Why Liberty?

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H. L. Mencken“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value.

I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave…

In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen… I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law.”

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From H.L. Mencken, writing in his article “Why Liberty?”, published in the Chicago Tribune on January 30th, 1927.

I had to reread this essential essay after scanning the sixth chapter of Mencken’s Prejudices a few nights ago and running across his consummately cool statement that, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” Of course the thought is only metaphorical — and its overt violence only meant to instill verve, not aggression, in the reader — but under the shadow of the monsters now slitting throats under black flags across Iraq and Syria, the paragraph didn’t sit well. But that’s not Mencken’s fault, and there could be no more durable, stalwart rebuke of Takfirism, Salafism, and all other totalitarianisms than his article “Why Liberty,” published only a decade after the October Revolution and a decade before the Spanish Civil War.

Read on:

Why Poetry?

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Peter Hitchens

Questioner: I teach five-year-olds and we’ve been doing poetry — they love writing it. But making them sit down and recite poems would just be a waste of their time and a waste of my time.

Peter Hitchens: Well, I’ll recite you one a teacher taught me some 40 years ago:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

[Applause] And I’m very pleased that my head is full of things like that, and also lots of hymns, which I also remember — and I feel very sorry for anybody who hasn’t had the chance to learn them. And I think it is a great condemnation of our school system that so few people, and particularly only those whose parents are rich, can actually afford to have their children taught things like that, and have their minds furnished with beauty for the remainder of their lives.

And to pour scorn on it, and to say that it is unimportant, is to declare yourself a spiritual desert. Of course people need these things; and what’s more, they’re a profound part of being British. If you don’t know the literature and the poetry and the music of your own country, then you aren’t really fully conversant with its history and its character.

You’ve lost touch with what your ancestors knew, and you won’t be able to pass it on to your own children and grandchildren.

Of course these things should be taught. I wish our government actually had the power and the policies to make it happen. I really do think it’d be a good thing. I also think that people, particularly teachers, should not say these things don’t matter; they matter immensely.

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Peter Hitchens, appearing on BBC’s Question Time on June 14th, 2012.

Continue by memorizing for yourself the Housman poem, “Those Blue Remembered Hills”. Then take a look at Peter debating his brother Christopher — first on Nietzsche then on the motion “Can Civilization Survive without God?”. Watch Peter’s epic testimony here. Read the great David McCullough answer Why History?.

Do Not Pursue What Is Illusionary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary — property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life — don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart — and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”

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Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, writing in The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation

More out of Russia:

Either/Or

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Søren Kierkegaard

“Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more one concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward.”

“If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both… This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.”

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Parallel excerpts pulled from two different works from Kierkegaard: first from his Journals and Papers and second from Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.

Amsterdam

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Piano

“He left the piano and poured some coffee, which he drank at his usual place by the window. Three-thirty, and already dark enough to turn on lights. Molly was ashes. He would work through the night and sleep until lunch. There wasn’t really much else to do. Make something, and die. After the coffee he recrossed the room and remained standing, stooped over the keyboard in his overcoat, while he played with both hands by the exhausted afternoon light the notes as he had written them. Almost right, almost the truth. They suggested a dry yearning for something out of reach. Someone. It was at times like this that he used to phone and ask her over, when he was too restless to sit at the piano for long and too excited by new ideas to leave it alone. If she was free, she would come over and make tea, or mix exotic drinks, and sit in that worn-out old armchair in the corner. Either they talked or she made her requests and listened with eyes closed. Her tastes were surprisingly austere for such a party-loving sort. Bach, Stravinsky, very occasionally Mozart. But she was no longer a girl by then, no longer his lover. They were companionable, too wry with each other to be passionate, and they liked to be free to talk about their affairs. She was like a sister, judging his women with far more generosity that he ever allowed her men. Otherwise they talked music or food. Now she was fine ash in an alabaster urn for George to keep on top of his wardrobe.”

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From Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.

This paragraph grabbed me as I was rereading the book this week. If you want a profound but totally readable, twisted, and witty novel to flip through this weekend, pick up a copy of Amsterdam. It’s the work that won the Booker Prize for the guy who, at least in this reader’s opinion, is the best fiction writer alive.

“A Letter from Tegucigalpa” by Mark Strand

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Ireland Wall

In the old days, my thoughts like tiny sparks would flare up in the almost dark of consciousness and I would transcribe them, and page after page shone with a light that I called my own. I would sit at my desk amazed by what had just happened. And even as I watched the lights fade and my thoughts become small, meaningless memorials in the afterglow of so much promise, I was still amazed. And when they disappeared, as they inevitably did, I was ready to begin again, ready to sit in the dark for hours and wait for even a single spark, though I knew it would shed almost no light at all. What I had not realized then, but now know only too well, is that sparks carry within them the wish to be relieved of the burden of brightness.

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“A Letter from Tegucigalpa” by Mark Strand, from his collection Almost Invisible.

Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras. The picture, on the other hand, was snapped in Ireland.

More MS:

Jefferson on Taking Life as It Comes

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Thomas Jefferson “The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes, should be one of the principal studies and endeavours of our lives. The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will, to consider that whatever does happen, must happen; and that by our uneasiness, we cannot prevent the blow before it does fall, but we may add to its force after it has fallen.

These considerations, and others such as these, may enable us in some measure to surmount the difficulties thrown in our way; to bear up with a tolerable degree of patience under this burthen of life; and to proceed with a pious and unshaken resignation, till we arrive at our journey’s end, when we may deliver up our trust into the hands of him who gave it, and receive such reward as to him shall seem proportioned to our merit. Such, dear Page, will be the language of the man who considers his situation in this life, and such should be the language of every man who would wish to render that situation as easy as the nature of it will admit. Few things will disturb him at all: nothing will disturb him much.”

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Thomas Jefferson, writing in a letter to his friend John Page on July 15th, 1763.

Jefferson would’ve been twenty when he jotted this down.

Why We Struggle to Find Satisfaction in Life

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Ireland 2005 504

“I am sitting in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, drinking exactly what I want (coffee), eating exactly what I want (a cookie), and doing exactly what I want (writing this book). It is a beautiful fall day, and many of the people passing by on the sidewalk appear to radiate good fortune from their pores. Several are so physically attractive that I’m beginning to wonder whether Photoshop can now be applied to the human body. Up and down this street, and for a mile in each direction, stores sell jewelry, art, and clothing that not even 1 percent of humanity could hope to purchase.

So what did the Buddha mean when he spoke of the “unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha) of life? Was he referring merely to the poor and the hungry? Or are these rich and beautiful people suffering even now? Of course, suffering is all around us—even here, where everything appears to be going well for the moment.

First, the obvious: Within a few blocks of where I am sitting are hospitals, convalescent homes, psychiatrists’ offices, and other rooms built to assuage, or merely to contain, some of the most profound forms of human misery…

Yet the unsatisfactoriness of the good life runs deeper than this. Even while living safely between emergencies, most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis. When you wake up in the morning, are you filled with joy? How do you feel at work or when looking in the mirror? How satisfied are you with what you’ve accomplished in life? How much of your time with your family is spent surrendered to love and gratitude, and how much is spent just struggling to be happy in one another’s company? Even for extraordinarily lucky people, life is difficult. And when we look at what makes it so, we see that we are all prisoners of our thoughts.”

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From the opening chapter of Waking Up by Sam Harris. (Read the entire first chapter at Harris’s blog, or check out another excerpt about friendship. You can find more words from Harris here.)

Sam Harris

“Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children” by John Updike

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John Updike

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes’ dawn blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

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“Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children” by John Updike.

Who Survived the Holocaust — and How?

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Holocaust Survivor Tattoos“What you had to have is usually tabulated as follows: luck; the ability to adapt, immediately and radically; a talent for inconspicuousness; solidarity with another individual or with a group; the preservation of decency (‘the people who had no tenets to live by — of whatever nature — generally succumbed’ no matter how ruthlessly they struggled); the constantly nurtured conviction of innocence (an essential repeatedly emphasized by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago); immunity to despair; and, again, luck.

Having communed with the presences in [Anton] Gill’s book [which chronicles stories of survivors], with their stoicism, eloquence, aphoristic wisdom, humour, poetry, and uniformly high level of perception, one can suggest an additional desideratum. In a conclusive rebuke to the Nazi idea, these ‘subhumans,’ it turns out, were the cream of humankind. And a rich, delicate, and responsive sensibility — how surprising do we find this? — was not a hindrance but a strength. Together with a nearly unanimous rejection of revenge (and a wholly unanimous rejection of forgiveness), the testimonies assembled here have something else in common. There is a shared thread of guilt, the feeling that, while they themselves were saved, someone more deserving, someone ‘better’ was tragically drowned. And this must amount to a magnanimous illusion; with due respect to all, there could have been no one better.”

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From the epilogue to Martin Amis’s new novel The Zone of Interest, the closing dedication of which reads:

To those who survived and to those who did not; to the memory of Primo Levi and to the memory of Paul Celan; and to the countless significant Jews and quarter-Jews and half-Jews in my past and present, particularly my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, my younger daughters, Fernanda and Clio, and my wife, Isabel Fonseca.

Strikingly, this moving statement echoes almost exactly the words of M.A.’s closest friend, Christopher Hitchens, who remarked,

I once wrote that anyone who wanted to defame the Jewish people would, if they were doing so, be defaming my wife, my mother, my mother- and father-in-law, and my daughters, and so I didn’t think I really had to say anything for myself.

But I did add that in whatever tone of voice the question was put to me — whether it was friendly or hostile — Was I Jewish? I would always answer yes. Denial in my family would end with me.

Martin Amis

Does the Mind’s System Reflect a Judeo-Christian View of Human Nature?

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“The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action.

It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things.[...]

More generally, the interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, and with the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, than with behaviorism, social constructionism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.

The idea from the cognitive revolution that the mind is a system of universal, generative computational modules obliterates the way that debates on human nature have been framed for centuries. It is now simply misguided to ask whether humans are flexible or programmed, whether behavior is universal or varies across cultures, whether acts are learned or innate, whether we are essentially good or essentially evil. Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learning. And all people may have good and evil motives, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way.”

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From Steven Pinker’s epochal The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

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