Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
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Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. In pre-Christian Europe it was taken for granted that the future would be like the past. Knowledge and invention might advance, but ethics would remain much the same. History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning. Against this pagan view, Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a ...more
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The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.
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If Darwin’s discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist, culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day. In Victorian times this was a conflict between Christians and unbelievers. Today it is waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.
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When humans arrived in the New World around twelve thousand years ago, the continent abounded in mammoths, mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and dozens of similar species. Most of these indigenous species were hunted to extinction. North America lost over 70 per cent and South America 80 per cent of its large mammals, according to Diamond. The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout ...more
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Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: ‘We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.’ Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. If we are replaced by machines, it will be ...more
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Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication. Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; ...more
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Daniel Moore
a disability: only tormented persons want truth. Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women, not truth. Only if the mind Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness: then it hates its life-cage and seeks further.
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For Jacques Monod, one of the founders of molecular biology, life is a fluke which cannot be deduced from the nature of things, but once it has emerged, it evolves by the natural selection of random mutations. The human species is no different from any other in being a lucky throw in the cosmic lottery. This is a hard truth for us to accept. As Monod writes, ‘The liberal societies of the West still pay lip-service to, and present as a basis for morality, a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the “natural” rights of man and utilitarian ...more
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Daniel Moore
choice between good and evil: ‘The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.’ In this fantasy, mankind in the future will be different not only from any other animal but also from anything it has ever been. The Christians who resisted Darwin’s theory feared that it left humanity looking insignificant. They need not have worried. Darwinism has been used to put humankind back on its pedestal.
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In James Lovelock’s model of Daisyworld, a planet containing only black and white daisies becomes one in which global temperature is self-regulating. Daisyworld is lit by a sun that grows hotter over time. White daisies reflect the sun’s heat, thereby cooling the surface of the planet, while black daisies absorb the heat, so warming the surface. Without any element of purpose, these daisies interact to cool their world despite the warming sun. All that is required to bring a self-regulating biosphere into existence are mechanistic and stochastic processes, which can be modelled in a computer ...more
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Daniel Moore
temperature favourable to the life of both species, and this temperature fluctuates around an optimal balance. No one set the temperature, it simply emerged – the result of the daisies’ behaviour and their co-evolution.
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Gaia theory re-establishes the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind’s primordial religion, animism. In monotheistic faiths God is the final guarantee of meaning in human life. For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.
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In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: ‘Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.’
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A hundred years ago, Schopenhauer was vastly influential. Writers including Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, were deeply affected by his philosophy, and the works of musicians and painters such as Schoenberg and de Chirico were infused with his ideas. If he is scarcely read today, it is because few great modern thinkers have gone so much against the spirit of their time and ours. Schopenhauer scorned the ideas of universal emancipation that had begun to spread through Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. In political terms, he was a reactionary liberal, looking to ...more
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Daniel Moore
but his celebrated essay ‘On Women’ gave him a reputation for misogyny that has stayed with him ever since. He had a love of habit. During his later life in Frankfurt he followed an unvarying daily routine. Getting up around seven, he would write until noon, play the flute for half an hour, then go out to lunch, always in the same place. Afterwards he returned to his rooms, read until four, then went for a two-hour walk, ending up at a library where he read the London Times. In the evening he went to a play or a concert, after which he had a light supper in a hotel called the Englischer Hof. He kept to this regime for nearly thirty years.
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Schopenhauer was the first major European thinker to know anything about Indian philosophy, and he remains the only one to have absorbed and accepted its central doctrine – that the free, conscious individual who is the core of Christianity and humanism is an error that conceals from us what we really are.
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Nietzsche was an inveterately religious thinker, whose incessant attacks on Christian beliefs and values attest to the fact that he could never shake them off. The incomparable atheist and indefatigable scourge of Christian values came from a line of clergymen. Born in 1844, he was the son of a Lutheran minister, and both his father and his mother were themselves children of ministers. Appointed to the chair of classical languages at Basle University when he was only twenty-four, ill health forced Nietzsche to give up his precociously brilliant academic career. For the rest of his life he led ...more
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If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.
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If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself.
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Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds. Nietzsche knew this; but he could not accept it. He was trapped in the chalk circle of Christian hopes. A believer to the end, he never gave up the absurd faith that something could be made of the human animal. He invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give history meaning it had not had before. He hoped that humankind would thereby be awakened from i...
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Daniel Moore
its long sleep. As could have been foreseen, he succeeded only in adding further nightmares to its confused dream.
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When twentieth-century philosophers such as Fritz Mauthner and Wittgenstein attacked the superstitious reverence for words they found in philosophers such as Plato they were criticising a by-product of phonetic writing. It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture. It is equally difficult to imagine it in Sumeria. How could a world of bodiless Forms be represented in pictograms? How could abstract entities be represented as the ultimate realities in a mode of writing that still recalled the realm of the senses? It is significant that nothing ...more
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Daniel Moore
the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of its murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet.
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A person is someone who believes that she authors her own life through her choices. That is not the way most humans have ever lived. Nor is it how many of those with the best lives have seen themselves. Did the protagonists in the Odyssey or the Bhagavad-Gita think of themselves as persons? Did the characters in The Canterbury Tales? Are we to believe that bushido warriors in Edo Japan, princes and minstrels in medieval Europe, Renaissance courtesans and Mongol nomads were lacking because their lives failed to square with a modern ideal of personal autonomy? Being a person is not the essence ...more
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Halobacteria date back to the beginnings of life on earth. They are organisms which can detect and respond to light by virtue of a compound called rhodopsin – the same compound, present as a pigment in human eyes, that enables us to see. We look at the world through eyes of ancient mud.
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The old dualisms tell us that matter lacks intelligence and knowledge can exist only where there are minds. In truth, knowledge does not need minds, or even nervous systems.
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Conscious perception is only a fraction of what we know through our senses. By far the greater part we receive through subliminal perception. What surfaces in consciousness are fading shadows of things we know already.
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Consciousness is a variable, not a constant, and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. We fall into sleep in obedience to a primordial circadian rhythm; we nightly inhabit the virtual worlds of dreams; nearly all our daily doings go on without conscious awareness; our deepest motivations are shut away from conscious scrutiny; nearly all of our mental life takes place unknown to us; the most creative acts in the life of the mind come to pass unawares. Very little that is of consequence in our lives requires consciousness. Much that is vitally important comes about only in its ...more
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As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.
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When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.
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Our microworlds and microidentities do not come all stuck together in one solid, centralized, unitary self, but rather arise and subside in a succession of shifting patterns. In Buddhist terminology, this is the doctrine, whose truth can be verified by direct observation, that the self is empty of self-nature, void of any graspable substantiality.
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Each activity connects perception to action directly. It is only the observer of the creature who imputes a central representation or central control. The creature itself has none: it is a collection of competing behaviours. Out of the local chaos of their interactions there emerges, in the eye of the observer, a coherent pattern of behaviour.
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We are possessed by the notion that there must be a central controller, when in truth there are only the shifting sceneries of perception and behaviour. Selfhood in humans is not the expression of any essential unity. It is a pattern of organisation, not unlike that found in insect colonies. Around eighty years ago, the South African poet and naturalist Eugene Marais published The Soul of the White Ant, a path-breaking study of the life of termites. In it he gave his reasons for thinking that ants have a soul, or psyche, but one that is communal. The soul of the white ant is not the property ...more
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For Hume, selfhood is only a rehearsal of continuities. As he wrote: The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propensity we have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are ...more
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The illusion of enduring selfhood arises with speech. We acquire a sense of ourselves by our parents speaking to us in infancy; our memories are strung together by many bodily continuities, but also by our names; we contrive shifting histories of ourselves in a fitful interior monologue; we form a conception of having a lifetime ahead of us by using language to construct a variety of possible futures. By using language we have invented a fictive self, which we project into the past and the future – and even beyond the grave. The self we imagine surviving death is a phantom even in life.
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Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see our selves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.
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Chuang-Tzu is as much a sceptic as a mystic. The sharp dichotomy between appearance and reality that is central in Buddhism is absent, and so is the attempt to transcend the illusions of everyday existence. Chuang-Tzu sees human life as a dream, but he does not seek to awaken from it. In a famous passage he writes of dreaming he was a butterfly, and not knowing on awakening whether he is a human being who has dreamt of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a human being: Once upon a time, I, Chuang-Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I ...more
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Daniel Moore
desires. Chuang-Tzu admits no idea of salvation. There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self: When we dream we do not know we are dreaming, and in the middle of a dream we interpret a dream within it; not until we wake do we know that we were dreaming. Only at the ultimate awakening shall we know that this is the ultimate dream. We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?
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That man is the noblest creature may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim. G. C. LICHTENBERG
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We inherit our belief – or pretence – that moral values take precedence over all other valuable things from a variety of sources, but chiefly from Christianity. In the Bible, morality is something that comes from beyond the world: right is what God commands, wrong what God forbids. And morality is more important than anything else – fine china, say, or good looks – because it is backed up by God’s will. If you do wrong – that is, if you disobey God – you will be punished. Moral principles are not just rules of thumb for living well. They are imperatives which you must obey. It may seem that ...more
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Here is a true story. A sixteen-year-old prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp was raped by a guard. Knowing that any prisoner who appeared without a cap on morning parade was immediately shot, the guard stole his victim’s cap. The victim once shot, the rape could not be uncovered. The prisoner knew that his only chance of life was to find a cap. So he stole the cap of another camp inmate, asleep in bed, and lived to tell the tale. The other prisoner was shot. Roman Frister, the prisoner who stole the cap, describes the death of his fellow inmate as follows: The officer and the kapo walked ...more
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Daniel Moore
convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times.
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The idea of ‘morality’ as a set of laws has a biblical root. In the Old Testament, the good life means living according to God’s will. But there is nothing that says that the laws given to the Jews apply universally. The idea that God’s laws apply equally to everyone is a Christian invention.
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Having lost the skills of sewing, fishing and making fire, the indigenous people of Tasmania lived more simply than even Aboriginals on the Australian mainland from whom they had been isolated by rising sea levels around ten thousand years ago. When the ships bearing European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1772, the indigenous people seem not to have noticed them. Unable to process a sight for which nothing had prepared them, they returned to their ways. They had no defences against the settlers. By 1830 their numbers had been reduced from around five thousand to seventy-two. In the ...more
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Shaw viewed both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as progressive regimes. As such, he held, they were entitled to kill off obstructive or superfluous people. Throughout his life, the great playwright argued in favour of mass extermination as an alternative to imprisonment. It was better to kill the socially useless, he urged, than to waste public money locking them up. This was not just a Shavian jest. At a party in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday held in Moscow during his visit to the USSR in August 1930, Shaw told his half-famished audience that when they learnt he was going to Russia ...more
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On Sunday afternoon, 23 April 1899, more than two thousand white Georgians, some of then arriving on a special excursion train, assembled near the town of Newman to witness the execution of Sam Hose, a black Georgian. Whole families turned up to watch. Parents sent notes to school asking teachers to excuse their children. Postcards were sent to those who could not attend the spectacle, and photographs were taken to preserve it in memory. After learning of the death of her husband at one such occasion, Mary Turner – a black woman in her eighth month of pregnancy – swore to find those ...more
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Varlam Shalamov, according to the gulag survivor Gustaw Herling ‘a writer before whom all the gulag literati, Solzhenitsyn included, must bow their heads’, was first arrested in 1929 when he was only twenty-two and still a law student at Moscow University. He was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in Solovki, an island that had been converted from an Orthodox monastery into a Soviet concentration camp. In 1937 he was again arrested and sentenced to five years in Kolyma, in northeastern Siberia. At a conservative estimate, around 3 million people perished in these Arctic camps and one third ...more
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Daniel Moore
lives, it might seem that the prisoners had no reason to go on; but most were too weak to seize the chances that came from time to time to end their lives in a way they had chosen: ‘There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.’ Broken by hunger and cold, they moved insensibly to a senseless death. Shalamov wrote: ‘There is much there that a man should not know, should not see, and if he does see it, it is better for him to die.’ After his return from the camps, he spent the remainder of his life refusing to forget what he had seen. Describing his journey back to Moscow, he wrote: It was as if I had just awakened from a dream that had lasted for years. And suddenly I was afraid and felt a cold sweat from on my body. I was frightened by the terrible strength of man, his desire and ability to forget. I realised I was ready to forget everything, to cross out twenty years of my life. And when I understood this, I conquered myself, I knew I would not permit my memory to forget everything that I had seen. And I regained my calm and fell asleep. At its worst human life is not tragic but unmeaning. The soul is broken, but life lingers on. As the will fails, the mask of tragedy falls aside. What remains is only suffering. The last sorrow cannot be told. If the dead could speak we would not understand them.
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Why should my future goals matter more than those I have now? It is not just that they are remote – even hypothetical. They may be less worth striving for: ‘Why should a youth suppress his budding passions in favour of the sordid interests of his own withered old age? Why is that problematical old man who may bear his name fifty years hence nearer to him now than any other imaginary creature?’ We need not share George Santayana’s view of old age to see that his question is unanswerable. Caring about your self as it will be in the future is no more reasonable than caring about the self you are ...more
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In the Greek world in which Homer’s songs were sung, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life is ruled by fate and chance. For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune. Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision. He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man. So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible. Beyond the goods of human life – health, beauty, pleasure, friendship, life itself – there was a Good that surpassed them all. In Plato, this became the idea of the ...more
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For the pre-Socratic Greeks, the fact that our lives are framed by limits was what makes us human. Being born a mortal, in a given place and time, strong or weak, swift or slow, brave or cowardly, beautiful or ugly, suffering tragedy or being spared it – these features of our lives are given to us, they cannot be chosen. If the Greeks could have imagined a life without them, they could not have recognised it as that of a human being. The ancient Greeks were right. The ideal of the chosen life does not square with how we live. We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the ...more
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For Taoists, the good life is only the natural life lived skilfully. It has no particular purpose. It has nothing to do with the will, and it does not consist in trying to realise any ideal. Everything we do can be done more or less well; but if we act well it is not because we translate our intentions into deeds. It is because we deal skilfully with whatever needs to be done. The good life means living according to our natures and circumstances. There is nothing that says that it is bound to be the same for everybody, or that it must conform with ‘morality’. In Taoist thought, the good life ...more
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Daniel Moore
Chuang-Tzu.
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For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine. As the Lieh-Tzu says: ‘The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement is like a machine. He knows neither why he is at ...more
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No polytheist ever imagined that all of humankind would come to live in the same way, for polytheists took for granted that humans would always worship different gods. Only with Christianity did the belief take root that one way of life could be lived by everyone. For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice. For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error. Polytheists may be jealous of their gods, but they are not missionaries. Without ...more
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The Buddha sought salvation in the extinction of the self; but if there is no self, what is there to be saved? Nirvana is the end of suffering; but this promises no more than what we all achieve, usually without too much effort, in the course of nature. Death brings to everyone the peace the Buddha promised after lifetimes of striving. The Buddha sought release from the round of rebirth. E. M. Cioran writes: The search for deliverance is justified only if we believe in transmigration, in the indefinite vagabondage of the self, and if we aspire to put an end to it. But for those of us who do ...more
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We think of suicide as a uniquely human privilege. We are blind to how alike are the ways in which we and other animals do away with ourselves. Until a century or so ago, it was common for people to let themselves be carried off by pneumonia (‘the old man’s friend’) or to step up their daily intake of opiates until they fell asleep for ever. The men and women who did this turned towards death, sometimes consciously, but more often in an instinctual movement no different from that in which a cat seeks a quiet place to see out its end. As humanity has become more ‘moral’, it has put such deaths ...more
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escapes the fatal law of being who or what it is. ‘Bernardo Soares’ was one of many imagined identities assumed by the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. Some truths cannot be told except as fiction.
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David Hume saw humans as a highly inventive species, but otherwise very like other animals. Through the power of invention they could ease their lot, but they could not overcome it. History was not a tale of progress, but a succession of cycles in which civilisation alternated with barbarism. Hume expected no more than this. Perhaps for that reason, he has had little influence.
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In his book The Soul of the Ape, Eugene Marais – himself a morphine addict – showed that wild chacma baboons used intoxicants to disrupt the tedium of ordinary consciousness. In times of plenty when many other fruits were easily available, they went out of their way to eat a rare plumlike fruit, after which they showed all the signs of intoxication. Summarising his findings, which are supported by later research, Marais wrote: ‘The habitual use of poisons for the purpose of inducing euphoria – a feeling of mental wellbeing and happiness – is a universal remedy for the pain of consciousness.’
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Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.
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