Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bertie Russell

Sir Bertram, to you, is my new best friend. For I am now enthralled with his History of Western Philosophy. It's the entire megillah of Western thought explained through the views of a smart, curmudgeonly atheist, which is super fine by me. I figure it was high time I finally found out what all the fuzz about philosophy is all about (I was very scared of it in college) and he is probably one of the best people to ask.
I love the book because he has opinions, of course, and mostly they are against religion, barbarity and superstition. He is very idiosyncratic. Sometimes he talks at length about things like logic, sometimes he gossips (my favorite parts). His sense of humor is dry and crackly, elegant and understated.
Surprisingly, the huge tome makes for relatively breezy reading, for Bertie writes in a very personal, entertaining way, except when he gets all logical on me. He is an excellent bedtime (and bathroom) companion, and after several enlightening bedtime pages, he is very conducive to a good night's sleep.
He blames religion for setting back the cause of science and progress and is sometimes willfully incomprehending of certain faith based actions that to us mere mortals sound exaggerated but typical of believers. We expect them to behave like that.
For example, he says that the Jews who rebelled against the Greeks were heroic for silly reasons like refusing to eat pork or not to be circumcised. Well, these reasons may seem silly to him, but it was not the pork or the prepuce in themselves, but what they signified. To the Jews these arrogant, disrespectful threats meant breaking the pact they made with God and they felt they could not do that without seriously compromising their identity.
Another example: He can't for the life of him understand why St Augustine was so obsessed with the fact that when he was young he stole some pears from a tree. According to Bertie, the illustrious saint goes on and on and on in his Confessions about the terrible sinfulness of his youthful prank. Does it occur to Bertie that perhaps St. Augustine is not being merely morbid and masochistic, and that he may be trying to understand the root of random, unnecesary evil in the soul of a young man? I agree that it is a bit too much; that we need to have a sense of proportion (not a quality typical of saints, by the way); but I welcome the exploration. Why indeed steal when you are not hungry and you don't need to? It is an important philosophical question, no?
So far I'm only up to the Church fathers, not even in the Middle Ages yet, but I can tell you, from what I've read, I'm with the Epicureans all the way.
I have always hated Plato, because even when I first studied him in high school and college, he made no sense to me. People who glorify absolutes scare the shit out of me, and he was a fascist, as far as I'm concerned. The lust for perfection (purity, superiority, etc) can lead to some really horrid ideas, like Nazism. I do not wish to be living in an imperfect world, knowing there is a perfect world somewhere that I'm not privy to. What good does that do me? It is elitist and snobby and horrible. I don't mind living in an imperfect world and we all recognize its failings and its wonders. I don't, in fact, mind imperfection. We should embrace it. All this striving for virtue and perfection has brought humanity nothing but grief. All this denying that evil is as part of our nature as good, is just untenable. That's why you get self-righteous pricks trying to force their virtuousness on everybody else. We cannot excise evil from our nature, but we can tame it and neutralize it and make it useless. We can also dial up the good without being total pests like the people from PETA.
Instead of trying to be superhuman, we may just want to make things better for our fellow man during our short stint on Earth and fuck whatever happens next somewhere else, which is entirely irrelevant. That is my philosophy.

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