Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82 by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

This is the quintessential scientific autobiography, a brief and charming book that Darwin wrote “for nearly an hour on most afternoons” for a little over two months. Originally published in 1887—five years after the naturalist’s death—it was somewhat censored, the more controversial religious opinions being taken out. It was only in 1958, to celebrate the centennial of The Origin of Species, that the full version was restored, edited by one of Darwin’s granddaughters, Nora Barlow.

The religious opinions that Darwin expresses are, nowadays, not enough to raise eyebrows. In short, his travels and his research slowly eroded his faith until all that remained was an untroubled agnosticism. What is interesting is that Darwin attributes to his loss of faith his further loss of sensitivity to music and to grand natural scenes. Apparently, in later life he found himself unable to experience the sublime. His scientific work also caused him to lose his appreciation for music, pictures, and poetry, which he heartily regrets: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he says, and attributes to this the fact that “for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry.”

The most striking and lovable of Darwin’s qualities is his humility. He notes his lack of facility with foreign languages (which partially caused him to refuse Marx’s offer to dedicate Kapital to him), his terrible ear for music, his difficulty with writing, his incompetence in mathematics, and repeatedly laments his lack of higher aesthetic sensitivities. His explanation for his great scientific breakthrough is merely a talent for observation and dogged persistence. He even ends the book by saying: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important point.” It is remarkable that such a modest and retiring man should have stirred up one of the greatest revolutions in Western thought. Few thinkers have been more averse to controversy.

This little book also offers some reflection on the development of his theory—with the oft-quoted paragraph about reading Malthus—as well as several good portraits of contemporary thinkers. But the autobiography is not nearly as full as one might expect, since Darwin skips over his voyage on the Beagle (he had already written an excellent book about it) and since the second half of his life was extremely uneventful. For Darwin developed a mysterious ailment that kept his mostly house-bound, so much so that he did not even go to his father’s funeral. The explanation eluded doctors in his time and has resisted firm diagnosis ever since. But the consensus seems to be that it was at least in part psychological. It did give Darwin a convenient excuse to avoid society and focus on his work.

The final portrait which emerges is that of a scrupulous, methodical, honest, plainspoken, diffident, and level-headed fellow. It is easy to imagine him as a retiring uncle or a reserved high school teacher. That such a man, through a combination of genius and circumstance—and do not forget that he almost did not go on that famous voyage—could scandalize the public and make a fundamental contribution to our picture of the universe, is perhaps the greatest argument that ever was against the eccentric genius trope.

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Review: Voyage of the Beagle

Review: Voyage of the Beagle

Voyage of the BeagleVoyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is really a rare treasure. Is there anything comparable? Here we have the very man whose ideas have revolutionized completely our understanding of life, writing with charm about the very voyage which sparked and shaped his thinking on the subject. And even if this book wasn’t a window into the mind of one of history’s most influential thinkers, it would still be entertaining on its own merits. Indeed, the public at the time thought so, making Darwin into a bestselling author.

I can hardly imagine how fascinating it would have been for a nineteenth-century Englishman to read about the strange men and beasts in different parts of the world. Today the world is so flat that almost nothing can surprise. But what this book has lost in exotic charm, it makes up for in historical interest; for now it is a fascinating glimpse into the world 150 years ago. Through Darwin’s narrative, we both look out at the world as it was, and into the mind of a charming man. And Darwin was charming. How strange it is that one of today’s most vicious debates—creationism vs. evolution, religion vs. science—was ignited by somebody as mild-mannered and likable as Mr. Darwin.

His most outstanding characteristic is his curiosity; everything Darwin sees, he wants to learn about: “In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.”

As a result, the range of topics touched upon in this volume is extraordinary: botany, entomology, geology, anthropology, paleontology—the list goes on. Darwin collects and dissects every creature he can get his hands on; he examines fish, birds, mammals, insects, spiders. (Admittedly, the descriptions of anatomy and geological strata were often so detailed as to be tedious; Darwin, though brilliant, could be very dry.) In the course of these descriptions, Darwin also indulged in quite a bit of speculation, offering an interesting glimpse into both his thought-process and the state of science at that time. (I wonder if any edition includes follow-ups of these conjectures; it would’ve been interesting to see how they panned out.)

In retrospect, it is almost unsurprising that Darwin came up with his theory of evolution, for he encounters many things that are perplexing and inexplicable without it. Darwin finds fossils of extinct megafauna, and wonders how animals so large could have perished completely. He famously sees examples of one body-plan being adapted—like a theme and variations—in the finches of the Galapagos Islands. He also notes that the fauna and flora on those islands are related to, though quite different from, that in mainland South America. (If life there was created separately, why wouldn’t it be completely different? And if it was indeed descended from the animals on the mainland, what made it change?)

Darwin also sees abundant examples of convergent evolution—two distinct evolutionary lines producing similar results in similar circumstances—in Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals in this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in everything but his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same & certainly the end in each case is complete.’

More surprisingly, Darwin finds that animals in isolated, uninhabited islands tend to have no fear of humans. And, strangely enough, an individual animal from these islands can’t even be taught to fear humans. Why, Darwin asks, does an individual bird in Europe fear humans, even though it’s never been harmed by one? And why can’t you train an individual bird from an isolated island to fear humans? My favorite anecdote is of Darwin repeatedly throwing a turtle into the water, and having it return to him again and again—because, as Darwin notes, its natural predators are ocean-bound, and it has adapted to see the land as a place of safety. Darwin also manages to walk right up to an unwary fox and kill it with his geological hammer.

You can see how all of these experiences, so odd without a theory of evolution, become clear as day when Darwin’s ideas are embraced. Indeed, many are still textbook examples of the implications of his theories.

This book would have been extraordinary just for the light it sheds on Darwin’s early experiences in biology, but it contains many entertaining anecdotes as well. It is almost a Bildungsroman: we see the young Darwin, a respectable Englishman, astounded and amazed by the wide world. He encounters odd creatures, meets strange men, and travels through bizarre landscapes. And, like all good coming of age stories, he often makes a fool of himself:

The main difficulty in using either a lazo or bolas, is to ride so well, as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily about the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush; and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and like magic caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practiced animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.

At this point, I’m tempted to get carried away and include all of the many quotes that I liked. Darwin writes movingly about the horrors of slavery, he includes some vivid description of “savages,” and even tells some funny stories. But I’ll leave these quotes to be discovered by the curious reader, who, in his passage through the pages of this book, will indulge in a voyage far more comfortable than, and perhaps half as fascinating as, Darwin’s own. At the very least, the fortunate reader need not fear exotic diseases (Darwin suffered from ill health the rest of his days) or heed Darwin’s warning to the potential traveler at sea: “If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil which may be cured in a week.”

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Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

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Quotes & Commentary #51: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #51: Montaigne

I set little store by my own opinions, but just as little by other people’s.

—Michel de Montaigne

Although nobody is free from self-doubt, I have long felt that I have this quality to an inordinate degree. The problem is that I can’t decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, doubting yourself is one of the keys of moderation and wisdom. If you think you already know everything you cannot learn. If you are sure that your perspective is right you cannot empathize. Dogmatism, selfishness, and ignorance result from the inability to doubt the truth of your own opinions.

There are no such things as self-doubting fanatics. The ability to question your own opinions and conclusions is what prevents most people from committing atrocities. I couldn’t kill somebody in the name of an idea, since there is no idea I believe in strongly enough.

And yet, this tendency to doubt my own beliefs and conclusions so often makes me hesitating, indecisive, and occasionally spineless. Never mind killing anyone: I don’t even believe in my political ideals enough to stand up to somebody I find offensive. I doubt the worth of my dreams, the reason of my arguments, the virtue of my actions; and I am not terribly sure about my professional competency or my literary skill.

No matter what I do, I have this nagging feeling that, somewhere out there, there are people who could make me appear ridiculous by comparison. So often I feel out of the loop. I hesitate to submit my writing anywhere because I think a professional editor would cut it to pieces. I hesitate to put forth arguments because I think a real expert could see right through them. I hesitate to commit to a profession because I doubt my own ability to follow through, to perform difficult tasks, and to do my duties responsibly.

My nagging self-doubt is more of a feeling than a thought; but insofar as a feeling can be expressed in words, it goes like this: “Well, maybe there’s something big out there that I don’t know, something important that would render all my knowledge and standards inadequate.”

The odd thing is that I have no evidence that this fear is justified. In fact, I have evidence to the contrary. The more I read and travel, the more people I meet, the more places I work, the less surprised I am by what I find. The contours of daily reality have grown ever-more familiar, and yet this fear—the fear that, somehow, I have missed something big—this fear remains.

The perilous side of self-doubt is that it can easily ally itself with baser qualities. I can argue myself out of taking risks because I am unsure whether I really want the goal. I can argue myself out of standing up for what I believe is right by doubting whether it really is right, and whether I could prove it. Self-doubt and fear—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of being publically embarrassed—so often go hand-in-hand.

I can’t say why exactly, but the thought of writing a flawed argument, with a logical fallacy, an unwarranted assumption, or a sloppy generalization, fills me with dread. How mortifying to have my mental errors exposed to the world! Maybe this is from spending so much time in a school environment wherein the number of correct answers was used as a measure of my worth. Or maybe it is simply my personality; being “right” has always been important to me.

This fear of being wrong is particularly irrational, since some of the greatest minds and most influential thinkers in history have been wrong—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, all of them have erred. Indeed, the fear of being wrong is not only irrational, but counterproductive to learning, since it sometimes prevents me from exposing my thoughts, increasing the likelihood that I will persist in an error.

Despite the negatives, I admit that I am often proud of my ability to doubt my own conclusions and change my opinions. I see it as a source of my independence of mind, my ability to think differently from others and to come to my own conclusions. After all, doubting yourself is the prerequisite of doubting anything at all. As Plato illustrated in his Socratic dialogues, from the moment we our born our minds are filled with all sorts of assumptions and prejudices which we absorb from our culture. The first step of doubting conventional opinion is thus doubting our own opinions.

But just as often as my self-doubt is a source of pride, it is a source of shame. I am sometimes filled with envy for those rare souls who seem perfectly self-confident. In this connection I think of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance artist who left us his remarkable autobiography. Cocksure, boastful, selfish, prideful, Cellini was in many ways a despicable man. And yet he tells his story with such perfect certainty of himself that you can’t help but be won over.

Logically, self-confidence should come after success, since otherwise it isn’t justified. But so often self-confidence comes beforehand, and is actually the cause of success. In my experience, when you believe in yourself, others are inclined to believe in you. When you are confident you take risks, and these risks often enough pay off. When you are confident you state your opinions boldly and clearly, and thus have a better chance of convincing others.

Confidence is often discussed in dating. Self-confident people are seen as more attractive, and tend to have more romantic success since they take more risks. The ability to look somebody in the eye and say what you think and what you want—these are almost universally seen as attractive qualities; and not only in romance, but in politics, academics, business, and nearly everything else.

The charisma of confidence notwithstanding, this leads to an obvious danger. Many people are confident without substance. They boast more than they can accomplish; they speak with authority and yet have neither evidence nor logic to back their opinions. The world is ruled by such people—usually men—and I think most of us have personal experience with this type. I call it incompetent confidence, and it is rampant.

As Aristotle would say, there must be some ideal middle-ground between being confidently clueless, and being timidly thoughtful. And yet, in my experience, this middle-ground, if it even exists, is difficult to find.

I suppose that, ideally, we would be exactly as confident as the reach of our knowledge permitted: bold where we were sure, hesitating where we were ignorant. In practice, however, this is an impossible ideal. How can we ever be sure of how much we know, or how dependable our theories are? Indeed, this seems to be precisely what we can never know for sure—how much we know.

For the world to function, it seems that it needs doers and doubters. We need confident leaders and skeptical followers. And within our own brains, we need the same division: the ability to act boldly when needed, and to question ourselves when possible. Personally, I tend to err on the side of self-doubt, since it easily allies itself with laziness, inaction, and fear; but now I am starting to doubt my own doubting.