Monday, June 16, 2008

Irony and Philosophy

I finally managed to download the entire virus definition update from Norton over dial-up on Saturday morning (had tried many times but it kept impatiently disconnecting me from their server). At the same time, my own biological virus definitions proved to be out-of-date to the parallel advance of microbes into my own person. How those tiny particles can torpedo the energetic flow of a life, bringing my cellular edifice to a screeching halt! I walked to the shop for milk this morning (barely 100 metres) and felt like I was dragging sandbags.

While down, I continued to read a book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia by John N. Gray (the N being rather important in distinguishing him for the writer of Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus). I realised I may have uncovered a philosopher who shares a particular facet of my beliefs, extending it far beyond the narrow idea I had, and setting out its validity with (saving me the job).

An idea I have had in the past was simply that ideologies were doomed to fail because they usually didn't factor in human nature, no matter how noble the principle. Gray's point is much more sophisticated in seeing that most modern ideologies all feature something like a utopia or 'apocalypse' (or both). He reasoned that this was a hang-over from Christianity, with a teleological understanding of time and history (i.e. focussed on an end-point).

Take the simple idea of progress. It is true that we have had scientific and medical progress; but have we progressed as a species (beyond the barbarism of previous times)? Has our very nature been improved? He'd say no. We may have at one stage eliminated slavery and eliminated torture, but the desire to use both is still with us; and if we aren't vigilant both will return (well, only Americans deny that torture hasn't returned yet to 'Western' nations).

Most ideologies would posit an ideal end-time when things reach their optimal. The ACT party would see heaven as a small government with liberal policies. Is it an article of faith that once we get there it will be all milk and honey? If we sacrifice a large proportion of the state and the institutions that have developed around it, will things continue better than currently?

Gray points the finger at the Enlightenment, where Reason was brought forth as having the power to progress and perfect society. This resulted in a range of ideals: communism, liberalism and republicanism etc. Almost all of these ideals have killed a great many in their implementation. The idea that liberal democracy has worked in Western states is seen as an example of perfection by liberals and neo-conservatives, and it follows that if applied to other countries that it should have similar results. The United States with allies have attempted to do this in Iraq and Afghanistan and are yet to really show any real signs of achieving legitimate government.

This is a very useful lens with which to look at many contemporary political actions. I may investigate his previous book, the apparently more seminal Straw Dogs.

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