About This Site          Archive          Distinctions

Excerpts & Passages, Part 3

(See Part One and Part Two)

C. Wright Mills on American life

Bertrand Russell: On being modern-minded

The mirage of mathematical exactitude

Against the masses

“I don’t want to be a brand”

“There no longer exist human beings”

The necessity for the name “God”

Cratylus’ skepticism

The responsibility of intellectuals

Thomas Merton on secular culture

C. Wright Mills On American Life

The passages below can be found in John Summers' The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.80-81, 166-167, and 204. Mills was a professor at Columbia for many years, best remembered today for works such as The Power Elite and White Collar.

Criticism of social scientists:

"In fact, several men in the social studies now enjoy enormous reputations, but have not produced any enormous books, intellectually speaking, or in fact any contributions of note to the substantive knowledge of our time. Their academic reputations rest, quite largely, upon their academic power: they are the members of the committee; they are on the directing board; they can get you the job, the trip, the research grant. They are a strange new kind of bureaucrat. They are executives of the mind, public relations men among foundations and universities for their fields. For them, the memorandum is replacing the book. They could set up a research project or even a school, but I would be surprised if, now after twenty years of research and teaching and observing and thinking, they could produce a book that told you what they thought was going on in the world, what they thought were the major problems for men of this historical epoch; and I feel sure that they would be embarrassed if you earnestly asked them to suggest what ought to be done about it and by whom. For the span of time in which The Scientists say they think of their work is a billion man-hours of labor. And in the meantime we should not expect much substantive knowledge; first there must be methodological inquiries into methods and inquiry."

Our experiences are shaped by ready-made interpretations:

“The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds: they are aware of much more than they have personally experienced; and their own experience is always indirect. No man stands alone directly confronting a world of solid facts. No such world is available. The closest men come to it is when they are infants or when they become insane: then, in a terrifying sense of meaningless events and senseless confusion, they are often seized with the panic of near-total insecurity. But in their everyday lives the experience of men is itself selected by stereotyped meanings and shaped by ready-made interpretations. Their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and will never meet. Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.”

Not human virtue, but human shortcomings, lead to popularity and success:

“Among the cheerful robots of the mass society, not human virtue but human shortcomings, attractively packaged, lead to popularity and success. They are men and women without publicly relevant consciousness, without awareness of shocking human evil, and their religion is the religion of good cheer and glad tidings. That it is a religion without dreary religious content is less important than that it is socially brisk and that it is not spiritually unsettling. It is a getting chummy with God, as a means to quite secular good feelings.

“With such religion, ours is indeed a world in which the idea of God is dead. But what is important is that this fact itself is of no felt consequence. Men and women, in brief, are religiously indifferent; they find no religious meanings in their lives and in their world…

“The most obvious competition is with the world of industrialized entertainment. Competing with these mass means of distraction, churches have themselves become minor institutions among the mass media of communications. They have imitated and borrowed the strident techniques of the insistent publicity machines, and in terms of the pitch-man (with both the hard and the soft sell), they have quite thoroughly banalized the teachings, and indeed the very image, of Christ.

“I do not believe that anything recognizably Christian can be put over in this way. I suggest that this religious malarkey diseducates congregations; that it kills off any real influence religious leaders might have. Even if the crowds come, they come only for the show, and if it is the nature of crowds to come, it is also their nature soon to go away. And in all truth, are not all the television Christians in reality armchair atheists? In value and in reality they live without the God they profess; despite ten million Bibles sold each year in the United States alone, they are religiously illiterate. ‘If Christ had been put on television to preach the Sermon on the Mount,’ Malcolm Muggeridge has recently remarked, ‘viewers would either have switched on to another channel, or contented themselves with remarking that the speaker had an interesting face. Christ might have become a television personality, but there would have been no Christianity.’”

Bertrand Russell: On Being Modern-Minded

Following are excerpts from Russell’s Unpopular Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), pp.65-68.

“I read some years ago a contemptuous review of a book by Santayana, mentioning an essay on Hamlet “dated, in every sense, 1908” – as if what has been discovered since then made any earlier appreciation of Shakespeare irrelevant and comparatively superficial. It did not occur to the reviewer that his review was “dated, in every sense, 1936.” Or perhaps this thought did occur to him, and filled him with satisfaction. He was writing for the moment, not for all time; next year he will have adopted the new fashion in opinions, whatever it may be, and he no doubt hopes to remain up to date as long as he continues to write.

“The desire to be contemporary is of course new only in degree; it has existed to some extent in all previous periods that believed themselves to be progressive…

“The modern-minded man, although he believes profoundly in the wisdom of his period, must be presumed to be very modest about his personal powers. His highest hope is to think first what is about to be thought, to say what is about to be said, and to feel what is about to be felt; he has no wish to think better thoughts than his neighbors, to say things showing more insight, or to have emotions which are not those of some fashionable group, but only to be slightly ahead of others in point of time. Quite deliberately he suppresses what is individual in himself for the sake of the admiration of the herd. A mentally solitary life, such as that of Copernicus, or Spinoza, or Milton after the Restoration, seems pointless according to modern standards. Copernicus should have delayed his advocacy of the Copernican system until it could be made fashionable; Spinoza should have been either a good Jew or a good Christian; Milton should have moved with the times…Why should an individual set himself up as an independent judge? Is it not clear that wisdom resides in the blood of the Nordic race or, alternatively, in the proletariat? And in any case what is the use of an eccentric opinion, which never can hope to conquer the great agencies of publicity?

“The money rewards and widespread though ephemeral fame which those agencies have made possible places temptations in the way of able men which are difficult to resist. To be pointed out, admired, mentioned constantly in the press, and offered easy ways of earning much money is highly agreeable; and when all this is open to a man, he finds it difficult to go on doing the work that he himself thinks best and is inclined to subordinate his judgment to the general opinion.”

The Mirage Of Mathematical Exactitude

The passages below can be found in George Steiner’s Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 18-20.

“…many of the traditional humanistic disciplines have shown a deep malaise, a nervous, complex recognition of the exactions and triumphs of mathematics and the natural sciences. There has taken place in history, economics, and what are called, significantly, the ‘social sciences’ what one might term a fallacy of imitative form. In each of these fields, the mode of discourse still relies almost completely on word-language. But historians, economists, and social scientists have tried to graft on to the verbal matrix some of the proceedings of mathematics or total rigor. They have grown defensive about the essentially provisional and aesthetic character of their own pursuits…

“The ambitions of scientific rigor and prophecy have seduced much historical writing from its veritable nature, which is art. Much of what passes for history at present is scarcely literate. The disciples of Namier – not he himself – consign Gibbon, Macaulay, or Michelet to the limbo of belles-lettres. The illusion of science and the fashions of the academic tend to transform the young historian into a lean ferret gnawing at the minute fact or figure. He dwells in footnotes and writes monographs in as illiterate a style as possible to demonstrate the scientific bias of his craft…

“Or consider economics: its classic masters, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marshall, were masters of prose style. They relied upon language to explain and persuade. In the late nineteenth century began the development of mathematical economics. Keynes was perhaps the last to span both the humane and the mathematical branches of his science. Discussing the contributions of Ramsey to economic thought, Keynes pointed out that a number of them, though of signal importance, involved mathematics too sophisticated for the layman or the classical economist. Today the gap has widened tremendously; econometrics is gaining on economics. The cardinal terms – theory of values, cycles, productive capacity, liquidity, inflation, input-output – are in a state of transition. They are moving from the linguistic to the mathematical, from rhetoric to equation. The alphabet of modern economics is no longer primarily the word, but rather the chart, the graph, and the number…

“The temptations of exact science are most flagrant in sociology. Much of present sociology is illiterate, or, more precisely, anti-literate. It is conceived in a jargon of vehement obscurity. Wherever possible, the word and the grammar of literate meaning are replaced by the statistical table, the curve, or the graph. Where it must remain verbal, sociology borrows what it can from the vocabulary of the exact sciences. One could make a fascinating list of these borrowings. Consider only the more prominent: norms, group, scatter, integration, function, coordinates. Each has a specific mathematical or technical content. Emptied of this content and forced into an alien setting, these expressions become blurred and pretentious. They do ill service to their new masters. Yet in using the gibberish of ‘culture coordinates’ and ‘peer-group integrations’ the sociologist pays fervent tribute to the mirage that has haunted all rational inquiry since the seventeenth century – the mirage of mathematical exactitude and predictability.

“Nowhere, however, is the retreat from the word more pronounced and startling than in philosophy. Classic and medieval philosophy were wholly committed to the dignity and resources of language, to the belief that words, handled with requisite precision and subtlety, could bring the mind into accord with reality. Plato, Aristotle, Duns Scotus, and Aquinas are master-builders of words, constructing around reality great edifices of statement, definition, and discrimination. They operate with modes of argument that differ from those of the poet; but they share with the poet the assumption that words gather and engender responsible apprehensions of the truth. Again, the turning point occurs in the seventeenth century, with Descartes’ implicit identification of truth and mathematical proof, and above all, with Spinoza.”

Against The Masses

“Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! The calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking, million stockingers or lazzaroni at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population. When it reaches its true law of action, every man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considerate vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

“I Don’t Want To Be A Brand”

(The following is excerpted from Danielle Leduc’s article, “An anti-preneur manifesto,” in the March/April 2013 edition of Adbusters.)

“I don’t want to be a designer, a marketer, an illustrator, a brander, a social-media consultant, a multi-platform guru, an interface wizard, a writer of copy, a technological assistant, an applicator, an aesthetic king, a notable user, a profit-maximizer, a bottom-line analyzer, a meme generator, a hit tracker, a re-poster, a sponsored blogger, a starred commentator, an online retailer, a viral relayer, a handle, a font or a page. I don’t want to be linked in, tuned in, ‘liked,’ incorporated, listed or programmed. I don’t want to be a brand, a representative, an ambassador, a bestseller or a chart-topper. I don’t want to be a human resource or part of your human capital.

“I don’t want to be an entrepreneur of myself.

“Don’t listen to the founders, the employers, the newspapers, the pundits, the editors, the forecasters, the researchers, the branders, the career counselors, the prim minister, the job market, Michel Foucault or your haughty brother in finance – there’s something else!

“I want to be a lover, a teacher, a wanderer, an assembler of words, a sculptor of immaterial, a maker of instruments, a Socratic philosopher and an erratic muse. I want to be a community center, a piece of art, a wonky cursive script and an old-growth tree! I want to be a disrupter, a creator, an apocalyptic visionary, a master of reconfiguration, a hypocritical parent, an illegal download and a choose-your-own-adventure!…

“I want to be a curator of myself, an anti-preneur, a person.

“Unlimited availabilities. No followers required. Only friends.”

“There No Longer Exist Human Beings”

The following passages appear in Soren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age. They have been excerpted from The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, ed. by W.H. Auden (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), pp.14-16.

The world’s deepest misfortune is the unhappy objectivity (in the sense of the absence of personality) characteristic of all speech and teaching, and that the one great mechanical discovery after the other has made it possible to expound doctrines impersonally in constantly increasing measure. There no longer exist human beings: there are no lovers, no thinkers, etc. By means of the press the human race has enveloped itself in an atmospheric what-not of thoughts, feelings, moods; even of resolutions and purposes, all of which are no one’s property, since they belong to all and none. It is a torture to the soul to note the callous incorrigibility with which a human being can resort to wherever he thinks there is some truth to be had, for the sole purpose of learning to expound it, so that his music box may add this piece to its repertoire; but as for doing anything about it, the thing never even occurs to him.

If the jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while closer in the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all “something must be done.”

The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, and with the eyes of connoisseurs appraise the accomplished skater who could skate almost to the very edge (i.e., as far as the ice was still safe and the danger had not yet begun) and then turn back. The most accomplished skater would manage to go out to the furthermost point and then do a still more dangerous-looking run, so as to make the spectators hold their breath and say: “Ye gods! He is mad, he is risking his life.” But look, and you will see that his skill was so astonishing that he managed to turn back just in time, while the ice was perfectly safe and there was still no danger. As at the theater, the crowd would applaud and acclaim him, surging homeward with the heroic artist in their midst, to honor him with a magnificent banquet. For intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick, and reality into a play. During the banquet admiration would reach its height. Now the proper relation between the admirer and the object of admiration is one in which the admirer is edified by the thought that he is a man like the hero, humbled by the thought that he is incapable of such great actions, yet morally encouraged to emulate him according to his powers; but where intelligence has got the upper hand the character of admiration is completely altered.

Even at the height of the banquet, when the applause was loudest, the admiring guests would all have a shrewd notion that the action of the man who received all the honor was not really so extraordinary, and that only by chance was the gathering for him, since after all, with a little practice, every one could have done as much. Briefly, instead of being strengthened in their discernment and encouraged to do good the guests would more probably go home with an even stronger predisposition for the most dangerous, if also the most respectable, of all diseases: to admire in public what they consider unimportant in private, since everything is made into a joke; and so, stimulated by the gush of admiration, they are comfortably agreed that they might just as well admire themselves.

The Necessity For The Name “God”

From John A.T. Robinson, Honest To God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), pp. 54-55:

The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,

Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.

There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]

Cratylus’ Skepticism

Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus’ and a contemporary of Plato’s (one of Plato’s dialogues was named after him, in fact). It was Heraclitus who said memorably that “one cannot step into the same river twice.” Cratylus altered the epigram to read, “One cannot step into the same river even once.” As he saw it, the ceaseless flux of life precluded knowledge and understanding, which must rest on far stabler foundations.

The following concise summary of his position can be found in the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Peter Angeles (New York, 1992), p. 277.

“[According to Cratylus], no knowledge can be had of reality; one cannot say anything about anything. The communication of knowledge or of anything at all is impossible because all things are in perpetual change. The language that is used to communicate itself changes in the process of communication; the speaker is in a process of change; the meanings and ideas change even as one is thinking and uttering them; the recipient of the communication is in change; and the total environment is in continual change without anything ever remaining the same. Cratylus concluded that one cannot say anything about anything and that one should not try. He refused to talk, since talking appeared to him senseless, meaningless, a waste of effort. He merely wiggled his finger to indicate he was fleetingly responding to stimuli.”

The Responsibility Of Intellectuals

To whom or to what, if to anything at all, should intellectuals be responsible? Here “intellectuals” is used broadly to refer to anyone interested in ideas and abstract thought, in cerebration, in theorizing.

The longstanding view of Noam Chomsky is that intellectuals are obliged to tell the truth and to expose the lies of those in positions of authority. His view is grounded in the belief that the facts about social life are accessible to anybody interested in them. They can be found in documents and case studies, in the alternative press, in policy journals, in the reports of human-rights organizations, the testimony of witnesses to power abroad. The issue for Chomsky is not whether the truth is ascertainable; it is whether somebody is honest and courageous enough to follow the truth wherever it may lead. In modern societies there are powerful incentives to get along and go along with those who wield influence, not the least being the promise of a comfortable and privileged existence. In any society the dissenter, the resister, can expect to be ridiculed and marginalized, slandered or ignored. This is no less true in the United States than it is in Russia, China, or Britain.

Chomsky does not deny that there are impediments to the discovery of truth. He has written at length, in fact, about the use of propaganda to manipulate and control the masses. He freely admits that much popular discourse obscures rather than reveals the truth, that discourse often serves the purposes of the governing class. It is his conviction, nevertheless, that with some effort a person can come to understand the workings of power in the world.

A quite different perspective is found in the work of Jean Baudrillard. On a range of issues, from globalization to the Iraq war to the arrogance of western power, Baudrillard’s thinking is consonant with Chomsky’s. And like Chomsky, Baudrillard believes lucidity to be the aspiration of thought. But on the question of truth he dissents. For Baudrillard, the world is not some tree off of which the fruit of facts is readily picked; the world today, rather, is governed by appearances and simulacra. In his work America he has this to say:

Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests. It is in this belief in facts, in the total credibility of what is done or seen, in this pragmatic evidence of things and an accompanying contempt for what may be called appearances or the play of appearances – a face does not deceive, behavior does not deceive, a scientific process does not deceive, nothing deceives, nothing is ambivalent (and at bottom this is true: nothing deceives, there are no lies, there is only simulation, which is precisely the facticity of facts) – that the Americans are a true utopian society, in their religion of the fait accompli, in the naivety of their deductions, in their ignorance of the evil genius of things. You have to be utopian to think that in a human order, of whatever nature, things can be as plain and straightforward as that. All other societies contain within them some heresy or other, some dissidence, some kind of suspicion of reality, the superstitious belief in a force of evil and the possible control of that force by magic, a belief in the power of appearances. Here, there is no dissidence, no suspicion. The emperor has no clothes; the facts are there before us.

The difference between the two thinkers is not so much political as ontological. Chomsky believes, contra McLuhan, that technology is neutral: the intrusion into social life of television and computer screens, the omnipresence of imagery and advertising, the sequestering effect of cellular phones, the collapse of what historically was an agora into strip malls and super malls, the transition from what Neil Postman called a print-based culture to an image-based one – none of these things has inspired Chomsky to reassess his basically empiricist, pragmatist methodology. For Baudrillard these developments mark a fundamental change in the social ecology of humans. They have dramatically altered the relationship between referents and signs (the former have gone missing, the latter continue to proliferate). A decade before the advent of the web Baudrillard wrote, “There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality.”

For Chomsky there is still, in spite of the wild permutations of technology, a reality today susceptible of rational analysis. For Baudrillard there is only the desert of the real, simulacra pouring out of hegemonic networks, and a deep, irrevocable feeling of absence, of a life that is no more. Which of these perspectives, the Chomskyan or the Baudrillardian, is the more convincing today? Or is there a tertium quid?

– Tim Ruggiero, October 2015

Thomas Merton On Secular Culture

The passages below are excerpted from The Pocket Thomas Merton, edited by Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2015), pp. 24, 32-33, 48-49, and 100-102.

“The problem is to learn how to renounce resentment without selling out to the organization people who want everyone to accept absurdity and moral anarchy in a spirit of uplift and willing complicity.”

“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios.”

“If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product.”

“The basic inner moral contradiction of our age is that, though we talk and dream about freedom…though we fight wars over it, our civilization is strictly servile. I do not use this term contemptuously, but in its original sense of ‘pragmatic,’ oriented exclusively to the useful, making use of means for material ends. The progress of technological culture has in fact been a progress in servility, that is in techniques of using material resources, mechanical inventions, etc., in order to get things done. This has, however, two grave disadvantages. First, the notion of the gratuitous and the liberal (the end in itself) has been lost. Hence we have made ourselves incapable of that happiness which transcends servility and simply rejoices in being for its own sake. Such ’liberality’ is in fact completely foreign to the technological mentality as we have it now (though not necessarily foreign to it in essence). Second, and inseparable from this, we have in practice developed a completely servile concept of man. Our professed ideals may still pay lip service to the dignity of the person, but without a sense of being and a respect for being, there can be no real appreciation of the person. We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.”

“The monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitudes of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize…The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself. This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and of adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence…The monk seeks to be free from what William Faulkner called ‘the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing’ which is the essence of ‘worldliness’ everywhere.”