Bertrand Russell Writes an Artful Letter, Stating His Refusal to Debate British Fascist Leader Oswald Mosley (1962)

Image by Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Chang­ing the minds of oth­ers has nev­er count­ed among human­i­ty’s eas­i­est tasks, and it seems only to have become an ever-stiffer chal­lenge as his­to­ry has ground along. Increas­ing­ly many, as Yale pro­fes­sor David Bromwich recent­ly argued in the Lon­don Review of Bookshave had no prac­tice in using words to influ­ence peo­ple unlike them­selves. That is an art that can be lost. It depends on a quan­tum of acci­den­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is miss­ing in a life of organ­ised con­tacts.” We might find our­selves in rea­son­ably fruit­ful debates with basi­cal­ly like-mind­ed friends, acquain­tances, and strangers on the inter­net, but can we ever con­vince, or be con­vinced by, some­one tru­ly dif­fer­ent from us?

Bertrand Rus­sell doubt­ed it. In 1962, long before the struc­tures of the inter­net allowed us to build tighter echo cham­bers than ever before, the Nobel-win­ning philoso­pher “received a series of let­ters from an unlike­ly cor­re­spon­dent — Sir Oswald Mosley, who had found­ed the British Union of Fas­cists thir­ty years ear­li­er,” writes Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va.

“Mosley was invit­ing — or, rather, pro­vok­ing — Rus­sell to engage in a debate, in which he could per­suade the moral philoso­pher of the mer­its of fas­cism.” Even at the age of 89, with lit­tle time and much else to do, Rus­sell declined with the utmost force and clar­i­ty in a piece of cor­re­spon­dence fea­tured on Let­ters of Note:

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your let­ter and for your enclo­sures. I have giv­en some thought to our recent cor­re­spon­dence. It is always dif­fi­cult to decide on how to respond to peo­ple whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repel­lent to one’s own. It is not that I take excep­tion to the gen­er­al points made by you but that every ounce of my ener­gy has been devot­ed to an active oppo­si­tion to cru­el big­otry, com­pul­sive vio­lence, and the sadis­tic per­se­cu­tion which has char­ac­terised the phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice of fas­cism.

I feel oblig­ed to say that the emo­tion­al uni­vers­es we inhab­it are so dis­tinct, and in deep­est ways opposed, that noth­ing fruit­ful or sin­cere could ever emerge from asso­ci­a­tion between us.

I should like you to under­stand the inten­si­ty of this con­vic­tion on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I val­ue in human expe­ri­ence and human achieve­ment.

Yours sin­cere­ly,

Bertrand Rus­sell

Rus­sell passed on eight years lat­er, in 1970, and Mosley a decade there­after. “His final mes­sage to the British peo­ple appeared in a let­ter to the New States­man writ­ten only a week ear­li­er,” remem­bers jour­nal­ist Hugh Pur­cell in that news­pa­per. It con­cerned an arti­cle’s descrip­tion of the “Olympia ral­ly,” the 1934 deba­cle that lost the British Union of Fas­cists much of what pub­lic sup­port it enjoyed. “The largest audi­ence ever seen at that time assem­bled to fill the Olympia hall and hear the speech,” Mosley insist­ed. “A small minor­i­ty deter­mined by con­tin­u­ous shout­ing to pre­vent my speech being heard. After due warn­ing our stew­ards removed with their bare hands men among whom were some armed with such weapons as razors and knives. The audi­ence were then able to lis­ten to a speech which last­ed for near­ly two hours.”

The New States­men, print­ing Mosley’s let­ter posthu­mous­ly, ran it under this intro­duc­tion: “Through­out his life he was intent on per­suad­ing peo­ple that their view of his­to­ry was mis­tak­en.” Despite his unceas­ing efforts, he ulti­mate­ly per­suad­ed few — and it would hard­ly have required as keen an observ­er as Rus­sell to see that some­one like Mosley cer­tain­ly was­n’t about to let him­self be per­suad­ed by any­one else.

via Let­ters of Note/Brain Pick­ings and The Bertrand Rus­sell Archives, McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Library

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Lis­ten to ‘Why I Am Not a Chris­t­ian,’ Bertrand Russell’s Pow­er­ful Cri­tique of Reli­gion (1927)

Bertrand Rus­sell and F.C. Cople­ston Debate the Exis­tence of God, 1948

Face to Face with Bertrand Rus­sell: ‘Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish’

How Bertrand Rus­sell Turned The Bea­t­les Against the Viet­nam War

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Did Nietzsche Become the Most Misunderstood & Bastardized Philosopher?: A Video from Slate Explains

Is there a more mis­un­der­stood philoso­pher than Friedrich Niet­zsche? Grant­ed, the ques­tion makes two assump­tions: 1) That peo­ple read phi­los­o­phy 2) That peo­ple read Friedrich Niet­zsche. Per­haps nei­ther of these things is wide­ly true. Many peo­ple get their phi­los­o­phy from film and tele­vi­sion: Good Will Hunt­ing, True Detec­tive, Com­ing to Amer­i­ca.… There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with that. I don’t read med­ical books. Most of my knowl­edge of med­i­cine comes from hos­pi­tal dra­mas. (If you ever hear me make unsourced med­ical claims, please remind me of this.)

But back to Niet­zsche…. If few peo­ple read phi­los­o­phy in gen­er­al and Niet­zsche in par­tic­u­lar, why is his name so well-known, why are his ideas so bad­ly man­gled? Because some of the peo­ple who read a lit­tle Niet­zsche write films and tele­vi­sion shows. In many of them, he emerges as a twist­ed nihilist with no scru­ples and lit­tle regard for human life. In the most infa­mous case of Niet­zsche-twist­ing, the philosopher’s sis­ter extract­ed from his books what she want­ed them to say, which sound­ed very much like the ideas of the Nazis who lat­er quot­ed him.

Nietzsche’s mas­tery of the apho­rism and his fierce­ly polem­i­cal nature have made him supreme­ly quotable: “God is dead,” “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.” And so on. Bring the con­text of these state­ments to bear and they sound noth­ing like what we have imag­ined. The video above from Shon Arieh-Lerer and Daniel Hub­bard explains how Niet­zsche became “the most absurd­ly bas­tardized philoso­pher in Hol­ly­wood.” It leads with a telling­ly hilar­i­ous clip from The Sopra­nos in which A.J. calls the philoso­pher “Niche” and Tony tells him, “even if God is dead, you’re still gonna kiss his ass.”

We might half expect Tony to embrace the Ger­man philoso­pher. The way Nietzsche’s been inter­pret­ed seems to jus­ti­fy the prin­ci­ples of sociopaths. This should not be so. “In real­i­ty,” the video’s pro­duc­ers write at Slate, “Niet­zsche was a very sub­tle thinker.” The two biggest mis­con­cep­tions about Niet­zsche, that he was a nihilist and an anti-Semi­te, get his phi­los­o­phy griev­ous­ly wrong. Niet­zsche “wrote let­ters to his fam­i­ly and friends telling them to stop being anti-Semit­ic” (and call­ing anti-Semi­tes “abort­ed fetus­es.”) He famous­ly broke off his intense friend­ship with Richard Wag­n­er in part because of Wagner’s anti-Semi­tism. His work is not kind to Judaism, but he rages against anti-Semi­tism.

Far from endors­ing nihilist ideas, Niet­zsche feared their rise and con­se­quences. So how did he become “a dar­ling of Nazis and sad teenagers?” The car­i­ca­ture arose in part because read­ers from his day to ours have, like Tony Sopra­no, found his com­plete and total rejec­tion of Judeo-Chris­t­ian moral­i­ty too shock­ing to get beyond, mis­char­ac­ter­iz­ing it as tan­ta­mount to the rejec­tion of all human val­ues. On the con­trary, Niet­zsche argued for the “reval­u­a­tion” of val­ues, “the exact oppo­site of what one might expect,” he wrote,” not at all sad and gloomy, but much more like a new and bare­ly describ­able type of light, hap­pi­ness, relief, amuse­ment, encour­age­ment, dawn.”

Of course, the fact that Nietzsche—or a butchered ver­sion thereof—was co-opt­ed by the Nazis did more to sul­ly his name than any­thing he actu­al­ly wrote. “By the time Niet­zsche made his way into Amer­i­can pop cul­ture,” says Arieh-Lerer, “we were pre­dis­posed to get­ting him wrong.” Niet­zsche may have had some strange qua­si-mys­ti­cal con­cep­tions, and he believed in a def­i­nite hier­ar­chy of cul­tures, but he was not a racist or a psy­chopath. He has been as mis­un­der­stood as many of the sad teenagers who love him. Per­haps you will be moved to read him for your­self after see­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion above. If so, we can point you toward online edi­tions of near­ly all of his books here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Did Niet­zsche Real­ly Mean When He Wrote “God is Dead”?

Down­load Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Mod­ern Thought (1960)

The Dig­i­tal Niet­zsche: Down­load Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Watch Leonard Bernstein Conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Using Only His Eyebrows

Per­haps you’ll recall the episode from Sein­feld when Bob Cobb, a con­duc­tor for The Police Orches­tra, insists that every­one call him “mae­stro”–and only “mae­stro.” The pre­ten­tious­ness of the sug­ges­tion makes for some good com­e­dy, that’s for sure.

But occa­sion­al­ly the hon­orif­ic title is fit­ting. Here’s one such instance. Above, watch Leonard Bern­stein con­duct the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra, lead­ing them through Haydn’s Sym­pho­ny No. 88 … with only his eye­brows and small facial ges­tures. No baton, thank you. A mae­stro indeed.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Hear What is Jazz?: Leonard Bernstein’s Intro­duc­tion to the Great Amer­i­can Art Form (1956)

Leonard Bern­stein Demys­ti­fies the Rock Rev­o­lu­tion for Curi­ous (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

“Stop It and Just DO”: Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Advice on Overcoming Creative Blocks, Written by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse (1965)

A quick fyi: this video is a lit­tle not safe for work.

You know you want to cre­ate some­thing, but how on Earth to get it out of your mind and into real­i­ty? Some­times you sim­ply can’t see the way for­ward, a sit­u­a­tion in which every cre­ator finds them­selves soon­er or lat­er. When the sculp­tor Eva Hesse hit a cre­ative block in 1965, she wrote of her prob­lem to a close friend, the con­cep­tu­al artist Sol Lewitt. He emphat­i­cal­ly sug­gest­ed that she “just stop think­ing, wor­ry­ing, look­ing over your shoul­der,” and fur­ther­more that she stop

won­der­ing, doubt­ing, fear­ing, hurt­ing, hop­ing for some easy way out, strug­gling, grasp­ing, con­fus­ing, itch­ing, scratch­ing, mum­bling, bum­bling, grum­bling, hum­bling, stum­bling, num­bling, ram­bling, gam­bling, tum­bling, scum­bling, scram­bling, hitch­ing, hatch­ing, bitch­ing, moan­ing, groan­ing, hon­ing, bon­ing, horse-shit­ting, hair-split­ting, nit-pick­ing, piss-trick­ling, nose stick­ing, ass-goug­ing, eye­ball-pok­ing, fin­ger-point­ing, alley­way-sneak­ing, long wait­ing, small step­ping, evil-eye­ing, back-scratch­ing, search­ing, perch­ing, besmirch­ing, grind­ing, grind­ing, grind­ing away at your­self. Stop it and just


You can read Lewit­t’s reply in full, which offers much more col­or­ful advice and sup­port­ing ver­biage besides (as well as a far bold­er “DO” than HTML can ren­der), at Let­ters of Note. Though per­son­al­ly tai­lored to Hesse and her dis­tinc­tive sen­si­bil­i­ties, Lewit­t’s sug­ges­tions also show the poten­tial for wider appli­ca­tion: “Try and tick­le some­thing inside you, your ‘weird humor.’ ” “Don’t wor­ry about cool, make your own uncool.” “If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anx­i­ety.” “Prac­tice being stu­pid, dumb, unthink­ing, emp­ty.” “Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what hap­pens but main­ly relax and let every­thing go to hell — you are not respon­si­ble for the world — you are only respon­si­ble for your work — so DO IT.”

Though all this has plen­ty of impact on the page, it has an entire­ly dif­fer­ent kind when per­formed by actor (and cham­pi­on let­ter-read­er) Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, as seen and heard in the Let­ters Live video above. Putting on a not-over­done New York accent, the Eng­lish star of Sher­lock and The Imi­ta­tion Game deliv­ers with all nec­es­sary force Lewit­t’s advice to “leave the ‘world’ and ‘ART’ alone and also quit fondling your ego,” to “emp­ty your mind and con­cen­trate on what you are doing,” to know “that you don’t have to jus­ti­fy your work — not even to your­self.” Be warned that this cre­ative coach­ing ses­sion does gets a lit­tle NSFW at times, but then, so do some of the finest works of art — and so do the truths we need to hear to make them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Famous Writ­ers Deal With Writer’s Block: Their Tips & Tricks

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Albert Camus’ Touch­ing Thank You Let­ter to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Beer Archaeology: Yes, It’s a Thing

Travis Rupp is a clas­sics instruc­tor at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado. He’s also a “beer archae­ol­o­gist” who works on a spe­cial projects team at the Avery Brew­ing Com­pa­ny (in Boul­der) where they “brew beers the way that ancient Egyp­tians, Peru­vians and Vikings did.” If you can under­stand the beer an ancient peo­ple drank, you can bet­ter under­stand their over­all cul­ture.  That’s assump­tion at the heart of beer archae­ol­o­gy.

Above, watch a three minute intro­duc­tion to Rup­p’s work. Below, find infor­ma­tion on some of the world’s old­est beer recipes from Ancient Egypt and Chi­na.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

5,000-Year-Old Chi­nese Beer Recipe Gets Recre­at­ed by Stan­ford Stu­dents

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.


Rare Recordings of Burroughs, Bukowski, Ginsberg & More Now Available in a Digital Archive Created by the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

Image via Chris­ti­aan Ton­nis

Amer­i­cans can be quite igno­rant of the rich­ness of our coun­try’s cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Part of this igno­rance, I sus­pect, comes down to prej­u­dice. Inno­v­a­tive Amer­i­can artists through­out his­to­ry have come from groups often demo­nized and mar­gin­al­ized by the wider soci­ety. The dom­i­nance of cor­po­rate com­merce also impov­er­ish­es the cul­tur­al land­scape. Poet­ry and exper­i­men­tal art don’t sell much, so some peo­ple think they have lit­tle val­ue.

Imag­ine if we were to invert these atti­tudes in pub­lic opin­ion: Amer­i­can poet­ry and art allow us to gain new per­spec­tives from peo­ple and parts of the coun­try we don’t know well; to enlarge and chal­lenge our reli­gious and polit­i­cal under­stand­ing; to expe­ri­ence a very dif­fer­ent kind of econ­o­my, built on aes­thet­ic inven­tion and free intel­lec­tu­al enter­prise rather than sup­ply, demand, and prof­it. Cre­ativ­i­ty and finance are not, of course, mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. But to con­sis­tent­ly favor one at the expense of the oth­er seems to me a great loss to every­one.

We find our­selves now in such a sit­u­a­tion, as pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, and the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing face severe cuts or pos­si­ble de-fund­ing.

Such a polit­i­cal move would dev­as­tate many of the insti­tu­tions that fos­ter and pre­serve the country’s art and cul­ture, and rel­e­gate the arts to the pri­vate sphere, where only sums of pri­vate mon­ey deter­mine whose voic­es get heard. We can, how­ev­er, be very appre­cia­tive of pri­vate insti­tu­tions who make their col­lec­tions pub­lic through open access libraries like the Inter­net Archive.

One such col­lec­tion comes from the Dig­i­tal Ini­tia­tives Unit of Deck­er Library at the Mary­land Insti­tute Col­lege of Art (MICA), one of the old­est art col­leges in the U.S., and one of the most high­ly regard­ed. They have dig­i­tal­ly donat­ed to “a num­ber of rare and pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased audio record­ings,” they write in a press release, “span­ning the 1960s through the late 1990s” and con­sist­ing of “over 700 audio­cas­sette tapes” doc­u­ment­ing “lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry read­ings, fine art and design lec­tures, race and cul­ture dis­cus­sions” and col­lege events.

These include (enter the archive here) a two hour poet­ry read­ing from Allen Gins­berg in 1978, at the top, with sev­er­al oth­er read­ings and talks from Gins­berg in the archive, the read­ing below it from Eileen Myles in 1992, and read­ings and talks above and below from Amiri Bara­ka, Anne Wald­man, and William S. Bur­roughs. The col­lec­tion rep­re­sents a “strong focus on lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry,” and fea­tures “a sym­po­sium on the Black Moun­tain poets.” Giv­en the school’s mis­sion, you’ll also find in the archive “a large selec­tion of talks and lec­tures by visu­al artists, such as Elaine de Koon­ing, Alice Neel, Gor­don Parks, Ad Rhine­hart and Ben Shahn.”

Col­lec­tions like this one from MICA and the Inter­net Archive allow any­one with inter­net access to expe­ri­ence in some part the breadth and range of Amer­i­can art and poet­ry, no mat­ter their lev­el of access to pri­vate insti­tu­tions and sources of wealth. But the inter­net can­not ful­ly replace or sup­plant the need for pub­licly fund­ed arts ini­tia­tives in com­mu­ni­ties nation­wide.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An 18-Hour Playlist of Read­ings by the Beats: Ker­ouac, Gins­berg & Even Bukows­ki Too

13 Lec­tures from Allen Ginsberg’s “His­to­ry of Poet­ry” Course (1975)

Hear Allen Gins­berg Teach “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”: Audio Lec­tures from His 1977 & 1981 Naropa Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: An Animated Introduction to the Most Insightful Study of American Democracy

We can­not right­ly see our­selves with­out hon­est feed­back. Those who sur­round them­selves with syco­phants and peo­ple just like them only hear what they want to hear, and nev­er get an accu­rate sense of their capa­bil­i­ties and short­com­ings. And so the best feed­back often comes from peo­ple out­side our in-groups. This can be as true of nations as it can be of indi­vid­u­als, pro­vid­ed our crit­ics are char­i­ta­ble, even when unspar­ing­ly hon­est, and that they take a gen­uine inter­est in our well-being.

These qual­i­ties well describe one of the sharpest crit­ics of the Unit­ed States in the past two cen­turies. Alex­is de Toc­queville, aris­to­crat­ic French lawyer, his­to­ri­an, and polit­i­cal philoso­pher, who trav­eled to the fledg­ling coun­try in 1831 to observe a nation then in the grip of a pop­ulist fever under Andrew Jack­son, a pres­i­dent who became noto­ri­ous for his expro­pri­a­tion of indige­nous land, ruth­less relo­ca­tion poli­cies, and embrace of South­ern slav­ery. But the groups who flour­ished under Jackson’s rule did so with a tremen­dous enthu­si­asm that the French thinker admired but also viewed with a very skep­ti­cal eye.

De Toc­queville pub­lished his obser­va­tions and analy­ses of the Unit­ed States in a now-famous book, Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca. Though we’ve come to take the idea of democ­ra­cy for grant­ed, for the young French­man, a child of Napoleon­ic Europe, it was “a high­ly exot­ic and new polit­i­cal option,” as Alain de Bot­ton tells us in his ani­mat­ed video intro­duc­tion above. De Toc­queville “pre­scient­ly believed that democ­ra­cy was going to be the future all over the world, and so he want­ed to know, ‘what would that be like?’”

With a grant from the French gov­ern­ment, De Toc­queville trav­eled the coun­try (then less than half its cur­rent size) for nine months, get­ting to know its peo­ple and cus­toms as best he could, and mak­ing a series of gen­er­al obser­va­tions that would form the vignettes and argu­ments in his book. He was “par­tic­u­lar­ly alive to the prob­lem­at­ic and dark­er sides of democ­ra­cy.” De Bot­ton dis­cuss­es five crit­i­cal insights from Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca. See three of them below, with quotes from De Toc­queville him­self.

1. Democ­ra­cy Breeds Mate­ri­al­ism.

For De Toc­queville one kind of materialism—the exces­sive pur­suit of wealth—disposed the coun­try to anoth­er, “a dan­ger­ous sick­ness of the human mind”—the denial of a spir­i­tu­al or intel­lec­tu­al life. “While man takes plea­sure in this hon­est and legit­i­mate pur­suit of well-being,” he wrote, “it is to be feared that in the end he may lose the use of his most sub­lime fac­ul­ties, and that by want­i­ng to improve every­thing around him, he may in the end degrade him­self.”

De Toc­queville, says De Bot­ton, observed that “mon­ey seemed to be quite sim­ply the only achieve­ment that Amer­i­cans respect­ed” and that “the only test of good­ness for any item was how much mon­ey it hap­pens to make.”

2. Democ­ra­cy Breeds Envy & Shame

“When all the pre­rog­a­tives of birth and for­tune have been abol­ished,” wrote De Toc­queville, “when every pro­fes­sion is open to every­one, an ambi­tious man may think it is easy to launch him­self on a great career and feel that he has been called to no com­mon des­tiny. But this is a delu­sion which expe­ri­ence quick­ly cor­rects.” Unable to rise above his cir­cum­stances, and yet believ­ing that he should be equal to his neigh­bors in achieve­ments, such a per­son may blame him­self and feel ashamed, or suc­cumb to envy and ill will.

De Toc­queville was far too opti­mistic about the abol­ish­ment of “pre­rog­a­tives of birth and for­tune,” but many Amer­i­cans might rec­og­nize them­selves still in his gen­er­al pic­ture, in which “the sense of unlim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty could ini­tial­ly encour­age a sur­face cheer­ful­ness.” And yet, De Bot­ton notes, “as time passed and the major­i­ty failed to raise them­selves, Toc­queville not­ed that their mood dark­ened, that bit­ter­ness took hold and choked their spir­its, and that their hatred of them­selves and their mas­ters grew fierce.”

3. Tyran­ny of the Major­i­ty

De Toc­queville, De Bot­ton says, thought that “demo­c­ra­t­ic cul­ture… often ends up demo­niz­ing any asser­tion of dif­fer­ence, and espe­cial­ly cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, even though such atti­tudes might be con­nect­ed with real mer­it.” In such a state, “soci­ety has an aggres­sive lev­el­ing instinct.”

It wasn’t only attacks on high cul­ture that De Toc­queville feared, but what he called the “Omnipo­tence of the Major­i­ty,” a phrase he used to denote the pow­er of pub­lic opin­ion as an almost total­i­tar­i­an means of social con­trol. In vol­ume two of his study, pub­lished in 1840, De Toc­queville devot­ed par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to “the pow­er which that major­i­ty nat­u­ral­ly exer­cis­es over the mind…. By what­ev­er polit­i­cal laws men are gov­erned in the ages of equal­i­ty, it may be fore­seen that faith in pub­lic opin­ion will become for them a species of reli­gion, and the major­i­ty its min­is­ter­ing prophet.”

From this pre­dic­tion, De Toc­queville fore­saw “two ten­den­cies; one lead­ing the mind of every man to untried thoughts, the oth­er pro­hibit­ing him from think­ing at all.”

De Bot­ton goes on to dis­cuss two close­ly relat­ed cri­tiques: democracy’s sus­pi­cion of all author­i­ty and its under­min­ing of free thought. Rather than encoun­ter­ing the kind of mar­ket­place of ideas the coun­try prides itself on fos­ter­ing, he found in few places “less inde­pen­dence of mind, and true free­dom of dis­cus­sion, than in Amer­i­ca.” The crit­i­cism is harsh, and De Toc­queville did not flat­ter his hosts often, and yet for all of its “inher­ent draw­backs,” De Bot­ton writes at the School of Life, the French­man “isn’t anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic.”

His aim is “to get us to be real­is­tic” about demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety and its ten­den­cies to inhib­it rather than enlarge many free­doms. As Arthur Gold­ham­mer observes at The Nation, De Toc­queville believed that “True free­dom lay not in the pur­suit of indi­vid­u­al­is­tic aims, but “in ‘slow and tran­quil’ action in con­cert with oth­ers shar­ing some col­lec­tive pur­pose.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Slavoj Žižek Expounds on His Hatred of Teaching, Grading Papers, and Particularly Holding Office Hours

“Those who can, do,” so we often used to hear, “and those who can’t, teach.” Nowa­days the sit­u­a­tion seems to have trans­formed into some­thing more like, “Those who can, do, at least in the occa­sion­al free moments when they don’t have to teach.” At first you just take a teach­ing gig on the side to sup­ple­ment your real career, and before you know it teach­ing has usurped that real career almost entire­ly. We’ve all heard com­plaints from aca­d­e­m­ic friends about the seem­ing­ly unbreak­able cycle of lec­tur­ing, grad­ing, and hold­ing office hours, but how many have put it in terms as stark as Slavoj Žižek does in the inter­view above?

“I hate, I hate, I hate — okay, talks are okay, but I hate giv­ing class­es,” says the Sloven­ian philoso­pher-crit­ic-show­man at a 2014 Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati Col­lege of Design, Archi­tec­ture, Art and Plan­ning con­fer­ence devot­ed to his work. “I’m proud to say, I did teach a cou­ple of semes­ters here, and all the grad­ing was pure bluff. I even open­ly told the stu­dents. I told them, I remem­ber — at the New School, for exam­ple, in New York, ‘If you don’t give me any of your shit­ty papers, you’ll get an A. If you give me a paper, I may read it and not like it, you can get a low­er grade.’ And it worked — I got no papers.” And so he solves the prob­lem of grad­ing.

But what of office hours? These he calls “the main rea­son I don’t want to teach,” because “stu­dents, they’re like oth­er peo­ple; the major­i­ty are bor­ing idiots, so I can­not imag­ine a worse expe­ri­ence than some idiot comes and starts to ask you ques­tions.” In oth­er coun­tries one might find a way to endure it, but “the prob­lem is, here in Unit­ed States, stu­dents tend to be so open that if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you per­son­al ques­tions, like pri­vate prob­lems, could you help them, and so on. What should I tell them? ‘I don’t care. Kill your­self. Not my prob­lem.’ ”

These teach­ing expe­ri­ences led Žižek’s to one con­clu­sion: “I like uni­ver­si­ties with­out stu­dents.” But not every­one cheers his pro­nounce­ment: “When­ev­er some­thing like this pops up, I wor­ry that some peo­ple will see it and say, ‘You see? That’s what I’ve been say­ing about those ivory tow­er types all along,’ ” writes one anony­mous aca­d­e­m­ic in response. “Žižek is an out­lier, in terms of both his stature and his atti­tude. Most work­ing aca­d­e­mics can’t get away with being dis­mis­sive of stu­dents, and even if we could, almost all of us would­n’t.”

Slate’s Rebec­ca Schu­man argues that the “real prob­lem with Žižek isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and peo­ple think it’s hilar­i­ous. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a com­mon ‘super­star’ view of stu­dents — so com­mon, in fact, that if you work at a research uni­ver­si­ty and actu­al­ly like teach­ing, you should maybe pre­tend you don’t, lest you appear not ‘seri­ous’ enough about your research.” A semi-fre­quent crit­ic of Žižek, most recent­ly of his endorse­ment of Don­ald Trump (“after all, the two thrice-mar­ried, out­spo­ken old­er gen­tle­men do have quite a bit in com­mon, a fact that would sure­ly hor­ri­fy them both”), Schu­man knows that the fault lies nev­er so much with the provo­ca­teur him­self as it does with our ten­den­cy to take his provo­ca­tions at face val­ue.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Slavoj Žižek Answers the Ques­tion “Should We Teach Chil­dren to Believe in San­ta Claus?”

Slavoj Žižek Calls Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness a Form of “Mod­ern Total­i­tar­i­an­ism”

Philoso­phers (Includ­ing Slavoj Žižek) and Ethi­cists Answer the Ques­tion: Is It OK to Punch Nazis?

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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