Friday, April 5, 2019

Forming the cathedral


Years ago, I was struck by a comment by Richard Foreman: "I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and 'cathedral-like' structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West." The very concept of "the West," and certainly the privileging of it, is of course worthy of debate, but that's not what drew my attention. I was attracted to the more general ideas that the scholar has a personal mission to absorb as much information as possible; that, to give shape and purpose and attainability to that mission, the scholar might propose some cultural definition of what information is "theirs" in some sense, i.e. what they can realistically hope to absorb and contribute to and what subject matter they have a responsibility to; and that the result of this effort is that their acquired learning, unique to them as an individual, becomes like a cathedral, a mix of form and function, and it forms their personality.


One might want to study everything broadly. Howard Bloom calls it "'omnology,' a field dedicated to the most zoomed-out cross-disciplinary search for knowledge." For most people, however, this is generally not a reasonable or useful goal. You can't build a beautiful cathedral out of Anything and Everything.


Veering in another direction, one might have a hyperfocused interest in just one subject and hope that everyone else wants to discuss the same thing. Amitai Etzioni calls this a "megalogue." Among "moral megalogues," as he wrote in 2009, "Recent issues have included the legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whether gay couples can legally marry. In earlier decades, women's rights and minority rights were topics of such discussions. Megalogues involve millions of members of a society exchanging views with one another at workplaces, during family gatherings, in the media, and at public events. They are often contentious and passionate, and, while they have no clear beginning or endpoint, they tend to lead to changes in a society's culture and its members' behavior." James M. Gustafson said that "participation in a serious moral dialogue moving toward consensus is more important than the consensus itself...[because] participation in moral discourse deepens, broadens, and extends [people's] capacity to make responsible moral judgments."

Data bank

A more modern idea is that a giant data trove of beliefs and thoughts could be used to reconstruct a human personality and give it life inside a robot. This is a bit different from the idea of a cathedral, because, while a building designed for worship pays homage to a larger tradition, a personality data bank pays homage only to oneself.


Richard Foreman. Quoted in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr. The Atlantic. July/August 2008. p. 63.

"Grand Inquisitor" by Nando Pelusi, on the work of Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle and Global Brain. Psychology Today, January/February 2008, p. 41.

"Get Rich Now." Amitai Etzioni. Excerpted from The New Republic (June 17, 2009). Reprinted in UTNE Reader (Jan-Feb 2010), p. 41.

James M. Gustafson. "The Church: A Community of Moral Discourse." in The Church as Moral Decision-Maker (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1970), pp. 83-95. Quoted in James Calvin Davis. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 168-169.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Four ways philosophy can fail to point toward a better future

Every philosopher wants truth, and most aspire to some form of fairness and equality as they understand those concepts. But does philosophy succeed in making the world a better place? Here's several ways it can fail to achieve its goal.

1. Everyone cares, but the philosopher can't offer a practical road forward

Peter Levine pointed out in 2013 that many thinkers can envision a better society but can't explain how to get there.

Either Rawls did not take responsibility for changing the world, or he hoped to change it by the following roundabout strategy: first develop a theory of the best possible society by means of academic scholarship, primarily addressed to colleagues and advanced students, and then popularize (or let someone else popularize) the results so that they might influence public opinion and thereby change influential popular votes. I see no evidence that this strategy had any impact, despite Rawls’s enormous prestige in the academy. Public policy in the United States is less Rawlsian than it was in 1970, and liberal activists and leaders who share some of his principles rarely look to him for arguments or guidance. Nor has any other political philosopher had more success than Rawls or his followers and interpreters. This is not a refutation of Rawls’s philosophy, which may be correct on its own terms. I am not a pragmatist who thinks that the only justification of intellectual work is its impact, what William James used to call its 'cash value.' A theory can have intrinsic merit. I would, however, assert that Rawls and his colleagues are no longer writing in the same genre as Plato, Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Madison (and many in-between). Contemporary academic political philosophy does not offer a path to a better society but only an indication of what one would be like. It is a highway without the on-ramp."

Philosophy that isn't actionable arguably doesn't inspire others to action, and, realizing this, the philosopher may not be optimistic about ever reaching the future they have so carefully imagined.

2. Everyone cares, but there is no answer to be found

The novelist Erich Maria Remarque pointed out in 1957 that, if there were a One True Philosophy, the project of philosophy would have already come to an end, just as the discovery of a working medicine generally puts all the snake oil salesmen out of business.

"I walk over to the shelves that contain the works on religion and philosophy. They are Arthur Bauer's pride. Here he has, collected in one place, pretty much everything that humanity has thought in a couple of thousand years about the meaning of life, and so it should be possible for a couple of hundred thousand marks to become adequately informed on the subject — for even less really, let us say for twenty or thirty thousand marks; for if the meaning of life were knowable, a single book should suffice. But where is it? I glance up and down the rows. The section is very extensive, and this suddenly makes me distrustful. It seems to me that with truth and the meaning of life the situation is the same as with hair tonics — each firm praises its own as the only satisfactory one, and yet Georg Kroll, who has tried them all, still has a bald head just as he should have known from the beginning he would have. If there were a hair tonic that really grew hair, there would only be that one and all the others would long ago have gone out of business."

3. The philosopher cares, but no one else does

The English literary critic John Rodker wrote in 1926:

“It is impossible to tell the truth so that it is understood and not be believed, said Blake, but to-day, in the general slackening of all standards, truth, however much understood, has less moral force than it ever had. So that, although some individual be affected to raving point or another utterly blasted, the mass has no use for it, and writing, searching for an absolute truth, goes on at the side of all other activities but influencing them less and less.”

As quoted by Rodker, Blake meant: If people really grasped what the truth meant, they'd believe it. It's like understanding that food and sunshine is good: to be exposed to it is to appreciate its value. Rodker challenged this (albeit from a sideways angle) by observing that people seem to understand the truth, and perhaps therefore they believe it, yet they do not act upon it. This presents a challenge for the philosopher.

4. Not even the philosopher cares

About a decade after Rodker, Ernst Cassirer proposed a reason for this failure of philosophy. He thought it was too wrapped up in making predictions about the future and in accepting fate.

"As soon as philosophy no longer trusts its own power, as soon as it gives way to a merely passive attitude, it can no longer fulfill its most important educational task. It cannot teach man how to develop his active faculties in order to form his individual and social life. A philosophy that indulges in somber predictions about the decline and the inevitable destruction of human culture, a philosophy whose whole attention is focused on the Geworfenheit, the Being-thrown of man [as coined by Heidegger, in reference to accepting one’s fate], can no longer do its duty."

Philosophy has to trust its own power, in Cassirer's words. It needs to teach people how to develop themselves to become active members of society. The philosopher has to care about this potential of philosophy, or no one else will.

How valuable are ideas?

Ideas are a prerequisite to reasoned, planned action. Ideas on their own, however, if not followed by action, are so cheap and prolific as to be nearly meaningless and almost — by definition — useless. Everyone generates ideas. Some jot down keywords in notebooks. Others inflate them to small articles (like this one) that can be shared. Still others write and teach books of philosophy. But none of this achieves its full potential value if it doesn't also somehow lead to action or show others how they can take action. I wrote about this for LinkedIn: "Your old notes aren't exactly 'clutter'​ (but you might still want to throw them out)."

Violence is imaginable; call it by its names

Reflecting on the paintings of Francisco Goya, Sebastian Smee referred to the painter's "insistence on the stupendous, the monstrous, the scarcely creditable stupidity of human beings."

Smee had seen Goya's paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where they remained on temporary exhibition at the time of his article's publication. Smee is from Sydney, where he knew one of the murder victims in a recent hostage crisis. As he wrote in the Boston Globe in January 2015, he didn't know whether to describe the killer as bumbling idiot. He noted that people tend to use words like "tragedy" and "nightmare" — "uncomfortably heavy, or weirdly abstract" — rather than words that "in many ways feel more accurate. Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded beyond belief." People struggle to explain "the Boston Marathon bombing, the insane massacre of 132 schoolchildren that took place in Pakistan on the same day as the two deaths in Sydney, the slaughter of 20 small children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, the routine, virtually random executions that take place in our inner cities daily, or — more dismally breaking news — the eye-rubbingly futile murders that took place at a satirical newspaper in Paris" earlier that week. None of it is "unimaginable." Goya imagined it in all its "remorseless, terrifying stupidity."

In Goya's paintings, too, we see that "reason is conspicuous only be its absence," and what we have instead is "sheer derangement. Monstrous folly." In Goya's paintings, Smee wrote, we have "a visceral registration of that which is most putrid and pitiful about humans," and we may begin to think that the proper response to atrocities is "not so much to shine the light of reason on them, the better to understand and digest them, but rather to swear never to come to terms with them, never to tolerate them."

How can we declare our intolerance to violence?

Here's one idea. In April 2019, Umair Haque wrote for Medium that the terms "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" represent "some of the most important and vital ideas and concepts in human history, crucial to the functioning of democracies, the rule of law, and the institutions of civilized societies." Those concepts mark where we "began to understand how to genuinely coexist as a world — where the red lines of democracy and civilization lie." When U.S. leaders, believing in American exceptionalism, do not employ these terms to criticize U.S. policies, "we are also saying three things. We are above history. We are above the world. And we are beyond morality. But all those are forms of folly, ignorance, and stupidity — which have come back to collapse our very own society."

After reading these two pieces, I draw my conclusion: It is rational to describe senseless violence in weighty terms — "tragedy" and "nightmare" (Smee), "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" (Haque). Anyone who fails to use such concepts to rationally criticize oneself and one's society has lapsed into the irrational realm — "Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded" (Smee), "folly, ignorance, and stupidity" (Haque). While such ignorance may not be the original cause of the violence, it is surely the consequence of not recognizing the significance of the violence. It is the vacuum that violence leaves behind when we do not respond properly. I agree with Smee's conclusion that we must resolve to resist or avoid future violence, and that this is more important than absorbing the meaning of past violence; however, I think that reason can be used in the service of the former as well as the latter.


Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Erich Maria Remarque. The Black Obelisk (1957). USA: Crest, 1958. pp. 90-91.

John Rodker. The Future of Futurism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd. 1926. pp. 23-24.

Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. Donald Phillip Verene, ed. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 230.

Sebastian Smee. "Atrocity exhibition." Boston Globe. January 11, 2015.

Umair Haque. "The Fascists Are Winning Because Americans are Too Dumb (or Too Afraid) to Call Out Fascism." Medium. April 9, 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Does philosophy matter?

William James:

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."
William James. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, together with four related essays selected from The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 23rd printing, 1959. Original copyright 1907. p. 50.

Daniel C. Dennett:

"Science does not answer all good questions. Neither does philosophy. But for that very reason the phenomena of not need to be protected from science--or from the sort of demystifying philosophical investigation we are embarking on. * * * Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protects of mystery ever conceived. The "magic" of earlier visions was, for the most part, a cover-up for frank failures of imagination, a boring dodge enshrined in the concept of a deus ex machina."
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1991. 22, 25.

Edwin Tenney Brewster:

"Common sense, science, and philosophy are, then, three different levels of insight into the nature of the universe. ... Thus far, on the whole, philosophy has been rather less successful than its partners. There remains, however, still a fourth method of acquiring information, which does not belong anywhere in the common-sense-science-philosophy series--the method of theology. Theology employs the same free speculation as the other three. It rejects its failures in the same fashion. But its test of truth is neither workability, nor the facts of nature, nor inner consistency, but conformity to some datum assumed as already fixed. This ultimate authority is, of course, widely diverse for different theologies. ... But always and everywhere the theological method of discovering truth assumes that some one or more persons know something important about the universe which the rest of mankind cannot possibly discover for themselves."
Edwin Tenney Brewster. The Understanding of Religion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. p 66.

Jonathan Lear:

"In the Sophoclean universe there are only two possibilities: either one relies rigidly on human reason or one submits to a divine realm. In neither position is there room for philosophy, that peculiarly thoughtful response to awe."
Jonathan Lear. Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 51.

Jonathan Glover:

"There is room for philosophers who specialize in highly abstract questions and treat them as self-contained. But if this became the norm, there would be a loss. It would stop philosophy making difficulties for Belief. It would also stop philosophy making a difference to anyone's life. The voice of Socrates would trouble people no more."
Jonathan Glover. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 377.

Jordan Peterson on gender quotas in politics (article in the National Post, Dec. 11, 2018)

Jordan Peterson published an opinion piece, "The gender scandal – in Scandinavia and Canada," in Canada's National Post on Dec. 11, 2018.

Focusing on just one or two of my points of disagreement, I sent this letter to the newspaper, which they published in their Dec. 18 issue. Here's a blurry image of the paper...

...and a transcript of my letter.

"Jordan Peterson wants Cabinet members to be selected based on their competence level. Their genders would then reflect those of the MPs overall, he claims, citing what he believes to be statistical likelihood.

Peterson didn’t define “competence;” presumably it needs to come in a special political flavor, distinct from what is valued in, say, construction workers. Nor did he claim that a politician's competence is unchangeable and scientifically measurable. Nor did he provide any reason to accept this mysterious trait as the Cabinet's sole qualification.

He also undercut his own argument by pointing out how a distribution curve works. Violent criminals are far more likely to be men, he says. Why, then, isn't it mathematically possible that the best politicians might typically be women?

To make his point, he needed to show that the 10 percent of MPs ranked as the most 'competent' are indeed a mix of women and men who reflect the gender balance of their peer MPs, and that these aren’t the people Justin Trudeau picked."

Online comments

In the online comments, one reader accused me of playing at being "deliberately obtuse" in my failure to understand what ought to be the "obvious" definition of political competence. (I don't think it's obvious at all, and if I am obtuse, it is surely accidental.) This reader also accused me of being sarcastic (nothing in my letter is sarcastic) and of having "cherry-picked" my responses (well, yes, when the original opinion article is 2,100 words and my response can only be about 8 percent as long, I have to drastically limit what I respond to). Another reader complained that there's no way to rank MPs by their competence level. (Yes; that's exactly my point. Peterson didn't define what he means by competence; we don't know if this unnamed trait is scientifically measurable; and, without ranking each MP's competence level, he can't prove his point.)

Additional points

My letter to the editor was only about 165 words due to the length restrictions. If I'd had more space, I could have made many more points about Peterson's article.

To begin with, Peterson's tone is full of dismissive snark. He uses phrases like “Game over” and “Get it?” to provoke debate with the “neo-Marxist leftist postmodern” “politically correct” “utopians” who are “radically and loudly insist[ing]” things for reasons like because it's 2015 and who, he says, are "appalling" and "wrong." This language is not informational. It is just off-putting.

More substantially:

I was most interested in "Part Two (Canada)," which I perceive as the main argument toward which Part One builds. Part Two has the following flaws.

First, he proposes the possibility that “competence is the most important factor” for anyone who works in federal government, then assumes this to be true. He does not even define what he means by competence, though he mentions it in the same breath with “intelligence” and “conscientiousness” (whether to identify it with those virtues or to distinguish it from them, I can’t tell). Let me suggest another important trait for politicians: personal experience that matches their constituents'. For example, when the government sets policy about maternity leave, it is good if many of the decision-makers have themselves previously given birth, because that is a relevant life experience that allows them to readily understand the issues. Abstract forms of intelligence/conscientiousness/competence do not substitute for that life experience. For similar reasons, maturity and career experience are valuable in politicians. Many 20-year-olds are highly "competent" but they aren't quite ready for political leadership. So I don’t accept Peterson’s assumption that “competence is the most important factor” in politicians.

It is especially nonsense since the first half of the article—“Part One (Scandinavia)”—discusses how men and women self-report different personality traits. Statistically, “men are less agreeable,” Peterson reports, while women are “more people.” It seems to me that being people-oriented, sympathetic, and motivated to reach agreement are great assets in a politician. Rearranging the elements of his own argument could result in the very different proposal that women make better politicians.

To use a visual illustration more common to a math class: Imagine you want to select a handful of the highest-quality M&Ms from a bag. Before you begin your selection process, someone throws out all the blue ones. Does it matter? It shouldn't, because for your practical purposes, all the M&Ms taste the same anyway. They are all adequate for the purpose of being eaten. But suppose there really is a quality difference, and what if all the blue ones are inferior—"less agreeable" to you? Then it doesn't matter if they were thrown out. In fact, it speeds up your task because you don't have to waste time on them. I am not comparing humans to M&Ms; I am using M&Ms as a mathematical illustration to remove some of the feeling and assumptions. And I am not saying that male politicians are inferior to female politicians; I am pointing out that Jordan Peterson made a comment that suggested that they might be, which undercuts his argument because, if it were true, it would affect the mathematical outcome.

He makes an attempt to explain distribution curves. He says: When comparing any randomly selected man and woman, the more “aggressive” individual is probably the man, but not always. The chance of it being the man is only 60%-40%. Which is to say that most humans are not especially aggressive at all. There are some outliers, though—violent criminals—and these are nearly always men. Since he realizes this, I am surprised he misses its implications for identifying the most highly qualified MP. If the most dangerous criminals are nearly always male, isn’t it possible (by the same mathematical rule) that extremely qualified politicians are nearly always female?

Second, he hasn’t argued that Cabinet members need a level of competence beyond what most MPs have. Presumably and hopefully, MPs already have the competence needed to do their own job. If Cabinet members need something extra-special, he needs to explain what that is. It's relevant because he's asking us to consider the statistical likelihood of an MP having that something-special.

Related to that, he claims: “The possibility of identifying a competent person increases as the pool of available candidates increases.” This sounds logical, but as a practical matter it isn’t obviously meaningfully true for this particular scenario. Having a pool of one dozen, three hundred, or five thousand MPs may not increase the numbers of the exceedingly competent among them who have the je ne sais quoi to become Cabinet members. Maybe a few are dumb as rocks, maybe a few are luminaries. But I imagine they are, on average, simply the sorts of people who like to work in politics and who get voted in, and I suspect that most of them are fairly reasonable Cabinet material. If Trudeau needs to pick 17 out of some 88 women MPs and 18 out of 250 men MPs to form his Cabinet, I’m sure he can find reasonable choices. Jordan Peterson is worried that the best people for the job are languishing in the pool of untapped men MPs. He hasn’t convinced me because he doesn’t have a good definition of what makes someone best for the job. Maybe some of those untapped men have an extra IQ point or an extra smidgen of "conscientiousness" over the rest of the people who got tapped? So? The men might also lack the specific life experiences, career histories, and personality traits of the women MPs who got picked. They didn't have to fight sexism all their lives to get elected. What exactly is being ranked here? Lots of complex things. He isn't recognizing that.

And never mind that a PM surely has political reasons for choosing his/her inner circle. It's not just about who's intellectually or theoretically competent, but about who is like-minded, loyal, powerful, charismatic, networked, emotionally stable, won't be an embarrassment, and works well with all the other people who are being picked. These traits control whether everyone — as individuals and as a group — is competent in their ability to get stuff done. Getting stuff done is very important to a PM, and its practical importance will not change or diminish just because Peterson thinks raw IQ matters the most. Politicians will never choose their inner circle based on IQ tests alone—which suggests that IQ isn't the definition of political competence.

Third, Peterson rehashes one of the usual arguments against affirmative action, which is that you can’t hire people who aren’t in the hiring pipeline to begin with. The usual pro-affirmative action rejoinder is that you can make an effort to broaden your awareness of who is really in the pipeline and make an effort to reach out to them and even help set the stage for the long-term so everyone has better options in the future. Peterson misses the point that, when the PM establishes that the Cabinet should be half women, he’s setting expectations for how he wants government to run and implicitly suggesting that he’d like Canadians to elect more women MPs in the future (which, if it came to pass, would render this whole “problem” of Cabinet over/underrepresentation moot).

Fourth, I am confused why Peterson refers to Trudeau as “the absolute poster boy for…privilege” yet also says he doesn’t believe that “straight white men" enjoy privilege that is “generally undeserved.” Peterson says he doesn’t “assume” that such “patriarchy” exists, which I interpret as a euphemism for his not believing in it at all. Yet, having said he doesn’t believe in it, he then says that Trudeau benefits from it, and furthermore that Trudeau shouldn’t share it with women in an attempt to level the playing field. Go figure.

Fifth... his final paragraph is nothing more than a hostile, self-contradictory comment telling women that they don't experience real sexism today and also that they don't deserve their political positions and should be ashamed of their personal advancement.

The first section of the article, "Part One (Scandinavia)," also has its problems.

  • Peterson describes a study method for identifying gender differences: self-reporting and self-description. He says these study results reveal what men and women "are." That is a leap. Self-reporting can have limited accuracy. People are more than what they know or choose to report. He should have stuck to more precise language, e.g. men's and women's "self-understanding," throughout the article.
  • He notes that these studies find a greater gulf in men's and women's personality differences in nations with more gender-equitable policies. He says this is odd, but doesn't propose a hypothesis for it. (It would have been easy to propose an off-the-cuff hypothesis. Mine is: Maybe people engage with their own gender identity differently depending on how egalitarian their society is?) Having no explanation for this, Peterson seems to think (for no apparent reason) that it supports the idea that at least some important gender personality differences are biologically determined, and he seems to think this is a victory over the idea that gender is a social construct. It is not the win he thinks it is. Gender can have biological and social inputs—so? What is the complaint? What is he winning? Who is he conquering?
  • While it is reasonable to assume that physical sex (including genes, hormones, anatomy, reproductive history, sexual habits, and so forth) affects personality, Peterson didn't specify whether these studies considered these factors. Did these studies compare transgender people with cisgender people? Or, chemically castrated prostate cancer patients with younger men? Or...? Peterson just said the studies were about "men and women." Which means the studies might have accidentally revealed the social construct aspects of gender as much as they revealed anything about physical sex.
  • He speaks about these studies in aggregate. There's no link or citation by which I could look up any of these studies if I wanted to.
  • He's worried about some “large-scale experiments aimed at...eliminat[ing] gender identity among young children” and I don't even know who advocates that or what he's talking about. Sounds like a straw man.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Ross Douthat's "WASP nostalgia" NYT columns in Dec 2018

Immediately after the death of President George H. W. Bush, Ross Douthat's column "Why We Miss the WASPs" was published Dec. 5, 2018 in the New York Times. There was a swift and negative reaction to the column. A main problem was Douthat's assumption that such nostalgia is universal (when straight white male Protestants are a minority in the United States) and his use of the pronoun "we" to describe, for example, what "we feel" (when many Americans emphatically do not share his sentiments). Another problem was his fuzziness about the term WASP itself, an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant that he uses seemingly interchangeably to describe powerful people and a particular set of values.

What he said

Jumping off from two reflections he'd recently read in The Atlantic — that Bush was the last scandal-free, resentment-free president considered "legitimate" (per Peter Beinart) and that, reflecting on Bush's death, the public feels nostalgic for prep-school educated leaders who came from an "Establishment" (per Franklin Foer) — Douthat opined that what is missing today is "a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today." Douthat agrees, after Foer, that "the old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, [and] it had failures aplenty," and Douthat adds that "as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology (and don’t get me started on its Masonry)." Yet he feels that the WASPs' "more meritocratic, diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well." Nostalgia for WASPs "probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive."

I see two prongs to his comment, and there are vulnerabilities in what he is saying.

First, in the moral realm: Douthat is saying that the WASPish aristocrats weren't so bad, and that people in power today have basically all of the historic WASPish vices with fewer of their virtues. This is a difficult statement to unpack in part because Douthat doesn't clearly name or identify the vices and virtues he's talking about. He tries, referring explicitly to "discipline" and "a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety...a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success," as well as "a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety" since "for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists." This yielded "a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship." His explanation is inadequate because discipline, noblesse oblige, personal austerity, piety, service, and even "competence and effectiveness in statesmanship" first need to be defined, and there just isn't enough space within a newspaper column. It is also probably not literally true that bigots and non-bigoted, deep, scholarly multiculturalists existed in a 1:1 ratio among white Protestants, and that is anyway not a testable hypothesis. And when he says that WASP virtues were replaced by today's "performative self-righteousness and raw ambition," he is unclear if he believes those particular vices existed among the WASPs, too, or, if they did not, exactly what the WASPs' vices were. And there are plenty of people for whom buzzwords like "personal austerity" and "piety" raise red flags: queer proles ruled by self-declared holy leaders have always been menaced by these words that so often signal damaging, repressive policies. LGBT people, even if they can see how austerity and piety may be considered personal virtues, are not nostalgic for the influence of those particular "virtues" in politics.

Second, in political theory: Douthat is pointing out that it might be "a contradiction in terms" to attempt to form "a more democratic and inclusive ruling class." Well, yes. Ruling classes are...not democratic and inclusive. The standards for who gets to be in the ruling class might change over time, and they might be more democratic and inclusive without ever being fully democratic and inclusive. He quotes Helen Andrews to the same effect: Aristocrats can promote "ethnic balance" or "geographic diversity," but they remain aristocrats who have different "values" and "responsibilities" and are not "representative of the country over which they preside." Part of the point can be accepted: More types of people might have a chance to become president, but, even so, not everyone gets to be president. That is clear and unavoidable. The inherent scarcity of power does not, however, lead to the position that, when considering demographic access to power, we should be indifferent or deliberately restrictive; nor does it mean (to be more specific) that the white prep-school Establishment should continue to favor itself; nor does it mean that the existing values need to be propagated; nor does it mean that the individuals in power (who will always be small in number, by definition) need to think of themselves as part an aristocracy or an establishment and ought to interpret their own personal values as coalescing and gaining strength in a hive of meta-values shared by other powerful people. Douthat says "a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is," but this prescription is not obvious; perhaps, to the contrary, in the spirit of term limits or the theology of kenosis, a ruling class achieves more good in the world when it disavows some of its own power and attempts to empty itself.

He goes on, creating more problems.

He says that "in any scenario the WASP elite would have had to diversify and adapt," and that the WASPs themselves began to believe that "the emerging secular meritocracy would be morally and intellectually superior to their own style of elite," so they voluntarily "pre-emptively dissolved," which amounted to "self-abnegation" and "surrender." He is speaking out of both sides of his mouth here: white patriarchs really have to begin promoting diversity and interpreting talent differently, but when they actually begin to listen and make room for other people, they are shooting themselves in the foot and abdicating? In other words, he is saying that diversity is a value, but then he frames power as a zero-sum game. If he really wants to promote diversity, maybe he shouldn't describe it as win-lose for WASPs vs. others.

He says he wishes that these end-stage WASPs had not believed that merit alone could justify a leader but that they instead had followed "a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy" as part of their racial and gender diversification. But what on earth could such an elite-crafting strategy be, if not encouraging talented, motivated, meritorious people to rise in power and influence? Is he implying that he wanted the WASP Establishment to impose its idea of virtue on the up-and-coming meritorious leaders, to mold the new elite in the old WASP image? But that, too, is missing much of the point of diversity. The moral failures of bigotry and cruelty were not necessarily random occurrences that happened to coexist with virtues like noblesse oblige; they were its very shadow. The old guard does not have moral authority to impose WASP virtues on new leaders of diverse demographics (and likely won't succeed in that endeavor, anyway) if it has not yet examined what went wrong with those virtues such that their previous exemplars accommodated or enabled evil. The Establishment really does need to listen to new ideas especially when it has not yet fixed itself.

He wants today's leaders to pursue an "imitation of the old establishment's more pious and aristocratic spirit." Even if individual leaders perceive value in piety and aristocracy (whatever exactly that means), why should they imitate the past, rather than being authentically who they are today and responding to the actual needs of others around them?

And then he said

Three days later, the New York Times gave him more space to clarify. The new column on Dec. 8 was headlined "The Case Against Meritocracy: An aristocracy that can’t admit it." He immediately denied that his argument was racist, and then he simply elaborated on his previous column.

He said that "ideals of diversity and meritocracy are two different ways of shaping an elite, which can advance together but which are just as often separable, or even in tension with each other." Sure. This is understandable. You can admit, hire, or vote for someone based primarily on their identity group, or primarily on their track record, or both. If you seek a full, personalized understanding of someone's values and capabilities, you are probably looking at both their background and their merit. (Douthat certainly did it in the previous column where he used the term "WASP" to refer to a group of largely white male Protestants who fulfilled specific social roles and when he tied the demographic and collective track record together to imply something about WASP beliefs, values, and "competence and effectiveness." In the second column, he adds that WASPs tended to study "academia, finance, foreign policy," to be Republican, and to have "manners.")

He complains that meritocracy amounts to a brain-drain, "plucking the highest achievers from all over the country and encouraging them to cluster together in the same few cities," leaving "demoralized peripheries." But the solution — as I see it — cannot possibly be to take away the ladder to advancement, granting some people extreme power simply because they happen to be born in Washington while discouraging equally capable, motivated people from coming to Washington. If indeed geographic brain-drain is a problem, a more appropriate solution would seem to be the decentralization of power. He does not take up this line of thought.

He then says that the highest achievers in any system (even a supposedly meritocratic one) cannot help but pass on their own brand of privilege to their children. Today's meritocrats are especially prone to the "self-deception" that they are self-made due to their own achievements rather than to their aristocratic heritage, and thus they tend toward "ruthless solipsism." To avoid self-deception, he suggests that "an aristocracy that knows itself to be one might be more clearsighted and effective than an aristocracy that doesn't."

On this theory, it seems that the brain-drain affects only the first generation of high achievers (the ones with the most personal merit), who then migrate to large cities where their children grow up to become the second generation of high achievers (due more to their privileged, aristocratic upbringing than to their innate merit).

He says he supports diversity but not meritocracy, explaining that "the older American system was both hierarchical and permeable, with room for actual merit even without a meritocratic organizing theory." He also says that the original WASPs, the ones who were actually white Protestants, imposed their values: they "set a tone for the American upper class that was adopted by other groups when they ascended." However, he also describes non-white, non-Protestants who reached the upper-class as having merely "imitated" WASP culture, a word that is telling. He says that they lived "in the shadow of racial apartheid and residual anti-Catholicism." So the hierarchy wasn't that permeable, after all. Or perhaps the word WASP really does refer to an ethnic and religious demographic, such that one must be born into it; in this case, the verb "ascend" is wholly inappropriate, since it implies that certain ethnicities stand above others in the natural order of things. In any case, the demographically diverse people who reached the upper-class constitute an example, in his mind, that it is possible to "adopt the WASP establishment’s upper-class virtues without the ethnic and religious chauvinism." That remains unproven because he has not here examined the full range of virtues and vices and explained which ones led to chauvinism and which ones undid it.

He names "aristocracy’s vices" as "privilege, insularity, arrogance." (He also adds "duty" and "self-restraint" to the list of virtues given in his previous column.) He reiterates that today's leaders — those who exemplify the meritocracy rather than the aristocracy, as he defines it — exhibit aristocratic vices but not WASPish virtues.

At the end, he claims: "I don’t want to bring back the WASPs; if I had the magic wand to conjure a different elite, it would be a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile." His undefended preference for Catholicism should present a concern for the 80 percent of Americans who aren't Catholic. Exactly who does he want in power: local Catholics who happen to have been born in Washington and weren't brain-drained from other cities, and who absorbed their American values (but not their theology) from Protestants, and who cultivate those values to make up for whatever merit they might lack? His comment helps non-Christian readers see more plainly that his references to "piety" and "discipline" are indeed coded messages to Christians. People who weren't raised with Protestant or Catholic definitions and appreciations of these terms are, perhaps, not meant to understand exactly what he means by them. But, then, there is a problem: How can "we" feel properly nostalgic for an aristocracy that operates by virtues that aren't ours? Are we meant to perceive neo-WASPs as competent and effective while not understanding the divine Christian mystery (alien to us) by which they achieve it? Are we encouraged to convert to Catholicism so that we can begin to understand what makes them so special?

This, all of it, is a problem. Both columns.

Related to this subject, please see also my Goodreads review of Robert P. Jones' book The End of White Christian America and my year-old blog posts, "Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?" (Dead Men Blogging) and "Reaction to Mark Lilla's 'The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics' (Disruptive Dissertation)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Denying the denialists

Should online platforms ban users who deny the facts of the Holocaust? Yes, says Johannes Breit in Slate on July 20. His article "How One of the Internet’s Biggest History Forums Deals With Holocaust Deniers" makes important points.

Every day, the AskHistorians subreddit where Breit is a volunteer moderator deletes "content that is racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic in nature and ban[s] the offending users from commenting in our forum," he explains. Such repeated engagements reveal Holocaust denial as "a form of political agitation in the service of bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. It has also taught us a lot about the strategy of Holocaust deniers online and that the only effective way to stop them from spreading hate and lies is to refuse to give them a platform."

Allowing someone to challenge established historical fact and waiting for them to explicitly endorse violent acts before banning their speech is not a good policy. The Nazi ideology is inherently violent, he explains, and thus: "Any attempt to make Nazism palatable again is a call for violence." Holocaust deniers' agenda is "to make the ideas of the Nazis socially acceptable." It is difficult — and irrelevant — for moderators to assess each speaker's personal intent or attitude. The speech will be received by someone as a rationalization of Nazism.

Holocaust deniers' self-identification as "revisionist" historians is "a rhetorical smoke grenade" because they do not seriously reinterpret the work of real historians but essentially make up new lies. They use

"the technique known as 'just asking questions' — in internet parlance, 'JAQing off.' Designed to further Holocaust deniers’ aim of spreading their talking points, this involves (a) framing a denialist talking point in the form of a good-faith question and (b) calling for 'open debate.'"

Their questions omit "crucial context" and "are designed to call often minor details into question and to create doubt among readers less familiar with the history of the Holocaust."

"Deniers need a public forum to spread their lies and to sow doubt among readers not well-informed about history. By convincing people that they might have a point or two, they open the door for further radicalization in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to rehabilitate Nazism as an ideology in public discourse by distancing it from the key elements that make it so rightfully reviled — the genocide against Jews, Roma, Sinti, and others."

He quotes Deborah Lipstadt's criticism in her book Denying the Holocaust of the assumption that open debate, that is, the "light of day," will eventually stop people from lying. Lipstadt wrote that "Light is barely an antidote when people are differentiate between arguments and blatant falsehoods." Breit says that the deniers' factual errors are not accidental but deliberate. He claims: "Conversation is impossible if one side refuses to acknowledge the basic premise that facts are facts. This is why engaging deniers in such an effort means having already lost."

"It takes them little effort to formulate a wrong assertion, but it takes historians a long time and a lot of words to refute one. Our early attempts to engage on these points have shown that length and nuance do not play well on the internet and do not interest the deniers. The point of JAQing off is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place. Allowing their talking points to stand in public helps sow the seeds of doubt, even if only to one person in 10,000."

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Spirit vs. matter: The mechanistic phase

In "the Cartesian period," Thomas Berry wrote, human imagination disenchanted the world and entered "a mechanistic phase" in which "the divine and the human were taken away from intimate presence to the natural world," and "the inner principle of life in natural beings was taken away". Berry said: "If this has proved to be enormously effective in its short-term achievements, it has been disastrous in its long-term consequences."

"[T]he full consequences of this [mind/body] dichotomy" became apparent in the nineteeth century, said Rollo May. "Psychologically, reason became separated from 'emotion' and 'will,'" such that "reason was supposed to give the answer to any problem, will power was supposed to put it into effect, and emotions — well, they generally got in the way, and could best be repressed." Thus, contrary to previous eras: "When people today use the term ["reason"] they almost always imply a splitting of the personality. They ask in one form or another: "Should I follow reason or give way to sensual passions and needs or be faithful to my ethical duty?"

Alan Watts wrote in the Preface to Nature, Man and Woman: "Underlying all these dualities there seems to be a basic division of opinion about those two great poles of human thought, spirit and nature. Some people stand plainly 'for' one and "against" the other. Some stand mainly for one but give the other a subordinate role. Others attempt to bring the two together, though human thinking moves in such firm ruts that it usually turns out that they have settled inadvertently for one or the other." And in his Introduction: "At the same time, even from the most coldly intellectual point of view, it becomes clearer and clearer that we do not live in a divided world. The harsh divisions of spirit and nature, mind and body, subject and object, controller and controlled are seen more and more to be awkward conventions of language." Should we use our mental abilities to dominate the world? Watts comments, "This is an astonishing jump to conclusions for a being who knows so little about himself...For if we do not know even how we manage to be conscious and intelligent, it is most rash to assume that we know what the role of conscious intelligence will be, and still more that it is competent to order the world."


Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. p. 114.
Rollo May. Man's Search for Himself. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., Inc., 1953. p. 50.
Alan Watts. Nature, Man and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. pp. ix, 4.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Mary Midgley on 'Wickedness'

Interpreting evil is difficult. In Midgley's 2001 "Preface to the Routledge Classics edition" of her 1984 Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, she says that if all human choices are mechanistic and there's no free will, "we would have to view ourselves also" — in addition to other people who have committed atrocities — "as tools or vehicles of the same kind". Alternatively, maybe we have free will but there's no shared standard to evaluate what we do with it; perhaps "each of us wanders alone in a moral vacuum, spinning values out of our own entrails like spiders," but then "we have ceased to be social creatures altogether." (Later in the book, she adds another risk of claiming that power motives as natural to animals: "power-worship seems to follow because what seems inevitable may command approval.") She says her book aims to distinguish "various forms and combinations of immoralism, relativism, subjectivism and determinism" whose Enlightenment origins are based in "an admirable reaction against the gross abuses that long attended the practices of blame and punishment," and "a determination to make human conduct as intelligible scientifically as the rest of the physical world," even if they do not achieve the correct answer.

In the book, she says: "Skepticism about it [wickedness] has three main forms. First...the idea that no acts are really wrong. Next comes the thought that — though there are wrong acts — nobody actually commits them. And finally comes the thought that — though people do commit them — they never do it on purpose, and so are not responsible." But we don't really believe these things. We cannot refrain from moral judgment. As she puts it:

"To inhibit these reactions would be to treat them [other people] not as people at all, but as some kind of alien impersonal phenomena. Since it is not possible to treat oneself in this way, this would produce a bizarre sense of total isolation in the universe. It cannot actually be done. The need to see ourselves and others as on essentially the same moral footing is in fact so deep that nobody gets anywhere near carrying out this policy. What it usually amounts to is a quite local moral campaign directed against the actual process of blaming. Moral judgment is by no means withheld; it is simply directed with exceptional ferocity against those caught blaming and punishing culprits accused of more traditional offences. This carries guidance of a negative kind for occasions when one is confronted with these offences oneself—namely 'Don't blame or punish.' That advice can sometimes be suitable and useful. But it is extremely limited. Most of life does not consist of such occasions, and most moral difficulties call for other principles, with their background of other moral judgments."

She isn't very concerned with exceptions to the rule, whatever the rule may turn out to be. Although Barbara Wootton worries that reckoning about the existence of psychopaths may "ultimately shatter the whole idea of moral responsibility," Midgley replies that "all conceptual schemes run into difficulties and paradoxes when they are used for awkward and unusual cases."

Everyone occasionally suffers a failure of willpower to do the right thing, but deliberately choosing evil is something different.

"Aristotle made an interesting distinction between people of weak will, who do wrong against their real wishes and intentions, and vicious people, who do wrong contentedly and with conviction. ... Contentedly vicious people do not as a rule describe themselves as vicious, nor even think their actions wrong. They tend either to justify them or to reject moral questions as pointless and irrelevant."

She believes it's important to recognize this:

"Indignant rejection of this myth [of the Fall] in recent times has been due to real misuses of it. But the consequences of trying to do without any such notion may not have been fully understood. There really is a deep, pervasive discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct. In order to deal with this, we need to recognize it, not to deny it.

Midgley asks whether wickedness might someday be treated medically as mental illness is.

"To return, then to the general problem — wickedness is not the same thing as madness, nor as a genuine eccentric morality. Both madness and honest eccentric thinking constitute excuses. And the notion of an excuse only works if there can be some cases which are not excusable, cases to which it does not apply. The notion of real wickedness is still assumed as a background alternative. Yet that notion is still hard to articulate.

The reason why it is so hard is, I suggest, that we do not take in what it means to say that evil is negative. We are looking for it as something positive, and that positive thing we of course fail to find. If we ask whether exploiters and oppressors know what they are doing, the right answer seems to be that they do not know, because they carefully avoid thinking about it — but that they could know, and therefore their deliberate avoidance is a responsible act."

Normal, good people have complex motives including a concern for other people and an ability to prioritize these motives.

"Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves. The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness. The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these — in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it. That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance. Except in rare psychopaths, we attribute it to the will. The will has steadily said 'No', just as Mephistopheles does. But because 'No' is such a negative thing to say, the mind has often not admitted fully what was happening. The staff officer, when he saw the army struggling in the mud [because orders had been thoughtlessly given to them to advance through it], was thunderstruck. Only then did his systematic negligence become clear to him. When it did, he had the grace to be horrified. Once the point was put before him, he could see it. He was capable of remorse, which not everybody is in that situation. Now this capacity for remorse seemed to Aristotle an indication of weak will rather than of vice. But these are surely not sharp alternatives. They are rather ends of a spectrum of clear-headedness about wrong-doing, on which all of us are placed somewhere."

Later, she brings up Mephistopheles again, in the context of enduring motives of destruction:

"...aggressive tendencies of this moderate kind do not answer to the essentially diabolical formula of a truly wicked motive, the interest in destruction for its own sake. When Mephistopheles tells Faust that he is the spirit which always denies, he is expressing something very different from a sharp, impulsive, wish to attack. That 'always' gives quite another colour to the business. Destruction as a policy is not just aggression. It is hatred. This is not a single, natural motive, but a considered attitude, in the end, a way of life. It represents a decision, not an original distinct motive."

To enable wicked motives and deeds, people sometimes have some kind of personality split. Their wicked self needs to justify their actions to their normal self.

"The question why one is behaving alternatively like two quite different people is one that cannot fail to arise. The answer 'I just happen to be two people' has never been found to be very satisfactory. Butler's point, then, seems sound, but it is a matter of degree, not a complete dichotomy. The more chronic, continuous and well-established is the self-deception, the deeper and more pernicious the vice. But some self-deception is probably needed if actions are to be called vicious at all."

Some of our anger is in response to real threats, but some is imagined.

"Specific grievances wear out; the unchangingness of group hostilities marks them as fraudulent. They are not responses to real external dangers, but fantasies. We erect a glass at the border of our own group, and see our own anger reflected against the darkness behind it."
Mary Midgley. Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. (First published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.) Kindle edition: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A brief history of eunuchs in Reay Tannahill's 'Sex in History' (1980)

In her 1980 book Sex in History, Reay Tannahill has a part called "Asia until the Middle Ages, and the Arab World," within which is a chapter called "Islam," within which is a section on "The Eunuchs" (pp. 246-254) The section is a world overview and has hardly any information on Muslim societies, so its placement under "Islam" is a little confusing. Since the history ends in the 1930s and she is writing a half-century later, she uses a lot of old material (not in the original languages of these cultures, but primarily in English) and puts a hint of second-wave feminist spin on it. Among her sources:

  • Stent, G. Carter. "Chinese Eunuchs." Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series XI, 1877, pp. 143-84.
  • Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London, 1954.

She writes: "The eunuch of popular imagination is often a repellent, sinister figure, high of voice and flabby of flesh, with a taste for sweet-meats, bright colors, and strong rhythms, and a disposition that is acquisitive, cruel, and vengeful." She comments that these character traits seem more likely as a response to involuntary, rather than voluntary, castration. (p. 252) She proposes that "their emasculation made of the quicker-witted eunuchs far more effective officials than they would otherwise have been, for they owed no clemency to the people with whom they dealt." (p. 253) This statement is unclear: Does she believe that they were angry about their castration and therefore felt they had the right to take collective revenge on anyone they met, or that kidnapping, castration, and enslavement severed their previous social ties so that they generally had no need to play favorites with people at court?

Her world history is paraphrased below. This is already commonly known information for those who have read any significant amount about eunuchs.

Assyrian laws as far back as the 15th century BCE allowed a married man to castrate another man found having sex with his wife. "That this punishment was inflicted with a degree of frequency is suggested by the fact that there were a number of eunuchs among Assyrian royal officials, while others were employed in the harem to guard the four royal wives, 40 concubines 'and others' incarcerated in it, being forbidden to approach them more closely than seven feet, or to speak to them at all if they were inadequately clothed." When the Persian empire replaced it, Cyrus in the 6th century BCE believed that eunuchs could perform physical military service on par with other men and that they were ambitious, and that they had the further advantages of being incapable of committing sexual violations and tending to devote their loyalty to their king rather than to families they did not have. Tannahill says that the Persians were likely "the first to castrate prisoners in cold rather than hot blood" and that Herodotus reports that attractive boys were chosen for castration. Darius, after Cyrus, asked for 500 eunuch boys as tribute from Babylon and Assyria. Later, the practice was known in China, where eunuchs were employed in the imperial harem and as "private executioners." A slave trade in eunuch boys was known in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was known that some eunuchs had sexual desire and some women preferred them as sexual partners. The Roman Emperor Domitian banned castration in the first century CE but nevertheless, later, in the Byzantine empire, eunuchs served as imperial "ministers and even Church patriarchs" and "eight of the chief posts of the empire were reserved for them." Eunuchs were not generally known in the West "where women had some degree of freedom" and where leaders connected more directly with their people. "It seems that the original Hebrew attitudes [as in Deut 23:1] may have traveled to India with the Aryan invaders, for the Vedic and Hindu faiths regarded eunuchs as utterly unclean, an opinion that rubbed off even on the later Muslims (the Mughals) who ruled India from 1526 until 1806. The Indian zenana was guarded by elderly men and armed women, and eunuchs were few and far between." In the Turkish sultan's seraglio, the white and black eunuchs were mutilated differently. She talks about different procedures for castration and the fact that Chinese eunuchs preserved the tissue. Since the Turkish harem eunuchs "left no memoirs," if we want such first-hand accounts we must turn to Ssu-ma Ch'ien (1st century BCE) and Peter Abelard (12th century CE). "Both men were intellectuals, and both, after the first shock of pain and revulsion, had some escape into the private refuge of the mind. But the eunuchs of the harem were trapped in the mesh of social intercourse, with no way out. Whatever they may have felt for their fellow sufferers, to others they were over-sensitive — sometimes excessively affectionate, more often withdrawn and hostile." (p. 253) Thousands of eunuch slaves were still being taken annually into "Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey," but following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, N. M. Penzer could locate only a couple individuals in Turkey. In the early 1930s there were still a number of retired palace servants at the Refuge for Distressed Eunuchs near the Pa Pao Shan Golf Club; Osbert Sitwell spoke with them.


Reay Tannahill. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Eunuchs in Barnette Miller's 'Beyond the Sublime Porte' (1931)

Some notes from Barnette Miller's 1931 book Beyond the Sublime Porte especially relating to information about eunuchs.

A beautiful place to visit...

Miller opens her book with these words: "All the world has heard of the beauty of Constantinople as it is approached by sea. Many travelers have seen the long undulating line of the Thracian hills; the gleaming domes and minarets of the great mosques which crown the hilltops in high relief above a myriad of lesser domes and minarets; and, along the water's edge, the broken stretches and dark shadows of the imposing wall and towers which once completely encircled the city. When set in mist and suffused with the rays of the rising sun, this city seems, indeed, the nearest earthly counterpart of the Celestial City as described in the Revelation of St. John the Divine." She adds that "upon the point of the peninsula which cleaves its way like the prow of a ship between the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn into the swirling waters of the Bosphorus, hidden behind the high wall which divides the Acropolis of ancient Byzantium from the other hills of Constantine's New Rome, lies the vast pile of the old palace which was the abode of the Turkish sultans and the seat of their imperial rule — the Sublime Porte itself — for almost exactly four centuries, from its founding by Muhammad the Conqueror until its abandonment in the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 3) The Sublime Porte then moved to Angora.

Of the palace: "It is in itself a museum of national art. Nowhere else is the historical continuity of Ottoman art so well illustrated; nowhere else, except in Brusa, are clearer examples of Ottoman primitive architecture to be found, and nowhere else, in so great profusion, such exquisite tiling and such rich inlay." (p. 6)

Note: The Grand Seraglio was later known as Old Palace, Eski Saray. It was also sometimes known as the Palace of Tears because it was a place of banishment for a deceased sultan's widows or for his wives whose sons had been executed. In the 19th century, the sultan Muhammad decided to leave his harem there (about 300 women and 70 eunuchs) and move his official staff to a New Palace, Yeni Saray, better known in Turkey as the Top Qapu Sarayi, "Palace of the Cannon Gate," at Seraglio Point.

...but a difficult place to live

Halidé Edib wrote in the introduction: "The gradual seclusion of majesty and of women, the eunuch and guard system with all its implied social intricacies, pomp, and richness, the sense of relentless power and authority — a combination of Byzantine, Persian and Roman ideas of power — are all there. One sees in passing the simple and democratic Turkish ruler of the Brusa period being transformed into the Great Emperor of the Near East, the successor of the Caesars." Miller quoted Sir Charles Eliot as having said: "The humiliating obeisances exacted from European ambassadors at the Seraglio had their counterpart at Constantinople as early as the time of Nicephorus Phocas. The cry, 'Padishahimiz chok yasha,' with which the sultan is saluted, recalls the 'In multos annos' which was addressed to the Basileus in precisely similar circumstances, and the subjects of both monarchs describe themselves as slaves (or kullar) in speaking to their masters." (p. 29)

When did seclusion start? "It was with the extension of the Ottoman Empire into Europe and the transfer of the capital to Adrianople, that the sultans for the first time erected a magnificent palace and took on the panoply of royal state, and there also they began to seclude their harem, installing eunuchs as its guard." (p. 28)

White and black eunuchs

The white eunuchs served as "palace chamberlains and guardians of the Imperial Gate (later of the Gate of Felicity" and were the muzakerehjiler (drillmasters) as "administrative and surveillance officers of the Palace School." (p. 60) They came from "the Caucasus, and, in the seventeenth century, also from certain states of India." They received the same education as the pages. "During the reign of Muhammad II the number of eunuchs in the Grand Seraglio was twenty-three, and the entire number in the royal employ some forty-odd. After the introduction of black eunuchs as the guard of the Royal Harem, the number of white eunuchs was usually in the ratio of one to every ten pages." (p. 60) The chief white eunuch was "grand master of ceremonies and head gatekeeper of the Grand Seraglio, chief of the Inner Service, and confidential agent of the sultan, [and he] was also the director-in-chief of the palace system of education." In the 15th and 16th centuries, the hierarchy under him next had "the head treasurer and the head commissary, who were also the heads of the corps of pages attached to these departments; the palace steward (saray aghasi), who was the assistant director of the Palace School, and at the same time the head of the Great and Small halls and the Hall of the Expeditionary Force; and the first officer of the Hall of the Royal Bedchamber, who had general charge of the school discipline. Ranking next to these officers of the general administration, there was attached to each hall a first officer (oda bashi) who, under the Code of Muhammad II, was held responsible for the order and discipline of his hal; and a second officer, known as the steward (ketkhuda). Each hall had also its own librarian, recorder, treasurer, and imam, and three muezzins. In addition there were student officers... The pages of each hall were divided into companies of ten, and presiding over each company was a lala, or pedagogue, whose duty it was to keep order and to preside during meals. At first white eunuchs, later the lalas were recruited to some extent from the student body, and, in cases of unusual ability, might be promoted to the rank of under-master (qalfa)." (pp. 60-61)

"Although Turkish authorities concur in the opinion that black eunuchs, who [in contrast to white eunuchs] were entirely castrated, were not introduced until 1582 (990 A.H.), contemporary evidence exists which shows that they were being used as early as the reign of Muhammad II." (p. 91) She cites Angiolello for this and also an entry for the year 1542 in the Journal of the Bank of St. George of Genoa. The black eunuchs "had ready access to the sultan at all hours" (especially the chief black eunuch) and were "the intermediaries between the royal harem and the outside world, and they were the administrators of the vast properties held by the queen mother and qadins; no messages or gifts could pass, nor could business be transacted, except through them." (p. 92) Power people needed to bribe them. "Enormously wealthy and politically powerful, yet secluded from an early age and without education except of the most rudimentary kind, the introduction of black eunuchs into the Grand Seraglio is one of the several factors in the decline of the empire which may be attributed to the malign influence of Roxelana." (p. 92) The chief black eunuch was allowed to use the Gate of the gardeners (Bostanji Qapusi) regularly. (p. 145) "The palace chorus gave concerts on Tuesdays for the sultan and, on rare occasions, blindfolded and closely guarded by black eunuchs, for the Royal Harem." (p. 67)


To her knowledge, Ottaviano Bon, the Venetian Bailie in Constantinople from 1606-1609, was the first foreigner who entered the Grand Seraglio, and his writing on the subject "is the most lucid and succinct account given by an early European writer." (p. 9) Pierre Lambert de Sauméry, under the pseudonym De Mirone, wrote Mémoires secrètes et curieuses d'un voyage du Levant (1721) which was "almost certainly a plagiarism from that of [Aubry de] La Mo[t]traye published eight years previously." (p. 12) Yet it was the Frenchman Jean-Claude Flachat during whose stay in Constantinople from 1740-1766 likely received "the first grand tour of the palace, including the Harem" as described in his Observations sur le commerce et sur les arts de l'Europe, de l'Asie, et de l'Afrique. Flachat befriended Haji Bektash, the Chief Black Eunuch, an Abyssinian. (p. 13)

She was in Constantinople 1916-1919 and although "the United States and Turkey were aligned on opposite sides of the recent great struggle," she, "a foreigner, no more than a private individual and almost an enemy alien," was "accorded so rare a privilege" as to make architectural drawings of the Harem of the Grand Seraglio and was "allowed to continue the work when the military tide of events had turned still farther against the Turks. At the time comparatively few persons had ever seen the Winter Harem, and no one had ever made a[n architectural] plan of it." (pp. 18-19) She had to cease work, however, by October 1918 due to military action in the Balkans.

Miller, in her preface, acknowledges the assistance of her language teachers and several Turkish professors and officials, as well as Albert H. Lybyer, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Agnes F. Perkins, Professor of English at Wellesley College, for giving feedback on her manuscript.

The book

Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: The Grand Seraglio of Stambul. (1931) New York: AMS Press, 1970.