Letting the skies fall

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book review / philosophy / reading

Some people make you think; some make you question; and some conjure up a long-lost curiosity about the world we live in. Christopher Hitchens does all three.

“Fiat justitia—ruat caelum.” (Do justice and let the skies fall)

It’s a shame I only just finished reading his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. Dying in 2011, his legacy is one of standing for free speech: at times, he pushed them to their limits. Britain for most of the 20th century was not kind to atheists; yet, he continued his crusade with other books, including the pithily named, God is Not Great.

“ You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. A “normal” life consists in living as if this most salient of facts was not a fact at all.”

Indeed, this is the man who thought nothing of writing an exposé on all of Henry Kissinger’s unsavory actions during his white house years. If a normal life is accepting that you lack any agency over your life, how should one be a contrarian?

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. The term “intellectual” was originally coined by those in France who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They thought that they were defending an organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism, and they deployed this contemptuous word against those they regarded as the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound.

This draws many parallels with the trial of Socrates: the senate in Athens thought he was a pugnacious homosexual who was destroying the mind of the children. In reality, Socrates perhaps wanted to die to set an example; to demonstrate how utterly revolting Athens’ behaviour actually was. So it was with the trial of Dreyfus, a Jewish officer falsely accused of treachery – his only crime was to be a scapegoat. What is clear is that the people who fought for Dreyfus, didn’t name themselves as “dissidents” or “intellectuals,” they simply thought they were doing what was right at that time. Not out of personal glory but for necessity.

“Homer was wrong,” wrote Heracleitus of Ephesus. “Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away.

While the history of Western Civilization is thought to be a story of mavericks fighting against the herd, it is more subtly a tale of how society has suffocated those who who fought back – we forget most who have brought us here today. Who can forget Turing who despite his service in Bletchley Park was chemically castrated and tortured to suicide. There is a Straussian metaphor here. It seems that the people who drive culture and science are the first to experience our displeasure. That is why it is not a choice most of us make.

The French Revolution was followed by the autocratic Reign of Terror. An example of how difficult it is to stand apart is exemplified by the time before World War 1:

“the story of those civilised and intelligent (and democratic) individuals who opposed the declaration of the First World War. […] if you consult the record and see what happened to them—Jean Jaures shot down by a fanatic, Karl Liebknecht imprisoned for his principles, Bertrand Russell silenced—you can see the suicide of a civilisation.

And, most of the time, the cheery and patriotic mob would have been as content to see them burned alive as it was to jeer at their burning in effigy.

We need strife in order to function as a species. One of my truths that I believe, which others might not is that suffering is at the crux of what it means to be human. Some religions understood this at a fundamental level. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse can be read this way: a privileged man coming of age and gradually with the devastating notion that suffering is a prerequisite for any long-term satisfaction. A contrarian is someone who knows this, but is relentless enough to keep pushing for his ideals.

“Karl Marx, asked to give his favorite epigram, offered de omnibus disputandum (“everything must be doubted”). A pity that so many of his followers forgot the pith of this saying. […]

Frederick Douglass announced that those who expected truth or justice without a struggle were like those who could imagine the sea without an image of the tempest.

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