Friday, February 27, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Nine

“On Youthful Cynicism,” pages 132-140

Educated young people in England, France, and the United States display an unusual degree of cynicism – a trait that is not shared by their counterparts in Russia and China, Japan, Poland, and elsewhere. [Bertie discussed the lack of cynicism exhibited by young people in Russia, India, China, and Japan in The Conquest of Happiness, which was published in 1930, five years before In Praise of Idleness. A footnote is indicated in the title of Chapter Nine, which (judging by other such footnotes in the book) is presumably meant to provide information noting that the chapter was originally written some years prior to the publication date of In Praise of Idleness; however, in my copy, the footnote itself (as opposed to the indicator, the superscript “1”) does not appear – RBR.]

Russian youth avoid cynicism by buying into the ideal of building communism. The work, much of it manual, involved in spreading industrialization and communist ideology serves as a cynicism preventative.

British rule and the subsequent detestation of British ways offer Indian youth a menu of meaningful, cynicism-protective activities. Some of these involve choosing the non-British path, preferring handicraft production, for instance, to mechanized industry, and preferring moral might to British military power. “The persecution of nationalist activities in India is just sufficient to make them heroic, and not sufficient to make them seem futile [p. 133].”

Chinese youth are nationalistic and inspired by the dream of Western-style freedom and prosperity. Japanese youth also are inspired by early nineteenth century European liberalism, and are struggling to conquer feudalism.

But Western youth believe in nothing, not the precepts of their elders, nor anything in reaction against those precepts. The traditional ideals – “religion, country, progress, beauty, truth [p. 134]” – fail to inspire. Why?

Science has made it hard to hold the fervent religious beliefs of earlier ages. It is the supposed usefulness of religion, and not its literal truth, that seems to be the main draw for the religious now. The Church itself is a major property owner, jealous of its privileges, and conservative. It counsels an ethic which in many applications appears cruel. Those who desire to follow Christ can find themselves ostracized from official Christianity.

Patriotism remains politically influential in Western countries, but young people see it as a regressive force once a country has established freedom. And it can be such a force: Poland used newfound freedom to oppress Ukraine, and Ireland used its achievement of freedom to censor books. The nationalism of larger countries is still more costly: the winners in World War I, who claimed to be fighting against militarism, became devoted militarists at Versailles. “Such facts have made it obvious to all intelligent young men that patriotism is the chief curse of our age and will bring civilization to an end if it cannot be mitigated [pp. 135-136].”

The sort of progress that is measurable, business success and increased consumption, does not inspire, and hawking these ideals to the young is unremunerative. Meaningful, inspirational things, even if they no longer involve (as they did for Shakespeare) the quality of an age’s poetry, cannot be measured.

The traditional artistic goal of seeking for beauty seems out of date: modern artists want to inculcate pain, not awe. Artists in the past, the chief inhabitants of Athens or Florence, say, could view themselves of being of utmost importance, leading residents of leading cities of a planet at the center of the universe, members of a species at the pinnacle of creation. The joys and sorrows of such creatures could be viewed as holding profound implications. Not so any more, individuals are fleeting collections of atoms in a vast, eternal, uncaring cosmos, our little lives rounded by a sleep. Lear’s clarity in madness [accidentally, RBR’s second use of this phrase] allows him to glimpse the insignificance of unaccommodated man; for moderns, the portrait is all too familiar.

Truth used to seem certain and attainable, and the search for truth drove my [Russell’s] youthful inquiries. [Russell later recounts his misguided belief in Truth in Portraits from Memory – RBR.] Truth has lost its esteemed position, truth now is relative and redolent with the flaws that flesh is heir to, and so truth cannot easily attract worshipers. [Russell amends a line from Pope to indicate that the updated understanding of gravity even robs Newton’s laws of their profundity.] A modern person questions any truth he holds, as being motivated by either economic (a’ la Marx) or sexual (a’ la Freud) considerations.

But skepticism about truth should be viewed like other beliefs, driven not by rationality but by sociology. Widespread cynicism stems from a comfortable existence – oppressed people are too angry to be prey to cynicism – paired with a lack of power to effect change. Intellectuals used to be influential, but as basic education has spread, they subsist by serving the non-intellectual rich or powerful. This service to the stupid ideas of the ruling class becomes palatable to intellectuals only through the adoption of a cynical outlook. A bright young person who is deeply knowledgeable about literature (as opposed to science) cannot exercise his talent in a manner that he regards as important.

So cynicism cannot be overcome by improved preaching to the young. “The cure will only come when intellectuals can find a career that embodies their creative impulses [p. 139].” This improvement can only arise if the ruling class were truly educated. People can work in finance with no interest in or knowledge of how their activities affect any part of the world beyond their own bottom line. [Here’s a recent contribution on that point – RBR.] Physicians cannot practice so! The world would be better if our financial and political masters were required to know economics and history, poetry and novels – and indeed the interconnected world implies that their actions have ramifications that extend to these seemingly remote areas. The anonymity that allowed Rabelais to publish and to keep his university post is no longer available, as publicity will out. [And even more so, now, of course – Rabelais could be identified through digital metrics of his writing style – RBR.] Hence, today's Rabelais will not create his work in the first place.

The stupidity of rulers has not intensified, but their power has. The social need for rulers to be well educated therefore has increased. Meeting this urgent need is a feasible, though not a simple, task.

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