Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes from "Letters to a Young Contrarian", Letter III

Letter III

The main argument of this letter is that life would be boring if there were not argument or disputation of any sort.

[T]here is something idiotic about those who believe that consensus [...] is the highest good. Why do I use the offensive word "idiotic"? For two reasons that seem good to me; the first being my conviction that human beings do not, in fact, desire to live in some Disneyland of the mind where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss. This would be idiocy in its pejorative sense; the Athenians originally employed the term more lightly, defining as idiotis any man who was blandly indifferent to public affairs.

My second reason is less intuitive. Even if we did really harbor this desire, it would fortunately be unateinable. [...] [I]n life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation.

The second reason is the statement that many of the most brilliant ideas are born out of necessity or the desire to defeat current predicaments. It is not an invitation to create chaos where it is not. It could be that conflict comes natural to our species.


If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the "center" will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where it is.

The next one is lovely, since most people hold the Dalai Lama in great esteem, but this case his logic sucks.

[The Dalai Lama wrote in the opening of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living]: "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness." [...] The very best that can be said is that he uttered a string of fatuous non sequiturs. There is not even a strand of chewing gum to connect the premise to the conclusion; the speaker simply assumes what he has to prove.

It's often observed that the major religions can give no convincing account of Paradise. They do much better in representing Hell; indeed one of the early Christian dogmatists, Tertullian, borrowed the vividness of the latter to lend point to the former. Among the delights of Heaven, he decided, would be the contemplation of the tortures of the damned. This anthropomorphism at least had a bit of bite to it; the problem in all other cases is that nobody can seriously desire the dissolution of the intellect. And the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable form angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair.

That last sentence is a bit frightening. I can't say I understand it fully.


Towards the end, Hitchens narrates one experience from his childhood as he was in bible-study class; and his teacher starts to "hymn the work of god in Nature" saying: "How wonderful it was [...] that trees and vegetation were green; the most restful color to our eyes. Imagine if instead the woods and grasses were purple, or orange." Hitchens was about ten years old at the time. He closes the story reflecting on his childish ignorance but instinctive resilience to fall for the teacher's argument:

I knew nothing about chlorophyll and phototropism at that age, still less about the Argument from Design or the debate on Creationism versus Evolution. I merely remeber thinking, with my childish and unformed cortex: Oh, don't be silly.

I remember something along those lines when I was ten. The teacher said that we had nerves even in every strand of hair. I dismissed that statement almost immediately. I thought that if it was true, it would be really painful to have a haircut.


Based on the childhood experience just told above, Hitchens tells us:

I am quite sure of two things. The first is that even uneducated people [...] have an innate capacity to resist and, if not even to think for themselves, to have thoughts occur to them. [...] The second, which is only a corollary of the first, is that we do not naturally aspire to any hazy, narcotic Nirvana, where our critical and ironic faculties would be of no use to us.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as [Aldous] Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch.

Unfortunately, I don't know to work of Huxley. But I do agree that such kind of life would be agonizingly dull. The worst is that it is the kind of afterlife that people expect to have in "paradise"...

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