A caricature of Edmund Burke, customary moralist
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The passion surrounding the so-called “social issues” in American politics, from reproductive rights to gay marriage, is exacerbated by the fact that to some degree “the issue is not the issue,” as the Sixties slogan held. In other words, what is really at stake is not merely the nominal subject of the debate, but also a clash of worldviews.

The United States, like other offshoots of Europe and Europe itself, is the heir to three distinct moral systems: custom, creed, and contract.

Custom is the source of one kind of traditional morality. What is right and what is wrong is determined by tribal tradition, as passed down by one generation to the next.

While customary morality in one form or another is as old as humanity, creedal morality — the ethical system of organized, scriptural religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is only a few thousand years old. Writing is a technology, and there could be no scriptural religions until that technology had evolved. Furthermore, scriptural creeds require at least some of the population to be literate. Only agrarian or industrial societies have sufficient surplus to support a specialized class or caste of clerics to serve as the guardians and interpreters of the sacred texts.
More… “The Clash of the Three Moralities”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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This fascinating book traces a debate about the nature of time. The debate begins on April 6, 1922, in Paris, at a meeting of the French Philosophical Society. The opinions expressed will persist and permutate into the 21st century. The first and primary debaters are Albert Einstein, a strikingly good-looking and ambitious young man, and Henri Bergson, a philosopher already distinguished and well-published. Each will develop a wide following that summons up views and arguments on behalf of one or the other.
More… “A Matter of Time”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Laughing Heathens

Atheism doesn't have to be so angry. Just look at Democritius and Santayana.

By Michael Lind
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For a long time I assumed that atheists had to be angry. Growing up in Austin, Texas in the 1970s, I would listen to two broadcasts on Sunday night: one from an African-American church and one from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who had made my hometown the center of her American Atheist Association. The cadences of the preachers were the same, and the services alternated sermons with readings. But there were no songs in O’Hair’s atheist sermon, and the tone was one of barely-controlled rage.
“Why do the heathen rage?” The quote from Psalm 2:1 used to appear in ads by Protestant fundamentalists placed in the University of Texas student newspaper. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one raging heathen.

Like O’Hair’s creed, the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others is best understood as a counter-Christianity or counter-Abrahamism. It is defined by what it is against, Abrahamic monotheism, and it fights the enemy by adopting its tactics (and, in the case of O’Hair’s atheist church, its very organization). The very term “atheist” defines the belief system in terms of what it opposes. The philosopher John Gray has even described “evangelical atheism” as a new form of fundamentalism.

At the risk of using the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (no true Scotsman generalizes about Scotsmen!), I would suggest that no true atheist — make that ethical naturalist — lives in a state of perpetual smoldering outrage at the silly beliefs of other people.
More… “Laughing Heathens”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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He don't want Nobel

If the members of the Nobel Academy felt slighted when Jean-Paul Sartre rejected their prize 50 years ago, they didn’t show it. The Academy set out the dinner plates and made their speeches anyway — without the philosopher. The 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, announced Anders Österling — longtime member of the Swedish Academy, and a writer himself — was being given to “the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.” 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s… More…

Riding una pajarita

Miguel de Unamuno’s earliest memory was of a bomb landing on the roof of his neighbor’s house during Spain’s final Carlist War. The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy.

Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in 1897, tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. Just a few months earlier, Unamuno’s infant son Raimundo had contracted meningitis. Raimundo’s illness disabled him physically and mentally. He was not expected to live long. Miguel de Unamuno believed that this tragedy was his fault, divine punishment for turning away from his childhood faith and embracing scientific rationalism. That night in 1897, Unamuno’s wife Concha found her husband sobbing. She held him and called out, “My child!” Years later,… More…

Collection of Jasper Johns. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Jerry Thompson.

Have you ever felt odd? Perhaps an odd feeling came upon you one morning at the market. You saw the piles of vegetables and the cuts of meats covered in clear plastic. You noticed, with particular attention, the little signs above the individual fruits giving their names and prices. Suddenly, it seemed unaccountably odd that any of this should make any sense to anyone. How very strange that these numbers and words and pictures and physical objects are all related, you thought. It was a warm morning and you walked out into the sunlight with a beating heart and a sheen of sweat on the palms of your hands. For a few more moments you trusted neither sun, nor earth, nor sky. All aspects of reality seemed as arbitrary to you as those signs above the fruit in the market. And then the feeling faded and you were back in the… More…

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Since the age of the Druids, bees have been a symbol of wisdom. The Greeks and the Celts used the symbolism as well, as did cultures in India and Egypt, Sumerian mythology, and Christianity. Bees were the symbols of sun gods, earth goddesses, and the Virgin Mary. In the Jewish story, Deborah — whose name means “bee” — was a prophet who saved her city from invaders. In English, Welsh, Irish, Greek, and assorted other languages, the word “bee” is caught up by sound or by root with the word for “to live” or “alive.” Even Charles Darwin was scared of the knowledge to be found in the bee hive, afraid their cooperative, altruistic lives could disprove his theory of evolution, perched as it was on that vicious idea of survival of the fittest.

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S…. More…

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Berlin in the 21st century is something of an experiment with aftermath. How does a city that has been through so much and caused so much pain carry on and heal its wounds? You can’t just get Old Testament on the place, burn it to the ground and salt the earth. If we Sodom and Gomorrhaed the location of every atrocity, we’d have no place left to live. And so post-World War II and post-Berlin Wall, various techniques are explored. There was a taboo phase, and the bad things were never discussed. Then there was an “educate the children” phase. A writer told me that the children used to be forced into six-week-long courses on the Final Solution. They were told that their parents were responsible or at the very least participants, and if they were told any differently, they were being lied to.

For him, Germany was a classroom for thinking about what it is to be a human being.

 

 

Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Heidegger was also a Nazi. He was obsessed with Hitler’s hands (his hands!). I suppose they seemed like the hands of a serious man to Heidegger, the hands of a peasant intellectual. Heidegger liked to dress up in his little Schwarzwald outfit and parade around his university campus as if he were head of the academic SS. He proclaimed the essential greatness of the German people and kicked the Jews out of Freiburg University. He looked out, in 1933, at the triumph of National Socialism and decided that it was good. He wasn’t ambiguous about it either, saying, “The Führer, and he alone, is the present and future of German reality, and its law.” Even in 1943, after the devastating German defeat at Stalingrad,… More…

Many can, but not me.

“For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer

One morning recently I woke up and found I no longer wanted to eat meat. It seemed a sudden and unaccountable distaste. I had seen the images and read the books decrying animal slaughter over the years, and they had provoked the predictable sense of horror but no change in my eating habits. Why would I now, for no apparent reason, see things differently?

I’ve asked myself this question, even hoping that my newly acquired aversion would dissipate. I’ve always found vegetarians annoying. There’s nothing that can reduce the pleasure of a steak dinner like sitting opposite someone eating stir fried vegetables. I didn’t want to be the person who got the vegetarian option at the wedding and whose entrees were served first, with the kosher meals, on the airplane. I don’t travel in vegetarian circles. Sure, people… More…