Monday, February 28, 2005

Evil aesthetes

The critic Terry Eagleton once wrote something to the effect that the fact that many Nazi death camp officers spent their time reading Goethe and listening to Mozart put a bit of a dent in the old assumption that consuming beautiful art was morally improving. It is arguable that the Nazi regime was one of the most "aesthetic" in history and, perhaps partly because of that, one of the most evil.

Anyway, Eagleton's observation was brought to mind in the second chapter of Hochschild's book:

"Oswald, as he appears in protraits had a long, determined face, intense eyes, and a proudly bowed-out chest. His contemporaries saw him as a wise, thoughtful man who embodied Scottish virtues of frugality, sobriety, and hard work, and who spent all of his spare time reading, often far into the night. He supervised the construction of a home library with sliding glass panels that contained more than two thousand books fo theology, philosophy, literature and history. His art collection included works by Rubens and Rembrandt, and a friend called him a 'man of Great Knowledge and Ready Conversation'. Among those who shared that conversation at his London dinner table, or could hunt pheasants while visiting his 100,000 acre estate in Auchincruive, Scotland were Benjamin Franklin and the writers Laurence Sterne and James Boswell. Oswald played a major role in Scottish road building, gave to charity and, as we shall see, would represent his country on a crucial diplomatic mission"

He was also one of the most successful slave traders of his time.

The other major character in Hochschild's chapter is John Newton, a slave boat captain who spent half his life chucking dead people off his boat during the immensely cruel voyage from Africa to the Americas and the other half as a self-professed religious man, chafing at the immorality (by which he meant licentiousness) of his fellows. Newton spends much of his journal thanking God for miraculous interventions in his life and for signs showing the way to conduct himself and yet:

"...during the better part of a decade in the slave trade, and for some thrity years afterwards, John Newton seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery."

In my piece in "Big Questions in Science" I was asked to look at the science of aggression. At the end of my research, it became apparent that the most destructive forms of man's inhumanity to man could not be explained in terms of our innate aggressive drives. Phenomena like the Holocaust, the slave trade and 9/11 have really rather little to do with man's violent or aggressive feelings, but much more to do with our incredible ability to disengage our moral faculties and, more fundamentally, our sympathetic/empathetic feelings when it suits us. Perhaps art/religion serves as a way of filling the gap sometimes.

The first international human rights movement

Reading "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild, an account of the campaign for the abolition of slavery. In a gripping first chapter, Hochschild quotes "the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society" Alexis de Tocqueville: "[The campaign was] absolutely without precendent ... If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."

Monday, February 21, 2005


Read "Introducing Islam" by Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik in the bath today (it got shivering cold). The style of the "Introducing" series, produced by, is very much like a cross between a child's text book and a comic book. Everything is very clear, without jargon, and surrounded by cartoons and pen drawings. The innovation is that they tackle some really pretty abstruse topics - "Introducing Semiotics", "Introducing Quantum Theory", "Introducing Critical Theory" etc.. Apparently the series has been around for ages and I do vaguely remember picking them up and rejecting them as too simplistic a few times in bookshops. However, my real introduction came a few weeks ago when I was trying to quickly reintroduce myself to Marxism. I bought "Introducing Marxism." Brilliant. In fact, sad to say, it made a bigger impact on me than any book on Marxism I have ever read, except perhaps the Communist Manifesto. (Why didn't Engels do a few cartoons?)

Back to the book on Islam. At first, I found it a bit hard to like because the start was a retelling of the life of Mohammed. It felt a bit like the children's text books I compared the series to earlier. But the middle and end were gripping. It describes in detail the debt Western civilisation owes to Islamic civilisation. The fact that Islam preserved and built upon the legacy of classical rationalism through a period when Europe had its mind on sheep rustling, building much of the foundations of medicine, maths and science: "Five hundred years before Galileo, Al Baruni discussed the rotation of the earth on its axis and Al-Battani measured the circumference of the earth" . This much I already knew, but the book goes into great detail about the precise nature of the intellectual debates among muslims during this golden age and the religious roots of its intellectual energy. But the bit that kept me in the bath was the final description of the modern experience of Islam. It is unblinking in its description of the traumatic experience of being colonised and the West's often rapacious conduct towards Islamic civilisation from the time of the Crusades. However, there is no attempt here to absolve Islamic civilisation for responsibility for its own troubles. We are introduced to an apparently rather lively debate within Islamic civilisation about its own renewal. The book introduces thinkers such as Malek Bennabi, an Algerian social philosopher: "The real liberation of Muslim people, Bennabi argued, will come from addressing the injustices introduced in the thought and body politic of Islam in the late 13th Century."

What a pleasant surprise it was to read the first sentence of the section on "women": "Traditional Muslim thought has been very unkind and oppressive to women". Of course, it is not expounding the kind of ill-informed bollocks which insists that somehow Islam is fundamentally unfriendly to women, but it is not indulging in the boring and unsatisfactory response to that which is that Islamic societies are somehow models of unsexist behaviour, which is manifestly not true.

I shivered from the bath wondering about the interesting contrast between Islamic civilisation's early history, when it was so confident that it ravenously consumed the best that classical civilisation and any other civilisation had to offer, and the lack of confidence among some muslim societies now, which are seeking to purify themselves of the admittedly very unclean West.