Archive for the ‘Philosophical matters’ Category

camusfeature

Photo credit: Jacques Ferrandez

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.

I was thinking of a gripping sentence to start the book review but ultimately went with the first line itself. This is simply one of the best opening lines I have ever read (besides that of 1984, of course). Excellent way to start a novel. (Side note: This is a very interesting read on The Stranger‘s opening line alone. I’d urge you to spend a few minutes to read it).

And thus I embarked on a riveting read by Albert Camus. The novel is rather short in length, but it is exactly brevity that gives the work such a profound impact.

[SPOILER ALERT, READ ON AT YOUR OWN PERIL]

The first time I read The Stranger (L’Étranger in original French) was without a lens. I did not know who Camus was, what he stood for, or what genre the novel fell into. As such, to me, it was a story of a man whose mother died, and he has to make a journey to attend the funeral. Then he meets someone, goes on a vacation with a group of friends, shoots a person 5 times, goes to trial and is sent for execution.

That’s essentially it.

I am serious. If you read the novel without a lens, you would arrive at the same conclusion. A bland, short and inexplicably weird read.

Thinking that there is no way The Stranger deserves the praise it has amassed over the years, I decided to read it again, this time with a lens. To be able to do so, I did some background research and learnt some interesting things.

I learnt that Camus was a proponent of absurdism. Very briefly, it is the school of philosophy which postulates that as much as humans try to find meaning in their lives, they can’t. Why? Because the sheer amount of information, both known and unknown, makes certainty impossible to obtain. The conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any is called “the Absurd.” We want to make sense of the universe, but the universe itself has none.

Wearing the lens of absurdism took reading The Stranger to a completely different level.

For starters, the protagonist Meursault is strangely and overly indifferent. His aloofness is simply remarkable. The coldness is shown on various occasions in the first few pages when Meursault’s mother passed away. Although the story is told through the first-person perspective, we are never once shown how he felt about her death for Camus only provides us with a description of his detached behaviour. He expresses no grief whatsoever. Let us revisit the first few lines of the novel:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

I mean, who is not at least sad when their mother dies? That should have sounded the alarm in the first reading, but somehow it didn’t. The response is completely devoid of emotion. The telegram, as a means of communication, doesn’t exactly help either. Not a phone call or a visit in person, but a telegram. The human touch was absent; technology has taken its place. What’s more, throughout these lines, the main character seems hung up on the exact date his mother died. He debates himself whether she died the day the telegram arrives or the day before. That takes top priority.

Meursault’s nonchalance carries through various events following his mother’s death, many of which should have provoked at least a trace of emotion.

There is the off-handed comment of a home nurse during the funeral procession that reveals his inner thinking.

She said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.” She was right. There was no way out.

Of course, the nurse was talking only about the heat. But Meursault’s following remark was entirely something else. “There was no way out” could easily imply the burden that is the human existence which will ultimately lead to death. The sun is the manifestation of human life and the heat is that of death. Only death is inevitable and inescapable. One way or another, it’ll get you.

Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.

So yes, human existence is pointless, because we all die in the end.

Another instance that shows Meursault’s apathy is his short conversation with his lover Marie:

A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.

Like seriously, who is this guy? Does he even understand how emotionally packed Marie’s question is? (Protip: he doesn’t). And according to him, love doesn’t “mean anything.” This signals his (forming and still primitive) belief that life is meaningless.

Towards the very end of the novel, when Meursault knows he will be executed for the murder of the Arab (told you there will be spoilers!), he has some kind of epiphany:

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Meursault has finally come to terms with the fact that the world simply does not care. Our existence is pointless, and so are all of our endeavours. There is neither rationality and order. It is only through accepting this fact that we can find a modicum of solace.

There is so much more to The Stranger that I have not touched here. The heat, the court case, the crucifix. But all in all, everything goes to support Camus’ idea that the universe makes no attempt to assign meaning to our lives and we will spend our lives futilely searching for such meaning.

I really liked how Camus seamlessly weaves his philosophy into such a short novel, how he takes care of the little things and how he packs in so much symbolism. The entire novel is absurd. Meursault is truly a stranger to his own existence and to the universe, failing to find meaning in neither.

To paraphrase what the child said to Neo in The Matrix, there is no point.

To sum up, the novel is a close, critical study in man’s futile quest to find rational meaning in an irrational, meaningless universe.

If you want to find out more, read The Stranger in its entirety. Pay attention to the little details. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised.

Peace out.

 

Just very recently, citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, shcoking the rest of the world (and many inside the UK too). I am absolutely not qualified to discuss the economic implications of Brexit (the unofficial name of the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum), and it’s not the purpose of this post either.  Instead, I would like to examine the referendum, which is the form in which the Brexit vote was conducted.

Here, It is very important to demarcate direct democracy and representative democracy. Direct democracy is the form of democracy where every member of the political community participates in policy decision making, through measures such as vote or consensus. This direct participation gives the system its name. Direct democracy is arguably the purest form of democracy, because it is literally ruling of the people. The people are in power and every individual can directly influence policy initiatives. Hence it is sometimes also called pure democracy. The oldest example of direct democracy goes way back to ancient Greek, around 5th century BCE. Free male citizens of Athens were able to participate in the democratic process through the Assembly, the boulê or the courts. Involvement in public business was considered a duty and an honour. Political participation of the masses was very much encouraged. 

On the other hand, representative democracy is quite a different system. The public will elect representatives, most often by the means of elections, and these representatives will vote on policy matters. The representatives are considered to be ruling on behalf of the wider masses. Members of the political community thus participate indirectly in the democratic process. Representative democracy is practiced by the overwhelming majority of modern democracies because it is considered the most efficient form of democratic system. Direct democracy is not feasible in large masses.

Despite the prevalence of representative democracy and representative government, some features of direct democracy still linger, one of which is referendum (also called plebiscite). This form of political action presents the entire electorate (the general public that is eligible for voting) to vote on a particular policy proposal. In principle, referendum is an expression of direct democracy as every individual is given the power to influence a policy decision. However, within the framework of representative democracy, referendum is used very sparingly and often on extremely important matters such as amending the constitution or changing the voting laws.

And this is where the Brexit vote came in. As a referendum, it was argued to be the most democratic form of action available to the people. The majority should have the right to decide the direction the country is heading. And it is here that we encounter a few issues.

The first one is very classical. It’s termed “tyranny of the majority,” and was precisely the reason why representative democracy was established to replace its direct predecessor direct democracy. Accordingly, the majority places its own interests above those of minority groups, who lose out on the democratic process on the ground of numbers. Simply put, the majority wins because they have more people supporting their cause by definition, and thus dictates policy matters in a manner similar to that of tyrants, even though this mandate is achieved through perfectly democratic means such as referendums. The Brexit vote can be interpreted as the majority imposing its will on the entire UK population, which is problematic. 

However, to claim the Brexit vote was a case of “tyranny of the majority” was also not problem-free, because the Leave camp was hardly a majority. Polling shows that 48% of the voters opted for Remain while 52% chose Leave. Numerically, 52% is more than half the total number of voters, but to allege that they constituted the majority of UK citizens is greatly tenuous. Majority rule is the cornerstone of democracy, but how big should a majority be to be considered a majority is very debatable. But in any case, 52% is hardly enough to be regarded as truly a majority. The argument is even more precarious when we consider the fact that voter turnout was not 100%. There was no measures taken to ensure that every individual qualified as UK citizen showed up to the voting station and cast their vote. Only 71% of the national electorate made their choice, which meant only about 37% UK citizens voted to Leave the EU. So in the end, slightly more than a third of a nation’s population determined the direction of the entire populace.

The last issue of the referendum, or any referendum in fact, is concerned with populist politics, the political position which postulates that the public masses are being mistreated by a small group of political elites. Mass politics is perhaps quite directly associated with direct democracy because it is literally political participation of the masses. However, there is quite a latent danger in populist politics and referendums in particular. It is precisely because that referendum is based on the opinion of the masses that it poses a peril to the very institution. The referendum can very well be influenced by propaganda media, not sophisticated policy debates.

Brexit is a prime example of this particular shortcoming of referendums, where as decisions are made by the broader public instead of the elected legislature. Voters were swamped with scare campaigns and emotion-driven propaganda. To claim that the decision to leave was informed is dubious, considering the fact that “What is the EU?” and “What happens if we leave the EU?” were among the most googled question the morning AFTER the vote.  It is also important to note that the Leave campaign did not present a comprehensive plan to address the issues should it won the vote. In fact, Nigel Farage, one of the Leave campaign’s leaders, backtracked on his promise of redirecting the $350 million pounds UK gives to the EU every week to fund the National Health Service, saying that he never made such claim. So it appears that the outcome of the referendum was based significantly on emotion and transient whim rather than careful, reflected deliberation. If voters were actually informed of the magnitude of the issue, they would not have shown clear regret about having voted to leave the EU. 

So that’s my take on the Brexit and referendums as a form of political action. All in all, it seems to me that referendums, while having a very strong democratic nature, are inherently in conflict with representative democracy, which is currently the dominant form of government. I don’t think it should be abolished altogether. But in light of what happened in the UK, perhaps some sort of mandatory testing should be implemented to ensure that voters cast their ballot with deliberation. People may object and claim that a citizen should be free to vote regardless of the basis of their choice, because that is what democracy is. But when the referendum concerns something as important as whether the UK was to remain in the EU, leaving the outcome to the hands of many uninformed voters and a sensationalising media doesn’t seem like the wise thing to do.

chr

 

 

(This post is heavily influenced by Jonathan Floyd’s article Why we need to teach political philosophy in schools. Read it here.)

We often complain about how school doesn’t teach us the stuff that is practical to our lives, such as taxes or time management. Instead, we learnt about how cells breathe or how osmosis works, things that most of us will not use later on (I’m shamelessly taking a swipe at the natural sciences because I can). Admittedly, taxes and time management are greatly useful for a functioning adult. Nonetheless, there is something else I think we should’ve been taught but weren’t, and that’s political philosophy.

In recent times, especially with the ascendance of Donald Trump in the US, people are trying to stay away from politics and anything branded with the word “political.” Too often, politics is perceived to be “dirty,” consisting of backstabbing and mud-slinging and whatnot (I blame House of Cards for this, although I do very much enjoy the show). But I believe that an education in political philosophy contains substantial benefits, to the individual being educated as well as to the society they are living in.

For starters, let’s define the term and free it from the negative connotations commonly attached. At its very core, political philosophy studies and examines how we ought to live collectively as a society and how best to organise said society. The most fundamental question political philosophers has tried to answer so far (to little avail, unfortunately) is “How should we live together?” From that question stems many many more others: What is the role of the state and correspondingly what are the duties and rights of its citizens? What kinds of political practices and institutions should be implemented and maintained? How should resources be allocated?

And from the definition stems the reasons why political philosophy matters. Because it underpins the very way individuals see themselves within a social order and the very ideals individuals have regarding that social order. Every debate on social, economic or defense policy can be traced back to its philosophical foundation. Is democracy desirable, should the economy be free from government intervention, should countries engage in an arms race. Everything.

And so the lack of an understanding in political philosophy significantly reduces the quality of these debates. Notions such as fairness, justice or human rights bear enormous social importance, as shown by recent developments. Yet those who engage in these arguments do not possess a firm grasp of these concepts. Which is extremely dangerous, because they are laced with nuance and complexity, which must be understood on a philosophical level. The public conversations so far are argued on the surface.

The problem is worse when you consider the fact that many people are not themselves aware of this lack. Again, I am stealing from Floyd’s article the concept of unknown unknown: something we don’t know that we don’t know. For instance, I know how to use a laptop, that’s a known known. On the other than, I don’t know how to draw (and most probably won’t for the rest of my life). But I know that I don’t know how to draw, so it’s a known unknown. Now, if a person does not know that they don’t possess some basic knowledge of political philosophy, that is an unknown unknown. And it can do real damage to society because its members are missing out on something so crucial to its organisation. Not knowing how we ought to live as a collective body and, more importantly, why we ought to live in such a way, holds the society back. People argue with each other about how things should be organised but are ignorant of why they should be. The debates suddenly become unproductive and the public is deprived of some meaningful conversation with substance, due to its own ignorance. Teaching political philosophy is teaching the ability to reason logically, to argue, to make strong, valid, sound arguments, to have healthy debates about different political positions. Floyd nailed the point with his example:

A political philosophy student considers at least three different possibilities: desert, need, and entitlement. Is a fair settlement one by which the doctors get the pay and conditions they deserve, because of the valuable work they do, and the years they devoted to learning how to do it? Is it one by which patients get the care they need, with doctors doing more weekend work, or perhaps working fewer, but safer, hours? Or is it one by which the government gets the policy it is entitled to, having won a democratic election on the basis of particular manifesto commitments?

Some may object to this proposition, claiming that philosophy is too complicated for the ordinary individual, particularly young students. I say it’s bull. Look at the current curricula being taught in high schools at the moment, I’d say they are fairly complicated. The International Baccalaureate makes Theory of Knowledge (the epistemological branch of philosophy) a compulsory subject for Year 11 & 12 IB students. Saying students can’t grasp political philosophy is both patronising and underestimating their capacity. And also, it is funny to claim that 18-year-olds cannot understand and engage in debates about concepts such as democracy, justice or equality and, at the same time, allow them to “handle” alcohol or military service or marriage. Age restrictions vary with countries, but 18 is generally around the time where a person is considered an adult, even if in the most minimal sense of the words, as the individual is accorded with certain rights and privileges previously denied to them. So it baffles me when high school students graduate and start immersing themselves in the broader life without being properly educated of ways to think and ways to live. Man often pride himself on his ability to use reason to produce logical conclusions about the external world, and political philosophy teaches exactly that ability, logical reasoning.

The bottom line is no, political philosophy is not that complicated, and we should teach it because it has several benefits. An educated society debates better and engages in the democratic process more effectively. Not knowing that we don’t know political philosophy can cost us. A lot.

PP

The School of Athens by Raphael