Month: May 2013

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates: whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment, it is, in any case, not ‘to think of man in society; it is to create an unnatural, useless and dangerous existence’; the prison should educate its inmates, but can a system of education addressed to man reasonably have as its object to act against the wishes of nature? The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply the law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of administration: ‘The feeling of injustice that a prisoner has is one of the causes that may make his character untamable. When he sees himself exposed in this way to suffering, which the law has neither ordered nor envisaged, he becomes habitually angry against everything around him; he sees every agent of authority as an executioner; he no longer thinks that he was guilty; he accuses justice itself’ (Bigot Préameneu). Corruption, fear and the inefficiency of the warders: ‘Between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts live under the surveillance of between thirty and forty supervisors, who can preserve some kind of security only by depending on informers, that is to say, on the corruption that they carefully sow themselves. Who are these warders? Retired soldiers, men uninstructed in their task, making a trade of guarding malefactors’ (La Fraternité, March 1842). Exploitation by penal labour, which can in these conditions have no educational character: ‘One inveighs against the slave-trade. But are not our prisoners sold, like the slaves, by entrepreneurs and bought by manufacturers. … Is this how we teach our prisoners honesty? Are they not still more demoralized by these examples of abominable exploitation?’

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, pp. 266-67

The forgotten art of fatherhood

For a woman the physical act of producing a child is a long, tremendous enterprise, which fillers her (whether she likes it or not) with purpose and responsibility and vitality. For a man it is brief and, in feeling, almost purposeless. The rest of his share in the child’s life before birth is auxiliary at best. But after it is born he can being to share equally with the mother in helping it to live and learn. As it grows able to think and talk, he will share that job more and more, whether he knows it or not, whether he wants to or not. Large numbers of fathers do not know this, do not care, and hope it is not true. They try to live as though the child had never been born. They leave it to its mother, or to the schools, or to the other children. Sometimes they true completely to adapt themselves to it when it brings in new ideas and lets loose new forces in their home. Yet by doing all that they are teaching the child just as carefully and emphatically as though they were concentrating on it several hours a day. They are giving it ideas, patterns of emotion and thought, standards on which to base future choices. A child cannot make up its own mind with nothing to work on. It has to see how people behave. For this, it watches other children, and people in the movies, and characters in books; but the people who bulk largest and whose acts have most authority, in the time when its formless mind is being shaped, are its mother and its father. Enormous in size, terrible in strength, unbelievably clever, all-seeing and all-knowing, frightful in anger, miraculously bountiful, unpredictable as a cyclone, cruel even in kindness, when they speak, a child’s mother and father are its original King and Queen, Ogre and Witch, Fairy and Giant, Mother-Goddess and Saviour-God. It obeys them and makes itself to suit them, it watches them to copy them, and, often without knowing it, it becomes them — or else it becomes an opposite of them in which their power is still expressed.
Whatever the father does, his child will learn from him. It is far better then for him to decide what to teach it, and how. As he does so, he will be giving up some part of his own personality, and some of his time an energy. But afterwards, when the results being to show, he will be astonished to see that the sacrifice is repaid: his character (when he was perhaps becoming a little tired of its inadequacies) reappears with new strength and new originality in his child. Then he will really be able to say that he made it, and that he is its father.

Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 222-24

A teacher’s mind

The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests. It is useless to think of teaching as a business, like banking or insurance: to learn the necessary quota of rules and facts, to apply them day by day as the bank-manager applies his, to go home in the evening and sink into a routine of local gossip and middle-brow relaxation (radio, TV, the newspaper, and the detective-story), to pride oneself on being an average citizen, indistinguishable from the dentist and the superintendent of the gas-works — and then to hope to stimulate young and active minds. Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live. This does not only mean that have a better command of language and know special subjects, such as Spanish literature and marine biology, which are closed to others. It means they must know more about the world, have wider interests, keep a more active enthusiasm for the problems of the mind and the inexhaustible pleasures of art, have a keener taste even for some of the superficial enjoyments of life — yes, and spend the whole of their career widening the horizons of their spirit. Most people, as we see, stop growing between thirty and forty. They “settle down” — a phrase which implies stagnation — or at the utmost they “coast along,” using their acquired momentum, applying no more energy, and gradually slowing down to a stop. No teacher should dream of doing this. His job is understanding a large and important area of the world’s activity and achievement and making it viable for the young. He should expect to understand more and more of its as his years go by.

Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 48-49

Review: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book while sitting in a prison at night, surrounded by sleeping prisoners locked in their cells, during the last few nights of the year I spent as a correctional officer in a Georgia prison. Each point made by Foucault in this book stood out in high relief all round me. So did the points he missed.

While Foucault’s analysis here is, as always, insightful and fascinating, I think his own obsession with the idea of power led him to miss some points which he often seems to be very close to. In one instance, for example, he correctly refers to the prison system as the product of puritanism. This point taken deeper and examined more thoroughly I believe would yield greater insight than the rather nonchalant way Foucault throws it out and moves on.

Ultimately, the word I believe Foucault misses is: Gnosticism. The prison system, as so much of the modern world, is essentially Gnostic. It is the product of an absolute mind-body dichotomy for which Descartes might be blamed for popularizing most recently but which stretches very far back in Western thought. It is, however, even a bastardized Gnosticism at work in the penal system, a Gnosticism stripped of its spiritual elements, which have instead been replaced by a supposed “science of the mind,” “psychology” which no longer takes the “psyche” (that is, the soul) as its subject but some sort of disembodied but ultimately material “mind”.

Simultaneously, God has been replaced by the State. Whereas the medieval prisoner undergoing torture was expected to confess to a priest and receive the absolution of God, the modern prisoner, subject to the State, sits under the watchful gaze of its representatives and has his every bodily function regulated in accordance with the State even as it attempts thereby to control his mind. One need only compare the masses huddled on that Arch of Constantine, an early example of emerging Christian art coupled with political propaganda to, for example, the Panopticon of Bentham. Whose all-seeing Eye do each stand under? What relation does each individual in each respective mass have to his fellows under observation and control?

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the penal system and, more broadly, in the development of the post-Enlightenment world and its differences from the medieval one which preceded it. This book is, simply put, fascinating and thought-provoking.

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Review: The Art of Teaching

The Art of Teaching
The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one of the best books on teaching that I have yet read. Highet’s style is engaging and charming. As he meanders his way through various references to the Classics, personal anecdotes, and humorous stories to argue and elucidate each of his points, the reader is drawn in. It is difficult to put this book down.

Highet lays out in detail, with examples, and with practical guidance just what it takes to be a teacher; in short: an expert with a passion for both his subject and his students. Of particular interest to his reader was Highet’s exploration of the methods of some of the greatest teachers in history (Jesus, Plato, and Aristotle, among others). I recommend this book to teachers and parents.

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Sins Against Philosophy

Philosophy is the primary pursuit proper to man. I have no use, however, for either pies in the sky or for their ostensible opposite in pessimistic pontifications on the utterly hopeless situation of man. While rejecting philosophy as too heady, too complex, or too impractical is the mistaken notion of those who have rejected philosophy, the greater sin against philosophy has been committed by those who have professed to adopt it and to nurture it. It is the greater sin because it has been committed by those who have been the most intimate with philosophy1 and because the commission of such a sin by these intimates of philosophy has driven away so many who would have been among its greatest lovers.2

Throughout the greater portion of its history, nearly since the Socratic spirit entered it, the proponents of philosophy have engaged most frequently in the former abuse, focusing their intellectual endeavors upon the utterly transcendent and the entirely theoretical, and therefore the ultimately meaningless. Perhaps the most notorious instance of this concern for the superfluous which has become nearly synonymous with philosophy in many modern minds is the infamously medieval debate over how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin.3 Philosophy, however, is not synonymous with conjecture about the unknowable and the unnecessary, no matter how adamantly some may insist that this must be the case.

Modern philosophers, by which terminology I hereby designate those of and since the Enlightenment, have tended to view themselves as having transcended their predecessors’ concerns for such matters. On the contrary, however, rather than replacing superstition with reason moderns have instead substituted reason as their greatest superstition. The modern mind has trained itself to see past what scientist Carl Sagan famously referred to as “the demon-haunted world” of so-called “primitive” man, but has instead cultivated new blind spots and new beliefs without foundation (i.e. superstitions). Perhaps the most obvious modern superstition is really a continuation and modification of the old and human, all-too-human, habit of assuming that one’s own viewpoint is the most natural and the default viewpoint. This, of course, breeds the kind of incredulity that leads nearly in a straight line to the spirit of the Holy Inquisition. Just as the medieval Christian could not fathom how the Jew, equipped with the Sacred Scriptures and the Mosaic traditions, could possibly fail to see that Jesus the Christ was undoubtedly the Messiah foretold in the Law and the Prophets, the modern secular man cannot understand how anyone anywhere could believe differently than he believes about the world, about himself, and about the nature of things. “What is the matter with you? Can’t you see it? It is so obvious! – to me.” It is so obvious that one could only miss it if one is either altogether stupid or if one is not missing it at all but is in fact in active and conscious rebellion against it. Through this reasoning, the Jew becomes insidiousness incarnate, the Christ-despising deicide who abducts and consumes Christian children for his Passover motzah and poisons wells with the bubonic plague. Through this reasoning, the man of ardent faith who refuses to concede to the program of eugenics, to the possibility of concocting a workers’ paradise, to the inherent desirability of “progress,” to whatever agenda happens to be fashionable among men without chests who build their houses on sand, becomes the misguided, the ignorant, the obnoxious, the dangerous, the one upon whose blood the architecture of the future can be built. This spirit, the spirit of the Inquisition, pervades the minds of modern man. Sometimes, it leads to concentration camps and gulags. In tamer periods, such as our own (at least within the confines of the so-called “First World” as well as large portions of the former “Second World”), it makes dialogue often arduous and sometimes impossible. One need only read the comments section on nearly anything published online as evidence of this.

Simone de Beauvoir saw to the root of the superstitious pseudo-reasoning in man’s assumption of the masculine perspective as natural and default and the feminine perspective (that is, the perspective of nearly any female whatsoever on nearly any subject whatsoever in any instance whatsoever in which said female’s opinion happens to run contrary to that of any given male whatsoever) as inherently subject to and circumscribed by her femininity. What he fails to realize, de Beauvoir aptly points out, is that he too has “glands;” he is, in other words, equally a body and equally subject to the influence of hormones, equally trapped in a subjectivity that can never be escaped and that perpetually governs his consciousness and his interactions with the world and with others. No one has a direct connection with the world; the world is, rather, experienced through the lens of each individual’s perceptive and cognitive faculties; there is no escaping our own subjectivity.4

An appreciation of this fact-of-the-matter is the first step toward a meaningful dialogue across intellectual paradigms. Modern man must no longer indulge in the superstitious belief that his assumptions are the most natural assumptions. On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton, David Bentley Hart, T.S. Eliot, and many others of a similar bent – men and women with a good knowledge of history, a keen eye for observation, and an even keener mind for drawing the necessary inferences – have pointed out and exhibited time and again, there is no post-Christian society that was not first a Christian society. There is hardly an idea regarded with admiration or interest in the modern world which does not have Christianity as its parent or at least its grandparent. The political institutions, the social ideals, the ethical predispositions – all of these smell like Christianity; it is often a watered-down, heavily sedated Christianity, but it is Christianity nonetheless.

Let us take up the case of equality, an idea – even an obsession – beloved by modern man. It is the idea that has led to most of the great revolutions of the last several centuries, including the American and French revolutions, with their disdain of the monarchical and aristocratic orders of the so-called colonial and feudal eras; the movement against slavery which became the movement against racial segregation and inequality; and all of the great movements of feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries. All of these movements have taken as their motto and underlying basis the idea most succinctly expressed by Thomas Jefferson that it is “self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal.” But is this really “self-evident”? Not at all! Clearly, the very opposite assertion is the more self-evident. What about the great mass of humanity makes each particular member of it ontological equals? Human beings are of greatly varying intellectual, physical, artistic, musical, etc. (ad nauseum) abilities; there is no natural or observable equality among them. Early generations “knew” this as much we “know” the contrary. Plato, Aristotle, and the Twelve Tables of Roman law – in short, all of the great authorities of the ancient Western world and those outside of the so-called West as well – stand as authorities on man’s inherent inequality and on the necessity of destroying or at least making marginalized and castrated subjects of those that are so unequal as to make a society itself weaker.

Erudite intellectual historian Thomas Cahill offers succinctly the reason for the modern man’s love of equality: “There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.”5 At its root, this modern notion of and emphasis upon equality has entered the realm of ideas through the influence of a specific system of thought, namely Judaism via the Hellenic-Jewish synthesis achieved in the medieval Christian Church; in shorthand, it is the biblical worldview which has given birth to and placed emphasis upon this idea. Separated from this context, the idea lacks foundation and quickly crumbles when subjected to the slightest interrogation. In the perpetually poignant words of Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the keenest observer of and thinker on the state of the emerging post-Christian world,

When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth — it stands or falls with the belief in God.6

In order to achieve a real and meaningful dialogue across paradigms, in order to achieve any meaningful thought whatsoever, modern thinkers must conquer, subdue, and eliminate the spirit of the Inquisition which begins with this superstitious belief that one’s ideas can be taken for granted. All ideas must be subject to question, all ideas must be interrogated, and no idea can be safe from this investigation. Our first step must be to uncover and expose the genealogy of all ideas.

Included in this investigation and exposure must also be the very reason which modern man depends upon as his primary tool for the investigation and exposure. In other words, man must doubt his own doubting and very rational faculty which he uses to doubt. What reason is there for man to rely upon his reason that is not itself given by reason? But any logician knows that a thing cannot justify itself; this is circular reasoning, this is question-begging. Yet man must have faith in reason. Detached from reason man is no longer man; apart from reason, man becomes an animal. Faith in reason is essential not only to the possibility of dialogue, but to humanity itself. We must, however, be aware of the limitations of reason, aware of our own bodies (our “glands” and “hormones,” as De Beauvoir phrased it), and aware of the trust we place in reason. The implicit must be made explicit.

The next step in overcoming the errors of others, past and present, in this our grand process of restoring life to philosophy and philosophy to life, will derive naturally enough from this process of making the implicit become explicit. In addition to specific ideas, modes of thought and movements of concept must also be discovered and exposed. A modern thinker who has done much in this direction is Jacques Barzun. One example among many is his discovery of the roots of genetic determinism in earlier Calvinistic conceptions of predestination.

In this single example we find a clear demonstration of perhaps the greatest sin against philosophy committed by modern thinkers. In a nearly equal-and-opposite movement against the pies in the sky and angels dancing on pinheads of the medieval philosopher, the modern philosopher has adopted a pessimism he imagines to be more “realistic,” a more accurate description of the reality of things. But we have seen already the flaw in this sort of thinking; in his belief that his negative assessment of the way of things is closer to how things really are, modern man is committing the sin of believing himself to possess a closer and clearer connection with the world than did men of earlier times. In fact, he is assuming that his connection is closer and clearer than it actually is or is capable of being – he is forgetting about his perpetual imprisonment in subjectivity.

He is also committing the same sin as those medieval philosophers who insisted on debating the numbers of angels who could dance on a pinhead. He is committing perhaps the greatest sin that can be committed against philosophy, the sin of irrelevancy. It has absolutely no relevance to the life of any particular human being to insist, as does scientist Steven Weinberg and so many along with him, that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”7 It is, in fact, less than relevant, because it is a distraction that has the potential to depress and even destroy the mind which is not trained to recognize it as irrelevant. Any deterministic scheme, whether that of the Calvinist or that of the geneticist, also belongs to this category. If the way of things really is predetermined, if man’s free will really is an illusion, it does not need to be stated. It is really quite absurd to think it at all, much less to say it. It is irrelevant. Whether anyone believes it is true or not makes no difference to anything at all. If you believe it, you believe it because you were predestined to believe it; if you disbelieve it, you disbelieve it because you were predestined to disbelieve it. Even if you argue it and debate it and try to convince others of it, you are merely doing what was predestined. All activity becomes useless on this theory; all determinism inevitably becomes fatalism. I have no use for what is useless. I want only what is relevant, what is human.

It is only once the sins of philosophy are recognized and overcome that we begin to approach philosophy properly.

1 “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” – Luke 12.47 (New King James Version).

2 “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” – Luke 17.1-2 (NKJV).

3 Although I mention this subject as an example of meaningless debate in philosophy, the particulars are in fact fictitious. The charge was brought against the scholastic philosophers by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who saw their own movement away from the superstitions of religion as the adoption of a more reasonable stance and saw fit to therefore mock the unreasonableness of their philosophical predecessors. In reality, historians have been unable to uncover any evidence of this debate aside, perhaps, from a few scattered comments by various philosophers of the High Middle Ages which yet bear strikingly little resemblance to the charge as filed. In fact, the entire debate seems to run contrary to the spirit of scholastic and medieval thought on angels, which insisted upon their being incorporeal and intellectual bodies lacking altogether the possession of the gross, the material, and the carnal. Interestingly, this is itself an example of a point in philosophy which may seem superfluous at first gander and yet reveals itself, when finally considered in depth, to possess a startling relevance.

4 This has bearing upon the previous footnote concerning the incorporeality of angels; as incorporeal and intellectual beings, angels lack the organs of perception and cognition and therefore interact with the world in a more direct manner than human beings.

5 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, p. 249.

6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” 5.

6 This is the same man who has insisted elsewhere that “religion is an insult to human dignity”! This is a stunning example of precisely the lack of context and depth of thought which results from the lack of knowledge of the origins of one’s ideas. He has accomplished a true feat in dearth of self-awareness by coupling his ignorance of the history of ideas with an appalling amount of compartmentalization.