Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

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Books for Secular Cons

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If it’s godless conservatism you’re wantin’, I’d offer A Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader, ed. Richard W. Seaver, and the Loeb Horace: The Odes and Epodes by Q. Horatius Flaccus, with an English translation by C.E. Bennett.

You may quibble with Beckett, who must have, er, palled around with commies in his days with the French Resistance, but who, as best I can gather, found politics merely amusing in the 0.001 percent of his time he spent thinking about the subject — an admirably conservative point of view, in my opinion. You may quibble with Horace, whose works frequently suggest a belief in the Afterlife (visendus ater flumine languido Cocytos etc.); but I think that was just style and habit. He knew the lights go out. Now try quibbling with Mencken!

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18 comments

  • Panopaea · December 3, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    >He knew the lights go out.

    How did he know that?

  • SoMG · December 4, 2008 at 3:14 am

    No, I don’t just “quibble” with including Beckett on this list. I think it’s dead wrong. He’s very big on undermining the reader’s point of view. At breaking down your “rationality” and leaving you hanging (or not). For instance, in MOLLOY the protagonist sets out on a mission in search of something he doesn’t understand and gradually becomes what he’s searching for, returns home in the altered state, and writes a report consisting of obvious lies about the experience. The lies just happen to be exactly the same as the opening lines of the book itself. In WATT the narrator repeatedly starts intelligent chains of reasoning which (again, gradually) degenerate into rhythmic repetition of pleasant-sounding nonsense syllables or compulsive iterations of all possible permutations of keywords and phrases, without regard to meaning or grammar. At the end of MALLONE DIES he essentially causes the reader to experience extreme dementia. Whatever Beckett’s writing is, it’s not conservative.

    How about “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington”? It depends what you mean by conservative. Affirming existing institutions? Affirming the difference between good and evil like STAR WARS? Anti-government/pro-freedom? Militaristic like Heinlein? Or just interesting to conservatives like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE? Books don’t get more secular anti-government or let’s say accurately critical of government than the Feynman piece which is actually published as part of a book called WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?. Also, FLATLAND. Suetonius THE TWELVE CEASARS. SURVIVAL IN AUSCHWITZ and the chapter “Lead” in THE PERIODIC TABLE. The words to DAS RHEINGOLD. I’m going for brevity as well as secular conservatism. Conservatives are busy, right? Do we assume everybody’s already read LORD OF THE FLIES and Part III of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR? Kafka’s short stories?

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 4, 2008 at 6:17 am

    Panopaea:  Ask a friend to whack you on the head real hard with a baseball bat. When you wake up, ask yourself where you’d be if he’d whacked you ten times harder.

    SoMG:  Beckett provides the only convincing answer to the question of why we should press forward through life in a purposeless and irrational world, namely, there is no answer, but we will anyway. Of course he can’t do that without drawing the purposelessness and irrationality for us to see. Nobody finds it pretty, but that’s how it is. Unless you prefer wishful thinking. Which all of us do, some of the time, and some of us, all of the time.

  • Polichinello · December 4, 2008 at 6:20 am

    Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

  • Bealu · December 4, 2008 at 7:51 am

    where you’d be if he’d whacked you ten times harder.”

    Don’t overlook the possibility of Galvanic Reanimation of the Dead.

  • gs · December 4, 2008 at 8:54 am

    This site is a great idea, but (“visendus ater flumine languido Cocytos“) if familiarity with Horace in the original is expected, I’ll paddle my canoe to somewhere else.

    IMO a translation or a link thereto would make the quote an instructive one.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 4, 2008 at 9:10 am

    gs:  You are quite right. I am sorry. The line is from Horace’s best-known ode, a sort of Latin equivalent to Wordsworth’s daffodils. You can get it as a ring tone for your cell phone, so it’s not that obscure.

    The poem is here with a translation.

  • halifax · December 4, 2008 at 10:13 am

    For academic types, ‘The Politics of Imperfection’ by Anthony Quinton, anything by Michael Oakeshott or Elie Kedourie, Lewis Namier’s historical works on England in the 18th century, ‘The Complete Works of George Savile, First Marquess of Halifax’, Gadamer’s ‘Truth and Method’, any late Wittgenstein. On the lighter side, the essays of Florence King, the novels of Kingsley Amis, the short stories of Saki, the poetry of Philip Larkin.

  • ossicle · December 4, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Mencken’s Chrestomathy is a priceless volume (whose cost is $14.93, new) that should be in any thinking person’s library.

  • gs · December 4, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Bradlaugh: I am sorry.

    No offense taken and I hope that none was given.

    The line is from Horace’s best-known ode, a sort of Latin equivalent to Wordsworth’s daffodils.

    But a mite different in mood…

    Thanks for the introduction to the second Horace ode I’ve read. With respect, I continue to prefer the first, Housman’s translation of Diffugere Nives. (Is there a place for Housman on your booklist?)

    You can get it as a ring tone for your cell phone, so it’s not that obscure.

    The song can be readily found online. Since I’m not sure it’s legally posted, I won’t give a link.

  • Panopaea · December 4, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    >Ask a friend to whack you on the head real hard with a baseball bat. When you wake up, ask yourself where you’d be if he’d whacked you ten times harder.

    But aren’t those are two different states? One is called unconscious, the other is called death?

    Ecc 12:6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
    Ecc 12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

  • Panopaea · December 4, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    My three books for secular cons:

    The Homeric epics (because they have a rather complete higher visual language that can awaken a person to aspects of their inner being – lower and higher aspects – that without the language they can’t currently see).

    Human Nature in its Fourfold State – Thomas Boston (as an extreme exercise in downloading an influence that is outside one’s current interests, yet that delivers foundational subject matter relevant to at least the experience of many of your fellow human beings, not to mention the character of your nation, if you live in the U.S., and I suppose other nations as well).

    Vanity Fair – Thackeray (just to second whoever listed Vanity Fair above; it is one of those novels that one has a wrong impression about – Victorian period piece, etc. – before reading it; Thackeray was a strikingly impressive artist with words and knew human nature and the ways of the world at a universal level; the novel is also truly funny in many passages…not “hmm, ok” funny, but laugh out loud funny, which is rare, methinks…even if you’re not one to *actually* laugh out loud when reading something truly funny).

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 4, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Panopaea:  Yes. Unconsciousness is the temporary cessation of key brain activities. Death is their permanent cessation. What grounds are there for suspecting a qualitative difference?

    For sure, certain knowledge is hard to come by. We must do our best with inductive inference. As an inductive inference, though, I’d rate “my experiences cease for ever when my brain is destroyed” up there with “the sun will rise tomorrow.”

    It is of course possible to imagine the sun not rising tomorrow, but which way ya gonna bet?

    And yes, of course I am familiar with the claims of revealed knowledge. Never having been vouchsafed any, though, I am stuck down here with inductive inference. We do our best.

  • Panopaea · December 4, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    >Yes. Unconsciousness is the temporary cessation of key brain activities. Death is their permanent cessation. What grounds are there for suspecting a qualitative difference?

    Brains function and cease to function, I’ll concur there. (Maybe ‘brains’ is that illusive new word atheists have been looking for to describe themselves…an aside…)

    Question: do you have self-awareness that you are a brain? Or does your self-awareness, whatever degree you possess of it, involve more than just that part of your physical body?

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 4, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Don’t understand the question. Thoughts happen in the brain — we can watch them happening on fMRI scans. I am the aggregate of my thoughts, including of course those fired off by sensory perceptions. Brain shuts down; thoughts shut down; I shut down. I don’t know what I’m missing here.

    I’ll allow that my self-awareness includes other parts of my physical body. Probably the whole nervous system is involved. Consciousness belongs to the brain, though. If my brain shuts down, the nerves in my butt won’t be proving any theorems.

  • Panopaea · December 4, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Unless you’re going to call yourself a brain and not a *being* then that that makes up your being, that that is involved in your sense of self-awareness, involves more than your physical brain.

    Conscience, for instance. It wasn’t his brain that made Raskolnikov blush and be seized with guilt and terror when he was standing in the pawn shop lady’s apartment with her dead body and her sister’s dead body with two people knocking on the door. When you transgress, when you cross a line, it’s not your brain that convicts you. Raskolnikov thought it was all thoughts and ideas.

    You can’t get away from the fact that ‘you’ are standing above your physical brain in self-awareness as much as you are standing above the ground in height. You can’t talk and act and think as a being while only be a brain.

    Compare your being to a carriage. The carriage itself is your body, the horses your emotion, the driver up top your mind, but who is that sitting in the carriage itself? That is you. You tell the driver where to go, the driver keeps the horses under control. Ideally.

    Just as you talk about your brain as if it isn’t you. You are more than your brain.

    What confuses people is the fact that not everybody has the same level of developed master sitting inside the carriage that is truly awake and able to be an effective master.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · December 4, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    **I** am the aggregate of my experiences. I can’t identify anything else that I am. You mean there’s a little fellow sitting inside my head directing the action? Who’s sitting inside his head?

  • SoMG · December 4, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    @Bradlaugh

    That may be but it doesn’t make him (Beckett) conservative.

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