Sunday reading: Bertrand Russell

We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.

This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.

Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on, but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.

From his article on meeting Lenin:

Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

Talking to Greeks and Talking to Germans

Germans and Greeks, despite the glaring differences between their national administrations, do not hate each other. Perhaps the relationship is more akin to that of an older to a younger brother. The elder is mature, self-assured, and judicious in action. He looks at his younger brother, playing with toys, weeping when he stubs his toe, begging for cookies, and other youthful activities with some measure of aloof disdain, but with greater measure of pity. Or, perhaps the relationship is like a tired, Stoic householder with his shrill harpy of a wife. He brings home the bacon, and she spends it all and demands more. Or a number of other interesting metaphors which I have failed to conceive. I suppose my lack of vision here has something to do with the simple fact that I have never gotten the two of them, the German and the Greek, in the same room together. Instead, I have only talked to one, and then to another, at different times and in different places. What they have to say to each other while apart is, in some ways, what quarreling brothers have to say to each other: you are immature, well you are mean!, but, you deserve it, but I don’t! and so forth. It’s also like the tired husband and his old lady: please be more fiscally sound, no, give me more!, but I already gave you-, NO, more! and so on. Who really knows how the exchange might play out, or if these media stereotypes at all hold true, if they came together to talk?

In Patras, on the first night of the last weekend of Carnival, I was milling about the central square waiting for the floats to come by. In one hand I held a souvlaki, the most delicious street food made by man after burritos, and in the other, a bottle of sweet local wine. “A house specialty” the server told me, “very good with souvlaki.” Greeks are a raucous people, and in these times even their holidays are not as enjoyable as they once were. So, naturally, they were holding a protest in preparation for the large crowds that were to come. I spoke with Maria, a local schoolteacher.

  • Self: “I can’t read Modern Greek very well. Can you tell me what those slogans say?”
  • Maria: “Yes, well, I don’t know how to say it in English. But, we owe a lot of money, and we don’t want to pay.”
  • S: “Okay, but why shouldn’t you pay?”
  • M: “Our governments took out the loans for us, we didn’t know about them, and now we’re here. Why should we have to pay for something we didn’t agree with?”
  • S: “Valid points, valid points. But, you all benefitted from that money, right? Your government hired a lot of civil servants on that money. And, you could have voted for a more austere party that wouldn’t have taken bad loans, but you enabled PASOK and the others to accept disastrous loans that Greece could not sustain.”
  • M: “Yes, those things are true. But we don’t want to pay, and we can’t pay. Very few people have jobs, so they can’t take more money from us. All the bailout goes to is the debt. There is nowhere for the money to come from. We need jobs, not more pain.”
  • S: “Certainly, and I wish you luck in that quest.”

At another time, at a taverna in Meteora, I had a caveman-like conversation with a gaggle of old Greek men, having dinner with their wives.

  • Old Greek man one: “Me, I am fat communist. I have very important work tomorrow. I drink coffee, I drink tea, I read newspaper. Very important!”
  • Old Greek man two: “Bah. You always so lazy, Kostas.”
  • Old Greek man three: “We like Tsipras. He [points to OGM2], he capitalist. He no like Tsipras. Tsipras make Greece strong! [laughter]”
  • Me: “But what about the debt?
  • OGM1: “Debt no important, Tsipras will do good.”
  • OGM3: [Says nothing, shakes head, spins worry beads]

There seems to a be a certain cavalier attitude amongst the Greek people, whether young or old. The old are happy and fat, living on their pensions from the government, which despite recent cutbacks still seem sizable enough to allow for daily trips to the local taverna. They look on the struggles of the youth with kindly pity, but without the necessary foresight to see that their present happiness is built on the suffering of their descendants. It seems that a man can never escape his times and his view of the world. This view is dominant amongst the older citizens of Hellas unless, like OGM3, they have to do serious work for a living. He was an olive and tomato farmer, and was struggling to make a profit in the face of an onerous tax burden and the shrinking market for his products, most of which he was now forced to ship abroad. Throughout the dinner his face oscillated between one of benevolent, bemused distraction, and one of painful contemplation. The young, by contrast, are bitter and cynical. They have no jobs, no prospect for practical work, and no use for their university degrees. They spend their time, like many children of the West, in idle amusements like smoking, drinking, and fornicating at college parties. As Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy, in times of decay there are always two countervailing tendencies in man. One leads to a resigned morality, convinced that the world is terrible and all we can do is respond to the terror. This is the ethic of the Stoic, which cut its teeth as the Hellenic world decayed and made way for Rome. Another leads to an unrestrained libidinous and orgiastic hedonism, which has no aim and no long term satisfaction. The worship of Dionysus, or of strange mystery cults, social fads, and passing fancies. You can guess which road the youth have taken. They are correct in saying that they really shouldn’t have to pay, because the burden foisted on them was made before their time. But they are correct for a world that is ideal, where Germany does not assume that a debt contracted is a debt that must be paid, regardless if the beneficiaries do the paying or not. They are, as Homer says, between a rock and a hard place: pay the penalty to Charon and eventually cross the river, or spit in his face and feel the pain all at once. Germans are more annoyed than anything at the behavior of their southern neighbor. One beautiful morning in Freiburg, in southern Germany, I was drinking tea with my host, Matthias, and asked him what he was reading in the paper.

  • Matthias: “This nonsense” [tosses the paper my way]
  • Self: “So Greece wants World War Two reparations? Didn’t Germany already pay?”
  • M: “Yes, but the Greeks are saying that we only paid individual reparations, and not structural reparations. Hitler forced the Greek national bank to give him a loan roughly equaling 11 billion Euros in Reichsmarks. But I don’t think it will go anywhere.”

The next day, while I was on a bus to Hamburg, I met a German named Vincent. We talked amiably in Hochdeutsch until he realized I wasn’t a local, which only happened when I said those four magic words: “Ich kann nicht verstehen…” His attitude towards the Greeks was less of bemusement, more of annoyance.

  • Vincent: “These people are ridiculous. They want reparations now? And then I heard they want to give European papers to thousands of illegal immigrants and send them by bus to Germany. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad.”
  • Self: “Yes, but I understand them. The young didn’t make the debt, and they can do nothing about it now. There are no jobs, no opportunities for them at home. What should they do?”
  • V: “Beyond me. But their government is out of place. We have given them so much, and they have nothing to show for it. In the past couple weeks two foreign firms have tried to invest in Greece, but the Greeks wont let them. ‘No no, this is a public part of the economy’ or ‘no no, we won’t privatize this!’ It’s ridiculous. They can’t even help themselves.”

It’s a position I also sympathize with because, like many dilemmas such as these, both sides are in the right. Greece destroyed its own position with years of financial mismanagement, though the real crooks are still free while the burdens they created are borne not by them, but by the young. Germany gave bailout money to Greece, but on harsh terms which have done little to ameliorate the problems. Both have alienated each other with rhetoric and with stupid actions, which is reflected in the sentiments of their people. Like an older brother, Germany has indulged Greece in its flights of fancy for some time now. But I think they will soon pull out the rug from under their younger ward, and let them rot.