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Zeitgeist?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the weather of the world? -- three otherwise unrelated tweets and a December 2013 prediction ]
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Sources:

  • JM Berger
  • El Cid
  • Teju Cole
  • **

    Meanwhile, some people are going whole hog:

    Source:

  • Sovereign Society
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    A Question for Hegghammer & Lacroix

    Sunday, April 28th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a single word in a very small book, and the world that hangs in the balance ]
    .

    I’ve just read Hegghammer & Lacroix on The Meccan Rebellion. At 78 pages and 5.3 x 8.3 inches, it’s a tiny book in hardback and quite a delight to hold — the electricity in my city block went out for a while the other day, and I took pleasure in reading it out under the sun — and it contains, in essence, the two authors’ paper, Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia (Int. J. Middle East Stud. 39 (2007), 103–122) and a companion piece by Lacroix titled Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albanai and his Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.

    Blog posts tend to present a point of view – whether to preach to the choir, promote it to unbelievers, stir up trouble, or simply add detail or a fresh angle to an existing narrative. Seldom do they ask questions.

    My own instincts — in line with Madhyamaka as I briefly encountered it in the teachings of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel — lead me to leave some kinds of questions open: I use my DoubleQuotes format to set the juices flowing, by providing nudges to thought rather than outright statements – but on this occasion I have a question to ask, and as it’s too long for Twitter I’ll post it here.

    **

    Here’s my question. Juhayman al-Utaybi believed one of his companions, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the awaited Coming One of Islam — and that, in our authors’ words, “consecrating him [al-Qahtani] in Mecca on the turn of the hijra century” would ”precipitate the end of the world”.

    In my view, a great deal rests on that simple word, “precipitate”. Would “usher in” do as well? Or “mark the beginning of” perhaps? Or is the idea of forcing the hand of God present, as it is in Reuven Paz’ phrase, “hot-wiring the apocalypse”?

    There’s a lot riding on that issue: whether or not it is possible to force the hand of God, to accelerate destiny, to hasten apocalypse.

    **

    Okay, let’s go light-footed into this issue. In The Question in the DC Comics universe, we have a character described thus:

    During service in Vietnam Jeremiah Hatch got insane, he began to hear the voice that urged him to do the will of the Lord by serving the Devil. He thought that his mission was “to hasten the corruption, to nurture the foulness until the almighty has no choice but to rain down fire and brimstone and overthrow the cities and the plain and all the inhabitants of cities and all that grows on the ground…”

    **

    Hastening the apocalypse — it’s an idea you can find in the world of DC Comics, but it was Israeli analyst Dr Reuven Paz who presented it to us in canonical “national security” form in his paper, Hot-wiring the Apocalypse, where his actual words are:

    The Jihadi and nationalist insurgency in Iraq, which feeds the motivations and enthusiasm of growing number of Islamist youth to search for Jihad, look for the “culture of death and sacrifice,” and self-radicalize themselves, is another factor in the growing sense of Jihadi pride, which also hotwires the sense of the apocalypse.

    That’s a faily imprecise form of words (‘The sense of apocalypse”) from a careful scholar, and Paz applies the concept in a specifically Sunni context. This, however, doesn’t prevent a popular Christian writer such as Joel Rosenberg from applying the same idea to the Shi’ite rulers of Iran:

    Only when we understand the eschatology currently driving Iranian foreign policy, can we truly begin to understand how dangerous the regime in Tehran is. Only then can we fully appreciate how events like the revolution underway in Egypt only encourages Twelvers like Khamenei to take still further provocative and perilous actions to hasten the coming of the Twelfth Imam.

    So the idea is afloat that both Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the Shi’ite state of Iran ay be about the “hastening” business.

    **

    Blog-friend Dr. Timothy Furnish, as I’ve noted here before, rebuts the application of Paz’ concept by Rosenberg, Glenn Beck and others to the situation in Iran, saying of it:

    It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?)”

    **

    And if I might ask a follow-up question — is the first of the Juhayman Letters, which is devoted to the theme of the coming of the Mahdi, available in English?

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    On Socrates and His Legacy, Part I.

    Thursday, February 14th, 2013

    Recently, I finished two books on the iconic ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, both of which pointed me to a third. The books were of a very different character and quality, yet together raised an important dichotomy about a man who lived 2400 years ago, whose intellectual legacy contributed to the shaping of Western civilization. The Stoics and Cynics looked back to Socrates as their forerunner; Socrates’ greatest student Plato became the most influential philosopher of the written word of all time, rivaled only by his own protege, Aristotle. So definitive was the influence of Socrates and his inexhaustible store of questions that all the Greek philosophers who came before him are reckoned “the pre-Socratics“. Yet he was put to death by the Democracy that had proudly boasted of being the “the school of Hellas“.

    Who then, was the historical Socrates?

    Socrates shares, to a lesser degree, the enigmatic quality of Buddha, Jesus and his own near contemporary, Confucius; we know more about Socrates than we do the others, but as with the others, it is all secondhand. Having written nothing himself, we must rely on the apologia of his disciples, the barbs of his critics, some statuary relics and the commentary of philosophers and historians from later in antiquity who had access to sources now lost to tell us of Socrates.

    Here are the books:

      

    The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone

    Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson  

    Both authors were splendid prose writers, otherwise they are a study in contrasts. The late I.F. Stone was a famous radical, an antifascist, an investigative, “muckraking” journalist of the mid twentieth century and, for a time,  a Soviet agent during the “Red decade” of the Thirties. Stone, who was noted for his diligence with using government documents as a reporter, unearthing scoops everyone else had missed, became, in his retirement, a scholar of antiquity who read deeply in the classics in the original ancient Greek.

    Paul Johnson began his career as a prolific writer and popular historian on the British Left with The New Statesman and over time shifted rightward to become a leading Anglo-Catholic conservative public intellectual, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and an author of 40 books. Johnson is most known for his best-sellers that tackled panoramic and encompassing subjects – The Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals and The History of the Jews, often written from a highly idiosyncratic, as well as a conservative, perspective.

    Of the two books, Stone’s  The Trial of Socrates is by far the most substantive. Stone relies heavily, though not exclusively, upon primary sources in the original Greek to build his argument, which is that Socrates was executed because of his militant, arch-reactionary, “antipolitical” opposition to self-government, especially in the form of the Democracy; and further, that Socrates’ actions at his trial were perversely designed to inflame the jury which might easily have acquitted him.  Socrates:A Man for our Times by Johnson is based on English translations of primary sources and secondary sources, is lighter in tone and much closer to being an essay. Johnson is evaluating the importance of Socrates in a broad, civilizational, context while Stone trying to tell what really happened while simultaneously judging Socrates culpability.

    One point on which both authors have agreement is the mendacity and artistry with which Plato has made this task more difficult. I.F. Stone generally sees a “sneering” antidemocratic political continuity between Socrates and all of his disciples Plato, Xenophon, Charmides, Critias, Antisthenes and Alcibiades but even Stone cannot stomach Plato’s casual misuse (or abuse) of Socrates in his later dialogues to vent petty gripes and snobbish airs. Writing of an insulting passage in The Republic:

    ….Plato put this into the mouth of Socrates many years after the latter’s death. There is no evidence that the historical Socrates ever spoke so unkindly or pretentiously. Otherwise Socrates could not have had the lifelong affection of his oldest disciple, the “low-born” Antisthenes; his mother was a Thracian, hence he was twitted for not being of pure Attic blood (Diogenes Laertes, 6.1). Several scholars believe this was Plato’s slur against his fourth century rival – and Socrates’ old friend – Isocrates.[255]

    Paul Johnson goes much further; attributing much that scholars regard as negative in Socrates’ reputation to the machinations of Plato using his late master as “a ventriloquist’s dummy”, a caricature Johnson calls “PlatSoc” to add authority to his own views and theories in which Socrates never believed or more likely, never even had heard:

    ….As an intellectual he [Plato] began to formulate his own ideas. As an academic he quickly merged them into a system. As a teacher he used Socrates to spread and perpetuate it. In his earlier writings Plato presented Socrates as a living breathing, thinking person, a real man. but as Plato’s ideas took shape, demanding propagation, poor Socrates whose actual death Plato had so lamented, was killed a second time, so that he became a mere wooden man, a ventriloquist’s doll, to voice not his own philosophy but Plato’s.

    ….So the act of transforming a living, historical thinker into a mindless, speaking doll – the murder and quasi-diabolical possession of a famous brain – became in Plato’s eyes a positive virtue. That is the only charitable way of describing one of the most unscrupulous acts in intellectual history. Thus Plato, with no doubt the best of intentions, created like Frankenstein, an artificial monster-philosopher [11]

    There are other sources of information regarding Socrates than Plato, of course.  Xenophon, also wrote an apologia; Aristophanes and other comic poets satirized Socrates in their plays, the philosopher being a “public figure” in Athens as much as was Pericles or Cleon (Socrates apparently could take a joke much better than the litigious and bloodthirsty demagogue Cleon); Aristotle had informed speculations regarding Socrates based on his long (and one suspects trying) tutelage under Plato and there are Roman writers such as Cicero who had access to sources now lost, but Plato remains the most prolific.

    This is important, because the central thesis in The Trial of Socrates is that Socrates is not merely an “antidemocratic” gadfly in Athens, but an arch-reactionary teacher of “antipolitical” doctrines. That is to say that Stone argued that Socrates and his followers rejected the concept of the self-governing “polis” itself, oligarchy as much as democracy, that men were a “herd” fit only for a shepherd, an absolute Homeric ruler defined by Socrates as “the One who Knows”. Stone argues, with accuracy, that Socrates disciples, despite differences in personality and philosophy, shared a common disdain for democratic politics and furthermore, that Socrates teaching repeatedly led to cohorts of aristocratic, pro-Spartan,”Socratified youth” who twice supported the overthrow of the Democracy. In short that Socrates was tried because his activities, his “examinations”, were ultimately politically subversive to the state in a time of danger and instigated civil strife.

    This means, to judge Stone’s argument requires that we discern Socrates from Plato that in turn requires some expertise on Plato. This need to sift Platonic dialogues explains why both Johnson and Stone, despite Stone’s ability to work with the primary texts in the original Greek, turned to the scholarship of Gregory Vlastos for guidance. Vlastos was a seminal figure in the field of Platonist philosophy whose work is described by other scholars as “transformative” and having “a vast influence” who best parsed Socrates from his artfully prolix disciple. Because of Stone and Johnson, I have picked up what is regarded by many as “the best book on Socrates” – Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher by Gregory Vlastos.

    Vlastos, in this final book, ultimately came closer to Johnson’s position in the sense that some of what  moderns find disagreeable in Socrates and what Stone criticizes in particular – the harsh antidemocratic edge – is more a product of Plato’s literary handiwork than the philosophy of the historical Socrates. Vlastos writes:

    I have been speaking of a “Socrates” in Plato. There are two of them. In different segments of Plato’s corpus two philosophers bear that name. The individual remains the same. But in different sets of dialogues he pursues philosophies so different that they could not have been depicted as cohabitating in the same brain throughout unless it had been the brain of a schizophrenic

    The early Socrates of the Elenctic Dialogues is the most genuine in the view of Vlastos.

    End Part I.

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    2013

    Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

    Celebrating the new year by looking at what happened in ’13 way back when…..

    2613 BC  By some accounts, the construction of the Great Sphinx may have begun

    413 BC – The Battle of Syracuse results in a cataclysmic defeat for the Athenian Empire’s Sicilian Expedition at the hands of Hermocrates and Gylippus.  The Athenian strategoi Demosthenes and Niciasare ignominiously executed by the Syracusans. This defeat contributes to the downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

    213 BC The great inventor Archimedes builds catapults so powerful that the Romans laying siege to Syracuse believed the city to have the aid of giants

    13 BC Rome enjoys the noontide of the age of Augustus 

    13 AD  The great geographer Strabo publishes his book on the shape of the Earth.

    113 AD Emperor  Trajan builds Trajan’s Column near the Colosseum in Rome to commemorate his victory over the Dacians in the Second Dacian WarOsroes I of Parthia violates the treaty with Rome by installing a puppet ruler in Armenia. The 60 year old emperor, Trajan, marches east and declares Armenia to be annexed and becomes a Roman province.

    313 AD Emperor Constantine the Great issues the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and ending the persecutions of Christians and initiating the decline of Paganism

    613 AD The Prophet Muhammed begins preaching the call to Islam

    1013 AD The Danes invade England.  King Ethelred the Unready flees to Normandy, and Sweyn the Dane becomes King of England.

    1113 AD The Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, founded to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land, vows to fight in its defense.

    1213 AD  Jin China is overrun by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, who plunder the countryside and cities, until only Beijing remains free, despite two bloody palace coups and a lengthy siege. Pope Innocent III issues a charter, calling for the Fifth Crusade to recapture Jerusalem.

     1513 AD Juan Ponce de Leon becomes the first European definitely known to sight what is now the territory of the United States (specifically Florida), mistaking it for another island

     1613 AD  An assembly of the Russian Empire elects Mikhail Romanov to be Tsar of Russia, and establishes the Romanov Dynasty, ending the Time of Troubles.

    1813 AD Napoleonic wars rage in Europe, War of 1812 sees the American invasion of Canada and Mexico wages it’s War of Independence from Spain 

    1913 AD Last year of the post-Napoleonic “Long Peace” before WWI. The Mexican Revolution and China’s Warlord Era accelerate. America passes the 16th Amendment, permitting the Income Tax to be levied and Henry Ford introduces the assembly line, revolutionizing industrial mass production.

    What will 2013 bring that will be remembered in a century?

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    Strategy and Creativity: Part I.

    Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

    “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
                                                                                                    -Carl von Clausewitz, On War

    “Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities….Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.”
                                                                                                 - Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

    This blog is read by many people with a deep interest in strategy coming from different philosophical and professional perspectives. While I have my own speculations  based on years of study, I would like to begin by first posing a few questions to the readership:

    • What is the relationship between strategy and creativity?
    • Or between strategic thinking and creative thinking?
    • Is “doing strategy” primarily an act of planning, calculation and rational problem-solving or is it also a profoundly creative and intuitive enterprise?
    • If we get better at thinking creatively, do we become better, more effective strategists? The reverse?
    • Is creativity more useful in “grand strategy” (or “statecraft”, if you prefer) and policy than in straightforward “military strategy”?

    The floor is yours, strong argument is welcomed.

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