Thursday, April 25, 2013

Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay by the very influential American philosopher. Emerson, whose life spanned from 1803 to 1882, introduced the philosophical school known as Transcendentalism. I am slowly working my way through this philosopher’s major works and becoming acquainted with his worldview.

One problem that I have with Emerson, at least compared to the limited number of other philosophers that I have read, is that he tends to stay general and does not always drill down into historical, fictional or real life examples on the points that he is attempting to make. This makes him very difficult to pin down. Most interpretations of his meaning and intentions lend themselves to a counterargument that he is being misinterpreted.

Self Reliance is both a positive exhortation of the intellectual and spiritual self, paired with the negative rejection of outside influences upon the psyche. He decries the idea of individuals following particular philosophies, political parties, organized religions etc. One basis for his arguments is that there is a universal spirit of wisdom endowed by God and nature that is inherent in all people.

“Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. “

Following external organized belief systems can never lead to an understanding of the essence of this inner wisdom.

Emerson goes further down this path as he even rejects the over-reliance on reason as being essentially an external belief system and instead exhorts the reader to follow their instincts and gut feelings when determining what is right and what is moral.

“When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. “

Emerson keeps going as he identifies even our past beliefs and perceptions as external and therefore factors that should not be relied upon.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

Later, he rejects other things such as personal property, searching for truth through science and even European influence upon American architecture as counterproductive overreliance on the external.

On the positive side, the essay is full of exhortations for the individual to trust their own mind as well as to disregard the approval of others. When one contemplates the plethora of self-help books that are so popular these days and whose authors urge one to become self-actualized by loving oneself and rejecting the opinions of others, one discerns Emerson’s influence.

As a firm believer in independent thinking and intellectual independence, I find some of Emerson’s views here very much in line with my own. For instance, when it comes to the issue of not conforming to the ideas of loved ones just to go along and be accepted, while at the same time balancing this independence with the value in the relationships themselves, Emerson writes,

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, 'O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,— but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. “

But then the philosopher descends into what for me is untenable territory,

If you are noble, I will love you: if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. “

I believe that the above represents an extreme intolerance towards belief systems that one does not agree with and is thus the road to strident closed-mindedness. Furthermore, cleaving only to those who agree with one’s self is surely the path to intellectual stagnation. In addition, Emerson’s criticism of science and reason does not, in my opinion, reflect a realistic way to find truth in life.

Despite the fact that I mostly disagree with Emerson’s worldview and the fact that I believe he takes what are some great ideas to unnecessary extremes, this is an interesting and important work. In addition, his proses are a joy to read. Emerson was an innovative and lively thinker and his viewpoints have had a significant influence upon the modern world. 

My commentary on Emerson's Nature, is here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Field Guide to the Little People - Nancy Arrowsmith

I think that it was sometime in the late 1980s, in a used bookstore somewhere in New England, that I found the marvelous A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith (George Moorse is listed as co - author of older editions).  The book, set up like a reference work, seeks to classify elves, fairies, sprites, leprechauns, etc. into species, genera and families. Each species is described in detail, useful facts for identification are presented, habits are detailed and, finally, folktales relating to the particular creature are included. These tales range from the marvelously whimsical to the truly horrifying. A total of 79 separate species are cataloged. The book includes wonderful illustrations of the assorted creatures by Heinz Edelmann.

Though at times she gives a nod to the reader that we are indeed dealing in fantasy, Arrowsmith mostly presents this work as a serious field guide such as those that classify such flora and fauna as mushrooms or birds. She does indicate that much of her research involved folklore, but essentially presents what appears to be a scientific field guide that includes a lot of charming stories.

Arrowsmith’s descriptions and stories are enchanting and lively,

Take the description of the Servan and his habits,

“In Switzerland and northern Italy misplaced objects are not lost by accident but have been stolen by the Servan. He runs away with the most useful items: keys, scissors, needles, pens and even spectacles. When his infuriated victim begins to swear and yell, “Who’s taken it? “ the Servan laughs, fully enjoying the man’s predicament. He then looks for something else to hide. “

The stories and folktales told about these little folk range from the charming to the erotic to the sadistic. Humans are often rewarded with gifts, wealth and health by the creatures for kind acts. At other times, however, people are attacked and sometimes killed for evil actions or sometimes just for boorish behavior. There is an underlying moral to many of the tales. The little folk are prone to reward people for good deeds as well as to punish those who act dishonestly or treacherously. However, some creatures just behave monstrously, like the Vodyaniye, an eastern European species who drowns people in rivers and sometimes eats the victim’s bodies.

This work is extraordinarily entertaining and fun, despite some of the malicious behavior of a few species. In addition, I think that it is healthy and refreshing to let go of the real world once in a while and delve into this kind of fantasy. Arrowsmith argues that these beliefs and legends connect us to a world that has mostly gone by, a world that possessed some lost virtues,

In our time it may seem irrelevant to speak of old pagan beliefs, of elves and beings of folklore. But is there not some truth in the old stories? In our endless search for a more modern life, we have rejected the harsher existence of the village for that of the city, have forgotten the names of elves and have disfigured the Earth with our tools and machinery.“

Despite the violent nature of a small percentage of the tales, I find this book to be tantalizingly magical.  Over the years, from time to time, I find myself randomly choosing an entry and reading through it. As someone who is frequently in the forest I even, on occasion, think about the Arrowsmith’s little folk. However, to my disappointment, I have not yet definitively observed any of these creatures. Though I sometimes use the entries as bedtime stories for myself, due to the violent and erotic nature of a few of the stories I would advise that parents read the book first to decide if is appropriate for their children.

I recommend A Field Guide to the Little People to anyone who is able to let their imagination stray from the hard and rational or even from overly serious philosophical and spiritual meditations. After reading this work, bigger folks such as myself, when in a dark basement or dim forest, may even might find themselves glancing at what might be the little folk, who appear out of the corner of our eyes!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Five Days in London by John Lukacs

Five days in London by John Lukacs focuses on the five crucial days in Europe from May 24 to May 28, 1940. This was a time of extreme crisis for Great Britain and for democracy. On the continent, Hitler’s armies were soundly and quickly defeating the armies of France and Great Britain. France was swiftly heading toward collapse. Europe, west of The Soviet Union, was looking like it would soon be under the complete domination of Germany. British forces in France, the British Expeditionary Force (B. E. F.), seemed in the opinion of everyone in the know to be headed for surrender. The invasion of Great Britain loomed.

The tenacious Winston Churchill had recently become Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill was absolutely determined to fight on to the end if need be. He was not going to compromise with Hitler, period. However, Lukacs illustrates how there were forces in the British government that were lobbying hard for a compromise, some would say a surrender, to Hitler.

Lukacs is somewhat hard on Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. The author details how Halifax was an ally of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Halifax was a major advocate of the failed policy of appeasement during the years leading up to the war. In May of 1940 Halifax became the primary proponent of compromise and accommodation with the Nazis. During the dark days of May 1940, the Foreign Secretary, not without at least some good reason, seemed resigned to a German victory. 

Halifax advocated strongly for negotiations through Italy as an intermediary with the Third Reich. The Foreign Secretary hoped for a compromise that would retain most British sovereignty and independence, possibly at the price of some British colonial concessions to Germany. Churchill countered that such a peace initiative would be the beginning of a slippery slope that would at least lead to British disarmament as well as the installation of a pro-Nazi British government. Lukacs strongly sides with Churchill’s prognostications on the issue.

Lukacs does not impinge upon Halifax’s patriotism or values, but he is highly critical of his opinions and portrays him as a man who is terribly out of step with his times. At one point the author even describes Halifax’s personal memoirs as bland!

Lukacs explains how at this time Churchill was a new Prime Minister with an untested reputation. He was mistrusted by many elements in the British government. The conflict with Halifax could easily have led to his losing the position of Prime Minister and thus, Lukas contends, British defeat.

Lukacs writes,

Hitler was never closer to his ultimate victory than during those five days in May, 1940”

By the end of May 28th however, as a result of adroit political and rhetorical maneuverings, Churchill had established a position that was universally accepted by the British public and most of the establishment. Great Britain would go on fighting even in the face of short term calamities such as the loss of the B. E F. and the fall of France. Lukacs describes how even Churchill was surprised that in the coming days, at least the B. E F. was saved.

Churchill has written extensive memoirs, which I have not read. Lukacs contends that the Prime Minister actually held back details concerning the positions of Halifax and other defeatists out of magnanimity towards his colleagues.

Before reading this work I knew next to nothing about Halifax. Though Lukacs’s interpretation seems credible, I will withhold forming an opinion of such an important figure based upon this single account. 

Lukacs ends by detailing his presumptions about what a German victory against Great Britain would have meant. He argues that it would have been the end of the Western world as we know it, 

"Britain could not win the war. In the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it. Then and there he saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization.”

I find a flaw in Lukacs’s general reasoning. He too often lays out what he believes to be definitive consequences to hypothetical events. A few examples of these contentions: the loss of the B. E. F. would not have had an appreciable change in British resolve, if negotiations with Hitler were initiated they would have inevitably led to British surrender and British defeat would have led to eventual American capitulation to Hitler. Lukacs may be right about these things, but he too easily disregards other possibilities. With this said however, it is clear that had Great Britain been defeated, most imagined alternate histories would have indeed been much bleaker than the reality of the history that we know. 

This is a dramatic and riveting book. The five days of the title were truly a time of existentialist crises for Great Britain and for democracy itself. Lukacs details it all with accounts of War Cabinet meetings and maneuverings and military strategy, as well as with historical evidence concerning the mood and opinions of the people of Great Britain.

Ultimately, this book is a stirring celebration of Churchill and his actions. Great Britain looked into the jaws of an evil intent on devouring civilization and courageously fought it off.  Lukacs has written a testament to Churchill who did not flinch and who rallied the British public to do the same. The situation was indeed very bad in May of 1940. Without the luxury of hindsight, Halifax, in some ways, seemed to be a realist.

I would not recommend this book to readers who have little knowledge of the early days in of World War II in Europe. This is a book that digs deeply into a very tight subject and presupposes that the reader is equipped with basic background information. A very basic understanding of the European situation of the era is an almost mandatory prerequisite for comprehending this work. However, those familiar and interested in this period will find this to be an irresistibly interesting read. It is also a must for those who are interested in the behavior of governments and publics in times of crises. Even if one is cautious in accepting all of Lukacs’s contentions and “what ifs”, this is a story of one of the most pivotal five days in history and is instrumental in understanding the major events of World War II and the twentieth century.