II.28): “France and England may each of them have some reason to dread the increase of the naval and military power of the other; but for either of them to envy the internal happiness and prosperity of the other, the cultivation of its lands, the advancement of its manufactures, the increase of its commerce, the security and number of its ports and harbours, its proficiency in all the liberal arts and sciences, is surely beneath the dignity of two such great nations. These are all real improvements of the world we live in. Mankind are benefited, human nature is ennobled by them. In such improvements each nation ought, not only to endeavour itself to excel, but from the love of mankind, to promote, instead of obstructing the excellence of its neighbours. These are all proper objects of national emulation, not of national prejudice or envy.”]

Back to Bertie. “Inventors of Utopias usually make them intolerably dull, because their main preoccupation is with security [pages 202-203].” While broadly speaking, security is necessary, some adventure is needed, too, for fomenting happiness. It should be possible for people with a taste for active exploits to be able to save up and to travel to exotic locales to indulge such a preference. This possibility is open to a few hardy souls now, as the Kon-Tiki and Desperate Voyage indicate. [Recall Russell noted in Chapter 17 the interest in seeking out risky leisure activities by people living in a relatively secure world.] Adventurous pursuits should be made more available, and might even substitute for competitive behaviors that harm others.

So a happy man owes his happiness both to favorable external circumstances, and to a temperament bequeathed to him by a wise and loving upbringing. He will enjoy work and family life, and not go through middle age (as many men now do) with a sense of failure. In old age, he will look back with few regrets.

“The art of growing old is one which the passage of time has forced upon my attention [p. 204].” [The sentence that immediately follows the one just quoted starts a four-paragraph section that was reprinted (word-for-word, excepting the final sentence) in Russell’s Portraits From Memory. There, the four paragraphs form part, but only part, of his essay entitled “How to Grow Old”.] One key to a happy old age is to avoid dwelling in the past, while similarly avoiding negative comparisons between your current emotional and mental make-up and that of your younger self. A second key [and here is a close parallel with Russell’s much earlier “The Happy Man” essay] is to develop impersonal interests, as you do not want to burden your children with keeping you company. Broad, impersonal interests can even dilute the fear of death, and make the process of death akin, intellectually and emotionally, to the gradual merging of a widening river with the larger sea.

Friday, November 8, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Nineteen

“Life Without Fear,” pages 188-196

Chapter Seventeen examined fear; now, we examine its absence.

Our wisdom in meeting our three struggles – man v. nature, v. other men, and v. himself – is compromised by inertial fears, fears that once were sensible but no longer are. Even when there is reason to fear, a rational approach dominates an emotional one. Fear sometimes is enough to preclude thought, or even undermines the willingness to acknowledge danger: the fear of death dissuades some people from drafting a will.

People must die, and nature imposes other constraints that are sure to diminish wellbeing. These constraints must be understood and dealt with rationally, in ways that involve minimal suffering. The traditional approach to the limits imposed by nature has been one of superstition, where weather gods, for instance, are placated by prayer. Some of the superstitious responses to natural calamities worsened the calamities, as when people would gather in large groups to pray that infectious diseases would dissipate. The scientific approach allows the problem to be admitted, and allows rationality to reign in seeking to limit the damage. To this day, much of the world takes an unscientific approach to some natural problems, such as overpopulation (page 190).

Struggles among people or within a person need not present binding constraints. “There is nothing unavoidable about the misery that people cause each other through hatred or ill-will, nor about the misery that they cause themselves from a sense of guilt [p. 189].” Perhaps people in distant lands present a real danger to us; nonetheless, fear does not help us to deal with that danger. A pose of courage can work with humans, as it does with dogs.

Much human aggression towards other humans results from fear. “We bark at our neighbor for fear that he will attack us, and he barks at us for the same reason [p. 191].” Kind gestures often can defang aggression; herein lies the kernel of soundness in the strategy of non-resistance, a strategy that in its unadulterated form is unsound. Non-aggression is somewhat contagious, first as mere civility, but especially when it is internalized, when it is less a strategy than it is a fundamental trait.

Actual dangers need to be met by building individual dispositions to calmness and to fortitude, and by arranging social systems to allow dangers to dissipate. Consider the common malady afflicting many prosperous people, that of excessive fear of impoverishment. This can be countered by counseling courage in facing difficulties, by improving the accuracy of the appraisal of risks, and at the societal level, by diminishing the severity of poverty. The reliance on a stiff upper lip is second-best; the optimal approach, when feasible, involves reducing or eliminating the risk within society. (Oddly, many people hold Stoicism in such high regard that they almost hope for opportunities to display it.) [Adam Smith made a similar point in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VII.II.27), when discussing Stoicism: "A brave man exults in those dangers in which, from no rashness of his own, his fortune has involved him. They afford an opportunity of exercising that heroic intrepidity, whose exertion gives the exalted delight which flows from the consciousness of superior propriety and deserved admiration."]

Social life, especially in Britain, generates fears of being forthright. People treat you in the same cool fashion whether they like you or not. “They wear an armor designed to conceal the frightened child within [p. 193].” Human connections are degraded as a result, and the energy that could be turned in a positive direction instead is dissipated in hiding one’s true self. Friendship is perceived as risky, so friendly feelings are suppressed.

A world without fear is not a world without rules; indeed, some economic dimensions of that world will face more regulation, and laws to prevent war also will be necessary. Education will have to be augmented, and people will have to accept, not ignore or deny, unpleasant facts, even those connected to the constraints imposed by nature. Some coercion might be needed in delivering this education, just as children need to be made to brush their teeth or adopt other habits that are health preserving in the long run but insufficiently attractive on that basis alone. Though developing such habits might require increased discipline, controls over “acceptable” emotions need to be slackened. Pressure to adopt insincere emotions brings a host of ills.

Educators must nurture, not punish, as a gardener does with roses. A failure to bloom is a reason to rethink your own approach, not to chastise the victim. The focus must be positive, on what children do, not what they fail to do. Their actions will have value and serve to promote their future happiness only if they reflect the children’s own spontaneous choices, not if they are coerced.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Eighteen

“Fortitude,” pages 179-187

Sometimes fears (Chapter Seventeen) are reasonable and present. One such fear is that the West and the world more generally are on the brink of a period of much suffering. At such times, it is easy to become unmoored, to lose sight of what we need to accomplish. With a little forethought, however, we can steel ourselves and preserve our equanimity when dangers arise.

The fall of Rome was a dangerous period, and Plotinus (c. 205-270) chose one route, that of contemplating on eternal matters, to navigate through the ruins. His approach was incomplete, however; “Contemplation, if it is to be wholesome and valuable, must be married to practice [p. 180]...”. Boethius (c. 480-524) is a better guide. He was immersed in the affairs of the world, but when imprisoned, he produced a book that kept alive, through long, dark ages, the best of the classical world for posterity. [Coincidentally, I am typing this on October 23, which is they feast day for Boethius.] It is the example of Boethius that our modern learned people should emulate, to encapsulate for our descendants “the achievements, the hopes and the ideals which have made our time great [p. 181].”

The Cold War pits two different conceptions of man against each other. In the West, individuality, personal development, and freedom are prized, while the state is there to serve our interests, not to dominate us. In Russia, the government’s view (flowing from Hegel and Marx) is that individuals are expendable inputs, while the output that matters is the health of the State, which is distinct from the wellbeing of the populace. Soviet citizens thus can take pride in betraying their comrades for lapses in their regard for the State.

The Soviet cult of the State cannot win this struggle if human life is to have value. For the West to win, “we must be clear in our own minds as to what it is that we value, and we must, like Boethius, fortify our courage against the threat of adversity [p. 182].”

No man is an island, and wisdom and morals both recommend widening your circle of good feeling and empathy as widely as possible, beyond your family, friends, neighborhood, and nation. Our sympathies, indeed, should even encompass humans of ages past and to come, if we aim to keep our bearings in turbulent times. (Nor is it likely that humanity represents the acme of life within the universe – page 184.)

The history of man – itself a speck in the history of the universe –largely has been one of a struggle for existence, red in tooth and claw, like that of other animals. Only recently has human intelligence allowed us, in some places, to rise above that history, to provide secure subsistence. The Western nations which have achieved these advantages should be proud of their progress; their discoveries point the way forward for all of our globe.

Humanity’s advance has been painfully slow and undone at times by retrogression – but the advance occurred nonetheless. Adopting a long-term perspective can help us overcome present trials, which are barriers, but (as the past teaches) not insuperable ones, to further progress. Those who hold this perspective approach Spinoza’s ideal of evaluating events from the point of view of eternity.

The person who has inured himself to present difficulties is not cold-blooded; rather the opposite, in fact, he can enter more readily into friendship and empathy. His self-regard does not stand in the way of his regard for others. He still feels pain, but has learned to endure it, and will not concoct pleasing stories that allow him to ignore the pain of others. His understanding encompasses the unaccommodated man of Lear’s clarity-in-madness, as well as the god-like qualities that reside, as Hamlet recognizes, within our human quintessence of dust.

The broadening of the mind and its circle of sympathy is feasible for everyone. Spiritual leaders like Buddha and Jesus capture human imaginations precisely because of their success in embracing a comprehensive love. Today, only specialists in history recall anything about cruel Tiberius, Christ’s powerful contemporary.

A life well lived, even in obscurity, will radiate outwards, with beneficent influence that can go far afield geographically and temporally. “The individual, if he is filled with love of mankind, with breadth of vision, with courage and with endurance, can do a great deal [p. 186].”

Mankind probably will manage to avoid driving itself extinct. The achievements of man in his brief speck of time on earth suggest that despite frequent and even lengthy setbacks, progress will remain part of the story. We must show fealty to this potential, and our commitment can help us through difficult times. Adversity can breed wisdom, but if we achieve wisdom hastily, we can reduce future adversity, and deliver an unprecedented happiness to humanity.