Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire’
To Whom It May Concern:
I gave my lawyer instructions to release this message after my death. A joke I concocted when I was a kid has gone way, way too far. The most important thing you should know is this: Nothing I have ever written was meant to be taken seriously. You really don’t want to build some kind of philosophy around Atlas Shrugged, okay? I’m sorry if I caused any trouble. I owe you an explanation…
Discover the truth at “I Was Shitting You People – A Message From Ayn Rand.”
[TotH to reader CE]
As we try to remain Objective, we might send more genuinely philosophical birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born in Paris on this date in 1694. The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters). A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day. The contrite Ms. Rand would surely have appreciated his immortal– and sardonic– advice (in Candide) that each of us should “tend his own garden.”
Readers seemed to enjoy Simon Raper’s diagrammatic history of philosophy (see “Who’s Hume“), so may also appreciate Brendan Griffen‘s even more ambitious visual essay– a depiction of the connections between every important thinker, ever: “The Graph of Ideas.”
He fields it at two levels of detail; the first (pictured at the top of this post, with a link to a zoomable version) treats roughly 850 thinkers, clustering those most closely related and showing how each is connected. For example:
The second treats his entire set of 4,200 thinkers; it is here (it’s a 50MB file, so takes a while to load– but it’s worth it).
Read the backstory– the method used and the iterative attempts to avoid a Western bias– here.
[TotH to CoDesign]
As we honor our ancestors, we might send carefully-scrawled birthday greetings to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755. While Conté was an accomplished painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered for his contribution to the later contributions to the charts above: the invention of the modern pencil.
Your correspondent is off for a period of deep and serious study of the smoked and fried foods of the Low Country. Sticky fingers being the impediment to keyboarding that they are, regular service will resume in mid-August… Y’all have fun!
As we reach for our forks, we might spare a reasoned thought for the Enlightenment giant John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704. An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge. Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.
Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract. Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The first Cynics (we capitalize the name when we’re talking about the ancient ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes, who in turn was a student of the illustrious Socrates. Like Socrates, the Cynics believed that virtue was the greatest good. But they took it a step further than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.
The Cynics were more blunt when it came to exposing foolishness. They’d hang out in the streets like a pack of dogs (“Cynic” comes from the Greek word for dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, “I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” He’d use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn’t escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that “you can step out of my sunlight.”
Bayan, who believes that cynicism is as important today as ever, has created The Cynic’s Sanctuary, one of whose fascinating features is the Cynic’s Hall of Fame; arranged chronologically, by date of birth, it begins with…
Aesop (c. 600 B.C. ) Was he real or legendary? We’re not absolutely sure. Aesop may have been a slave who lived on the Greek isle of Samos; it’s said that he was slain by irate priests at the Oracle of Delphi. (He probably got himself into hot water by mocking their beliefs.) His works weren’t assembled into book form until about eight centuries after his time. No doubt numerous ancient storytellers added to the collection along the way. But the reputed author of the world’s most famous fables — man or legend — has to stand as literature’s great proto-Cynic. His brief moral tales are sharp allegories of human folly — even when the characters are foxes, crows, mice, tortoises and hares. Aesop’s Fables teem with the wisdom and gentle mockery of someone who knows the human animal inside and out (especially our weaknesses). If you think Aesop is just for children, think again — and read him again.
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”
The roster continues through the expected (e.g., Rabelais, Voltaire, Mark Twain) and the not-so-expected (Jesus, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer)…
In times like these, it’s comforting to know that one can take refuge in The Cynic’s Sanctuary.
As we memorize our Mencken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780 that General Benedict Arnold betrayed the US when he wrote British General Sir Henry Clinton, agreeing to surrender the fort at West Point to the British army. Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor,” fled to England after the plot fell through. The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission with an annual income of several hundred pounds, but only paid him £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 because his plot had failed. After the Revolutionary War, Arnold settled in Canada, and turned his hand to land speculation, West Indies, trade, and privateering– none of them very successfully. He died in 1801.
Yann Martel, well-known author of Life of Pi (and perhaps less well known, resident of Saskatoon), wrote the book that launched his career on a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. (“I was 27 years old and the money was manna from heaven. I made those $18,000 last a year and a half– and compared to the income tax I have paid since then, an exponential return on Canadian taxpayers’ investment, I assure you.”)
In March of 2007, Martel found himself in the Parliamentary Gallery for a tribute to the Council…
The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts. But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness. For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.
And so he has– at the time of this posting, he has sent the PM 100 books, along with 100 extraordinary “introductions” in the form of the transmittal letters he’s enclosed… all of which are available at What is Stephen Harper Reading?
Read it and reap.
As we find and expand our own stillness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1778 that François-Marie Arouet– aka Voltaire (author of Book #7, Candide, on P.M. Harper’s list)– returned to Paris after 28 years in exile (first in Potsdam, with Frederick the Great of Prussia, then in Switzerland); on this first day home, the Father of the Enlightenment received over 300 intellectuals and admirers.
“Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”
- Letter to Frederick, 1767