Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Against Riches

Socrates is perhaps the first of the great philosophers and he was hopeless with money. His wife was driven to despair when he instead of working at his profitable trade as a stone mason, he spent his time in philosophical discussions with his friends in the market place. There is some dissonance between philosophers and wealth. Even when such as Bertrand Russel they inherit wealth, they usually mismanage it and bequeath their heirs less wealth than they themselves inherited. Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the true socratic tradition, he gave the estates he inherited to his brother, as managing an estate would be a distraction to his study of philosophy. There is something about the love of wisdom that causes philosophers to disdain wealth.

Wealth does seem to produce trivial or just plain silly thinking in the people that possess it in abundance. Possibly best demonstrated in the life style website Goop of the actress of Gwyneth Paltrow. There one can find all manner of bizarre lifestyle practices that are claimed to enable the practitioner to lead a better life. While such sites are easily mocked and are of little real significance, what is disturbing the reverence with which the thoughts of the very rich are treated. Billionaires think that the possession of such great wealth distinguishes them from the common run of mankind. They see themselves as supermen, who think that they should be privileged not just for their possession of great wealth, but for there thinking, they are the thinkers of exceptional thougts. I remember reading as a child that the common man would be out of their depth at the dinner table of the Mountbatten’s*, because these gifted individuals thought thoughts beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man.

These ‘great thinkers’ can rely upon myth makers to weave a story that demonstrates their superiority. Ayn Rand is the latest of the myth makers who claim the possession of great wealth as an indicator of a great mind, a person who is one of society’s shakers and movers. Prior to that it was people such as Lord Blake who claimed that membership of the aristocracy was the best qualification that a person could have for leadership roles in society.

Yet when the thoughts of these great men are examined, they are notable not for there genius but their mediocrity. I remember reading of what billionaire who claimed to be able to solve Britain’s unemployment problem. He claimed that it could be done by abolishing the minimum wage. What he claimed was that the current wage rates made too many people to expensive to employ, therefore there was unemployment. Obviously if wages were cut all would be employed. What never occurred to him was that a certain minimum level of income was necessary for human survival. The fact that low wages would lead to hunger and other social ills was of no consequence to him. For him the poor never featured in his thinking as fellow human beings.

The question I want to answer is why does the possession of great wealth make it impossible to think great thoughts. I am not condemning the possession of wealth, just the possession of great wealth. As a person of modest wealth that would be hypocritical, I do believe that there is a certain minimum level of wealth that is necessary for the good life. There is no virtue is not being able to pay the bills.

When trying to ask why such ordinary men believe that they alone are uniquely gifted with knowledge denied to others, one answer is arrogance. The vast majority of the wealthy were born into wealth and as such from the very moment they were conscious, they expected to be deferred to by those around them.Whatever they said would be treated with respect, no matter how silly their ideas. Growing up on a country estate, I soon learnt that the greatest misdemeanour was to show disrespect to the seigneur or a member of his extended family. Disrespect meant uttering some disagreement no matter how moderate the thoughts expressed by a member of this group. The father of the current seigneur demanded that his workers only spoke to him if he spoke to them first. Anybody who disrespected this rule was immediately dismissed. While this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate how privilege of birth leads to the corruption of the intellect.

All of these people it can be argued have been educated at our elite universities, so they should as Lord Mountbatten thought be better educated than the common place individual. However such education seems to be designed to give them an elegance of expression rather than of thought. All the lazy prejudices of the wealthy are given a literary sheen that makes them when expressed appear profound. A friend of mine who was a former member of the working classes, always criticised Bob Crowe* when he appeared on television for the inarticulate nature of his expression and thinking. What he was doing was equating a limited verbal vocabulary with an unsophisticated manner of thinking. Yet I never heard him utter such criticisms of the various representatives of the employing class or the political right who appeared on TV. He as with all of us was over impressed with an elegance of speech which disguised a vacuity of thinking.

Probably it helps that the ideas of the wealthy are so often part of the mainstream of the public dialogue.  In an unequal society the ideology of social and intellectual inequality is one of the essential props necessary for the perpetuation of the system. Therefore it is easier to get one’s thinking accepted and into print if such thinking accords with the accepted belief system. Finding a publisher is much easier if an individual writes in the language of the mainstream. The media then confirms the thinking of the most mediocre of the class of the wealthy. It really should be of little surprise that the wealthy and privileged should think that their thoughts are those that are correct and true, as they are rarely exposed to contrary thinking in the media.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of the thinking of the lower middle classes, a group for whom life is often a struggle. This is not a struggle for survival but a struggle for success. A struggle to gain those material goods thought necessary for the good life. Yet they are also group which has sufficient leisure for study and whose education introduced them to the writings of the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle was a doctor and as such is one whose life is an exemplar for the middle class thinker. There is no privilege, one has to earn the right to heard, one has to compete within the market place of ideas. Not having a privileged status one is denied to opportunity to think stupid thoughts, as such thinking would be ridiculed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the case for right wing philosophy is almost impossible to make*. A reasoned philosophy cannot have as it’s founding principles self satisfaction, complacency, greed or the abuse of power. When people such as Lord Blake defend privilege they rely upon tradition, they see tradition as the passing down of a superiority in thinking and manner from one privileged generation to another. Bear and bull baiting were traditional sports practised in Britain for centuries, yet this did not make them right, both were justly outlawed because of they were barbaric. Blake’s defence of privilege is equally fallacious.

Not having a privileged upbringing makes one aware of the inequalities and unfairness of human society, whether one wishes it or not you are constantly being reminded of the failings of that society. One is born a critic of society, a discontent being inured which makes one instantly critical of existing human practices and ideas.  Without this critical faculty, thinking becomes trivial ,insubstantial and uninteresting, it is the thinking of the self satisfied. This sense of a lack of an indefinable something in society is what drives us to look for new and different answers. Kierkegaard writes of the abyss, the point at beyond which the thinking person comes to that point at human thought ceases provide any meaning to life. For Kierkegaard it is at this point that people turn to Christ. Only Christ can provide this missing something . Although I love Kierkegaard as an author, I would suggest that this sense of an abyss instead forces on one a recognition of the inadequacy of existing ideas and the desperation to seek new answers.  I don’t believe philosophers can ever adequately answer the problem posed by the abyss. Every generation will find fault with existing thinking and will feel the need to find new answers to the challenge of the abyss. It is the reinventing of the wheel but a very profitable reinventing. Being born to wealth means the sense of the abyss will never be as acute, as wealth can always buy distractions from the abyss. Possibly this is why the life of the super rich is one of conspicuous consumption, they constantly need new toys to distract them from the emptiness of their lives.

If the rich and privileged are not capable of great thoughts, I would argue that they are disqualified from great holdings of wealth which give them power over the lives of others, which they are not qualified to possess. There is one contemporary example which demonstrates the unfitness of the rich to their wealth. Hugh Hefner the millionaire publisher used his magazine ‘Playboy’ as a vehicle for promoting his thinking and superior lifestyle. A man whose written thoughts were no more than a manual on how to exploit young women, which demonstrates the essential nastiness that is at the heart of the culture of the rich and powerful.

* A former member of the Royal family at whose table the now Prince of Wales regularly dined.

  • The former leader of the RMT union who in negotiations regularly outsmarted his opponents. Men all of whom had been educated at the elite universities and whom one would think would be superior in the skills of reasoning and argument. I do suspect Bob Crowe overplayed his inarticulacy, so as to give his opponents a false sense of superiority.
  • One exception to the rule is Michael Oakshott, but his conservative philosophy was a philosophy of scepticism, which was inherited  from the Greek philosophers of scepticism, men such as Pyrro and Sextus Empiricus. Reading Wikipedia `I see that I have a very different understanding of Michael Oakshott to that of the author of an article on him.
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A God for an Economist

Whenever I confess my belief in a God my friends are incredulous. They cannot understand how a person who they consider an intelligent rational thinker can believe in such a superstition. What makes my position seem even more ludicrous is that I am a negative theologian, that is I believe that God in his essence is unknowable. Bertrand Russell pointed out that is illogical to believe in something or someone that is unknowable as a knowledge of such a being is impossible, it’s a logical contradiction. How could you know if you did not know? However I want to turn these arguments on their head. As an economist I talk about the economy but I as with my thousands of fellow economists don’t really know what the economy is in its essence. I can talk about markets, the balance of payments but they are only certain highly visible parts of the economy. Classical economists and those of a Neo-Liberal persuasion will claim that the economy consists of a number of inter related markets. The falsity of this claim is demonstrated by this simple truth, if economists understood the true nature of the economy they would have at their disposal all the tools necessary to manage and control the economy. Economic crises would disappear instead of occurring at regular intervals and the economy would be on continuous trajectory of growth. The welfare of all would be maximised. History demonstrates the fallibility of economists, all to often they get it wrong. It should not be forgotten that when the financial crisis struck in 2008, the majority of economists were caught by surprise. Only a small minority expected a crisis, but they were a small disregarded and isolated minority.

I do then believe in the existence of two entities neither of which I can really know in essence. It can be argued that while I may not understand the real nature of the economy, I am every day affected by the reality of it, it is not something that I cannot ignore, it is just there. The economy generates the tax revenues from which my pension is funded, everyday I participate in this self same economy that has the shops and chains of distribution from which I buy the essentials and good things that make my life bearable. One such good thing is the cappuccino that I buy daily at my local Salumeria. Similarly nobody would deny that they are affected by the good and bad actions of others. What hurts most, being betrayed by a friend or being unable to buy the latest IPhone through lack of funds? We all participate daily in a network of relationships whose nature determines our sense of well being. However whether they are defined as spiteful, hurtful, mean, bad or evil actions, the consequences of such actions can be devastating for the victim, more so than any economic loss. Similarly friendly, helpful, kind or good actions can transform the life of the beneficiary of such actions.

Fiction provides the classic example of a life transforming good action. The Priest in ‘Les Miserables’ who forgives Jean Valjean for his theft of the church’s candle sticks. If he had not forgiven him, Jean Valjean would have been sent back to the prison galleys where he would have lived out a short and wretched life. Human relationships can be explained or described in many terms, but all too often they are permeated with a sense of good and bad. Theologians such as myself identify that sense of good with God.

There is a tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism that goes back to St.Augustine, a tradition to which I belong that identifies God with the Good. Identifying God with the good, transforms God into a solely moral entity, an identification which I find sufficient. God as the Good, that is the source of that sense of goodness that informs all moral actions. Constantly we speak of good actions that is actions which have in common that thing which we call good. Yet this good is indefinable except through descriptions of good actions. It is this indefinable essence that theologians such as myself call God.

Describing good as a moral sense derived from God is a pre modern concept, but one that is given a contemporary guise by the theologian Caputo. God he sees as a weak God in the sense that his is a God of moral sensibilities not power. This weak God exists outside human society but is constantly pushing in and that pushing in takes the form of a pushing in of moral sensibilities. Sensibilities which mankind is free to accept or reject. Given that all accept that good in its essence is indefinable I see this explanation of the origin of good as the most acceptable. Neither Caputo or I know God but we both know God as this moral sense or good itself. This to me is the most acceptable explanation of the existence of that moral sense known as the good. This understanding of good and the nature of God is a myth in the Platonic sense. It is a truth than can only be spoken of in terms of a myth, the myth of a weak but moral God, exist beyond but in constant contact with human society. Framing truths in mythological terms does not make them less true. Some truths because of their nature cannot be explained in other than the language of religious mythology.

There is a simple story that explains my reasoning. Heidegger was one the greatest 20th century German philosophers, the one who subjected the nature of being (humanity) to forensic scrutiny, yet he almost completely lacked any moral sense. When Hitler came to power he became an enthusiast for the Nazis. He refused to help his Jewish lover Hannah Arendt, he in fact abandoned her to her fate. Fortunately she was able to escape to the USA, but with no help from Heidegger. This supreme rationalist thinker eagerly participated in all the intellectual nonsense propagated by the Nazi regime. He believed that the of the philosophy of ‘sturm und drang’ captured the essence of the Germanic nation. A man who never understood why after the Second World War that is was right that he should be excluded from teaching in German universities. In contrast to him there was the lesser philosopher the catholic Jaspers, who opposed the Nazis and had to flee to Switzerland. What cannot be denied is that Jaspers moral sense was greater than Heidegger’s, although he was the inferior thinker. Jaspers had far more of the nature of goodness about him than did Heidegger. Hannah Arendt later described Heidegger as a man devoid of any moral sense. Perhaps because Jaspers knew that myth was a valid means of demonstrating truth, that he was able to comprehend the true meaning of the Christian myths and resist the evil of Nazism. An understanding denied to a purely rational thinker such as Heidegger.

At the end of his life Heidegger began to turn away from rationalism and began to look for truth as expressed in poetry. He found truth in the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin that was absent from his great work of philosophy ‘Being and Time’. This new searching for truth found him attending Sunday Mass at his local Catholic Church.

If I give an identity to good surely it is necessary to give an identity to evil, a theology such as mine requires a devil as the personification of evil. Admitting the existence of the devil would take my theology back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately Augustine provides an answer as to why there is evil in the world without needing to reference a devil. Evil acts according to Augustine are undertaken by those who do not know good or God. Rather than evil being a thing it is a not knowing, a not knowing God. Men with no moral reference points commit bad acts, because they have no knowledge of good. Knowing good means more than just knowing the word, it a knowing that penetrates the very fibre of existence. It’s a knowing that involves changing one’s persona according to the strictures of good or God. As Plato said once you know good you will not wish to do evil. The most extreme practice for the knowing of good was that undertaken by the hermits such as St. Anthony who spent a lifetime as a hermit living in exile in the desert struggling to know God or good. However Kierkegaard provides a more achievable alternative, he recognises the frailty of human nature. A Christian life for Kierkegaard is one of slipping in and out of that ecstatic knowing if God (good), it is impossible he says to constantly be know good, as we are all moral backsliders. In Augustine’s word we are the ‘not so good, saints but our actions are influenced by our understanding of the good.

The problem with theology as with philosophy is that once one starts to unpick the ideas that make up the content of the subject, the investigation into their significance and meaning can be endless. Rather than undertake such an investigation I prefer to state that this theologian and economist finds it sufficient to identify God with that moral sense we know as good. Other understandings of God are unnecessary, God might be a creator God, the Triune God (the one in three God) or the God that brings the world to an end at the end of days, but they are all irrelevant to how I act. They are questions that I don’t need answering. To put it in the language of the past I am an adept in two separate spheres of knowledge the non rational knowing of God and the rational understanding of economy. As with Jaspers I subordinate the knowledge of the second to the first, as moral sensibility must always take precedence over and inform my rational thinking. Never unlike many current economists and politicians could I subscribe to Says Law which states that in any recession unemployment and falling wages must be allowed to continue until the wages of the unemployed as so low that they price themselves back into employment. The misery that is consequent on adopting this policy disqualifies it as a viable policy option. How can it be right in a rich country such as Britain to have children going hungry and living in squalor? Yet our political class practises a more sophisticated version of Says law under the cover of globalisation, which states that to keep people in work in face of competition abroad it is necessary to reduce incomes to the lowest level to retain employment in this country. There are many alternative policies which could be adopted with better outcomes for all but which are never considered.