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The Meaning of Life • Muhammed • Violent Response

The Meaning of Life

SIR: I was astonished by the lack of rigour of Richard Taylor’s contribution to the ‘Meaning of Life’ symposium in the Summer issue of Philosophy Now. But I must admit that it is an equally unrigorous gut feeling that drives me to point out the rather obvious holes in Professor Taylor’s argument: a feeling that there must be something wrong in a position that reserves meaning for the lives of a minute intellectual and artistic elite and condemns the vast majority of human beings to the meaninglessness of slavery in support of that elite.

But to the holes! “The robin…is doing exactly what those you saw as a child were doing, and the same as those seen by our distant ancestors. The species has no history.” But our very distant ancestors did not see any robins. The species indeed has a history – an evolutionary history. Each robin’s reproductive cycle contributes to the creation of new varieties and eventually new species: in Professor Taylor’s terms it has meaning. I do not wish to imply any teleology by this; but then Professor Taylor does not attempt to establish the importance of the Taj Mahal or of a Beethoven sonata teleologically either.

Critical evaluations of Beethoven raise a more important point. Professor Taylor maintains that a person’s creations have meaning in relation to others rather than to him- or herself. The Taj Mahal gives meaning to its makers, a giant ball of string does not. Now, J.S. Bach churned out an enormous amount of music for immediate use in weekly church services. I know serious musicians who claim that our veneration for his works (which I happen to share) is the result of arbitrary historical accident, and that the compositions of his contemporary Telemann are as good if not better. Does that mean that for some people Bach’s life had meaning and Telemann’s did not, whereas for others the reverse is true? And if this relativity is accepted, why cannot a person’s life be regarded as having meaning if that person him- or herself feels that it has meaning?

Back to the robin again. Perhaps it is just that its life seems to us humans to have no meaning because we cannot see what other robins can see? But, you may say, a robin does not possess selfconsciousness and free will. All right, let us not look too deeply into that philosophical can of worms. Let us stick to humans. In recent months I have spent a great deal of time putting many identical small black ovals, some filled in, some white in the middle, on and around uniform sets of parallel straight lines printed on paper. You watch me do this and conclude that I am engaged on a meaningless repetitive task. But I am actually composing a string quartet. It may turn out to please some people and not others, but we have already discussed that kind of relativity. I want to point to a more alarming kind. Many philosophers (though not all) would maintain that my sheets of paper with dots all over them only become music when four players sit down with their instruments and interpret them as instructions for making specified sounds; even, maybe, only when some other people listen to the result. So whether or not my life has meaning is dependent on the activities of other people whom I may not even know. Is that a tenable position?

Finally, I should like to ask Professor Taylor why the commonplace activities of working at relationships and bringing up children – and of creating mental constructs while watching football matches or the waves breaking on a seashore! – are not meaning-giving acts of creativity? Commonplace – but always unique, too! Ephemeral, perhaps – but always affecting others! In their totality, creating a world!


SIR: With regard to the theme of your last issue it is possible that life has more than one meaning. A plurality of meanings could be envisaged – a view which Isaiah Berlin would probably like.

But meaning depends on man, and depth of meaning on depth of man. “As a man is, so he sees.” said Blake.

So it may be that ultimate meaning is only accessible to something called Wisdom, which, as Brenda Almond reminds us, was once upon a time the essential quest of philosophy.



SIR: Roy Ahmad Jackson in his letter (Philosophy Now, Issue 24, p.39) takes me to task for my assertion that Muhammed founded a religion (‘It Was Islam That Did It’, Philosophy Now, Issue 23, pp.18-20). He also asserts: “any GCSE student of Islam will [tell] you . . .the belief in one God, Allah, has existed since there have been people to believe.” The following, I hope, should rectify matters.

Roy Ahmad Jackson is both factually incorrect and, arguably, muddled.

First, the factual inaccuracy. It is not true that monotheism has existed since there were people to believe. People, in modern form, have existed for at least 50,000 years (and probably much longer). Throughout the first 45,000 years or more of this existence, anthropologists agree, people, almost certainly, practised shamanism and only shamanism (see, for example, M. Harris’ Culture, Man, and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology. London: Collins. 1993). Shamanic beliefs are invariably polytheistic (for a classic text, see R. Lowie’s Primitive Religion. New York: Liveright. 1948). Moreover, in the civilizations that arose in the wake of the agricultural revolution, monotheism developed slowly. This was true even in the case of Judaism: early Judaism, as were the religions of ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Assyria, was polytheistic. The idea of Yahweh as the ‘Number One’, the jealous God, the God that would not suffer any other gods even to be worshipped, arose only after the Babylonian captivity (c.530BC) (see, for example, R. Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. London: Viking. 1991). This was several centuries, and possibly a millennium, after Moses delivered the Ten Commandments (a plausible date for the flight from Egypt is c.1500BC). Further still, the idea of God as holding the reason for His existence and for that of everything in the universe, including us, was even slower to evolve. It began, arguably, in the West, only with the teachings of Socrates and his pupil, Plato. Platonic philosophy was not fully incorporated into Judaism until the first century A.D. (by Philo of Alexandria) and into Christianity until the third (by, among others, Plotinus and Origen) (for a good summary, see, for example, K. Armstrong’s A History of God. London: Mandarin. 1994). Islam, incidentally, in the first millennium at least, was largely a Platonic religion (again, see, for example, Armstrong, 1994).

Now for the muddle. First, it is possible to believe in God without being ‘religious’. Aristotle, for instance, opined of the need for a ‘Prime Mover’, that is, God (or, rather, he believed in Prime Movers, for, from astronomical considerations, he felt the need for several ‘Gods’), yet he felt that such a God (or Gods) would be indifferent to human affairs. Second, it is possible to believe in God, be religious, yet not subscribe to a ‘religion’. This was true, for example, in the case of Spinoza, who, because of his pantheism, was excommunicated from Judaism. Third, what are called ‘religions’ today are, technically speaking (the term is not pejorative), theocratic cults – that is, cults that have both prescribed and proscribed forms of worship and observance, that have their lore presented in a key text, and that have recognized leaders in spiritual matters (again, see Harris, 1993). On these grounds, if only from the standpoint of technical accuracy in anthropology, it is correct to describe Islam as a religion and correct to name Muhammed as its founder.

None of this, of course, should detract from the worth of the Prophet’s teachings, many of which, for the record, I find admirable.


Violent Response

SIR: I agree with Peg Tittle (‘Whose violence’ - Issue 24) when she concludes that ‘masculinity kills’ and that the general title ‘violence in society’ does not sufficiently address the disproportionately male contribution.

However, though there is undoubtedly a link between disproportionate male violence and the natural or nurtured communication dysfunction in men that Peg identifies, the problem of male violence is, I think, deeper-rooted and more to do with the politico-philosophical heritage of the West. Just as Western philosophy can be described, according to A.N. Whitehead, as ‘footnotes to Plato’, so our political tradition owes much of its premises to the writer of Gorgias and the Republic. In both works Plato is at pains to separate justice from force (or might) as is clear from the dialogue between Socrates and Calicles in Gorgias, and Socrates and Thrasymachus in the Republic. This exclusion of force is reinforced by Plato’s dualistic distinction between the goodness of the mind and the weakness of the body. Aristotelian teleology did little to break down this descriptive and normative dichotomy because, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, it was discredited by the Enlightenment – the idea of telos, or innate value of things, being incompatible with the accepted transcendence of reason. Hobbes and Machiavelli, despite being essentially materialistic and humanistic in their approach, perpetuate Platonic dualism with, in the first case, the distinction between the state of nature and Leviathan and, in the second, the amorality of princes and conformity of citizens. Both philosophers promote impartiality and with it conformity as the key to peaceful human association, though Hobbes dealt with human relations within the Leviathan, and Machiavelli addressed relations between states. Subsequent philosophers such as Locke, Mill, and Kant all take as given the Platonic notion that justice can only be manifested separately from force. Locke dealt predominantly with the ‘checks and balances’ that constrain the Machiavellian prince and Hobbes’ ‘Mortall God’, while Mill sought a wholly rational conception of liberty. Kant, for his part, promoted reason as synonymous with autonomy and the basis for all peaceful human relations, so long as heteronomous desires are excluded. It is significant that Christianity has also greatly contributed to the perpetuation of the Platonic exclusion of corporeal weakness and with it arbitrary force by accepting as a central premise St Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and that of Man.

What has all this to do with predominantly male violence? Well, since peaceful association is thought to be rational where the arbitrary forces of personal sentiment are excluded, and men are evidently the chief potential wielders of force in most societies, the conformity that is thought to be necessary for peaceful association effectively emasculates them the most. The disproportionate masculine violence to which Peg Tittle alludes is, therefore, a backlash to the rationalisation of society where many men, unable or unwilling to conform, manifest their force in other deviant and less pleasant ways.

This goes some way toward explaining the periodic enthusiasm with which so many men abandon safe living for the death and destruction of the battlefield, often at the behest of that most rational of institutions, the state. While in peacetime they are prepared to conform, given the opportunity to live or die in an environment where might is to the fore, many men display a willingness to volunteer for what may well result in their own destruction. The battlefield becomes, at once, an opportunity for men to conform by obeying the call up, and deviate from the normal peacetime constraints of conformity, by fighting.

While a lack of communication undoubtedly contributes to the resort of a disproportionate number of men to violence, it is, I feel, more a reaction to the increasing pressure to conform in today’s societies based as they are on the Platonic exclusion of might. Peg Tittle’s conclusion that it is masculinity that kills may, therefore, be modified to ‘it is the political emasculation of masculinity that kills’.


SIR: I was surprised to read your columnist Peg Tittle, in her article ‘Whose Violence?’ presenting the line that ‘all violence is male, and all males are violent’ as if it were something new. I feel I have bombarded with this claim all my life, as far back as I can remember. A few years ago a book by two anthropologists, Demonic Males, investigating the evolutionary origins of human violence among primates, propounded the concept of, as the title says, ‘demonic males’. It was not just that ‘violent men’ was being put forward as a tautology: ‘male demonism’ was supposed to be tautologous too. I am not sure what ‘demonism’ is supposed to mean in a biological context, apart from the meaning it has for those who conduct exorcisms, but to be called ‘demonic’ because of the sex you were born into, which is not a matter of choice, hardly seems to be a compliment.

I feel I must point out what I regard as a false piece of reasoning implicit in the article: the idea that a statement can be turned around without qualification, in this case from ‘most violence is male’ to ‘most men are violent’. It may be the case that the overwhelming majority of violent crime is committed by men, but that does not mean the overwhelming majority of men commit violent crime. Men who commit crimes of violence are not the normal and normative majority: they are an aberrant minority.

The other proposition in the article I feel I must take issue with the assumption that because women commit ‘only’ 15 percent of violent crime, (and all statistical assertions are open to argument) the issue of female crime is insignificant and can be simply ignored. In When She Was Bad a book recently published (by Virago) on the almost ignored subject of female violence, a remarkable pair of quotes are juxtaposed:

“There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper” Camilla Pagilla “This is my ambition: to have killed more people, more helpless people, than any man or woman has ever killed” Jane Toppan, convicted of poisoning nearly one hundred patients in a Connecticut nursing home shortly after Jack the Ripper killed five women in London

The author tells us that “Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal abuse”: she observes “battered husbands are not supposed to exist, but they do.”

And as to why these figures are not higher, she points to chivalry justice, stating “Many feminists, and some criminologists, promote the notion that women are treated more harshly than men for crime the evidence suggests the contrary. Women are still receiving preferential treatment in the justice system. In 1987 twenty-two out of every hundred persons tried for serious crimes were women, yet only ten out of every hundred persons convicted for serious crimes were women, and five out of one hundred persons imprisoned for those crimes were women”. Read this book and see if you can still argue violence is an exclusively male problem. The same double standard seems to be applied in the case of notorious murderers – and murderesses. It is argued that women such as Myra Hingley and Rosemary West are too monstrously abnormal to shed any light on female capacity for evil: but it is perfectly alright to regard Jack the Ripper as an typical and archetypal example of the male sexual sadist. It seems that what a violent or murderous man does is held to the account of Everyman, and all men are vicariously responsible for it, but that what a violent or murderous woman does is held to her own account, and does not count. Male wickedness and female innocence are the orthodox categories in terms of which our society thinks, not some revolutionary challenge to them: whether these crude gender stereotypes accurately reflect reality is quite another question,


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