Wednesday 12 October 2016

Why does Slavery Persist in the 21st Century? (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016


By Urmila Bhoola

The Slave Trade, by François-Auguste Biard
The Plenipotentiaries of the Powers who signed the Treaty of Paris of the 8th May 1814, assembled in conference:

'Having taken into consideration that the commerce, known by the name of "the Slave Trade," has been considered, by just and enlightened men of all ages, as repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality; that the particular circumstances from which this commerce has originated, and the difficulty of abruptly arresting its progress, may have concealed, to a certain extent, what was odious in its continuance, but that at length the public voice, in all civilized countries, calls aloud for its prompt suppression...'

It is now more than 200 years since the 1815 Declaration Relative to the Universal Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade, and the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention, which expressly prohibited slavery and the slave trade. Yet the scourge of modern slavery continues to plague our world.

Indeed, if anything, in recent years the tide seems to be turning: a breakdown in the collective interdiction on this ancient practice. Because, in fact, there is a significant ambiguity in the moral condemnation of slavery - which since ancient times it has been divided into two kinds, the unacceptable variety and the all-too often accepted.

For Aristotle in particular, the domestic slave was defined as the possession and property, or, as it were, the 'separable part of the master', even if they were supposed to be used not merely according to the owner's interest or caprice, but for the general good, and according 'to reason'. Likewise, Aristotle defined the slave as a person 'naturally' fitted to be such, writing:
'Those men, therefore, whose powers are chiefly confined to the body, and whose principal excellence consists in affording bodily service; those, I say, are naturally slaves, because it is their interest to be so. They can obey reason, though they are unable to exercise it; and though different from tame animals, who are disciplined by means merely of their own sensations and appetites, they perform nearly the same tasks, and become the property of other men, because their safety requires it.'
 And, (as Martin Cohen, for example, has argued in his book called Philosophical Tales),  if John Locke, many centuries later, is remembered as the exponent of indivisible human liberties, he too for many years toyed with arguments justifying and defending slavery.
In the Second Treatise, Locke updates this:
'...there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties, and lost their estates; and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society; the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.'
It is only later, In the Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government, that Locke urges that slavery is 'so vile and miserable an Estate of Man' and 'so directly opposed to the benevolent temper and spirit of the nation' that it was 'hardly to be conceived that any Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't.'

Today, similar doublestandards continue to contribute to the breakdown of the moral interdiction. The breakdown can be found manifested in the sexual slavery of Yazidi women at the hands of ISIS; in the forced marriage and enslavement of schoolgirls at the hands of Boko Haram, and in the exploitation of migrant and refugee workers in slavery-like conditions in various industries in the developing economies of the Global South.

At the same time, despite the progress world-wide made with integrating many small businesses into the formal economy, and the increased access to jobs for many, global supply chains are replete with claims of extreme labour exploitation, non-compliance with safety standards, lack of social protection and benefits, harassment, discrimination and violence, as well as prohibitions on trade union activity. Many of these rights violations occur where workers are forced to work in slavery-like conditions, for example in the informal economies in some South East Asian and South Asian economies, and are denied basic human rights because of their status as irregular migrants or refugees.

The example of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar and seeking refuge in the region but being forced by traffickers to work for months without pay on fishing vessels has been well documented and has led to increased vigilance and monitoring, but the patterns of exploitation fostered as a result of forced displacement, migration, poverty, natural disasters, discrimination and inequality, continue to exist.

According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index published recently by the Walk Free Foundation, almost 46 million people in 167 countries can be said to be subject to some form of modern slavery today. The Index reflects that five countries have about 58% of their population in slavery - India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan). These countries provide the low cost labour that produces most of the products destined for Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia. North Korea has the highest percentage of its population in modern slavery, at 4%, and in absolute numbers India is the highest with 18 million said to be modern slaves. Research by the ILO (the International Labour Organisation) says that 21 million men, women and children are in forced labour, which is a form of modern slavery.

These numbers, although they are a stark indicator of the extent of extreme labour exploitation maintained through force or coercion and underpinned by poverty and social exclusion, are not helpful because even one woman, man or child in slavery in this world in which we have access to so much wealth, is one too many. Instead of focusing on the numbers we should address the issue of why the gross violations of human rights which reflect our inhumanity and lack of respect for one another, continues to exist, and why the immense corporate greed that drives human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery and generates billions in profits, which are often stashed offshore, is allowed to continue. They key question is how we create a world in which values of respect, love, compassion and consideration for every man, woman and child determine how we engage with one another.

Modern slavery affects everyone in every part of the world. It does not only affect desperate migrant, indigenous, disabled and ethnic minority groups but it also entangles ordinary citizens lured into jobs that seem real, who find themselves working in a foreign country for long hours without even basic pay, in jobs much worse than the ones they were promised, and having no documents because their passports are withheld. In the globalised economy, goods are produced for North American and European global corporations in the informal sector in small factories and home-based workshops in developing countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia. Clothes made, for example, in Vietnam or Bangladesh find their way to the sale racks of major global fashion retailers who charge in dollars for one item what that worker producing it is likely to earn in a year. The workers at the lowest levels of these global supply chains are often subjected to extremely exploitative working conditions, if not slavery and forced labour in order to meet the demand from middle-men in the supply chain. When we buy these goods, we as consumers become complicit in their enslavement.

Millions of women and girls are enslaved as domestic workers or in sexual exploitation, and many are trafficked for this purpose or for labour exploitation in jobs they did not agree to do or in situations where they were duped into accepting the work. They end up being indebted to the very criminals who enslaved them - recruitment agents who charge exorbitant fees, employers who deduct huge amounts ostensibly for accommodation and benefits, smugglers who are meant to take them across borders but who sell them as slave labour to traffickers. 

Why do we still have modern slavery despite extensive legal protection in international law and in domestic laws in almost every country in the world?

The profit motive is a key driver, and according to the ILO $150 billion annually is generated in profits as a result of illicit activities involving forced labour and human trafficking, which are modern forms of slavery. Traffickers and other criminals prey on the poverty, displacement, inequality and desperation of millions who are driven from their homes or leave to seek livelihoods for their families. These migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers are easy fodder for criminal syndicates, smugglers and traffickers who operate to secure the highest price for providing cheap labour in the agriculture, fishing, construction industries and the informal sector. They use every opportunity to exploit, coerce, induce or defraud the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most marginalised amongst us, including bribing law enforcement and government officials to ensure that their profiteering is not affected by laws and regulations. Greed and corruption are thus key drivers of modern slavery, as is the access to millions of refugees, migrants and forcibly displaced workers and their families.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to identifying and ending slavery is that it is often hidden, its victims invisible, afraid and dependent on the very people who exploit them.  The victims are the most vulnerable, marginalized, displaced and will utilize any opportunity to earn money to put food on the table. It is only because as a global community we have lost our moral compass, and we can sell children into forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation without a thought for their safety and well-being. We see them as 'the other' so we are able to act with impunity and often get away with it as these crimes as often invisible. It is only when see ourselves as intricately connected to every other human being, when we recognize the God essence or soul in every other sentient being, that we are able to act to protect one another from exploitation and abuse. We have lost our way in many respects. We have lost our moral compass. We are wandering about in the darkness disconnected with one another.

It was this concern that recently prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to question (at the opening of the recent session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva) whether we really even have an international community worth speaking of. Such is the state into which we have fallen that people are homeless, stateless, turned away from Europe when they are fleeing violence of the most unspeakable proportions.

There are thus multiple situations in which our world continues to face unprecedented challenges emanating from the persistence of human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery.  Pope Francis expressed this in the following terms :
' We are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.'
This means that intensified, urgent and well-coordinated global action involving multiple actors (governments, business, civil society, consumers, activists, academics, politicians, faith and religious leaders) is needed to achieve its eradication. We also have to restore the rule of law in countries where this is weak or non-existent, hold government and officials accountable for continued impunity and promote effective law enforcement. The victims of gross human rights violations have to be treated with compassion and enabled and empowered to create alternative livelihoods as well as receiving just and fair compensation (amongst other remedies) for the rights violations they have suffered.

We have to remember that without justice there can be no development and peace - access to justice for victims of modern slavery, including securing compensation for them and ensuring their rehabilitation as productive members of society and not labour commodities, is critical to ensure that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by 197 member states of the United Nations, really delivers the elimination of poverty, and achieves decent work, full and productive employment, the elimination of child labour, human trafficking  and modern slavery.

So back to our starting question: Why does slavery persist in the 21st century? The international community needs to act immediately to stop these brutal forms of exploitation. This is best done through complying with the globally applicable anti-slavery conventions, the 1926 Slavery Convention signed by the League of Nations and the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavey, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. The year 2016 marks the 90th and 50th anniversaries respectively of these Conventions. State impunity in making sure laws and policies prohibiting slavery are upheld and enforced is critical to send a message that these abominable practices have no room in the global economy. Business needs to comply with the responsibility to respect human rights, conduct due diligence to end child labour and slavery in supply chains at every level of the business and in all other activities.

The United Nations Guiding Principles, unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011, provide detailed guidelines as to how business can comply. Prosecution of offenders needs to increase, and in additional to undoing criminal syndicates and following the sources of illicit profits generated by slavery and slavery-like practices, governments and business need to act together with civil society to make sure that protection and prevention measures are stepped up, as well as livelihood support and decent work generation to prevent people from relapsing into slavery. Much needs to be done to make sure international legal instruments are not ineffectual in preventing the proliferation of slavery, and the key starting point is holding governments and business accountable.

The key drivers of illicit profiteering at the expense of human lives needs to end, and with it the worship of profit as the supreme truth, worshipped by many in an era where there is little sense of how we are all interconnected as human being belonging to the same universe. A global world where a small minority earn huge profits which they hide offshore while millions eke out a basic existence trying to survive on poverty wages, and in which the destruction of our natural environment continues unabated, cannot continue to exist. Today, more urgently than ever, it is the duty of all the citizens of the global community who believe in truth, humanity and justice, to make sure that it does not.

Urmila Bhoola, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and its causes and consequences, reflects on the state of one of mankind's great moral issues,

Address for correspondence: Urmila Bhool can be contacted via Twitter: @ubhoola62

Great Aphorisms Sprout in the Dark (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016


By Martin Cohen

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. - Marcus Aurelius

Aphorisms have been done a great disservice by being printed on postcards and posters alongside images of flowers and sunsets. Here, aphorisms become heart-warming 'words of wisdom' like:
'We do not remember days, we remember moments' (set with a nice seaside image), or 'Never miss an opportunity to see something beautiful'. 
 (That one is displayed with a sunset as the background, of course.)

Rather, the aphorism is a special kind of phrase. The root of the word itself is about distinctions and definitions and the first known use of the term is attributed to Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician the name for a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease. The opening sentence of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates is:
'Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.'
This piece of epic negativity has set the tone for aphorisms ever since. In fact, most of what followed, which is depressing stuff about diseases and symptoms, would not even count as aphorisms today. But the fact that the art of aphorisms was born with a treatise on sickness and death is by no means without significance.

Don't imagine the diagnosis is accompanied by a more positive messages about possible cures either, rather it is more like this:
'Persons who have had frequent and severe attacks of swooning, without any manifest cause, die suddenly.'
'Those who are very fat by nature are more exposed to die suddenly than those who are thin.'
Hippocrates' list of interconnected statements was scientific in outlook, and the first aphorists were also focused on setting out very clearly the facts of the matter, whatever area it might be. Over time indeed aphorists moved away from the maxims of physical science towards fluffier moral and philosophical and literary truths. In the process, they began to look less and less compelling and factual and more and more subjective instead. Today, in the modern usage, an aphorism is often reduced to being merely a shrewd or witty observation, pithily written.

The Greeks had two words for what they saw as two kinds of wisdom: one for the wise who scaled the heights of thought and knowledge; another for those who, without logical method or technical jargon held up a mirror to human nature. It is really in this second kind of wisdom that the power of the aphorism lies.

The rather misnamed Golden verses of Pythagoras, although unremittingly depressing, inspired many later philosophers to try their hand. These three consecutive ones (Verses 56, 57 and 58) build to a nice finale.
'Few know how to deliver themselves out of their misfortunes
'Such is the fate that blinds humankind, and takes away his senses.'
'Like huge cylinders they roll back and forth, and always oppressed with innumerable ills.'
One of the key works of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, also attempts to be a mirror for humanity. Rarely have so many quotable aphorisms appeared in one short work - and the tone is unrelentingly depressing. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
'Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.'  
'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.'

''Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.''
 I can't help but smile when I read these. However some are a bit TOO gloomy...
'It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.'
... and clumsy in expression too.
'Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.'
There's a bit of repetition there, but repetition is one the tools of the aphorists' art. Hippies everywhere will remember these verses, if more likely from the Pete Seeger song (or maybe the Byrds' cover version), repetitively entitled Turn! Turn! Turn! than from Bible class that 'There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens'. Indeed, the shadow of death looms large in Biblical aphorisms writing, that it even makes it rather contradictory. Although one warning runs:
'Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.'
... another offers the countervailing reflection:
'What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?'
In a lecture to The Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on November 11, 1887, John Morley, a politician and newspaper editor (of all things), recalls Cicero's description of such sayings as saltpits, explaining 'that you may extract salt out of them,' and sprinkle it where you will. For him, sayings like these are illustrative: 'He who has less than he desires, should know that he has more than he deserves,' and one of my own favorites which is: 'People who never have any time are the people who do least.' John Morley has in fact a very nice aphoristic style of his own, clearly aided by his study of the topic, even if he complains that:
'Truth that has been picked up from books only sticks to us like an artificial limb, or a false tooth, or a rhinoplastic nose'. 
And it is surely as one that has tried that he usefully warns: 'If any of you should be bitten with an unhappy passion for the composition of aphorisms, let me warn such a one that the power of observing life is rare, the power of drawing new lessons from it is rarer still, and the power of condensing the lesson in a pointed sentence is rarest of all.

Morely also notes the particular quality of the written word that means: 'Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one's own.' Curiously, James Geary, a contemporary aphorist, picked out this last saying for a mention on his internet blog, adding 'I didn't make a note of the author...' Evidently the thought fitted so well within his own thoughts that he didn't feel the need to.

James Geary addresses the issue of the darker side of aphorisms by saying that aphorists 'typically don't need much convincing to look on the bright side, but the writer who sheds darkness on things does us a great service'. Why? Geary sees negativity acting as a kind of inoculation, boosting our 'existential immune system'.

In similar spirit, Geary writes in his book called The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, that:
'They definitely do not cheer you up. Instead, aphorisms fulfill a much more difficult and important task: They make you question everything you think and do. Aphorisms deliver the short sharp shock of an old forgotten truth. They keep your mind in shape by making you wonder every morning whether you're simply walking to work or digging your own grave.'
James Lough also explores the 'dark side' of aphorisms in the recent book, Short Flights 1, talking about 'aphorisms of insight' that strip away conventional wisdom, peeling the shiny surfaces to get at ugly truths beneath. He says that the aphorism of insight is 'not a champion of tradition -it's an outlaw'. Or perhaps one might say, a scofflaw, as the tone is often mocking and sardonic. Whatever the approach, Lough thinks that the power of such aphorisms is that they tell us:

' things are, tells us what's what, at a deeper level than common sense.'

And Short Flights closes with an essay by Sara Levine in which she too talks about 'bad-ass' aphorists who begin to make you think that aphorisms are all about 'the villainy of mankind, the treachery of friends, the foolishness of lovers'. For Levine, the saving grace of such a gloomy approach and the virtue of aphorisms, is that they are so 'patently provisional, unfinished and partisan'. Here we have a possible insight into the aphorists' particular taste for gloom - the pill is taken in such small dosages that it does no harm.

Certainly the Moral Reflections of François de la Rochefoucauld (1665), one of the most founding books of aphorism, modeled on the Proverbs of Solomon, is full of little poison pills. One such is the saying:
'In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.'
A concerned critic wrote: 'I count Rochefoucauld's Maxims a bad book. As I am reading it, I feel discomfort; I have a sense of suffering which I cannot define. Such thoughts tarnish the brightness of the soul; they degrade the heart.' That's the power of aphorism!

Blaise Pascal, La Rochefoucauld's fellow countryman and contemporary, attempted to put things right. The Thoughts of Pascal concern the deeper things of speculative philosophy and religion, rather than the wisdom of daily life, and, besides, though aphoristic in form, they are in substance systematic.

In an essay for 'The Book of Life' website, part of his own philosophical organization 'The School of Life', Alain de Botton describes Pascal as both one of the most pessimistic figures in Western thought and simultaneously one of the most cheering, adding that 'The combination seems typical: the darkest thinkers are, paradoxically, almost always the ones who can lift our mood.' De Botton calls Pascal's Pensées ('thoughts') a 'brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms' and he sees the gloom factor as integral to a pedagogic (teaching) purpose: to convert readers to God through evoking everything that was terrible about life. De Botton's second observation is telling too:

'Unfortunately for Pascal, very few modern readers now follow the Pensées like this. The first part of the book, listing what is wrong with life, has always proved far more popular than the second, which suggests what is right with God.' Aphorisms like: 'All of man's unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room' and 'We struggle against obstacles, but once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces' appeal to our inner darkness, as does: 'We are so presumptuous that we want to be known all over the world, even by people who will only come after we have gone.'

Nonetheless, like Geary, de Botton sees the gloom as extremely therapeutic, even suggesting that:
'...the work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man's every last hope into the dust. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realization of hidden potential, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.'
The idea is that it is a relief, to read philosophy that confirms our very worst fears, that sheds light into the inner darkness, however nasty may be what is revealed. However, the Pensées, it should be repeated, are not a series of aphorisms, in the modern sense of separate nuggets of wisdom. They are rather an interlinked series of claims offered in a the manner of a geometrical proof. The bulk of the book consists of uplifting, religiously-inspired thoughts like:
'Happiness is neither without us nor within us; it is in God, both without us and within us.'
The point is, the aphorisms we value are often not merely 'hacked from the rock-face' but pillaged like trophies from larger works of spiritual or other significance that we neither understand nor are very much interested in.

If de Botton and others are quick to recommend the Pensées, as a whole, as a timeless and powerful work - for me, it is tedious and outdated, its conclusions neglected for its tangential asides. Yet if Pascal's conscious aim is thwarted, thoughts he may barely have considered significant - the darker ones that sprang from this collective consciousness perhaps? - do continue to speak across the centuries.

And then there's Nietzsche. If many of the gloomy aphorists intended to have an optimistic message, Nietzsche is an aphorist who offered fine thoughts with the intention of belittling and mocking human optimism.
'There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness'.
The phrase has been immortalized in innumerable books and internet blogs, where, as ever, it has been given a rose-tinted makeover. Poor old Nietzsche! His intention was rather the opposite. I think most of us would take this as saying something like, yes, to feel love for another may be illogical, but there are other, higher, kinds of logic that make such feelings wise. We would not think that of it as an endorsement of the kind of violent madness that characterizes the slaughter of innocents during war, for example. But that is nearer the mark.

So pity Nietzsche! His sardonic ironies and contemptuous harrumphs target just about everyone and everything, he's ended up representing instead, the common man against the elite. If it's odd to find the doom laden verses of Ecclesiastes turn up as sixties pop songs, it's only to be expected that out of all the movies other people tell you about, or indeed all the movies made, Nietzsche appears more often than any other philosopher. This is because he is both very quotable and very much misrepresented. You can't have one without the other, I guess. Anyway, at least according to my Google-based research methods, out of all the philosophers, he is the philosopher-du-jour of the movie industry.

There was even a movie made in his honor in 2003 called simply 'Nietzsche' which has as the opening line: 'God is dead'. This Nietzscheism is so famous that its even got its own 2000-odd word Wikipedia entry, for God's sake! Or should I say, for evil's sake... You have to admire the brevity in that saying. A whole lot of ideas encapsulated in one bitter pill.

Here are a few more catchy Nietzscheisms, judged by that dubious yardstick that that they appear in popular movies:

In Enter the Matrix (2003), the character Ghost recalls Nietzsche's advice that:
'One must want nothing to be different-not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not only bear what is necessary, but to love it.'
In The Doors (1991) as part of a discussion of Jim Morrison's film class project, the soon-to-be-pop-star Morrison reports Nietzsche's words that '
'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.'
And in Smallville (2001), Lana says: 'Nietzsche? I didn't know you have a dark side, Clark.' to which Clark (aka Superman) says 'Doesn't everyone?' Lana then asks: 'So what are you: Man or Superman?' The punch line is Clark's droller than droll (or is it 'duller than dull'?) reply: 'I haven't figured it out yet.'

Of course, this exchange has nothing to do with Nietzsche's philosophy. But the connection pleases the film maker and the audience alike. Because, to movie director, philosophy professors and aphorists alike, Nietzsche is a hero. All cherish the way that he wrote wildly opinionated texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science, without doing anything dull like thinking about the practical, social consequences, all the while defying conventional ethics and dazzling with savage wit, metaphor, irony, and aphorism.

Philosophy has long offered big ideas, world-shaking ideas, in small formats

What strikes me about these mass-market Nietzschean aphorisms is that they all feed off a very dark and sinister aspect of philosophy. Nietzsche was not writing in the bien-pensant school associated (probably wrongly) with the cuddly Ancient Greeks, like Plato and Socrates, whose own dictums revolving around 'seeking the good' so pleased the Christian Church looking for more uplifting thoughts than those in the Old Testament. Philosophy has long offered big ideas, world-shaking ideas, in small formats, the classic text being Descartes'': 'I think therefore I am. But Plato is pretty quotable too. Thoughts like these could go on motivational posters... though they'd never sell.:
 'There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot. '

 'Love' is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. '

 'No one, purposely or knowingly, chooses what is wrong. '
 Actually, talking about philosophers being misquoted and misappropriated, didn't Plato really say:
'No one, purposely or knowingly, chooses what is bad for themselves '.
It's not quite the same thing, and indeed the distinction is all.

The philosophical aphorisms of Plato quoted so far are in fact just fragments, quotes, understood to be from longer works. However, Plato was following in the footsteps of great aphorists like Pythagoras and Heracleitus - the one the Ancients nicknamed 'the Dark'.There are lots of Pythagorean verses, but precious few words left of Heracleitus - scraps the historians actually call 'fragments'. However, apparently Heracleitus only uttered these kinds of short sayings, like a kind of grumpy grandpa, and was renowned for being thus inscrutable. To today his enigmatic announcements like the one about the river: 'No man ever steps in the same river twice' - are misunderstood. Other sayings are less obscure but equally seem less quotable:

'Much learning does not teach understanding' and 'There is nothing permanent except change'
But neither Plato nor Heracleitus, 'Dark' or not, can ever catch the public eye in quite the same way as Nietzsche. No, if you want to get to Hollywood, better make sure the plot is rather more brutal.

When Nietzsche says 'God is dead' he also adds:
'DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.' Let this be our final will at the great moontide! - Thus Spoke Zarathustra
But no one quotes that bit. In passing, I should note that I'm not sure if Nietzsche actually used capital letters - screamers - as it were for this phrase, but he sprinkled his notebooks with such things, and heavy underlining. I venture that a good phrase NEEDS NO EMPHASIS.

The 'Superman' is actually part of Nietzsche rant against women and the 'bungled and the botched' and not at all to do with protecting citizens from creepy and mutated underworld villains. On the contrary, his aim is to belittle the popular and mainstream and to privilege the esoteric and select. Nietzsche's Notebook for Autumn 1887, otherwise preoccupied with lamenting the abolition of slavery and the new propaganda in favor of treating people as 'equal', speaks of his struggle against Rousseau and his notion of natural man as good. Egalitarian notions of natural rights are a philosophy born, Nietzsche declares fiercely, 'out of a hatred of aristocratic culture.'

As writers really ought to accept, context matters, and an aphorism - a glittering shard of thought broken from the wordface, still has a context. It's just that often it's unclear what it is. Nietzsche had no time for the masses even if his imaginary character, Zarathustra, is tempted by pity to help them. His contempt extends not only to those social classes excluded from the privilege of higher education, but also to all people who limit their lives and aspirations to the pursuit of trivia and convenience. For Nietzsche, that includes the majority of artists and writers, of students and professors, of journalists and politicians-the majority, that is, of what is sometimes called the 'cultural elite'. They all fall far short of seriously developing their personal or their human potential. Not for him the appeal of the English, like those of Jeremy Bentham, Englishman and philosophical father of practicality, who thought: "In order to love mankind we must not expect too much from them."

Nietzsche's own life was a tragicomedy. A creative and brilliant mind turned bitter by professional failure and long-running physical illness, he is forever trapped in the contrast, familiar to so many of us, between aspirations and achievements. In his lifetime, that is. For later, Nietzsche's overturning of conventional morality and plan to make 'good' evil, and 'evil', good) did come to some kind of fruition. His dream of an elite of merciless 'Supermen' proud to show no pity for the weak taking joy in Dionysian destruction reappeared in a special edition of his writings that Hitler distributed to his soldiers in World War Two. In short, a rather different 'Niezschean Superman' to that in the movie. Of course, some people say that it was his sister who distorted his views and introduced the nasty bits. But Hitler, who also remarked famously:
'What is important is not what the creator of an idea of genius may mean, but what this idea becomes in the mouth of whoever transmits it.'
- had it basically right, when he recommended little snatches of Nietzsche for the troops. In his Notebook 5, for example, the unedited Nietzsche writes:
'I dream of a collective of men who are absolute, who know no consideration, and
who want to be called 'destroyers'.'
Not that you need to scour through obscure notebooks for nasty bits. So beware the platitudinous tendency in philosophy-of warm words and pious sentiments. The authors applauded for such things likely did not think anything like what they are credited with doing.

Context is all. All of which only goes to show, as Critical Theorist might say, that the 'author' does not have a monopoly over the interpretation of the text. And Nietzsche is a good place to start trying to work out the secrets of the art of aphorism, as he is certainly one of its most famous exponents, yet to make sense of his style - and its power - it helps to recall that he was himself only following in an ancient, if, in his day neglected, philosophical tradition.

Nietzsche admired the pre-Socratic philosophers, who in turn reflected an Eastern tradition of pithy words of wisdom delivered as from on high. Teaching around the same time as Pythagoras (the first century BCE), Confucius had dispensed with long boring recitals to teach instead via short pithy analects. Aphorisms by any other name.

The Analects were a series of moral maxims, superficially preoccupied with the question of the proper observation of ancient ritual. But their philosophical and social scope is much broader, and the Analects became the basis of educational theory, political and social science in China. For instance, Confucius says:
'The Superior Man stands in awe of three things...'
Whoa! Stop there. Because aphorisms tend to share certain structural features. The root of the word is in lists of interconnected definitions and on a rhetorical and indeed pedagogical level the 'rule of three' is one key element. Speeches, or mere sayings, carry more weight when they are presented as triples.

Clearly Confucius knew all this. So he says of the Superior Man and his fears.

•    He is in awe of the decree of Heaven.
•    He is in awe of great men.
•    He is in awe of the words of the sages.

The power of the triple, of course, always lies in the closing statement.

Yet , at other times, Confucian wisdom is binary. Take the golden rule, for example. One of the last of the analects recalls that Tzu Kung asked the Master: 'Is there a single concept that we can take as a guide for the actions of our whole life?' To which Confucius responds, 'What about 'fairness '? What you don't like done to yourself, don't do to others.'

Binary language reeks of school, 'do this, don't do that.' Its dogmatism is antithetical to the art of literary aphorism. However, it is binary distinctions that underlie another great, indeed I would say, greater, Eastern text is the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching is all about binary pairs, about opposites.

Its starting point is that these are the two aspects of everything in reality. Yin, _, the feminine aspect, is dark, soft, and yielding. Yang, _, the masculine aspect, is bright, hard, and inflexible. Everything in the world consists of both elements, and everything is in a state of flux, changing to become more yin or more yang. Human beings are born soft and flexible; yet when they die that are stiff and hard... Plants sprout soft and delicate, yet when they die they are withered and dry...
'Thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death, the soft and flexible are disciples of life.
Thus an inflexible army is not victorious, an unbending tree will break.
The stiff and massive will be lessened, the soft and fluid will increase.'
This is great stuff! But it is not yet the stuff of aphorism. It is yin and yang and not yin, yang and he. Which it could have been, as where there is a harmonious balance between yin and yang, it establishes he (harmony).

The Western tradition grew from Eastern texts like these, with (over time) the binary style winning out over the triadic.

Another perhaps less obvious influence on modern day aphorists is Zeno of Elea, who is always remembered, indeed much loved, for his puzzles and paradoxes. Long before anyone else he examined the mathematical and logical nature of some of our most basic concepts concerning the fundamental nature of space and time. And in his philosophizing, Zeno used a very distinctive kind of argument, one which proceeds by apparently reasonable steps to a completely unreasonable conclusion. Aristotle credited Zeno with being the first philosopher use the 'dialectic', the method of reasoning that later inspired Marx to predict world revolution. Contradiction fuels philosophy and aphoristic language alike.

Take Epicurus's 'Argument from Evil' for example. The entire argument is eight lines long.
'Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God? '
Or recall Socrates famous 'closing speech' in Plato's dialogue The Apology, after drinking a glass of hemlock:
 'To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. '
With philosophy for so many centuries dedicated to producing contradictions in aphoristic style, and aphorists dedicated to responding in like form, it is a relief to come across Schopenhauer. The iconoclastic German philosopher studied not only the classical Greek tradition but also the Eastern texts. Schopenhauer even called his beloved poodles 'Atma', after the universal soul - all of them sharing one name. He was, in addition, a fine writer with a terse, elegant style. And he offers this explanation for what he calls the 'Emptiness of Existence'.
'That human life must be a kind of mistake is sufficiently clear from the fact that man is a
compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy; moreover, if they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value.'

- On the Emptiness of Existence
Sigmund Freud would study Schopenhauer's description of the primal 'will to live' and 'sexual impulse' nothing less than avidly, before drawing up his own account of the id or 'life-instinct' and making the libido the central feature in human life. Yet it is not the Austrian psychoanalyst who wrote '...consciousness is the mere surface of our mind, of which, as of the earth, we do not know the inside, but only the crust', but this, still today, relatively obscure, German philosopher.

So perhaps the all-important closing phrase should go to Schopenhauer:
'One should use common words to say uncommon things.'

Martin Cohen is Editor of the Philosopher and author of numerous books on philosophy and social science. His most recent book is Crakcing Philosophy (Cassell 2016)

Address for correspondence: Martin can be contacted via Twitter: @docmartincohen

Peering into the Future and Seeing the End of Territoriality (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016

 Is Globalisation's Momentum Irresistible and Irreversible?

By Keith Tidman

The instantaneity of digital communication, the speed and connectivity of transportation, and the profusion of shared knowledge—spurred by technology’s rapidly increasing ubiquity—compress space and time, fueling globalisation. As Martin Heidegger pointed out, writing in the first half of the Twentieth Century, in this globalised world, “everything [becomes] equally far and equally near”—today dramatically represented by such disparate capabilities as the Internet, jet travel, shipping wharves, and satellites. Or rather, as he goes on, everything is neither near nor far, but without distance. Given the geographic and temporal dynamics driving the intermeshing of human affairs across former divides, has globalisation reached critical mass—and is therefore irresistible and irreversible? Is all that’s left to figure out is how to make globalisation’s transformative nature work to best advantage for as many communities and people as possible?

The British-born Ghanaian-American cultural theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, thought the answer to those two questions was yes: “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.” Continuing, he remarked that:
“The challenge . . . is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” 
The vision is thus of a one-world community—solving globalisation’s hard challenges while mitigating the gnawing uncertainty that some people might experience in the face of melting borders and shifting social landscapes.

All that said, spirited debate over globalisation’s benefits and risks won’t abate soon. The current polarization will endure foreseeably, as globalization will lack a simple straight-line ascendancy. Accordingly, the route to mature globalisation will be rocky and contentious; yet, despite the cycle of gains and setbacks, the overall long-term trajectory will be up. At the same time, at no point in globalisation’s ascendancy will there suddenly appear the end of all possible world orders—there won’t be ‘an end-of-ideology moment’. Fundamentally, however, globalisation’s surge is beyond being corralled; it’s a growingly interdependent world, with tough connective tissue forming every day among governmental, sociocultural, business, communal, and organizational entities across the globe. Territoriality is receding rapidly, and human experience and social activity are being reshaped. Although the dial of globalisation will need to be adjusted—turned up or down, preferably in proactive anticipation of future requirements rather than in reaction to past events—globalization will prove undoable. Arguably, what’s left is to agree how to mould globalisation’s features as it takes hold.

Though palpable, the effects of globalisation—its direct impact, economic and sociocultural, on the world’s seven billion citizens and their communities—remain hard to nail down at this early phase. Much is in flux. Nonetheless, mobilising globalisation is doable. Nations and people are venturing down the many-decades-long path of globalisation—that is, globalisation of today’s magnitude!—for the first time in history. Getting to true transcultural globalization will prove hard. Yet, context as to the sweeping effects of globalization helps to inform the discourse on both sides of the ecumenical divide, as people give a thumbs-up or -down on globalisation’s desirability. That context is brought home all the more by the fact that change often evokes anxiety. Anxiety that’s made worse if some communities distrust globalisation as foisted upon them by what some may perceive as ‘marauding’ self-interested outsiders. Appiah’s ‘global tribe’ shorthand, therefore, provides a sanguine explanatory backdrop.

The typically first way to look at globalisation is through an economic lens. Opponents like to paint economic globalisation with a Darwinian brush—globalisation supposedly making the life of large cohorts of people more difficult. Their argument may be framed as some mix of persistent inequality in income and assets, economic benefits that shift from less-developed to developed countries, sluggish livelihoods, ‘market hegemony’ by the economically more-muscled nations, and workers displaced by technology like robotics. However, a case has been made that the opposite is true, with, for example, tens of millions of people pulled out of extreme poverty, a growing middle class, and lives enriched. In that economic milieu, Adam Smith points us in the right direction. When production is put to the crucible of competitive market dynamics, increases in efficiency, scale, innovation, specialisation, and productivity are realised—resulting in decentralised power, with greater shared wealth and higher living standards for more. Gains in living conditions attributable to the metaphorical ‘invisible hand’ of free markets proposed by Smith. Globalisation means all this happens across communities’ increasingly irrelevant geographic borders. In contrast, communities that attempt to cocoon themselves in protectionism, closing the door on change, are acting counterproductively, putting people’s potential at risk. Government’s role, accordingly, should be circumscribed, as outlined by Smith:

The [government] is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which [it] must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interests of society.

Running with Smith’s globlisation-friendly model, the notion of neatly delineated nations and communities envisioned by John Rawls as “self-sufficient schemes of cooperation for all the essential purposes of human life” has long been fading fast into the past. Yet, to Rawls’s credit, he also recognised the importance of distributing, to use his term, ‘the social surplus’—everything people obtain only through cooperation. Advancing this notion of cooperation, beyond simply the internal dynamics of individual nations, leads to the more ambitious vision of cooperation on a global scale. If Rawls is right that cooperation is key to what people acquire—and that distributing ‘the social surplus’ is fundamental to that model of success—then it’s reasonable to extend the concept of cooperation to the merits of globalization. In that environment, the more resilient communities thrive from globalisation—with many populations benefitting from the sharing of material and intangible resources: products, services, capital, information, technology, skills. By one metric, this positive outcome has happened: the World Bank has credited globalisation for having halved the number of people living in extreme poverty over the last two decades. Indeed, it’s considered realistic, as globalisation seeps into all regions of the world, to eventually eradicate all extreme poverty. Dithering by communities until ‘the perfect’ reveals itself may leave their people disadvantaged; no choice is a choice. Figuring out how to marry up communities’ mutual interests—for the ‘good life of each’—is part of the solution.

The complexity of the economic issues—and their quick onset—means that economists are still getting their minds around what’s unfolding. Some of which they control, some of which they don’t. Not unexpectedly, there’s animated disagreement among economists, academics, social theorists, and policymakers, as well as the public at large, as to which aspects of globalisation work, to whose advantage—and which linkages should be promoted and expanded, or be caused to shrink. The parts are tantilisingly in motion. Therefore, hasty assumptions by opponents that globalisation, in economic terms, is necessarily ‘deleterious’—that it encourages, as some misguidedly argue, polarisation between competing interests and marginalization of the socioeconomically vulnerable—will prove vastly premature in the longer term. Leo Tolstoy got it right when he point out that “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs”. Such ‘freethinking’, though difficult when one’s comfort zone is put in play, is important if progress in moulding and managing globalisation is to succeed.

Notwithstanding all the economic issues, globalisation is more multidimensional than economic considerations alone. Sole focus on the economic aspects of globalisation would, in fact, paint an incomplete, even unfair, picture. Rather, globalisation’s impacts relate also to culture, social norms, the environment, security, and more. These noneconomic factors profoundly and rightly matter to most communities—with people selectively coveting some of their features while disdaining others. This is a world presciently defined by the cultural critic Marshall McLuhan as a ‘global village’, marked by ‘acceleration at all levels of human organisation’—not just economic. It’s a world in which increasingly decisions made and actions taken in one part of the world will directly, and in short order, reveal consequences that affect the welfare of another.

From an environmental standpoint, for example, any effects that globalization has on issues like extreme weather, biodiversity, pollution, and resource supplies need to be folded into negotiated and mutually agreed-to international plans that promote globalisation. Plans, that is, that recognise that globalisation—choices about technology, regulations, standards, behaviors—can be a vector as much of solutions as of problems: preferably to prevent and minimise harm, but otherwise to repair harm. International organizations and individual governments have had mixed success in formulating, buying into, taking responsibility for, and executing plans to curtail the worst of environmental degradation—damage that’s still to play out its hand. In this context, one powerful driver in globalisation’s environmental calculation is application of the moral doctrine that international law refers to as the ‘common heritage of humanity.’ A heritage that echoes the Kantian principle that “use of the right to the earth’s surface [belongs] to the human race in common”. That bold whole-of-humanity standard regarding the environment should underpin communities’ move toward moulding the future of globalisation.

‘Security’ is another noneconomic, critical product of the incubation of global interests, disinclining communities from warring with one another. Where there is reciprocally beneficial commerce, sociocultural open-mindedness, cultural cross-seeding, and broad interdependence—and thus understanding—there is a greater likelihood of peace. Indeed, some see global peace as the ‘highest good’ to strive for in justifying working toward globalisation. Historic adversaries begin to envision what each might bring to enhancing joint prosperity. Globalisation affords more nations with geostrategic opportunities to foster peace and stability. But conflict, and its avoidance, begins with people: As the preamble to the constitution of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation proclaims, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. With globalization, commercial multilateralism, and increased diffusion of prosperity, competitiveness in pursuit of self-interests that are blinkered to other nations’ interests cedes ground. In particular, it cedes ground to a healthier alternative for communities: resisting dangerous isolationism (breeding a them-versus-us mind-set), de-conflicting tense regions, and allowing for the cooperation that Rawls envisioned to take root and flourish. Conflict thus becomes a less attractive, outmoded recourse to advance self-interests.

Meanwhile, state and non-state actors are pressed to understand and promote the human rights dimension of globalisation—that is, whether globalization, on balance, benefits human rights and the dignity those rights bring. Some people see globalisation—its economic advantages, such as reducing severe poverty—as having the spillover effect of more liberal, freer forms of governance. And, as a domino effect of the concept of (indivisible) human rights, there are greater opportunities for such benefits as improved education, healthcare, racial and gender equality, justice, absence of exploitation, enfranchisement, and much more. Just one example is more robust child labor laws. An aspiration, in other words, for people to enrich their families’ lives beyond the triad of shelter, clothing, and food. Given that human rights are unassailable and universal—theoretically and practically, everyone has a claim to them—their presence in the globalisation debate is imperative.

To some measure, globalisation across these noneconomic dimensions will spur aspects of cultural homogeneity—transcending nations and communities while moving closer to ‘universal’ ideals and values. In other ways, these dimensions will spur cultural heterogeneity—acknowledging the desirability and inevitability of continued cultural and social pluralisation and differentiation, where indigenous autonomy is the preferred option. The eventual balance, in cultural and social terms, between homogeneity and heterogeneity resulting from longer-term globalization may never be precisely fixed (or fixable), but rather will be subject to off-and-on recalibration as technologies, needed skills, products and services, social needs, and other factors morph; the dynamic is only partially grasped at this point in time, though the pieces will get filled in. The shifting contours of the balance, as communities weigh in and make choices, will not devolve to a simple binary either-or. Rather, as the choices play out, there will be both: increased homogeneity in some situations, increased heterogeneity in others, and all subject to Appiah’s ‘continuities and changes’. Given the increasingly constitutive nature of globalisation in today’s world—its momentum—that reality will persist.

Accordingly, people will continue to form supranational unions—like the African Union, European Union, United Nations, Arab League, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, World Bank, International Court of Justice, International Atomic Energy Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and many others. Collectively, they comprise a powerful panoply of unique yet interconnected interests, with each acting as a force multiplier for others. These types of organisations will serve as one component of the leading edge in globalisation’s forward momentum. Rawls’s emphasis on the benefits of cooperation, therefore, applies as much to the function of these organisations as to individuals, communities, and nations. Their members’ aim is multifaceted: to help melt boundaries through practical inducements and diplomacy; define what’s at stake while developing policy; clarify alternative outcomes, and how to rank and attain them; aspire to attaining the ‘greatest goods’; and serve as a venue for tackling global challenges. All the while fostering their shared interests—commercial, legal, political, cultural, human rights, environmental, and security.

Globalisation is a complex living ‘organism’ with self-correcting properties, still only partway through its many-decades-long evolution and lifecycle. A lifecycle underwritten by the basic tenet that the absence of change translates to the absence of progress. In light of globalisation’s critical mass and thus its irresistible and irreversible momentum in a shared unlocking of human potential—as well as Appiah’s model of world citizenry as a ‘global tribe’—Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, offered moral and practical guiding principles: “If globalisation is to succeed, it must succeed for poor and rich alike. It must deliver rights no less than riches. It must provide social justice and equity no less than economic prosperity and enhanced communication.” There’s time and opportunity to continue baking those normative principles into a future increasingly defined by globalisation.

Address for correspondence: Keith Tidman can be contacted via this page

Thursday 3 March 2016

Franz Kafka’s Blue Period (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Appreciating the Octavo Notebook Aphorisms
By Alex Stein

A lecture I gave at a college in California, on the relationship between art and mysticism, in conjunction with a recently published book, led to a request that I offer commentary on some of the aphorisms contained in Franz Kafka's 'Octavo Notebooks'. It has been my pleasure to do so. To meditate upon the works of Kafka (author of The Trial and Metamorphosis, among other high-water marks of World Literature) is to meditate upon the human condition. As the primitives did on their cave walls, so Kafka does in his writings: he expresses the quintessential.

Franz Kafka's Blue Octavo Notebooks aphorisms, written mainly in 1918, were first published in 1953, under the heading 'Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.' That header, with its stair-stepping triplet of charismatic nouns-Sin! Suffering! Hope!-along with its deft note of plea, was one of the innumerable publicity tweaks that Max Brod, zealous agent of Kafka's literary estate, would, in time, perform on behalf of the spiritual reputation of his enigmatic friend.

It was Brod who had refused to destroy Kafka's writings after Kafka's death, in 1924. This was despite explicit instructions given by Kafka that he do so. 'I told him I did not agree to it,' Brod said. 'I told him I would never do such a thing'.

Kafka had culled some of his key ideas, in the form of aphorisms, from a pair of blue notebooks. He transposed these, slightly editing several, onto numbered slips of paper he had arranged at his bedside. It was these slips that Brod would recover, along with the notebooks, from Kafka's personal effects.

Illness had set Kafka free. He had just turned 34 when tuberculosis declared itself. It was August, 1917 and he had coughed up a little blood. Kafka would spend the next eight months, convalescing in Zurau, in the Bohemian countryside, at the house of his sister Ottla. In a letter from that time, Kafka compared himself to the 'happy lover' who exclaims:  'All the previous times were but illusions, only now do I truly love.'

Indeed, just three days into his stay, Kafka scribbled:  'You have the chance if ever there was one, to begin again. Don't waste it.'

The sequence he produced was a first, for Kafka, in at least two regards. It was, and would be, the only text in which Kafka directly confronted theological themes, and it marked, within the broad scope of his writings (that included novels, stories, and a voluminous intimate diary) the first appearance of a particular literary form: the aphorism.
Aphorism #33

Formerly I could not understand why I received no answer to my questions; today I cannot understand how I could have believed I could question. But indeed I did not believe, I simply questioned.

Aphorism #51

One must not cheat anybody, not even the world of its triumph.
Kafka had turned his affliction into a badge of honor. Being bed-ridden was Kafka's permit to dream. It was a special dispensation. Proust once wrote that the neurotics have given us everything. They are the ones who have saved the world, created the world, made the world worthwhile. Perhaps, invalidism had eased Kafka of the burden of himself. Eased him of the chattering fears that told him, 'You must do better!' That told him, 'It will always be beyond your abilities, whatever you choose. You will never be good enough or go far enough.'
Aphorism  #45

The choice was put to them whether they would like to be kings or the couriers of kings. Like children, they all wanted to be couriers. So now there are a great many couriers who post through the world, shouting to each other (as there are no kings left) their meaningless and obsolete messages. They would gladly put an end to their wretched lives but they dare not because of their oaths of service.
In the two slender notebooks, those two blue octavo notebooks, like those used by school-children, we get Kafka's private conversations. And in private conversations all of us tend to think more plainly, more directly, about hope and suffering, good and evil. If Kafka were to have translated those private conversations into public fictions or some other form that could have been folded twice and shot skyward under the cloak of literature, his style would have to have been more self-conscious, more ambiguous. But, because these were entirely private conversations, and because they were left so, they became perfect mirrors. Revelations. Beyond the fairy tales of the bardic. Verging on the estate of the vatic.
Aphorism #5

From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
Aphorism #10

A first sign of nascent knowledge is the desire for death. This life seems unendurable, any other unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wishing to die; one prays to be conducted from the old cell that one hates into a new cell that one has yet to hate. There is in this a vestige of faith that during the changeover the Master may chance to walk along the corridor, contemplate the prisoner, and say: 'You must not lock up this one again. He is to come to me.'
One might call aphorism #10 a prose fragment. Or an anomaly. Or a dream page from The Book of Mysteries. I am perfectly content to call it a poem. But for me it is really a vision of Grace. And Kafka is a mystic.
Aphorism #12

Like a road in autumn: Hardly is it swept clean before it is covered again with dead
The novelist, J. D. Salinger, once wrote of Kafka that certain lines in his diaries could be used to usher in a Chinese New Year. Considering that, one might translate this aphorism as: After meditation, how quickly the thoughts begin again to arise.
Aphorism #27
Virtue is in a certain sense disconsolate.
This one had been crossed out by Kafka. It was Brod who restored it. This raises issues about authors, about editors and about intentions. Let us say you had the privilege to know him. Let us say you were Kafka's executor and you had seen that strike-through and read what was beneath. Do you publish Kafka's diaries? Do you publish Kafka's laundry list? Do you ask yourself: Where does Kafka end and literature begin? Where do you draw the line? At what he agreed not to burn?

I am with Max Brod. Everything Kafka wrote (or said, or did) is valuable because whatever he does, he is still doing the work. And even if the work is just self-work, so, too, could the same be said for any of us, of anything we do, in any capacity-from fence-mending, to love-making, to bridge-building-that it is just self-work. With Kafka we are given the opportunity to witness a self-work master seeking, with elegant precision, his own hinterlands, focused in a state of such contained urgency that it is almost a trance of clairvoyance . Kafka is us, without our illusions.
Aphorism #29

The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.
The 'crows' are a group of theologians, posing an ancient dichotomy. I would rephrase the aphorism like this instead: 'The theologians maintain that a single contrary revelation could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of a single contrary revelation.'
Aphorism #36

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not from infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.
I adore this one. It is intractable without being obtuse. It brings an historical figure at the beginning of his destiny into contact with the scope of eternity and the mystery of his own free will. It is a portrait in the myth-making ilk of Leutze's famous 'Washington crossing the Delaware,' but drawn in ether upon the canvas of Time.
Aphorism #41

The hunting dogs are still playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may already be flying through the woods.
The novelist, Martin Amis, once referred to Kafka's prose as: 'dream-shaped.' This is a good example of that characterization.
Aphorism #46

Faith in progress does not mean faith that progress has already been made. That would be no faith.
This one rings for me like a joke one might tell between numbers at an old-fashioned music hall.

In his preface to an early edition of The Castle (Kafka's dream-shaped novel of alienation without redemption) the German essayist and short story writer, Thomas Mann, called Kafka a 'religious-humorist.'
Aphorism #66

Theoretically there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.
Sometime around 1420, the Indian mystic, Kabir, wrote, similarly: 'I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.'
Aphorism #75

Profane love can seem more sublime than sacred love; of itself it could not do this, but as, unknown to itself, it possesses an element of sacred love, it can.
I don't care much for this aphorism, or for its sentiment, but it does give me a chance to say some things about Kafka and his relationship to the world. In a letter to Milena, one of the two or three unfortunate woman who would care very deeply for him, Kafka will write: To try and catch in one night, by black magic, hastily, heavily breathing, helpless, obsessed, to try and obtain by black magic what every day offers to open eyes!

Imagine you are Milena! Imagine being the recipient of such a letter. 'Black magic?' Imagine being a young woman learning about her young man, and receiving such a letter. How could it not sting? And imagine being the one who had sent such a letter. Imagine being the young man. How can such a letter ever be lived down? It is too big to regret. It is Van Gogh's ear. It is too much to take back. Sometimes a voice, out from the chaos of spirits, cries and one finds oneself having written.

Can one say that? Or perhaps it is only poetry. The young man, in fear of the young woman, writing of sack-cloth and ash, wishing his body would be burnt away. Nothing more to it. Whatever is dammed must find another outlet. Whoever is damned must find another heaven.
Mystics from every tradition can be wildly erotic, but because they are addressing themselves to God they feel safe.

For Kafka, the mystic ritual he called 'writing' was his safe zone. Mysticism, like everything else, takes the shape of the desire by which it is summoned, and the desire behind Kafka's writing is an arrow launched toward union.

Much of what we read in Kafka is too personal. Transient neurotic contemplations. Documents for the doctors at the Sanitarium of Hypochondria. It is the repressed, surfacing, deviously, in masquerade. And part of what we read in Kafka is a universalized, lived, sensuality. Shy experience of the self as other. Veiled encounters with the beloved. Butt-naked tusslings. And why not? To get there means 'union', long longed-for (or, it may be, 'reunion,' long hoped for) and union induces bliss.

The 'impotent' who eroticises the world, some say he is the prophet. In his novel,Justine, Lawrence Durrell calls them, 'the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets...all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.' The statement lacks proportion, but there is some truth in it.

To be wounded in that way is to dam a furious river that begins, as the poet Rilke tells us, 'in the sky.' 'Making music is another way of making babies,' writes Nietzsche. And yes that is sublimation and yes it does color thought, but doesn't it color thought in wonderfully feverish flesh tones and isn't all that frailty and failure a living part of Kafka's legacy-a necessary aspect of its divinity? Isn't all that partly its sacrament? And isn't the chaos and aren't the death-thralls just autumn leaves in their season?
Aphorism #80

We were fashioned to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.
I think of this one as a trance message like those the sleeping prophet Edgar Cayce used to gather from the universal record books, where all thought and event, even our dreams, past and present and future, are collected and preserved.

The 'true artist' is a mystic. As to the 'true way,' here is a shrewd insight from Kafka.
Aphorism #1

The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but is just above the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.

Aphorism #13

A cage went in search of a bird.
A critic can quickly grow discouraged trying to categorize an author's writings. Aphorism #13 is obviously a puff of ephemera, but it is also like a mirror that is floating in the middle of space. One can look at this aphorism solely for the uncanny condensation of its phrasing. Each of us is a cage-a cage of bones. In poetry, birds signify creative imagination. (As: 'Flights of fancy.') Is this simply an aphorism that says: A poet went in search of inspiration? If so could one extrapolate from that and say: A pilgrim went in search of her soul?
Aphorism #17

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.
One of the most famous of Kafka's aphorisms. Arguably one of the greatest aphorisms of all time. It combines story, idea, symbolic logic and a dense poetic construction. It speaks deftly of the human condition, and of how belief is constructed and defended. Plus, it has leopards in it, lapping up the sacrificial wine, 'repeatedly, again and again.' And that's just cute!
Aphorism # 19

You are the problem. No scholar to be found far and wide.
Meaning: You must solve yourself, if no one else seems to have taken up the task. If there is no scholar of you 'far and wide', you must become that scholar. If you are Kafka, you have not stinted that 'must,' and should it come to proof, you will be able to stand before any judgment seat clear of conscience. All those close written pages were for what if not to solve the problem that you were to yourself?

But, did you solve the problem of yourself? No, of course you did not. Thinking cannot solve the problems of thought. Thought only creates more thought. Thought cannot carry thought past itself. If you are Kafka, your voluminous writings are a good indicator of that. (But also of the positive qualities that thought returning to thought, over and over, do give rise to, namely: condensation of idea, excellence of conception, and brilliance of realization. In other words: poetry).
Aphorism #20

From a real antagonist, boundless courage flows into you.
The artist comes up against the limitations of his own understanding and does not shrink back but reaches through the darkness before him and if necessary climbs inside of it. All in order that he not fail in his duty to his art. Those who feel no duty to their art will never understand how those who do feel this duty believe they must render their services.
Aphorism #22

How can one be glad of the world, unless one is flying to it for refuge?
Recite a love-lyric that makes your heart ache more than does this aphorism. Imagine if Kafka had set about to present himself as a romantic figure. Once you have realized that Aphorism #22 is actually a love poem, a deepened understanding of it becomes inevitable. What refuge has the world? Where is that refuge to be found? Without worldly love, without the reality of worldly love, the idea of other-worldly salvation might never have been conjured.
Aphorism #23

There is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering.
Is there a way or is there no way? When we have reached our goal we understand there never was a way. We were already at our goal. Stop wavering. You have reached your goal, Kafka is telling himself. Just allow yourself to accept this understanding. But the wavering has its history and wants on that account to repeat itself. Can thinking tell thought that it must no longer waver? Oh, poet friends, would that it could. Only not-thinking can tell thought anything helpful about how to get out of the way of itself.

You may believe there is no such condition of mind as 'without thought'. But, there is no need to believe. Simply practice without expectation. You will come to experience this condition yourself. It has also been called, 'non-duality,' but I find that terminology provocatively metaphysical. The practice of 'no-thought' is not metaphysical. It is purely mechanical. Focus on breath. Or count by ones until you fall into a trance of forgetfulness. The mind is empty. Thought is nothing more than a habit.
Aphorism #34

His reply to the assertion that he POSSESSES perhaps, but never IS, was only a trembling and pounding of the heart.
There is a Zen Buddhist koan that may be apropos of Aphorism #34::
'Who is it that responds, when your name is called?'
Kafka is in the Zen Buddhist tradition (among other traditions) when he recognizes 'with trembling and pounding of the heart', that the self is just another purchase we have made on the way through this world. The worldly self is like a cupped handful of water. We have it for as long as we can hold it. What we truly are (and what the His of this aphorism 'never is') partakes of the eternal and cannot be reduced or constructed, let alone possessed.
Aphorism #42

You have harnessed yourself ridiculously for this world.
If one wishes to apply oneself fully to the task one has chosen, one must risk looking ridiculous. Or, as the great Japanese haiku poet, Buson, wrote:
Chrysanthemum grower,
you are the slave
of Chrysanthemums

This essay owes part of its thinking, and even some of its language, to a series of conversations I shared with the poet Yahia Lababidi. The edited transcripts of these conversations were collected and published in 2012 as The Artist as Mystic. We spoke of Kafka, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Rilke. Motui Vivos Docent, Lababidi toasted, when we first conceived that project: The dead shall teach the living.

About the author: Alex Stein, with James Lough, is the co-editor of Short Flights: 32 Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration and Wit. He is also the author of 'Made Up Interviews with Imaginary artists,' a hybrid including interviews and literary essays.

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